Amazing articles on just about every subject...




World's Great Philosophers:
 Descartes

 Hobbes And Locke

 Spinoza

 Berkeley And Hume

 The Germans

 Condillac

 Emerson

 Comte

 Spencer

 Read More Articles About: World's Great Philosophers

Berkeley And Hume

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

To be sneered at by the unthinking is frequently the lot of greatness. Measured by that standard George Berkeley is truly great. The mind of the profound English bishop has been made the butt of ridicule for more than one hundred and fifty years. Now and then some more solemn-visaged ignoramus has shaken his head severely and has proclaimed that the good church-man of Cloyne is not only foolish but dangerous, that his doctrines lead to the inevitable atheism. To this we can reply, borrowing Mr. Lewes' happy question : Lead whom?

All the pantheism of Bruno and Spinoza, all the materialism of Locke and Hobbes, did never so much to startle and alarm the rutted minds of Europe as did the Idealism of Berkeley. Of course, those who most roundly condemned him did not understand him. Those who ridiculed him were the intellectual gnats of the time. Alexander Pope, who has left more epigrams that are popularly quoted than any other writer except Shakespeare, disposed of Berkeley's light-witted critics in his famous line -

And coxcombs vanquish Berkeley with a grin.

Pope's category of coxcombs includes a few college professors who seemed to have been overwrought by the good bishop's originality and daring, but who could not be satisfied with grinning at him. They tried to maltreat the corpse by hacking it to pieces. Berkeley was the natural successor to John Locke. He took up philosophy where Locke left it and carried it one step farther, but that step was the last which philosophy, properly so called, could take. Those who followed Berkeley all went backwards with one exception Hume. He did not advance, it is true, but, taking up Berkeley's conclusions, he proved that philosophy was an idle pursuit; that it led to no knowledge; that it left men plunged in the darkness of doubt, and that as a means of widening knowledge it was an instrument of no utility whatever.

Berkeley was a generous and unselfish man who sought to devote the activities of his life to the good of others. He was a clergyman who had the highest conceptions of his office and the noblest ideals. His life was spotless. His reputation for virtue was widespread. Men who once met him immediately became his eulogists. The impression he made upon all was that of a supremely good man. The most extravagant anticipations were thus raised in the minds of persons who were about to be brought into contact with him. But these anticipations were all disappointed. Berkeley was not like what they had conceived him to be. He was better. Atterbury said of him: "So much learning, so much knowledge, so much innocence, and such humility, I did not think had been the portion of any but angels, till I saw this gentleman;" and Pope, in describing the praise or censure given to men, says that the fashion was to ascribe "to Berkeley every virtue under heaven."

The bishop, although native to Kilkenny, Ireland, was derived from English parents. He was born on March 12, 1684, and as a boy evinced that inquisitiveness and acuteness of mind which were afterward to give him his place beside the great philosophers" of the world. It is said that while he was yet a mere lad he displayed a fondness for dealing with pure ideas a trait that is always regarded as one of unusual and extreme precocity and which presages much for the youth who possesses it. He was a keen admirer of nature and a slow observer by no means. He saw things in detail concerning natural phenomena which his elders passed by unnoticed. He was not struck with those things that attracted general attention and which were open to all who had eyes and which could not help being seen; but was ever astonishing his friends by calling their attention to aspects of things which were remarkable enough when observed, but which had not been found until he found them.

Berkeley entered Trinity College, Dublin University, at the very early age of fourteen and took his degree of Bachelor of Arts at eighteen. Two years later he was given his degree of Master, and in 1707 he was made a fellow of Trinity and became a docent in Greek and a tutor. While in college he was, as might have been expected, intensely interested in philosophy and meta-physics, and was superbly equipped for the study of these branches. There was no lack of contemporaneous literature on the subject. He had the writings of Des-cartes, of Locke, of Malebranche, the French priest-pantheist; of Spinoza, and of a host of smaller speculators to dwell upon. He was also taken up with the study of Newton, and while at Trinity he conceived the idea of thinking out some original metaphysical plan of his own which should be an improvement upon those of the men who had preceded him. His principal works were published soon after he left Trinity. An Essay Toward a New Theory of Vision appeared in 1709, The Principles of Human Knowledge in 1710, and Hylas and Philonous in 1713.

