Hume & Empiricism

Hume & Empiricism

A Philosophic Summary

Hume’s particular form of empiricism has many positive and negative aspects and despite many finding fault in some of his concepts his strategy accomplishes his goals. For Hume, the constructions of thought, perceptions, are wrought from sensation or from reflection. Hume categorizes perceptions by their varying degrees of force and liveliness. The ‘weaker’ perceptions, ideas, are derived from our livelier perceptions (Selby and Bigg, 1975).

Hume’s empiricism ultimately denies the valid use of metaphysical arguments because philosophical questions that are asked in those terms go beyond perceptions and inevitably by going the perceptions answers established reasonably. Hume evidences his claim by virtue of the fact that hypotheses that claim to provide ‘ultimate original principles,’ as sought in metaphysics invariable becomes incoherent. For example, arguments such as Plato’s world of forms and ultimate reality in thoughts become faulty and nonsensical when taken to extremes. If there is an ultimate form of a chair then it escapes human perception and since it cannot be conceived except metaphysically then it has no reality (Selby and Bigg, 1975).

Hume was insistent that individual thought extends no farther than the senses and experiences. This however presents a major problem in the sense that reasonably there is nothing that can be proven absolutely since sensory experience is subjective. This belief lends itself to many problems in that if there is no way to access an ultimate truth or concept, then how can laws be made fairly to apply to all people? They cannot if one is to assume that there is no truth in morality or in the difference between good and evil. Most individuals are unwilling to accept this form of thinking in that it leads to ethical relativism or nihilism.

The problem of with Hume’s empiricism is that it is skepticism to an absolute degree. There is no way to know that the sun will set in the west but by virtue of human perception, individuals assume that it will by nature of habitual thought. The true problem is that the less factual a thought the more skeptical it becomes, however this leads a huge void with trying to create ethical ideas or other necessary subjective and metaphysical concepts.

A positive point of Hume’s thinking is that empiricism lends itself to seeking a preponderance of evidence to find some point of truth. Within the context of Hume’s empiricism the only means by which to find the truth of a situation is via the greatest amount of sensory evidence. Which still actually proves nothing. Yet this thinking does allow for the greatest degree of critical thought and examination.

Hume’s theories are logical and well designed. Even many of his harshest critics give him credit for having poked holes in the concepts of Descartes and Kant. However, Hume’s logic does begin to tip towards the irrational in the sense that if nothing can be trusted to be provable or real then it denies belief in human perception itself. There is a certain absurdity in this in that if you light your hand on fire then it is going to hurt. This reality begs the question that there must be some form of reality that is provable. Or, at the minimum there must be some acceptable measure of subjectivity.

Hume’s ideas have if anything shown that the method of doubt, according to Descartes, is simply infinite and presents many problems that can lead to relativism and subjective concepts. Empiricism seems to work best when it is altered to a different form as many of Hume’s followers accomplished (Selby and Bigg, 1975). Some of these include Logical Empiricism and Rationalism. There are even forms of empiricism which are blended with pragmatism and in any of these examples there is a more reasonable concept of truth. In these forms the theory seems to be more applicable in that it is less skeptical of perceptions.


Hume, D., A Treatise of Human Nature, L.A. Selby-Bigge (ed.), Oxford University Press, London, UK, 1975.

By Allan RamsayPublic Domain


Triola Vincent. Sat, Feb 06, 2021. Hume & Empiricism Retrieved from

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