Hailed as a very prolific figure of 18th century philosophy, Hume’s legacy, no doubt, has lived up to the accolades awarded him. He is one of the most dominant and provocative philosophers of his time and even by today’s standards. His extreme statements and conclusions, many readers may find difficulty stomaching and may be averse to. Conversely, others may simply succumb because they are unable to provide substantive critiques and viable arguments against his theories. In this exegesis I will attempt to simply identify and describe Hume’s main arguments in Section 2 of Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding: The Origin of Ideas.
In Section 2, Hume begins by explaining the disparity between sensory perceptions and our memories of them. Humans remember things differently to how things actually are and were. He classifies this distinction into two categories: thoughts and impressions by explaining “their different degrees of force and liveliness”. Thoughts are less lively for they are merely conjurings or representations of what the senses experience in the mind. Impressions, he explains, are “more lively perceptions” for they are the sensations of experiences through our five senses. The perceptions of the mind are far less vivid than the impressions. In his own words, “…the most lively thought is still dimmer than the dullest sensation” [sic], Hume here, is distinguishing between the concrete and abstract. Our experiences through our sensory perceptions are concrete and our thoughts and ideas, which are necessitated by these, are abstract.
Hume goes on to tell us that our thoughts and ideas rely on associations or mental referents. These referents are objects and things already known to us in the world through our sensory perceptions or our “inward feelings”. Our thoughts are formed and make sense through the impact of the outside world, processed through our senses. The sensations made by the impact affects us emotionally and grants us thoughts of the things which made the impact. Hume’s description of this process amounts to drawing associations. He describes this process as, “the ability to combine, transpose, enlarge, or shrink the materials that the senses and experience provide us with”. For example, when we say “flying spaghetti monster” (which does not exist), our minds are able to combine and make associations with what we know do exist—the act of flying, the food spaghetti, and something interstitial—known and unknown. All put together to create the thought and idea of a “flying spaghetti monster”.
Hume touches on the necessity of sensations to thoughts and suggests that humans would be unable to formulate thoughts without impressions and sensations. He gives examples of a blind and deaf person who have neither seen nor heard; they will not be able to conceptualize color nor sound. He concludes that the only way ideas and thoughts “can get into the mind” is through sensory perceptions and their impressions. Notwithstanding, Hume provides a possible “counter-example” to this theory—that an idea or thought can only come from impressions—that while we may be familiar with all colors and their shades, we may not be able to make the association to a particular known color if we happen upon an unfamiliar shade of that color. He concludes that we most certainly can, which proves the antitheses.
This is only one of Hume’s principles, which is essentially an introduction to how the human mind works, responds and is affected by the outside world we interact with through our senses. Hopefully, this exegesis may be useful in explaining Hume’s Origin Of Ideas, where thoughts and ideas originate and how they are informed by impressions. Through this exploration, hopefully anxieties and any kerfuffle some may experience through reading his work are quelled. Or, it may encourage others to question his theories and further inquiry and discovery.