In the last named year Berkeley went to London.

There he lived for ten years in the association of some of the greatest men of English letters and statesmanship, and he won them all by his great learning, his piety, his courtesy, his benevolence, and by a humility which, in consideration of his intellect, was perfectly captivating. What advantage the uncultured Pope gained from con-verse with Berkeley's richly stored and fertile mind who can say? Addison was fond of him, Steele loved him, Swift could find nothing in him which could be made the target of his satire, and others as noted as any of these admired him with a spontaneity that was an unerring sign of Berkeley's grand and good qualities as man and scholar. While in London the philosopher wrote for various periodical publications and these were over- numerous at that time and serenely pursued his profound speculations undisturbed by the gay, even riotous, life of the town.

Among the eminent politicians the philosopher met and conquered in London was the Earl of Peterborough, who made him his chaplain. The Earl afterward appointed Berkeley his secretary, and the clergyman accompanied the statesman when the latter undertook a mission to Sicily. The experience of a continental tour was gained by Berkeley when he went abroad as a friend of the wealthy Ashe. At Paris the English divine met the French divine and philosopher, Malebranche, and these two are said to have had a most interesting discussion concerning Berkeley's ideal theory.

In 1724 Berkeley conceived a plan of founding a great university in America for the education of the English-speaking youth of the colonies. The scheme was proposed in Parliament and met with apparent favor. So much so, in fact, that Berkeley resigned his post as Dean of Derry, to which he had been appointed, to undertake the work. He sailed to America, on a small allowance. Three years he spent in Rhode Island with his wife, awaiting action by Parliament. But legislatures are not always to be counted upon, and Parliament failed to appropriate the funds for the design. Had it not failed America might today have had one more great school and that with Berkeley as founder. Altogether Berkeley remained in the colonies seven years. He had already spent his entire savings in the attempt, and, finding that it was hopeless to wait for Parliament to act, he returned to England a poor man. Three years later he was elevated to the bishopric of Cloyne. In 1753 he died suddenly of paralysis of the heart. He had gone the year previously to Oxford to visit his son and there he was seized with his last illness. He passed away at the ripe old age of sixty-eight, after a life well spent in good deeds and kind offices for his fellowman.

Few doctrines of metaphysics have been more fully discussed than the idealism of Berkeley. It is popularly supposed that the English philosopher denied the existence of matter as Locke denied the existence of ideas apart from matter. It is true that idealism and materialism are antithetical. The second, in its purest form and there have been very few pure materialists teaches that nothing exists but matter, that thought itself is only the functioning of the brain and that when the brain ceases to preserve the form of matter suited to that function the mind disappears. This tenet involves the reality of matter and holds that matter, indeed, is the only true reality. It holds that ideas all spring from the sense, and that while ideas may not be like the external material things (the non-ego which is perceived by the ego) that cause them, they are yet material effects of material causes. What is the nature of that matter which thus underlies ideas, sensations, and thought, the materialist says he does not know.

Idealism, on the other hand, teaches the very reverse of this. It asserts that ideas themselves are the only true reality, and that matter does not exist at all. The idealism of the Germans must not be confounded with that of Berkeley. The good bishop did not go as far as the Absolutists. He took Locke's philosophy as his starting point and developed it.

Locke had said that all ideas spring from the senses which come into contact with external matter, but that these ideas give us no clue as to the nature of the things perceived. You see a chair. The chair exists truly, says Locke, but exists only in the brain as an idea. So far as the mind's knowledge of the reality behind that idea is concerned, that reality may as well not exist at all. The chair, as a chair, exists only in the mind. The unknown reality that causes the sensation or idea we call a chair, is matter.

Berkeley took issue with this. He rejected the unknown reality. If you say that the things which my senses perceive are matter, he argues, then I am ready to admit that matter exists. But if you say that these things do not exist except as ideas in the mind and that matter is the something real underlying them, and causing them, then I say, there is no such thing as matter.

