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David Hume: Empiricism and Sense Impression

Updated on April 14, 2012

David Hume's philosophical view point revolves around sense impression. He believed that all ideas, beliefs, abstracts, and events become meaningful to an individual through sense impression. For instance, an object exists because the individual believe that its existence is meaningful and having sense that such an object exist. I.e. I believe that there is an apple on top of the television because I sense its existence and its existence is meaningful to me especially since apple is my favorite fruit.

If then, Hume's philosophical view relies on sense impression and that both rationalism and empiricism relies on sense experience to gain knowledge and concepts, how is Hume's philosophical thought categorized? To be able to distinguish or to establish that Hume is an empiricist we have to first distinguish the diverging point of rationalism and empiricism.

It is through sensory faculty for empiricists and experiences for rationalists that people are able to gain understanding and makes sense of the world. Rationalists argue their case in two ways: one is that there are concepts and knowledge of the world that cannot be explained by the mere use of the senses and that second, it values that a people's construct of the world through reason provides the additional information in understanding the world.

Empiricists on the other hand believes that the only true source of concepts and knowledge in the world is through sensory experience. It is only through the use of the senses that we gain understanding. Ergo, empiricism rejects the presumption of the rationalists' that there is innate concept or knowledge because to assume something and give reason to a concept base on the innate assumption would be invalid because it does not use the sensory tool to justify its validity. Again, if the senses are not used to explain a concept or knowledge then it is not the truth.

Hume is an empiricists because he has systematically developed a conclusion that empiricism's principles are based solely on subjective impressions which also happen to be the immediate objects of knowledge. Reasoning outside the sense impression is not possible. Ergo, without the senses, then logically such things do not exist.


David Hume is definitely an empiricist and an extreme empiricist at that since his philosophies only and solely revolves around the sense impression. Furthermore, he does not merit the reasoning or rationalists views that when senses fails to explain things, concepts, ideas, and abstracts, it relies to reason and logic—while for Hume, if the sense cannot justify the existence of an object, therefore it cannot exists. Ergo, in the sense there is no metaphysics for Hume.

The problem with Hume's philosophical thought is that our sense impression could only take us so far. For case in point is the idea of the universe. We have not been to go physically and experience other galaxies ergo the idea of other galaxies does not exists. Yet through logical rationalization and deduction, galaxies might exist but since we cannot imprint our sense impression on the idea of galaxies then it does not exists. The concept of God is also vague when evaluating it using Hume's philosophy. Though logically we have to acknowledge that a creature cannot create itself and thus need a primordial being—a creator for it to find existence, called God, but the concept of God does not exist because again, we cannot "sense" its existence, ergo there is no God. There is no soul, there is no concept of love, and no metaphysics because our sense impression fails to recognize its existence. In a way Hume's philosophical thought is very limiting in that it rejects all other arguments that do not involve sense impression.


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      Ante Rajic 5 years ago from Croatia

      I just finished learning about Kant, in my philosophy lecture. And we talked a little about Hume, this is a great insight into his work.

      Thanks and voted up :)

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      Rebecca 5 years ago


      While most of your post is pretty good - the 'retrospect' part appears quite biased (knowledge of God - does everyone 'know' there needs to be an ultimate parent?) or wrong - (no concept of love? We can feel love - can 'sense' it - and Hume even notes that we understand someone else when they say they're in love, because we're able to look inwards at ourselves) and we actually CAN use our sense impressions to prove other galaxies - look up in the sky on a clear night - and now with additional technology, like telescopes (and the space shuttle, hubble telescope) we can see even further.

      Not going to say Hume is absolutely right, but he's worth another look.