Humes Theory Of Knowledge And His Moral Philosophy Essay

Give an account of Hume’s theory of knowledge and his moral philosophy. Di

In the late 1700’s, philosopher David Hume was looking to improve the ideas of empiricism created by John Locke and George Berkeley, but he took it to an extreme of radical skepticism. The way in which he attempted to improve Locke’s ideas of empiricism was that he would apply scientific methods of observation to the nature of human beings. Hume felt that we should try to observe humans and how they function in the world, primarily because that made the most sense to him. By doing this, he thought that he would be able to uncover the true causes of human belief. He also believed that the real goal of philosophy was to be able to explain why and how we believe the things we do. Hume wrote about his goal in his book, Treatise of Human Nature.

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David Hume’s idea of skepticism was set up to contrast with what we considered ordinary claims of knowledge, which is different from Descartes in that Descartes used doubt and skepticism as a way to find out the foundations and roots of knowledge. Hume stated that you can neither inductively or deductively establish knowledge from the external world. When we talk about induction, we are assuming that nature is constant in that what has happened before is more than likely going to happen again. You can compare it to a trend because you know what is going to happen based on prior experience with it. But in this case, we can’t use induction because we have no proof of it playing a role in this situation. And deduction cannot work either because the things we know about something might be only a fraction of the information that we might actually be able to learn about these physical objects. Since this is the case, the things we consider to be factual or that exist are not allowed to be objects of knowledge.

Human belief, according to David Hume contains several different mental elements. He determined that from actual experience, we have impressions which are very vivid, realistic and to the point. He also determined that ideas take the original impressions and attempt to copy them, usually doing a less than savory job in doing so. For instance, looking at an orange, and knowing that it is in fact, the color orange is an impression, but remembering what your first grade teacher looked like is an example of an idea. Hume argued that every idea comes from an impression, and he said that it makes sense for us to ask what the basis of our ideas are by finding out what the impressions were that they came from. He also argued that every one of our ideas and our impressions has the ability to be separated from all the others and when we manage to connect one of our ideas to another idea, this is simply the consequence of how we think.

Hume also talked about the difference in two belief types in Enquiry IV. There is what he referred to as relations of ideas, which is the result of our beliefs being associated inside our mind. And then there are matters of fact, which see things that are in existence and take those things and give an explanation and description of those things.

Real knowledge is what we assume to be genuine information, and Hume was very much concentrated on explaining where the knowledge came from. Hume felt that in order to be able to learn, we must first realize and accept the fact that the experiences we had in the past have at the very least something to do with what is going on in the present, as well as what it might do to influence the future. But everyone seems to think that our past and present will both resemble what the future will look like. But this isn’t self evident. There is always that change and likelihood that things will change in the future, that nature will all of a sudden change and this makes any inferences we have from the past and for the future appear to be uncertain. So keeping this in mind, Hume makes it clear that everything we consider to be absolutely the truth are all non-rational.

Hume used an example of this in his story of how the sun rises each day, and although our belief that the sun will rise tomorrow is based on observation of previous sunrises, other than us thinking we know that the rotation of the earth causes the sun rise and set, there is no rational basis for us to know that it will rise again the next day; but for some reason we just believe that it will happen anyway.

When Hume talks about belief as it pertains to habit, he says that unjustifiable beliefs with the help of habit or even custom can have an explanation because it has habit or custom. This is how we are able to take from experience and apply it to what we know. But with Hume’s skepticism we aren’t allowed to think outside the content of our experiences or our memories, but for some reason we consistently do just that.

Since Hume says that unjustifiable beliefs with the help of habit or even custom can have an explanation because it has habit or custom, it in turn can be said that our beliefs, considered to us as facts, come from our sentimental feelings as opposed to actual reason. According to Hume, what we imagine and what we believe are only different in how we interpret them. Hume states that habit and custom are very important to the foundation of natural science.

