An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume

David Hume, a pragmatist philosopher, is also a harsh critic of human understanding's metaphysical perceptions. In his book An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, which has been considered as a philosophical classic in modern literature, he gives arguments on human knowing. The investigation into human knowledge is more of a revision of some of his earlier works, which attack rationalists' metaphysical approach to issues affecting human nature, knowledge, and existence. The book covers a variety of arguments all connected to human comprehension, such as the concept of concepts, required connections, linkages, animal thinking, and probability, among others. Hume was a skeptic of the ideas of causality, especially regarding the human capacity to understand and discern it. However, he acknowledges the peculiarity of human beings due to their ability to derive sense from the events of the world based on their experience despite the lack of logical explanation for the certainty of their encounters. One of the notable themes in most Hume's works is the notion that reason is a tool for evaluation, suggesting that beliefs are not a result of logic. Instead, ideas, actions, and perceptiveness are inspired by passion and sensations. He also notes that experience does not arise from logical understanding due to the lack of justification to reason by cause and effect.This paper seeks to analyze Hume's standpoint on epistemology concerning the different approaches to the subject.

Acquisition of Knowledge, Ideas, And Causality

Being an empiricist, Hume bases his argument on the topic on scientific principles and philosophical thinking regarding what and how of acquiring knowledge as he strives to establish a distinction between ideas or impressions and real facts. Empiricists assert that experience is the only way to assimilate knowledge. They explain that experience affords people with the ideas and perceptions, and facilitates the appreciation of the relationship between them. The values and beliefs that are upheld often result from the frequent application of the established association between ideas and impressions. Hume, however, questions this perception, contending that experience limits a person's knowledge. Also, making inferences between past and future events cannot be solely dependent on experience.

He explains that the principle of association is responsible for creating a link between past experiences and expected future experiences. His observation deduces that in as much as two events are perceived to occur together, and this is a mere assumption. He takes a skeptic approach in the analysis of the concept of causality in an attempt to explain the principles behind it.Hume emphasizes the integral role of a person's conviction of cause to their psychological growth. This belief allows people to deduce future postulations based on current occurrences, and therefore classify causation as an effect of experience.He notes the difference between impressions and ideas and the correlation between the two concepts in his detailed analysis of the idea of causality. He explains that impressions are mental and emotional sensations while ideas are beliefs and memories, thoughts related to the sensations.

This means that ideas relate directly to the feeling through which the arise thus establishing a whole view of both concepts. For instance, the use of resemblance to understand an event indicates the mind's use of impression, which often involves the principle factors of; sameness, effect, and continuity. Each idea or feeling is distinct, and the connection between the results from associations established by the mind. Hume recognizes the metaphysical concerns raised by the cause and effect relationship between ideas and impressions, which necessitates the explicit description of the subject of causality. He, therefore, provides two distinct definitions of cause, one which describes cause as 'an object followed by another, and all subsequent alike to the first object, are similar to the second.'

The other definition refers to cause as an object whose occurrence or appearance conveys the thought of another object that follows it. These descriptions are meant to act as a solution to the concerns of rationalist way of thinking in regards to cause and effect.This means that a single observation is inadequate to establish a cause and effect relationship between events. Therefore, an event can only be contemplated to be the source of another event if the latter event follows the former momentarily. Also, occurrences of the previous event must be continuously adjoined to those of the second event.Hume argues that all metaphysical and religious opinions regarding the connection between events and the existence of an external realm should be regarded as unreasonable and needless as they hide a reasoned discussion.

While human beings make, interpretations based on their imagination, Hume asserts that it should be noted that there is a clear difference between belief and fiction. The latter is an outcome of imagination created from perceived impressions whereas conviction results from a blend of vision and a specific response that relates creativity to reality. Therefore, the only way to prevent subjective thinking and judgment is to equate belief to evidence Hume's enquiry concerning human understanding gives an opinion of the significance as well as the inadequacy of metaphysical points of view. Hume attempts to unravel the association between cause and effect through a critical analysis of the motives behind commonly acknowledged notions.

He assesses the possible ways in which cause-effect thinking can be derived from reason, and concludes that there is no chance that causal reasoning can be based on logic. Instead, it is based on sentiment.Hume's view on causality suggests that a person's comprehension of the concept of causation should be shaped by instinct instead of thought. The interconnection between events in the universe is relevant; however, the lack of reason makes the perceived views mere speculations. This is true, especially where this knowledge is taken beyond its practical measures. Hume believes that events can only be understood through analyzing their source; still, he objects the idea of necessary connection.

He proposes that it is impossible to support future expectations using past encounters without establishing a common ground that suggests a cause-effect relationship between the past and the future events. Therefore, examining an event alone is not enough to determine its occurrence in the future. This means that the necessary connection inferred between events has no rational justification. The ability to reason and act accordingly based on facts only is inhibited without having an established a familiar ground which exemplifies a cause and effect relationship. He believes that the vital mental link created between events restricts people's thinking, their ability to judge and exercise their free-will. Hume provides a new point of view on the issue of human capacity to think and act.

Hume states that the notion of necessary connection is not a result of a tangible experience of events; instead, it arises from observations of the 'cause' and 'effect' outcomes coupled with repetitive associations between these events. Although the continued reoccurrence of associated events does not affect external senses, Hume argues that, eventually, the mind becomes accustomed to expecting a given outcome after a common event occurs, which becomes a habit. Various scholars have developed many interpretations of Hume's definitions some of which are in support of his opinion on causality. All things that exist in the universe can be regarded as facts which can be validated through experience and negated without any disputation.

According to Hume, the metaphysical relationships between outcomes and the mystifying events termed by rationalists as miracles that portray a given result as the vital consequence of another are not established through experience, therefore meaningless. Hume explains that the idea of cause is derived from habit such that, experience brings forth a ceaseless concurrence of occasions which eventually results in a habit through which people develop expectations regarding the sequence of events. This description identifies cause as merely consistency and anticipation

Hume consents with the fact that certain future deductions are made based on cause-effect reasoning; however, he recommends that people would be able to adequately exercise their free will if they did not have to establish necessary connections. This is because these insinuations are based on probabilities, and there is no scientific way to justify them. Hume believes that individual actions are driven by what people learn from nature and not by reason, that is why, instead of trying to substantiate the values and beliefs held, he strives to explain why people accept as real, the things regarded as truth. Therefore, there is no need to establish reasons behind every idea or concept that exists about the universe, and this is acceptable.


In the book, Hume explains that the metaphysical approaches that seek to establish the existence of a supreme being and the nature of the soul abuse the power of the mind. This is because, through scientific capabilities and natural way of life, it is possible to give reasons why and how the brain operates but not the what happens beyond the physical confines of basic reasoning. Hume concludes by asserting that it is not possible to know and understand everything about forthcoming events. Moreover, there is no rational justification to perceive any knowledge regarding the existence of a universe beyond the confines of ordinary life.

Hume's approach in the book is neither rationalist nor empiricist, and his conclusion does not deny the possibility of the existence of a world beyond the ordinary world, this shows that he assumes a more central position as he explores some of the issues surrounding human knowledge. As a skeptic, Hume contends that there is no logical way to ascertain causation or matters of fact the same way it is feasible to substantiate ideas and systems of thought. As a naturalist, he argues that it is possible to exhibit an inherent belief in the notion of causation and matters of fact in the universe. Despite this seemingly complex and contradictory view on causality, Hume embraces the whole concept of causality acknowledging its importance in human understanding.

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