It is odd that there is not one uncultured person in a thousand who will not agree readily with Berkeley's position. The ordinary man when told that the tree or the table he is looking at does not exist as he sees it except as a sensation in the brain, will put aside the person who makes such an assertion as insane. No amount of logic or elucidation can remove from his mind the conviction that tree and table exist precisely as he sees them and that they would continue to so exist were he removed a thousand miles from them. Tell him that were brain destroyed tree and table, as such, would vanish and he will smile at your imbecility. Say to him that what he calls a tree is a sensation the integral parts of which are all in his mind, that neither roundness nor greenness, neither trunk nor branches abide in any manner save in his brain, and he will dismiss you as one on whom it would be useless to waste time. Yet this is what the materialists will tell him, and Berkeley agrees with the ordinary man.

Let us hear him : "I do not argue," he says, "against the existence of anything that we can comprehend either by sensation or by reflection. That the things I see with my eyes and touch with my hands do exist, really exist, I make not the least question. The only thing whose existence I deny is that which the philosophers call matter, or corporeal substance. And in doing this there is no damage done to the rest of mankind, who, I dare say, will never miss it.

That what I see, hear, and feel doth exist that is, is perceived by me I no more doubt than I do of my own being; but I do not see how the testimony of sense can be alleged as a proof of anything which is not perceived by sense."

This is certainly plain enough, and one who is not accustomed to the refinements of metaphysicians will marvel why it should require a Berkeley or anyone else to say it. But there is a little more in Berkeley than would appear at a casual glance. Thus far his idealism seems to be nothing but what the common sense of all man-kind will assent to. However, it should not be forgot-ten that "the only thing whose existence he denies is that which the philosophers call matter." In this, too, common sense might agree with him.

It is not so easy for common sense to go with Berke-ley when he says that the very perception of things is their existence; that things which are not perceived do not exist. This was the position which drew upon the head of the good man the contumely of all, from the professor in the chair to the coxcomb in the drawing-room.

Let us hear Berkeley again : "Some truths are so near and obvious to the mind that a man need only open his eyes to see them. Such I take this important one to be, namely, that all the choir of heaven and furniture of earth in a word, all those bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world have not any substance without (outside of) a mind; that their being is to be perceived or known; that consequently, so long as they are not actually perceived by me, or do not exist in my mind or that of any other created spirit they must have no existence at all or else subsist in the mind of some eternal spirit, it being perfectly unintelligible, and involving all the absurdity of abstraction, to attribute to any single part of them an existence independent of a spirit (mind)."

Here, indeed, common sense at once takes its departure from Berkeley. The materialist only asks common sense to agree that the tree does not exist as a tree (round, green, foliated,) except in the mind. He will admit that the reality underlying these phenomena (mat-ter) does exist independent of the mind. Berkeley denies that reality exists in any manner whatever save as an idea in the mind itself.

One objection to this view at once suggests itself, but Berkeley is before his critic and anticipates him. He says : "But, you say, there is nothing easier than for me to imagine trees in a park, or books in a closet, and nobody by to perceive them. I answer, you may so; there is no difficulty in it. But what is all this, I beseech you, more than framing in your mind certain ideas and at the same time omitting to frame the idea of anyone perceiving theme But do not you yourself perceive or think of them all the while? This, therefore, is nothing to the purpose. It only shows that you have the power of imagining or framing ideas in your mind, but it does not show that you can conceive it possible that the objects of your thought may exist without the mind. To make out this it is necessary that you conceive them existing unperceived, or unthought of, which is a manifest repugnancy. When we do our utmost to conceive the existence of external bodies we are all the while only contemplating our own ideas."

This, then, is clear: Berkeley denies the existence of anything but ideas; or, as it has been said, he identifies objects with ideas. He considers the points presented by Locke in his philosophy and easily refutes all those with which he does not agree, and these are not many. Starting out with the experiences that are the common lot of all men, he reasoned his way from the data thus obtained to the impregnable position in which he entrenched himself at the end. His arguments have never been answered nor can they be answered. In the realm of metaphysics Berkeley was without a peer up to his time, unless we exempt Gautama, who carried philosophy even farther and who held that even ideas do not exist. Berkeley did not know of the Buddhistic philosophy, and was a great original. He was the last of the metaphysicians that held with faith to meta-physics, who can be called really great, if we except the Germans, for he summed up in his thought all that it was possible for metaphysics to do. He himself realized that nothing more could be said upon the subject, but he did not realize that by forging his system of idealism on philosophy he left philosophy forever helpless to move. With her hands locked in the chains of material-ism and idealism, both riveted so securely as never to be broken, philosophy was at the end of her mission.

