Since Antiquity, philosophy has been a discipline that has tried to solve the mysteries characterizing our life, our world and the reasons for our existence. Before knowing the sciences, humanity was already trying to answer specific questions in a variety of ways. Myths and ideas about creation arose first. They were followed by the birth of philosophy and more or less objective reasoning.
This first philosophy sought to find an explanation for our existence and the nature of the world. It was in fact to give a definition of “ the ark ”. The passage of time and progress have allowed philosophy to diversify into several branches which then became different disciplines. Philosophy is in fact posterior to psychology. For this reason, philosophers have, since ancient times, carried out research in order to perceive reality in human beings.
One of the great philosophers who contributed to this research was David Hume. This author has worked on the importance of learning, habits and the inexistence of an innate primordial knowledge. Obviously, these principles were very influential in the philosophy of the time and a century later, when psychology had more or less settled and differentiated, they also had a consequent impact.
In order to understand Hume’s philosophy, it is important to point out his background. During the Renaissance, two opposing philosophical currents emerged.
One of them was rationalism. It was a theory which defended the following postulate: the human being is born having various truths considered as universal. From these, he interprets reality.
At the opposite extreme we find another current: empiricism. It was a theory that defended the fact that humans only learn through experience. We then consider that we do not have innate knowledge. One of the main representatives of this movement was undoubtedly David Hume. Through this article, you will discover the important aspects of his reasoning, his life and his work.
David Hume: his life
He was born in 1711, in Edinburgh, Scotland. His family was well off. His father was a lawyer but died when Hume was still a child. For this reason, he had in mind to also study Law to follow in his father’s footsteps. David Hume was educated at Edinburgh College, where he was taught by disciples of Isaac Newton.
He later went to the University of Edinburgh to study law and fulfill his family’s wishes. However, he abandoned his studies because they were not to his liking. Then he moved to Bristol in order to open up the way of commerce. But after suffering from a crisis, he announced this: “ I feel an unbearable aversion to everything except philosophy studies and knowledge in general ” .
Years later, he traveled to France where he lived between 1735 and 1737. He stopped first in Reims and then at La Flèche, now Sarthe. There, he wrote the Treatise on Human Nature, a work he published on his return to London and in which we perceive the germ of his later philosophy. Nonetheless, this publication was a failure, which prompted his return to Scotland.
While living in Edinburgh, in 1742 he published the first part of his work Moral, Literary and Political Essays, which had considerable success. He later held various positions: tax collector to the Marquis of Annandale, secretary to General St Clair and librarian of the College of Lawyers in Edinburgh.
During the year 1763, he joined the Embassy of Paris with the help of Lord Hertford. It is in this city that he developed his relations with d’Alembert, Diderot and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His stay in the French capital lasted until 1769, the year in which he decided to return permanently to Edinburgh in order to dedicate himself to writing until his death in 1776.
Reasoning of David Hume
In order to understand David Hume’s thoughts, the first thing to do is to look at his work and define the empiricist theory that he has always defined. Empiricism is based on a series of principles:
There is no such thing as innate knowledge
Human beings are not born with thought patterns and knowledge that tell them how to interpret reality. For the empirical current, all knowledge about reality is the fruit of lived experiences.
Experiences can be internal or external. They can be the fruit of our own reflection and knowledge of our interior life or, on the contrary, that of sensations and perceptions of the world. For empiricists, there is nothing before experience. We learn through the sensitive world. The mind is like a clean slate and a white paper on which we will write the knowledge acquired gradually.
These ideas, very present in the reasoning of David Hume, follow in the footsteps of other empiricist authors such as John Locke. However, they differ within the limits of experience. Locke believed that one could access knowledge of realities beyond the realm of sensitivity, whereas according to Hume (and the nature of his experience) knowledge was reduced to mere perceptions.
There are two types of knowledge
According to Hume, there are two types of knowledge. On the one hand, we find impressions. They correspond to the thoughts that arise from the roots of the experiences we have through our senses. On the other hand, we find the ideas. They are abstract and ambiguous and do not arise through physical sensations.
It all comes from perception. Impressions would in fact be immediate knowledge as a consequence of perception. Ideas are therefore actually derived from impressions. Therefore, they are more complex. Hume also evokes the concept of the imagination which is able to modify ideas.
There are two different types of speech
David Hume distinguishes the probable speeches derived from a fact which can occur or not, in a determined space of time. For example, we can say “one day the Sun may not rise”. The Sun rises every day and we know it because it is knowledge acquired through habit, perception and conviction. On the other hand, demonstrations exist. Due to their logical structure, they can be demonstrated without any problem. For example: 4 + 4 = 8.
Both are the ones that allow us to build our habits. They will define our way of life even if they are not exactly equal to what reality establishes. These fundamental principles have been presented in Hume’s main works: Treatise on Human Nature, Moral, Political and Literary Essays, and Investigation of Human Understanding.
David Hume and psychology
Ultimately, David Hume is one of the most important authors of the current known as empiricism. He is an author whose contribution and philosophy were fundamental for the understanding and perfection of this famous current. The theory of knowledge is one of the branches of philosophy that is most closely related to psychology. For this reason, it is not strange that Hume had a huge influence on psychology.
For David Hume, as with current psychology, we are not born with our thoughts and emotions. They are acquired little by little and they develop through lived experiences. Hume rejects any kind of innate knowledge and it reinforces the idea of human learning. He is undoubtedly an author who invites us to reflect on our perceptions and our way of understanding the world.