Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy

Section Two: Period of the Thinking Understanding
Chapter II. — Transition Period, A Idealism & Scepticism
2. HUME.

We must add to what has preceded an account of the Scepticism of Hume, which has been given a more important place in history than it deserves from its intrinsic nature; its historic importance is due to the fact that Kant really derives the starting point of his philosophy from Hume.

David Hume was born in 1711 at Edinburgh and died there in 1776. He held a librarian's post in that town for some time, then he became secretary to the Embassy in Paris; for quite a long period, indeed, he moved in diplomatic circles. In Paris he came to know Jean Jacques Rousseau and invited him to England, but Rousseau's terribly distrustful and suspicious nature very soon estranged the two. (1) Hume is more celebrated as a writer of history than through his philosophic works. He wrote: “A Treatise of human nature,” 3 vols., 1739, translated into German by Jacob, Halle, 1790, 8vo; likewise “Essays and Treatises on several subjects,” 2 vols. (Vol. 1. containing “Essays moral, political and literary,” printed for the first time in Edinburgh, 1742; Vol. II. containing an “Inquiry concerning human understanding” a further development of the Treatise, and first printed separately in London, 1748, 8vo). In his “Essays,” which contributed most to his fame as far as the philosophic side is concerned, he treated philosophic subjects as an educated, thoughtful man of the world would do — not in a systematic connection, nor showing the wide range which his thoughts should properly have been able to attain; in fact in some of his treatises he merely dealt with particular points of view.

We must shortly deal with the main aspects of Hume's philosophy. He starts directly from the philosophic standpoint of Locke and Bacon, which derives our conceptions from experience, and his scepticism has the idealism of Berkeley as its object. The sequence of thought is this: Berkeley allows all ideas to hold good as they are; in Hume the antithesis of the sensuous and universal has cleared and more sharply defined itself, sense being pronounced by him to be devoid of universality. Berkeley does not make any distinction as to whether in his sensations there is a necessary connection or not. Formerly experience was a mixture of the two elements. Hume tells us that all perceptions of the mind may be divided into two classes or species, that of impressions, i.e. sensuous perceptions, and thoughts or ideas; the latter are similar in content to the former, but less forcible and lively. All objects of reason are consequently either relations of thoughts such as mathematical axioms, or facts of experience. (2) Since Hume makes these into the content he naturally rejects innate ideas. (3)

Now when Hume goes on to consider more closely what is subsumed under experience, he finds categories of the understanding present there, and more especially the determination of the universal and of universal necessity; he took under his consideration more particularly the category of cause and effect, and in it set forth the rational element, inasmuch as in this causal relationship necessity is especially contained. Here Hume really completed the system of Locke, since he consistently drew attention to the fact that if this point of view be adhered to, experience is indeed the principle of whatever one knows, or perception itself contains everything that happens, but nevertheless the determination of universality and necessity are not contained in, nor were they given us by experience. Hume has thus destroyed the objectivity or absolute nature of thought-determinations. “Our conviction of the truth of a fact rests on feeling, memory, and the reasonings founded on the causal connection, i.e. on the relation of cause and effect. The knowledge of this relation is not attained by reasonings a priori, but arises entirely from experience; and we draw inferences, since we expect similar results to follow from similar causes, by reason of the principle of the custom or habit of conjoining different manifestations, i.e. by reason of the principle of the association of ideas. Hence there is no knowledge and no metaphysics beyond experience.” (4)

The simple thought we have here is exactly what Locke says, that we must receive the conception of cause and effect, and thus of a necessary connection, from experience; but experience, as sensuous perception, contains no necessity, has no causal connection. For in what we term such, that which we properly speaking perceive is merely the fact that something first of all happens and that then something else follows. Immediate perception relates only to a content of conditions or things which are present alongside of and in succession to one another, but not to what we call cause and effect; in time-succession there is thus no relation of cause and effect, and consequently no necessity either. (5) When we say the pressure of the water is the cause of the destruction of this house, that is no pure experience. We have merely seen the water pressing or moving along in this direction, and subsequently the house falling down; and so with other examples. Necessity is thus not justified by experience, but we carry it into experience; it is accidentally arrived at by us and is subjective merely. This kind of universality which we connect with necessity, Hume calls custom. Because we have often seen results to follow we are accustomed to regard the connection as a necessary one; the necessity to him is thus a quite contingent association of ideas, which is custom.

It is the same thing in respect of the universal. What we perceive are individual phenomena and sensations in which we see that this is now one thing and now another. It may likewise be that we perceive the same determination frequently repeated and in manifold ways. But this is still far removed from universality; universality is a determination which is not given to us through experience. It may be said that this is quite a correct remark on Hume's part, if by experience we understand outward experience. Experience is sensible that something exists, but nevertheless the universal is not as yet present in it. Indeed, sensuous existence as such is something which is set forth as indifferent, not differentiated from anything else; but sensuous existence is likewise universal in itself, or the indifference of its determinateness is not its only determinateness. But since Hume regards necessity, the unity of opposites, as resting quite subjectively on custom, we cannot get any deeper in thought. Custom is indeed so far a necessity in consciousness, and to this extent we really see the principle of this idealism in it; but in the second place this necessity is represented as something quite devoid of thought or Notion.