David Hume was the subtlest metaphysician of England. The leading principle of his psychology is accepted and taught to-day by all advanced writers in that field. Human thought since his time has not been competent to improve upon his two categories impressions and ideas to which he reduced all sensation. These terms were first used by him and all psychologists tacitly credit him with the classification.

But Hume was not only England's subtlest meta-physician. He was likewise one of the great originals in political economy. Adam Smith, to whom is universally conceded the honor of being the founder of that science, built his system on the principle first announced by Hume that "everything in the world is purchased by labor, and our passions are the only causes of labor." Philosopher and economist, Hume was likewise an historian whose works rank beside the best works of history extant.

In the matter of popular fame Hume stands first as the historian. Yet the time must come, if it have not come already, when his greatest service will be admitted to be that service he did for thought when he showed beyond cavil or controversy that man, by the effort of pure thought alone, using metaphysics as the instrument, could never win a knowledge of his own mind that could in any manner advance his well being.

Hume must ever remain the great Skeptic; the sole master of the philosophical arena; the unanswerable iconoclast; the incomparable theorist of causation. He applied the Baconian method to metaphysics with the only possible result, namely, that metaphysics itself is lost.

Of his early life there seems to be much that is not known. He had little schooling. His college training was limited to one term at the University of Edinburgh. He was born in the Scotch capital April 26, 1711, and died there on August 25, 1776. The Humes were of noble blood, and belonged to the famous family of Douglas. But David's father was poor, and died when the philosopher was a child. David's mother had not much faith in the capacity of her son. She said of him that he was a- very kind and good-natured creature, but pitiably weak in mind !

This judgment was possibly founded upon what seemed good evidence, for we find Hume as a mere lad reduced to a condition bordering upon prostration with the conflict of his thoughts upon metaphysical subjects. Before he was twenty he had thought out, in the main, the system which he left, and was already at work upon that masterpiece of metaphysical literature, his Treatise of Human Nature. That work was published when its author was only twenty-eight, and although he lived to produce numerous works in the same line, he did not once alter the conclusions he had arrived at in the Treatise.

In a letter which he wrote to a friend describing the condition of mind that had led him into the pursuit of philosophy, he says ;

"Everyone who is acquainted with the philosophers or with the critics knows that there is nothing yet established in either of these two sciences, and that they contain little more than endless disputes even in the most fundamental articles. Upon examination of these I found a certain boldness of temper growing on me, which was not inclined to submit to any authority on these subjects, but led me to seek out some new medium by which truth might be established. After much study and reflection on this, at last, when I was about eighteen years of age, there seemed to be opened up to me a new scene of thought, which transported me beyond measure, and made me, with an ardor natural to young men, throw up every other pleasure or business, to apply entirely to it."

He had been designed for a lawyer, but the study of law was irksome. So, too, was his first and only attempt to engage in commerce. He had gone to Bristol and had there made a dismal failure as a clerk. How long the unpleasant association with Bristol clung to him is evident from this sentence in his history referring to the fanatic Nayler, who tried to imitate the Savior: "He entered Bristol mounted on a horse I suppose from the difficulty in that place of finding an ass."

Disappointed in law and in commerce, broken in spirits and in health, with the weight of his developing system on his mind, young Hume went abroad for rest. He spent three years in France, principally at Rheims, doing nothing, in order, as he explained, that he might be able to work with more zeal at a later time.

While in France he visited the Jesuit College at La Flèche, and found much pleasure in the intellectual atmosphere of the great school wherein was educated René Descartes. Even while he rested from labor he was not idle, and he thought much on his book and wrote much. In 1839 the Treatise was ready for publication, and we find Hume in London dealing with publishers and preparing himself for his début in literature and philosophy.

So little did the work appeal to the publisher that he paid the author only $250 for the two first volumes. Hume's anticipations of success were immeasurably beyond his realization. The Treatise was published and fell flat. Here was a book in which was defined every principle upon which the French Revolution was founded, in which every opinion and every authority that had ever been held in respect was set at defiance; in which every existing system of thought was over-turned; in which the very citadel of human certainty was stormed and taken and yet it fell into oblivion from the printer's press.

