A CRITIQUE OF DAVID HUME’S EMPIRICISM
1.1. BACKGROUND OF THE STUDY
The search for knowledge that is both absolute and certain has been continuous. However, since at least the time of Aristotle, there has been a strong epistemological tradition based mainly on human experience, which is not directed towards the possibility of achieving absolute knowledge.
This tradition is a typical example of the doctrine of empiricism. Empiricists argue that it is unreasonable to set a goal of absolute and all-inclusive knowledge, especially when there is close at hand the power to increase practical knowledge by slower but dependable methods.
Empiricist are content in building a system of knowledge that has a high probability of being true even though it’s absolute certainty cannot be guaranteed.
David Hume is one of the greatest empiricists in the history of epistemology and metaphysics who has distinguished himself as a consistent and coherent radical empiricist.
According to him, the only true knowledge is experimental, and any concept that is not available to sense perception is mere fanciful thinking.
The only abstract objects of the abstract science or of demonstration are quantity and number, and all attempts to extend this more perfect species of knowledge beyond these bounds are mere sophistry and illusion.1
With an ideological ferocity, he calls for a book-burning campaign of any metaphysical work.
When we run over libraries persuaded of these (empirical) principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume: of or school metaphysics, for instance lets ask does it contain any abstract reasoning containing quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter-of-fact and existence? No. Commit to it to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.2
Hume’s proposal of vigorous sensism as an alternative to our natural and acquired scientific, metaphysical and socio-cultural deposits, creates more problems than it resolves. It withers all foundation of science and philosophy. It leaves us in make-shift, sandy subjectivism of dry empiricism.
David Hume’s empiricism within the context of knowledge is great, but a consistent empirist will end up destroying the very foundation of knowledge. The epistemological, scientific and ontological heritage of humanity is we think more than a series of impressions.3 To reduce them as bundles of impressions. To reduce them as bundles of impressions as Hume would want to believe is myopic.
The above as a way of introduction forms the background of our study.
1.2 STATEMENT OF THE PROBLEM
There are problems in Hume’s theory of empiricism. The major one arises in an attempt to answer the question of how reliable is our senses. Very often, our senses deceive us. This is true when we see a mirage, in the changing size of objects according to our psychological and physiological state, in hallucination and other forms of illusions.
The problem is that there is no way of immediately differentiating the real from the unreal in such situations. The mirage for example is an effect caused by hot air in deserts or on roads, that makes you think you can see something, such as water, which is not there.
Now the question is, how do we differentiate between a true sense experience from a false or illusory sense experience?
Thus, arises the famous arguments from illusion which places doubts on the reliability of sense experience.
1.3 PURPOSE OF THE STUDY
It has already been pointed out that David Hume maintained a radical stand in his position on knowledge acquisition by maintaining that knowledge comes only from sense experience. He did this by drawing out the problems inherent in reason as a source of knowledge.
The purpose of this study is therefore to examine David Hume’s position and also to show that in as much as we agree that human beings acquire knowledge through senses experience, sense experience alone cannot constitute or guarantee knowledge. Just as Jacques Maritain pointed out that every philosophical system contains some truth and tells something about the real, some philosophies however exaggerate their claims and this is where they then run into problems. This is so with David Hume, he ran into this kind of problem and this was because though knowledge can be acquired through sense experience, he exaggerated the position by maintaining that knowledge can only come through sense experience.
It therefore becomes part of the purpose of this study to point out some of these problems as we can in order to show that though sense experience leads to knowledge, however knowledge does not stop there after there are some limitations to the senses in epistemological procedure so that whatever information we receive through the senses are subjected to judgment before it is accepted.
1.4 SIGNIFICANCE OF THE STUDY
When this work is completed, it is our hope that it is going to be of importance in the sense that at least we would have succeeded in bringing to light some of the very important aspects of David Hume’s empiricism and at the same time would have also succeeded in pointing out problems inherent in it.
The work will equally be of help or assistance to students who will want to do some works in the area of David Hume’s empiricism as it will provide some aid to them by providing them with a kind of insight into the nature of Hume’s empiricism. But we must point out here that this work should not be taken as all there is in Hume’s empiricism. But where however, we could not cover, the references. That appear at the end of the work will therefore be adequate to direct or refer students to where information as regards those areas will be gathered.
To people who may not be doing works on David Hume`s Empiricism; to non-philosophers, who may thus be reading for knowledge acquisition or for pleasure, this work will equally be of immense help as the approach that will be adopted here and the choice of works will not be difficult to understand.
1.5 SCOPE AND METHODOLOGY
We have already shown from the title of this work that this work is concerned with providing a critique of David Hume’s empiricism. However, just as it is done in every critical study, we are not going to rush into the criticism just like that, we therefore will have a guide or focus as regards what to criticize. Hume’s empiricism itself is to provide the guide because, as we are going to criticize it, we will have to present his empiricism so as to point out what it entails. After doing this, we will then know how to anchor our criticism to the problems we will observe, having discovered the nature of Hume’s Empiricism.
The method to be adopted in this work is that of critical study. As the work is on David Hume’s empiricism, the method will therefore be, first of all to present a general overview of empiricism. After this we will then narrow our attention down to Hume’s notion of the subject matter empiricism. It will be after presenting these that we will therefore settle down to criticize.
For the purpose of convenience however, our criticism is going to be in two phases. The first phase will be to provide the attacks which had been leveled against Hume’s empiricism by other people, this is because we are quite aware that Hume’s empiricism has come under attacks over the years.
The second phase of the criticism will therefore be our own criticism. We will here point out as will be able, some of those problems Hume’s empiricism are shrouded with due to Hume’s radical position, and based on these, we will therefore draw our criticisms against his empiricism.
1.7 LITERATURE REVIEW
Our aim here is to provide the reader with the knowledge of some of the texts used in this work. But first of all, David Hume’s book constitute primary literature.
In his book, “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding” edited by Eric Steinberg and published by Hacket Publishing Company, Indianapolis in 1977,4 David Hume was bent on demonstrating that an enquiry, the objects of human reason will be discovered to include only relations of ideas and matters of fact. These are only two categories under which any knowledge that is certain can be placed. All issues dealing with numbers are intuitively certain and therefore under “relations of ideas” where anything discoverable by experience is under “matters of fact”.
Also, in another book, “David Hume and problem of reason; recovering – the human sciences” (published by Yale University Press in 1990)5, John Danford explained how skepticism concerning the ability of reason to lead to knowledge acquisition led to Hume’s position was to show that when reason is cut loose or severed from experience, it can only generate irresolution and confusion.
In the book, A Critical Account of the philosophy of Kant, published by James Maclehose in 1876,6 we see Edward. Caird showing Hume claims about the passivity of the mind in knowledge acquisition on through the ”association of ideas”. Here the mind is shown as not actively dealing with given materials to come up with knowledge but as finding already in the very data of sensation certain natural relations or associative principle by virtue of which one idea calls up another and therefore present a clear picture of something to the mind.
- David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, edited by Eric Steinberg, (Indianapolis: Hacket Publishing Co. 1977), p. 112.
- Ibid pg. 114.
- Pentaleon Iroegbu, Metaphysics: The Kpim of Philosophy, (Owerri): International Universities Press, 1995), p. 179.
- Op Cit.
- John W. Danford, David Hume and the Problem of Reason; Recovering the Human Sciences (New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 1990) p. 85.
- Edward Caird M.A, A Critical Account of the Philosophy of Kant (Glosgow: James Maclehose 1877), pp. 67-68.
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