When it comes to necessary connection, Hume states that the way we think we know that events are related is habit or custom that we get from our personal experience. Once we observe how often these particular events happen with one another, we are able to then create ideas, which in turn forces us to expect that particular outcome when these particular events occur. But, the one thing that we are forgetting to mention is the fact that the cause will in some way or fashion produce an effect. But even if we couldn’t prove the belief to be true, there has to be a reason for why we think it and believe it to be true. The way in which Hume felt was the best way to prove something to be true was to look for the first sign in which the idea was found. By being able to trace back to where the idea originated, Hume argues that by doing so we will be able to make the connection between the cause and the effect. (He wrote about this in Enquiry VII).

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Hume also had a lot to say about the self as well. In the Treatise, David Hume discussed how in our self there is also a belief of our reality. Hume asks, “From what antecedent impression does the idea of the self arise?” Hume makes it very clear that we are never completely aware of ourselves. What I mean by that is that we can’t make an impression in relation to the self. The things we experience are individual and separate ideas which are in association with one another based on causality.

When talking about the external world, Hume believes that the belief we have about the external world is completely non-rational. (This found in Enquiry XII) This is true because our belief of the external world cannot be supported as matter of fact, nor can it be considered as a relation of ideas. Even though there isn’t any way to prove or justify this, belief in the external world cannot be avoided but it is in fact natural. We seem to have a tendency to assume that our ideas are backed up by some form of proof, even though it would appear as though we do not have any proof in doing so. Because of this representationalism no longer exists, and everything that was supposed to act as a middle man between things and those who perceive those things becomes absorbed, which makes all the things other than us completely unnecessary and obsolete.

David Hume also talks a lot about Mitigated Skepticism. Mitigated Skepticism basically means unbelief. What it is implies is that sure, we can proclaim that knowledge is impossible; but whether it is or isn’t doesn’t matter. What we really need to be looking for is just a mental decision or judgment in regards to the question or situation. We really just need something to say in response to it.

Hume is a very important figure when it comes to skepticism. One of the best arguments in skepticism was his argument against believing miracles. He claimed that to be a miracle, something must defy all laws of nature. There is so much proof against the existence of a miracle. There are certain laws of nature which the idea of a miracle does not obey. Hume’s argument for skepticism is not only limited to just miracles. The same principles of his argument can be applied to such things as, channeling, levitation, psychic surgery, and may more. Basically anything that requires us to neglect our experience and not allow ourselves to use it as a guide. That being the case, and there being so many different examples that would fit into this category, there is one that doesn’t make it that many people make the mistake of thinking it does. That would be ESP, unless you argue that ESP external to the laws of nature. But since ESP still maintains that it follows the laws of nature that haven’t been discovered, Hume’s argument can’t work for it.

David Hume makes it clear to us that there are two forms of skepticism. One being antecedent skepticism and the other being consequent skepticism. And for each of these types of skepticism, there are two forms, one being a moderate form and the other being an extreme form. When it comes to skepticism in its extreme form, we can bring in Descartes’ “universal doubt” that starts to question beyond what Hume questioned by even challenging all prior opinions and even what our senses tell us. Without at least one principle, there’s no way a skeptic can accept this. But for Hume, no first principle can be so self-evident that it can be beyond any doubt. But let’s say that there were a first principle, there would be no way that we could proceed after it, and this is because we still doubt ourselves to the point that we can use deductive reasoning.

When discussing the Enquiry, David Hume seems to be using consequent skepticism. I say this only because it makes us question our own judgments and conclusions by bringing into question the very grounds for which they lay upon. Hume talks specifically of the testimony of senses that tells us that there is a world that is not only external to us, but also independent of all of our senses. Our instinct is what leads us to think that what we consider to be a depiction of the external world is what our senses inform us of. But our perceptions change, as well as there are cases in which we become completely deceived in the event that we become crazy, or we become possessed by dreams we might have. Once again, experience tends to be the only thing that can fully justify our belief through the external world. But on that same note, even experience does not allow us to go passed any perceptions we are skeptical about. Because of this, Hume says we have no rational justification for our belief in the external world.


scuss aspects of his theory of knowledge and/or his moral philosophy, e.g., his view of personal identity (the ‘I’), his view of the external world, his view of causality, his skepticism in general, or his view that feelings are the basis of ethics. You may also bring in Kant’s criticism of Hume’s ethics.