This custom obtains both in our perception which relates to sensuous nature, and in relation to law and morality. The ideas of justice and morality rest upon an instinct, on a subjective, but very often deceptive moral feeling. (6) From a sceptical point of view the opposite may likewise be demonstrated. From this side Hume considers justice, morality, religious determinations, and disputes their absolute validity. That is to say when it is assumed that our knowledge arises from experience, and that we must consider only what we obtain thereby to be the truth, we find indeed in our feeling, the sentiment e.g. that the murderer, the thief, &c., must be punished; and because this is likewise felt by others it is universally allowed. But Hume, like the sceptics of former days, appeals to the various opinions of various nations: amongst different nations and in different times various standards of right have been held. (7) There are those who in this case do not have the feeling of wrongdoing in respect of stealing, e.g. the Lacedæmonians or the so-called innocent inhabitants of the South Sea Islands. What is by one nation called immoral, shameful and irreligious, is by another not considered so at all. Thus because such matters rest upon experience, one subject has such and such an experience, finds, for instance, in his religious feelings this determination which inclines him to God, while another subject has different experiences altogether. We are in the habit of allowing one thing to be just and moral, others have another mode of regarding it. Hence if the truth depends upon experience, the element of universality, of objectivity, &c., comes from elsewhere, or is not justified by experience. Hume thus declared this sort of universality, as he declared necessity, to be rather subjectively than objectively existent; for custom is just a subjective universality of this kind. This is an important and acute observation in relation to experience looked at as the source of knowledge; and it is from this point that the Kantian reflection now begins.

Hume (Essays and Treatises on several subjects, Vol. 111. Sect. 8, 11) then extended his scepticism to the conceptions and doctrines of freedom and necessity, and to the proofs of the existence of God; and in fact scepticism here possesses a wide field. To such a system of reasoning from thoughts and possibilities another method of reasoning may again be opposed, and this reasoning is no better than the other. What is said to be metaphysically established regarding immortality, God, nature, &c., lacks a real ground for resting upon, such as is professed to be given; for the inferences on which men ground their proofs are subjectively formed conceptions. But where a universality is found, it does not rest in the matter in itself, but is simply a subjective necessity which is really mere custom. Hence the result which Hume arrives at is necessarily astonishment regarding the condition of human knowledge, a general state of mistrust, and a sceptical indecision — which indeed does not amount to much. The condition of human knowledge regarding which Hume so much wonders, he further describes as containing an antagonism between reason and instinct; this instinct, it is said, which embraces many sorts of powers, inclinations, &c., deceives us in many different ways, and reason demonstrates this. But on the other side it is empty, without content or principles of its own; and if a content is in question at all, it must keep to those inclinations. In itself reason thus has no criterion whereby the antagonism between individual desires, and between itself and the desires, may be settled. (8) Thus everything appears in the form of an irrational existence devoid of thought; the implicitly true and right is not in thought, but in the form of an instinct, a desire.


1. Buhle: Geschichte der neuern Philosophie, Vol. V. Sect. 1, pp. 193-200.

2. Tennemann's Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie von Wendt (Leipzig, 1829), § 370, pp. 439, 440; Hume: Essays and Treatises on several subjects, Vol. III. containing an Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding (London, 1770), Sect. 2. pp. 21, 22; Sect. 4, P. I. p. 42; Tennemann, Vol. XI. pp. 433, 434.

3. Hume: op. cit., Vol. III. Not. A. pp. 283, 284.

4. Tennemann op. cit., § 370, p. 440; Hume: op. cit., Vol. III. Sect. 4, Pt. I. pp. 43-45; Sect. 5, pp. 66, 67; Buhle: Geschichte der neuern Philosophie, Vol. V. Sect. 1, pp. 204, 205; Tennemann, Vol. XI. pp. 435, 436.

5. Hume: op. cit., Vol. III. Sect. vii. Pt. 1, pp. 102, 103; Pt. 2, pp. 108, 109; Sect. viii. pp. 118, 119.

6. Hume: op. cit., Vol. IV. containing an Inquiry concerning the principles of morals, Sect. 1, p. 4; Appendix I. p. 170.

7. Buhle: op. cit., Vol. V. Sect. 1, pp. 230, 231; cf. Hume, ibidem, Vol. III. Sect. 12, P. II. p. 221; Vol. IV.; An Inquiry, &c., Sect. 4, pp. 62-65; A dialogue, pp. 235, 236, &c., &c.

8. Hume: op. cit.. Vol. III. Sect. 12, Pt. I. pp. 217, 218; Not. N. pp. 296, 297; Buhle: Geschichte der neuern Philosophie, Vol. V. Sect. 1, p. 210.

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