Empiricism - Hume, the Newton of the Mind

Empiricism - Hume, the Newton of the Mind

David Hume(1711-76), who was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, was the last and greatest of the early British empiricists. He was famous as an essayist and historian, being the author of a best-selling six-volume history of England. He also had an influence on the economic and moral theories of his friend Adam Smith.

In his mid-twenties Hume wrote A Treatise of Human Nature(1739-40), a work on which is philosophical reputation rests. Later he wrote An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding(1748) and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, which restates the central views of the Treatise, although with some modifications.

Hume could be called the first modern psychologist, as it was his goal to understand the human mind as part of nature, as opposed to Descartes, Locke, and Berkeley, who all thought the mind was a separate non-natural substance. There was both a negative, critical side and a positive, constructive side to his theories. On the negative side it was Hume's intention to discredit the rationalist theory that we are free to form our own beliefs according to rational considerations.

Descartes believed for instance that the intellect was infallible and that all errors in judgement are errors of will. In other words choosing to believe something despite the fact that there is insufficient proof or argument. Hume claimed that belief is involuntary, just as breathing is involuntary. If you drop and apple, try to believe that it will go up and not down. You can't. Thus, according to Hume we can't help the beliefs we have. Also, our beliefs have no rational foundation. We don't have a reason to believe what we believe, but we can't help believing it.

The positive side of Hume's work was to describe the fundamental laws at work in the human mind, which is what Newton did for the physical world. These laws were principles that govern the association of ideas as Hume termed it. According to this idea, the mind involuntarily associates(combines) ideas in three basic ways. First by resemblance, (a picture of a mountain makes us think of a mountain, second by contiguity(eyes makes us think of noses and mouths), and third by cause and effect(where there's smoke, there's fire).

To sum up - Because Hume believed that thought was a natural process, he believed he could find the laws that governed it, just as Newton discovered the laws of motion. 

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John Sarkis 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

Hume seems to be the only philosopher that no one seem to be able to properly explain. Interesting article...you make some good points...

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