Cognition and Commitment in Hume's Philosophy

Cognition and Commitment in Hume's Philosophy

Cognition and Commitment in Hume's Philosophy

Cognition and Commitment in Hume's Philosophy


It is widely believed that Hume often wrote carelessly and contradicted himself, and that no unified, sound philosophy emerges from his writings. Don Garrett demonstrates that such criticisms of Hume are without basis. Offering fresh and trenchant solutions to longstanding problems in Hume studies, Garrett's penetrating analysis also makes clear the continuing relevance of Hume's philosophy.


The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw a renewed interest in exploring the nature of the human cognitive instrument -- that is, in understanding the human understanding. Many thinkers proposed that such understanding of understanding would prove essential to refining scientific method, improving the state of human knowledge, and fostering human progress. Hume was one of these thinkers.

Book I of A Treatise of Human Nature is entitled Of the Understanding. At the very outset of his attempt to explain the nature of the understanding, he presents four crucial distinctions. He goes on to employ these four distinctions frequently, both in the Treatise and in An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, and together with his two most frequently used principles -- the Copy Principle and the Separability Principle -- they constitute the basis of his cognitive psychology.

The first of these distinctions is the distinction of mental objects or entities, which he calls "perceptions," into "impressions" and "ideas":

All the perceptions of the human mind resolve themselves into two distinct kinds, which I shall call impressions and ideas. the difference betwixt these consists in the degrees of force and liveliness, with which they strike upon the mind, and make their way into our thought or consciousness. Those perceptions, which enter with most force and violence, we may name impressions; and under this name I comprehend all our sensations, passions and emotions, as they make their first appearance in the soul. By ideas I mean the faint images of these in thinking and reasoning; such as, for instance, are all the perceptions excited by the present discourse, excepting only, those which arise from the sight and touch, and excepting the immediate pleasure or uneasiness it may occasion. I believe it will not be very necessary to employ many words in explaining this distinction. Every one of himself will readily perceive the difference betwixt feeling and thinking. (thn 1-2)

The second is the distinction between "simple" and "complex" perceptions:

There is another division of our perceptions, which it will be convenient to observe, and which extends itself both to our impressions and ideas. This division is into simple and complex. Simple perceptions or impressions and ideas are such as admit of no . . .

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