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We live in a world of experiences and inventions, we live a world, where we inherited the ideas of inventions, knowledge and experiences from the knowledge gained and founded by the special figures and persons like David Humes in centuries ago, but the 1600s was a fascinating time, with an enormous amount of changes in the fields of social science, medicine, mathematics and philosophical matters has been achieved and it was historic period in Europe and in the whole world.

Those who were behind the rolling and moving revolutions were person who had no background of educations but everything they found through research and experiments. And with this term paper I will try to submit to the best of my education and background experience I gained during studying this course. And the person I am using his themes is David Hume. Though David Humes has theory has wide range but I will only emphasis his theory of knowledge and moral philosophy, with this introduction part I will shed light his personal and background information.

David Hume was born the 26th of April 1711, the old style, at Edinburg. However his family was poor and his father died when he was an infant, and leaving him with an elder brother and a sister under the care of his mother. In 1734, he went to Bristol, with some recommendations to several eminent merchants and found after few months that scene not suitable to him.

He composed his Treatise of Human Nature during his retreat in France.

In 1742, he printed at Edinburgh the first part of his Essays, and he continued to live with his mother and brother in the country, and in that period he recovered the knowledge of the Greek language, which he said that he had too much neglected in his early youth. And with this term paper I will focus only his term of knowledge and moral philosophy where we can understand more during the reading the his concepts of knowledge

Hume’s theory of knowledge and moral philosophy

What is good for mankind, it relate to the nature and its fulfilling of the others surrounded to him, manhood has to be able to learnt that the nature, and living well, happiness is our ultimate end and We understood that David Hume identify with the ‘knowledge’ to be a term with two quite distinct meanings. And if I take Hume quite seriously about when he illustrate himself as a mitigated sceptic; he identifies many factual beliefs derived from factual inferences as cases of empirical knowledge. Hume’s scepticism about our ability to provide justifying reasons for factual inferences is an important element of his analysis of empirical knowledge, positioning Hume with recent “externalist” accounts of knowledge and distancing him from typical “internalist” accounts.


Moral Philosophy

The cautious attitude Hume recommends is noticeably absent in moral philosophy, where “systems and hypotheses” have also “perverted our natural understanding,” the most prominent being the views of the moral rationalists – Samuel Clarke, Locke, and William Wollaston, the theories of “the selfish schools” – Hobbes and Mandeville – and the pernicious theological ethics of “the schools,” whose promotion of the dismal “monkish virtues” frame a catalogue of virtues diametrically opposed to Hume’s. Although he offers arguments against the “systems” he opposes, Hume thinks the strongest case against them is to be made descriptively: all these theories offer accounts of human nature that experience and observation prove false.

The David Hume recommends is noticeably absently in moral philosophy, where ”hypotheses and system” have

Against the moral rationalists – the intellectualists of moral philosophy – who hold that moral judgments are based on reason, Hume maintains that it is difficult even to make their hypotheses intelligible (T, 455-470; EPM, Appendix I). Reason, Hume argues, judges either of matters of fact or of relations. Morality never consists in any single matter of fact that could be immediately perceived, intuited, or grasped by reason alone; morality for rationalists must therefore involve the perception of relations. But inanimate objects and animals can bear the same relations to one another that humans can, though we don’t draw the same moral conclusions from determining that objects or animals are in a given relation as we do when humans are in that same relation. Distinguishing these cases requires more than reason alone can provide. Even if we could determine an appropriate subject-matter for the moral rationalist, it would still be the case that, after determining that a matter of fact or a relation obtains, the understanding has no more room to operate, so the praise or blame that follows can’t be the work of reason.