The bitter disappointment Hume suffered in this is well described by himself. It was only after he had attracted attention by his other works that the philosophers began to read the Treatise, and then it was that Hume reaped the full reward of his genius and originality.

For two thousand years the word Skepticism had never been used but to provoke a smile. To confess oneself a Skeptic was equivalent to affecting some outrageous fashion of dress. The avowed Skeptic was at once challenged with the old arguments against Pyrrho. He was asked derisively why he insisted on dining when he could not be sure that his dinner was really on the table before him. He was tolerated as an aberration, humored by his friends, and scouted by his critics. No one took him seriously. The Skeptic in modern times was regarded with the same sort of humor as would be one who would seriously propose an honest faith in the extinct gods of Olympus. He was either trifling or he was mad.

When Hume's Treatise began to be read widely all this was changed. Skepticism assumed an important and commanding position in the domain of modern philosophy. It was no longer enough to laugh at the Skeptic. You must answer him, and answer you, could not. The Treatise was a literary and metaphysical masterpiece behind which was a force which stunned the deepest thinkers and brought the most confident plodders to a dead stop.

After the shock was over men raged and stamped their feet and denounced the logic of the incomparable author as the height of folly or the viciousness of a monster. The Treatise smiled at them and placidly replied, "Answer me." Theorists of all the schools attacked the book and fretted and put themselves out of breath and lacerated their minds against the sharp prongs that stood out from its pages, and then, quite worn out, fell back and said, "The man's a fool!" But the book stood.

The Skepticism of Pyrrho, the Greek, was one thing. It was dismissed as the idle affectation of a pagan. The Skepticism of Hume left its opponent and critic stripped bare without a single weapon of attack. So long as men remained in the arena of the intellect and fought with intellectual instruments this modern Skepticism laid all the champions at its feet. To combat it philosophers were forced to abandon the realm of philosophy and to appeal frantically to the passer by. And when they did that they left Hume the triumphant master of the situation.

It was no more mere sophistry, no trick of logic, no common man who could do all this. Berkeley had amazed and startled the world with his ingenious and his unanswerable argument whereby he challenged men to show him that the whole moving, visible, tangible world was not a mere state of mind, had no existence beyond the intellect that perceived it. Hume left Berkeley where Berkeley left others. Hume is the one man in the history of philosophy who is alone an unapproachable Skeptic. But he is not the Skeptic that he is popularly supposed to be. He did not doubt that fire burned him, and that his thirst was quenched with water.

The third volume of the Treatise was published in 1740, and in the following year he brought out his essays. In these we find the Skeptic discussing the liberty of the press, party politics, and other questions of vital interest to the every-day world. On two occasions Hume attempted to secure the post of professor of philosophy in Scotch universities and failed in both. In 1776 he entered the diplomatic service, and was secretary to General St. Clair, the then Ambassador to Turin and Vienna. From 1763 to 1766 he was Secretary of the Embassy to Paris, and was later Under-Secretary for State. His success in politics was not despicable, but he was never the practical politician. Through his books and political offices he acquired a fortune of no mean dimensions, and toward the close of his life it was observed that his spirits were ever gay and light. This gayety seemed to increase just before his death. He who had been torn in his youth by mental upheavals, prostrated by the battle of his own thoughts, was calm and at peace in his old age. Strange is the way of fact. The unapproachable Skeptic died "happy."

What is the Skepticism of Hume which has been pronounced impregnable by men of the most diverse habits of thought?

As we have said, Hume used the Baconian method rigorously. He would trust to experience only. What, now, does experience teach us? The closest analysis will show us that all the contents of the mind may be divided into two classes of experiences : Perceptions that are forcible and strike in upon the senses as from contact with external things, and perceptions that are faint which are made up of internal representations of the original perceptions of sense. The first he calls "impressions," the second, "ideas."

We see a man, taste an apple, hear a bell. The seeing, tasting and hearing are impressions. We draw a mental picture of the man, represent to the mind (remember) the taste of the apple, and recall the sound of the bell. These mental representations of thing, taste, and sound, are ideas. Thus, in the words of Hume, "ideas are impressions returning upon the soul." The idea that corresponds to a pure impression is a pure idea. It is an idea of memory. But when these pure impressions are mentally compounded they are ideas of the imagination. The whole content of the mind is made up, therefore, of nothing but impressions and ideas. But Hume went farther than this : The mind itself what is it but a bundle of those impressions and ideas?

