You are on page 1of 8

Salt Lake Community College

David Hume
Empiricism

Christopher Fischer
Intro to Philosophy - PHIL-1000-003
http://scruffynerfherder.weebly.com/
Alexander Izrailevsky
July 28th, 2016

How we attain knowledge and what we do with it


Empiricism is the doctrine that all human persons obtain knowledge through their senses;
there are no ideas born within us that only require to be remembered. The sum of our knowledge
is reducible to sensation, that is, our ideas are imperfect reflections of sense images. In short, all
knowledge is obtained by sense observation.
David Hume was an imperialist philosopher who revolutionized scientific argument
and methodology with his skepticism. His arguments about the way people thought in his day,
and still today, are fundamental in explaining how we gain knowledge and what we do with this
knowledge. Hume helped pave a road leading toward a higher state of consciousness for
humanity with his theory concerning the perceptions of the mind. He divided the minds
perception into two distinct groups, impressions and ideas. With these two classifications, Hume
rationalized the depths of human understanding. Impressions consist of the perception regarding
all that is seen, felt and heard. Ideas are formulated thoughts based upon impressions. They are
the perceptions of the mind involved with thought rather than experience.
Hume used impressions to test the relevance of ideas through his "microscope" system.
This theory challenged the mind to test out inconsistent ideas by means of the impressions. The
essence of ideas and impressions defines the nature of the mind and all that it perceives. Together
they rationalize clear and distinct thoughts and sensations. Impressions are lively perceptions that
implore all the sensation and emotion that the mind perceives. They are not misleading, for their
essence is based entirely on experience. It is a persons perception that determines the way all is
felt, seen, or heard.

External causes or objects affect the senses, influencing the way the mind perceives
things. For instance, to understand the essence of a rose is to recognize that it is red, the pedals
feel like silk, it smells of sweet perfume and it evokes happiness. All of these perceptions are
derived from the senses. Beautiful words could never conjure enough realism to replace the
reality of seeing a rose. A poem that depicts the beauty of a given object would still act as a dull
substitute for the actual experience.
An impression is superior to any idea. Hume claimed that, "The liveliest thought is still
inferior to the dullest sensation." Sensation is the only real attribute of the mind and it serves as a
focal point for all ideas and extensions of thought. Impressions have the ability to stand
independently; they do not depend on any other elements to make them seem more real. They
can always be relied upon; there is no chance of making a mistake when regarding them.
Impressions are original in their state of being and never act as a counterfeit. They are dazzling
and sound. Impressions are derived from inward and outward sentiments.
Outward impressions are caused by external perceptions. These consist of the sounds of
a thunderstorm, the sensation of rain on the skin and seeing the electricity in lightening. It
includes all the perception that the senses experience first-hand.
Inward impressions make up all of the internal perceptions. This includes feelings and
emotions that are evoked by external extensions. The emotions: loyalty, compassion, misery,
depression and romance are all inward impressions. Seeing a shooting star and feeling lucky as a
result of the sighting is an example of an outward impression causing an inward impression. The
two impressions define one another.

Ideas are the weak perceptions of the mind. They are the reflections of the sensations
experienced from impressions. Ideas are codependent on impressions; they cannot exist without
their influence. Ideas cannot be implicitly trusted or relied upon to be consistent and true. They
seem on the surface, to be infinitely powerful with the ability to transcend the limits of the mind.
However, in actuality they are limited to the impression that formulated them. The creative
boundaries of the mind are restricted to having only the ability to transform bits of memory that
were copies of past experiences. Hume argues that a blind man can never formulate an idea of a
spectrum of colors. For he has the absence of the sense of sight. A spectrum of color can only be
comprehended by seeing and experiencing its beauty through healthy eyes. Impressions of colors
can never be copied without the sensation of sight.
This principle applies to ideas based on outward impressions as well as those based on
inward impressions. For example, it is beyond the capability of a man who is a womanizer to
ever comprehend the idea of monotony. It is beyond his power to understand the meaning of
being faithful to a woman, if he's never experienced doing so. The mind would combine
impressions to compose an idea that resembles what being monotonous feels like. All he would
be able to do is construct an idea of faithfulness by combining copies of different inward
impressions.
Ideas are great at getting confused when resembling other ideas. When ideas are
employed without the accompaniment of clear and distinct meanings they tend to mislead the
mind. Therefore, ideas are faint images of impressions when contemplating the reasoning behind
them. Impressions and ideas relate to one another in that ideas need impressions in order to exist.
Hume believed that, "Every idea is copied from a similar impression." For every simple idea
there is a simple impression which resembles it. Likewise, every impression has a connected