Reason, Hume maintains, can at most inform us of the tendencies of actions. It can recommend means for attaining a given end, but it can’t recommend ultimate ends. Reason can provide no motive to action, for reason alone is insufficient to produce moral blame or approbation. We need sentiment to give a preference to the useful tendencies of actions.

Finally, the moral rationalists’ account of justice fares no better. Justice can’t be determined by examining a single case, since the advantage to society of a rule of justice depends on how it works in general under the circumstances in which it is introduced.

Thus the views of the moral rationalists on the role of reason in ethics, even if they can be made coherent, are false.

Hume then turns to the claims of “the selfish schools,” that morality is either altogether illusory (Mandeville) or can be reduced to considerations of self-interest (Hobbes). He argues that an accurate description of the social virtues, benevolence and justice, will show that their views are false.

There has been much discussion over the differences between Hume’s presentation of these arguments in the Treatise and the second Enquiry. “Sympathy” is the key term in the Treatise, while “benevolence” does the work in the Enquiry. But this need not reflect any substantial shift in doctrine. If we look closely, we see that benevolence plays much the same functional role in the Enquiry that sympathy plays in the Treatise. Hume sometimes describes benevolence as a manifestation of our “natural” or “social sympathy.” In both texts, Hume’s central point is that we experience this “feeling for humanity” in ourselves and observe it in others, so “the selfish hypothesis” is “contrary both to common feeling and to our most unprejudiced notions” (EPM, 298).

Borrowing from Butler and Hutcheson, Hume argues that, however prominent considerations of self-interest may be, we do find cases where, when self-interest is not at stake, we respond with benevolence, not indifference. We approve of benevolence in others, even when their benevolence is not, and never will be, directed toward us. We even observe benevolence in animals. Haggling over how much benevolence is found in human nature is pointless; that there is any benevolence at all refutes the selfish hypothesis.

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Against Hobbes, Hume argues that our benevolent sentiments can’t be reduced to self-interest. It is true that, when we desire the happiness of others, and try to make them happy, we may enjoy doing so. But benevolence is necessary for our self-enjoyment, and although we may act from the combined motives of benevolence and enjoyment, our benevolent sentiments aren’t identical with our self-enjoyment.

We approve of benevolence in large part because it is useful. Benevolent acts tend to promote social welfare, and those who are benevolent are motivated to cultivate the other social virtue, justice. But while benevolence is an original principle in human nature, justice is not. Our need for rules of justice isn’t universal; it arises only under conditions of relative scarcity, where property must be regulated to preserve order in society.

The need for rules of justice is also a function of a society’s size. In very small societies, where the members are more of an extended family, there may be no need for rules of justice, because there is no need for regulating property – no need, indeed, for our notion of property at all. Only when society becomes extensive enough that it is impossible for everyone in it to be part of one’s “narrow circle” does the need for rules of justice arise.

The rules of justice in a given society are “the product of artifice and contrivance.” They are constructed by the society to solve the problem of how to regulate property; other rules might do just as well. The real need is for some set of “general inflexible rules…adopted as best to serve public utility” (EPM, 305).

Hobbesians try to reduce justice to self-interest, because everyone recognizes that it is in their interest that there be rules regulating property. But even here, the benefits for each individual result from the whole scheme or system being in place, not from the fact that each just act benefits each individual directly. As with benevolence, Hume argues that we approve of the system itself even where our self-interest isn’t at stake. We can see this not only from cases in our own society, but also when we consider societies distant in space and time.

Hume’s social virtues are related. Sentiments of benevolence draw us to society, allow us to perceive its advantages, provide a source of approval for just acts, and motivate us to do just acts ourselves. We approve of both virtues because we recognize their role in promoting the happiness and prosperity of society. Their functional roles are, nonetheless, distinct. Hume compares the benefits of benevolence to “a wall, built by many hands, which still rises by every stone that is heaped upon it, and receives increase proportional to the diligence and care of each workman,” while the happiness justice produces is like the results of building “a vault, where each individual stone would, of itself, fall to the ground” (EPM, 305).