Berkeley had denied the existence of matter the unknown reality underlying the phenomena of sense. Hume denied the existence of mind itself the unknown reality which was supposed to be the seat of perception and idea. This doctrine is now so commonplace, so familiar to every student of psychology, that its repetition serves to do no more than remind us of text books. But in Hume's day it was perfectly new, and startling to the highest degree.

He who would say, "There is no such thing as mind it does not exist," might be passed by as a madman. But he who could assert this thing and offer unanswerable arguments to prove his position was indeed an innovator. The very subtlety and depth of Hume's doctrine were calculated to elude, for a time, the understanding of the philosophers. When, at last, he was understood, and the tremendous importance of his position realized, it is not surprising that men were shocked. Observe well what Hume teaches : The mind, as an entity apart from impressions and ideas, has no existence whatever. It is not a separate something upon which impressions are made and in which ideas subsist and dwell. Take away sensation, take away ideas or memory, and mind vanishes. It is as the light of a lamp. Destroy the wick and the oil, and the flame-where is it? In other words, the constituents of the mind are nothing but the mind itself.

Berkeley had said, If you contend that the very things I see and feel are themselves matter, then I agree that matter exists. If you say that matter is not these things, but something I do not and cannot know, then I deny that matter exists. Hume said, If you say that these impressions of sense and their corresponding representations, or ideas, are themselves mind, then I admit that mind exists. But if you say that the mind is something apart from these impressions and ideas the some-thing which is the subject that is impressed then I deny that mind exists. If the materialists could not prove that matter existed and they readily admitted they could not no more could the idealists demonstrate the existence of the mind.

The position of Hume is no more and no less than the position of the socalled Agnostic. And perhaps that is why we find the founder of Agnosticism and the inventor of the word itself, Professor Huxley, admiring Hume and writing the philosopher's life. The position of the Agnostic and the position of the Skeptic are really one. This, be it understood, does not concern matters of faith. Skepticism, Agnosticism, concern themselves only with philosophy. When we come to treat of Herbert Spencer we will go more fully into the question of Agnosticism. We can dismiss the subject here by saying that Science knows neither Agnostic nor Skeptic. And the reader will be prepared for the force of this assertion when he remembers the clear distinction we have been at pains to draw and insist upon as existing between science and philosophy.

Hume, then, taught, not that the mind does not exist, but that if there is any valid reason for rejecting the existence of matter, there is equally valid reason for rejecting the existence of mind. If you cannot prove matter, he says, no more can you prove mind. There is as much reason for doubting the existence of the one as there is reason for doubting the existence of the other. And in this statement is described his celebrated Skepticism.

Is there an answer to Hume's logic? If we meet him upon his own ground and remain with him in the realm of pure metaphysics, it must be confessed that there is no answer. Metaphysics is powerless. But if we take another view, there is an answer, and an overwhelming one. It is the universal testimony of man-kind. No one truly doubts that the things he sees, hears, feels, smells, tastes, and touches, really do exist and abide as entities outside of him and quite independent of his thought. No one doubts that he truly feels all these sensations, and that he himself and his thoughts are apart from the things without him. In other words, the ego and the non-ego, the me and the not-me, is the one truth upon which all men without exception agree.

But Hume anticipated all this. He did not contend that the basic consciousness of all sentient creatures was a lie. He only sought to teach men that the intricate systems of metaphysics they reared up in their self pride and their unwarranted confidence were built upon sand. He heartily and earnestly repudiated all thought of contending that the necessary and natural convictions to which every man must, perforce, assent, were false; and grave injustice has been done him by those critics who attempted to ridicule him for writing books which could not exist and partaking of the joys of a world whose reality he doubted. He doubted neither his own being nor that of the world. He distinctly asserts that he is not a total Skeptic. The total Skeptic, he says, cannot have an opponent; for who can have an opponent who is not sure not only of his opponent's existence but of his very own?

Much has been written of Hume's theory of Causation, and as the subject is one of vast interest it may be worth while to examine his. opinions on this matter. Cause is a word most commonly used, and conveys a definite, distinct meaning. For example, we say a wound is caused by a bullet; a wreck is caused by a storm; a burn is caused by fire. But if we dive deeper into consciousness and carefully analyze the thought which clings to the word we will find, with Hume, some reason for questioning the accuracy of the common belief. In this respect, as in many others, he flies in the face of universally accepted opinions.