idea. All ideas in their appearance are derived from impressions, which are interconnected to
them, and are represented by them. New ideas can only be constructed from impressions. Hume
claims that an idea of God can be reached when the mind constructs impressions of infinite
intelligence, all powerful and merciful characteristics. Together these attributes form a perception
of God. These characteristics and perceptions arise from the minds reflection on goodness and an
ability to formulate an extension of a being. Combining real impressions to formulate ideas
stimulates a perception of God. The idea of God serves as an example of the minds ability to
allow the power of ideas and impressions to work together as a single unit.
Hume proposed a way of distinguishing reasonable ideas from preposterous ones. He
believed ideas must be tested by impressions. This system has been branded the "microscope"
theory by many of Hume's students. If an idea seems unclear or false, one should take that idea
and try to trace it back to its original impression. In a sense, one is inspecting an idea under a
microscope in search for the slightest detail to prove its existence. The microscope theory
scrutinizes an idea until finding the source of its impression. For instance, could it being proven
that the sky could be brown? Although the color brown is not usually a prevalent hue of the sky
one could put it under the microscope to see if that idea is true. I search my brain for memories
concerning the weather and what the sky looked like at the time. The sky is usually brownish
overcast when it is cold and about to thunderstorm. There are also times at around 5 o'clock in
the morning when the golden sunrise is clashing with the night sky giving off a brownish tint.
After tracing back memories of impressions on the colors of the sky under my microscope I can
recall when the sky was brown. This test proves how Hume would test ideas with impressions. I
think that Hume's distinction between ideas and impressions serve as a compass.

Hume wrote his interpretation of ideas and impressions in a way that was clear for
many to understand. Many philosophers write in a manner that seems to entertain themselves and
their peers, rather than the public at large. Hume's description of the perceptions of the mind
helps separate ideas and sensation for easy interpretation. It is obvious to see that ideas are
simple copies of impression developed by experience and sensation. I believe Hume makes a
bold stance to say that the dullest impression will always be superior to the greatest idea. He is
claiming that even his own expressions and ideas on philosophy are pretty much inferior to
anything in nature or in human feeling. Hume also claims that even the most beautiful poetic
verses could not substitute experience. Yet, sometimes poetry has the ability to enhance the way
we perceive the world.
Thoughts can be just as dramatic as perceptions. I feel as though Hume did not credit
imagination enough in his analysis of the mind's perception. However, the formulation of
complex ideas does not need to resemble the original impressions. We can use our imaginations
and develop an object without ever seeing its influence. Among ideas, those that do return a
considerable degree of quality of the original impressions belong to memory, while other ideas
belong to imagination. The mind has the capacity to imagine. However, I agree with Hume that
most ideas are just augmentations of the many combined impressions we experience. Ideas based
on inward impressions are impossible to conjure up without influence of impression. The idea of
love or pain can't be comprehended without experience. The idea of love must always be derived
by an impression of pleasure. Imagining what love is like can never act as a substitute for the
actual sensation.
Hume's "microscope" theory was a brilliant and simple formula designed to distinguish
false ideas. It is built on the foundation of impressions. He is proving his theory of ideas and

impressions with the microscope idea. Since impressions influence all ideas, they then have the
power to prove if these ideas show their influence. It is as if Hume developed the theory to prove
to everyone how sound his ideas were, and it apparently worked. I looked at some of man's most
complex creations and looked to see if I could find any type of influence of an impression. For
most of all my ideas I was able to trace them back to impressions. In the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries there were debates, as there are today, about how much of what we know is
something we learned through experience and how much of what we know is something we
could have reasoned out using our human intelligence without the benefit of particular
experience. Hume added considerable insight concerning all the perception of the mind and helps
develop a system to differentiate the relevance of ideas. He distinctly and clearly stated that the
only truth the mind has is based on the sense experience. Hume shed light on the perceptions of
the mind that were completely new and different from any other philosophers. In the process he
challenged the world to look at life from a new angle and understand their minds extension with
a new appreciation.

Works cited
Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. N.p.: Oxford UP; New Ed Edition, 2000. Print.
Morris, William Edward. "David Hume." Stanford University. Stanford University, 2001. Web.
15 June 2016.
"David Hume By Individual Philosopher Philosophy." David Hume By Individual Philosopher
Philosophy. Luke Mastin, 2008. Web. 17 June 2016.
Soccio, Douglas J. "Chapter 10." Archetypes of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy. N.p.:
Wadsworth, n.d. 281-313. Print.
Lambourne, Chad. Personal interview. 01 July 2016.
Dancy, Zack. Personal interview. 30 June 2016.