“Daily observation” confirms that we recognize and approve of the utility of acts of benevolence and justice. While much of the agreeableness of the utility we find in these acts may be due to the fact that they promote our self-interest, it is also true that, in approving of useful acts, we don’t restrict ourselves to those that serve our particular interests. Similarly, our private interests often differ from the public interest, but, despite our sentiments in favor of our self-interest, we often also retain our sentiment in favor of the public interest. Where these interests concur, we observe a sensible increase of the sentiment, so it must be the case that the interests of society are not entirely indifferent to us.

With that final nail in Hobbes’ coffin, Hume turns to develop his account of the sources of morality. Though we often approve or disapprove of the actions of those remote from us in space and time, it is nonetheless true that, in considering the acts of (say) an Athenian statesman, the good he produced “affects us with a less lively sympathy,” even though we judge their “merit to be equally great” as the similar acts of our contemporaries. In such cases our judgment “corrects the inequalities of our internal emotions and perceptions; in like manner, as it preserves us from error, in the several variations of images, presented to our external senses” (EPM, 227). Adjustment and correction is necessary in both cases if we are to think and talk consistently and coherently.

“The intercourse of sentiments” that conversation produces is the vehicle for these adjustments, for it takes us out of our own peculiar positions. We begin to employ general language which, since it is formed for general use, “must be moulded on some general views … .” In so doing, we take up a “general” or “common point of view,” detached from our self-interested perspectives, to form “some general unalterable standard, by which we may approve or disapprove of characters and manners.” We begin to “speak another language” – the language of morals, which “implies some sentiment common to all mankind, which recommends the same object to general approbation, and makes every man, or most men, agree in the same opinion or decision concerning it. It also implies some sentiment, so universal and comprehensive as to extend to all mankind, and render the actions and conduct, even of the persons the most remote, an object of applause or censure, according as they agree or disagree with that rule of right which is established. These two requisite circumstances belong alone to the sentiment of humanity here insisted on” (EPM, 272). It is theextended or extensive sentiment of humanity – benevolence or sympathy – that for Hume is ultimately “the foundation of morals.”

But even if the social virtues move us from a perspective of self-interest to one more universal and extensive, it might appear that the individual virtues do not. But since these virtues also receive our approbation because of their usefulness, and since “these advantages are enjoyed by the person possessed of the character, it can never be self-love which renders the prospect of them agreeable to us, the spectators, and prompts our esteem and approbation” (EPM, 234).

Just as we make judgments about others, we are aware, from infancy, that others make judgments about us. We desire their approval and modify our behavior in response to their judgments. This love of fame gives rise to the habit of reflectively evaluating our own actions and character traits. We first see ourselves as others see us, but eventually we develop our own standards of evaluation, keeping “alive all the sentiments of right and wrong,” which “begats, in noble natures, a certain reverence” for ourselves as well as others, “which is the surest guardian of every virtue” (EPM, 276). The general character of moral language, produced and promoted by our social sympathies, permits us to judge ourselves and others from the general point of view, the proper perspective of morality. For Hume, that is “…the most perfect morality with which we are acquainted” (EPM, 276).

Hume summarizes his account in this definition of virtue, or Personal Merit: “every quality of the mind, which is useful or agreeable to the person himself or to others, communicates a pleasure to the spectator, engages his esteem, and is admitted under the honorable denomination of virtue or merit” (EPM, 277). That is, as observers – of ourselves as well as others – to the extent that we regard certain acts as manifestations of certain character traits, we consider the usual tendencies of acts done from those traits, and find them useful or agreeable, to the agent or to others, and approve or disapprove of them accordingly. A striking feature of this definition is its precise parallel to the two definitions of cause that Hume gave as the conclusion of his central argument in the first Enquiry. Both definitions pick out features of events, and both record a spectator’s reaction or response to those events.




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