That which had a beginning must have had a cause. This proposition will hardly be denied by anyone. Yet Hume questions it. Why should this be true? he asks.

It is by no means certain that whatever exists must have been caused. No reason can be advanced why an object that does not now exist may not exist in a moment from now without having been produced by some power. Cause and effect are merely mental relations, no more. Experience teaches us that certain objects are invariably accompanied by certain other objects; or that certain impressions or ideas are never dissociated from certain others. He says in the Treatise :

"It is certain we here advance a very intelligible proposition at least, if not a true one, when we assert that after the constant conjunction of two objects, heat and flame, for instance, weight and solidity, we are determined by custom alone to expect the one from the appearance of the other. This hypothesis seems even the only one which explains the difficulty why we draw from a thousand instances an inference which we are not able to draw from one instance, that is in no respect different from them.

"Custom, then, is the great guide of human life. It is that principle alone which renders our experience useful to us, and makes us expect, for the future, a similar train of events with those which have appeared in the past.

"All belief of matter-of-fact or real existence is derived merely from some object present to the memory or senses, and a customary conjunction between that and some other object; or in other words, having found, in many instances, that any two kinds of objects, flame and heat, snow and cold, have always been conjoined together, if flame or snow be presented anew to the senses, the mind is carried by custom to expect heat or cold, and to believe that such a quality does exist and will discover itself upon a nearer approach. This belief is the necessary result of placing the mind in such circumstances. It is an operation of the soul, when we are so situated, as unavoidable as to feel the passion of love, when we receive benefits, or hatred, when we meet with injuries."

The comment that Hume's insistence on custom and habit is too strong seems out of place. To say that one vivid impression is sufficient to establish a certainty in the mind as to the repetition of the effect is beside the question. The difference involved is one of degree only. The less vivid the impression the more often must it be repeated before the idea of causality is established. Hume's doctrine of causation is set forth in the following paragraph from the already quoted Treatise:

"When any natural object or event is presented, it is impossible for us, by any sagacity or penetration, to discover, or even conjecture, without experience, what event will result from it, or to carry our foresight beyond that object, which is immediately present to the memory and senses. Even after one instance or experiment, where we have observed a particular event to follow upon another, we are not entitled to follow a general rule, or foretell what will happen in like cases; it being justly esteemed an unpardonable temerity to judge of the whole course of nature from one single experiment, however accurate or certain. But when one particular species of events has always, in all instances, been con-joined with another, we make no longer any scruple of foretelling one upon the appearance of the other, and of employing that reasoning which can alone assure us of any matter of fact or existence. We then call the one object Cause, the other Effect. We suppose that there is some connection between them some power in the one, by which it infallibly produces the other, and operates with the greatest certainty and strongest necessity. But there is nothing in a number of instances, different from every single instance, which is supposed to be exactly similar, except only, that after a repetition of similar instances, the mind is carried by habit, upon the appearance of one event, to expect its usual attendant, and to believe that it will exist. The first time a man saw the communication of motion by impulse, as by the shock of two billiard balls, he could not pronounce that the one event was connected, but only that it was con-joined, with the other. After he has observed several instances of this nature, he then pronounces them to be connected. What alteration has happened to give rise to this new idea of connection? Nothing but that he now feels these events to be connected in his imagination, and can readily foresee the existence of the one from the appearance of the other. When we say, therefore, that one object is connected with another we mean only that they have acquired a connection in our thought, and give rise to this inference, by which they become proofs of each other's existence; a conclusion which is some-what extraordinary, but which seems founded on sufficient evidence."

Like all other philosophers, Hume wrote upon Deity, and it is interesting to note that, Skeptic though he was, he did not reject a God. Religion, he said, regarded from a philosophical point of view, was "a riddle, an enigma, an inexplicable mystery." But he believed that morally much may be said in its favor. The great Skeptic's views on miracles have been often quoted. What he has to say of the miraculous involves some misconceptions and a few contradictions. He speaks of "violating the laws of nature," as if these "laws" were anything but the observed sequence of events; as if they were something that could "operate" by some force of its own.

"Why is it," he asks, "more than probable that all men must die; that lead cannot of itself remain suspended in the air; that fire consumes wood and is extinguished by water, unless it be that these events are found agreeable to the laws of Nature, and there is required a violation of these laws, or in other words a miracle, to prevent them?"

"It is a miracle," he says elsewhere, "that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country."

The miraculousness of the dead coming to life may be admitted, but Hume's reason for that miraculousness is false. That two men separated by a thousand miles should converse as if face to face would be a miracle in the Eighteenth Century according to Hume, for that had never been observed in any age or country up to that time. Again, when shall we say a man is dead? The question of miracles is an unsatisfactory one at best, and necessarily, from the impossibility of definition. What would be a miracle today is a commonplace fact to-morrow. Hume says :

"There is not to be found, in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned goodness, education, and learning, as to secure us against all delusion in themselves; of such undoubted integrity, as to place them beyond all suspicion of any design to deceive others; of such credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind, as to have a great deal to lose in case of their being detected in any falsehood; and at the same time attesting facts, performed in such a public manner, and in so celebrated part of the world, as to render the detection unavoidable. All which circumstances are requisite to give us a full assurance of the testimony of men."

But again, what is a miracle?

As to the existence of a God Hume puts into the mouth of an imaginary Epicurean arguments which have been quoted as conveying his own opinions. While the attribution may be just or not, we cannot deny to the Epicurean a degree of earnestness that smacks of some-thing more than intellectual gymnastics. The philosopher says:

"I deny a Providence, you say, and Supreme Governor of the World, who guides the course of events, and punishes the vicious with infamy and disappointment, and rewards the virtuous with honor and success in all their undertakings. But surely I deny not the course itself of events which lies open to every one's inquiry and examination. I acknowledge that, in the present order of things, virtue is attended with more peace of mind than vice, and meets with a more favorable reception from the world. I am sensible that, according to the past experience of mankind, friendship is the chief joy of human life, and moderation the only source of tranquillity and happiness. I never balance between the virtuous and the vicious course of life; but am sensible that, to a well-disposed mind, every advantage is on the side of the former. And what can you say more, allowing all your suppositions and reasonings? You tell me, indeed, that this disposition of things proceeds from intelligence and design. But, whatever it proceeds from, the disposition itself, on which depend our happiness and misery, and consequently our conduct and deportment in life, is still the same. It is still open for me, as well as you, to regulate my behavior by my experience of past events. And if you affirm that, while a divine Providence is allowed, and a supreme distributive justice in the universe, I ought to expect some more particular reward of the good, and punishment of the bad, beyond the ordinary course of events, I here find the same fallacy which I have before endeavored to detect. You persist in imagining, that if we grant that divine existence for which you so earnestly contend, you may safely infer consequences from it, and add something to the experienced order of nature by arguing from the attributes which you ascribe to your gods. You seem not to remember that all your reasonings on this subject can only be drawn from effects to causes; and that every argument, deduced from causes to effects, must of necessity be a gross sophism, since it is impossible for you to know anything of the cause, but what you have antecedently not inferred, but discovered to the full, in the effect.

"But what must a philosopher think of those vain reasoners who, instead of regarding the present scene of things as the sole object of their contemplation, so far reverse the whole course of nature as to render this life merely a passage to something farther; a porch, which leads to a greater and vastly different building; a prologue which serves only to introduce the piece, and give it more grace and propriety? Whence, do you think, can such philosophers derive their ideas of the gods? From their own conceit and imagination surely. For if they derive it from the present phenomena, it would never point to anything further, but must be exactly adjusted to them. That the divinity may possibly be endowed with attributes which we have never seen exerted; may be governed by principles of action which we cannot discover to be satisfied; all this will freely be allowed. But still this is mere possibility and hypothesis. We never can have reason to infer any attributes or any principles of action in him, but so far as we know them to have been exerted and satisfied."

Hume completely demolished the systems of meta-physics which he found created up to the time he began to think. Immanuel Kant, reading the works of the Skeptic, was aroused, as he himself confesses, from his dogmatic slumbers, and on the ruins left by the criticism of the great Englishman reared a philosophy that has forever fixed his name among the great ones of the world.

To Kant, therefore, let us turn.

Home | More Articles | Email: info@oldandsold.com