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Hume on Experience and Knowledge

Knowledge appears to us as a concrete term which is underscored by certain rational assumptions about the universe. And yet, our own experience tells us that that which one considers to be true may, to another, be seen as sheer distortion. The reverse may also apply. Thus, it is rather difficult to reconcile that which does in fact define our cause for the assessment of knowledge, though all figures of importance to the historical discourse on philosophy have ventured a framework for our understanding.

The 18th century in particular would witness a flurry of activity, with the latter generation of the Enlightenment Era providing a spirited exchange across decades of literature on that which inspires or defines knowledge. In our investigation here Scottish empiricist David Hume, and in particular, his 1738 “A Treatise on the Human Nature,” provides a framework for understanding knowledge that is pragmatic, individualistic and, therefore, driven by experience.

In the primary work by Hume, it is contended “that as our ideas are images of our impressions, so we can form secondary ideas, which are images of the primary; as appears from this very reasoning concerning them. This is not, properly speaking, an exception to the rule so much as an explanation of it. ” (Hume, 6) To Hume’s perception, and the perspective of this account, the human perspective is an individual filter of details which promotes distinctly differing conceptions of rationality.

This is an approach which tends to define knowledge in inherently flexible terms, contingent distinctly upon experiences which differ from one person to the next. In contrast to the empirical perspective espoused by Hume, there is a more absolutist belief system which engages knowledge quite oppositely. To those in this school of thought, there is a belief that rationality is the formulating constant allowing for the assumption of absolute cognitive and moral principles.

A fundamental belief in a moral and rational order defined by a divine power, as a prominent example, will tend to refute the concept that knowledge could somehow be mutable according to perspective. Instead, it is considered rational for all sound and reasoning individuals to achieve certain degrees of consensus on those ‘certainties’ which may be considered as knowledge. Entering into a discussion with the declarative intention to deconstruct this refutation, we will proceed with an endorsement of Hume as a practical counterpoint to this apparent interest in dogmatism over humanism.

This position may be well captured by the notion in Nichols’(2004) text that “for Hume, cautious observation of human life primarily consisted in a kind of human ethology. One quietly observes people’s behavior in their ordinary environments. ” (Nichols, 1) This will be an admirable vantage, we will find, as Hume’s ideas compare favorably in light of the inevitable modernization of philosophical conversation on knowledge diversity. Another important thinker of the 18th century, Immanuel Kant may be the ideal representative of absolutist moral perspective opposing Hume’s ideas.

In his “Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals”, Kant is concerned both with the process by which we have assumed such ‘knowledge’ and with the implications that such assumptions have on our approach to morality. Here, he dictates his intention, remarking that his “aim here is directed strictly to moral philosophy. . . [and] a matter of the utmost necessity to work out for once a pure moral philosophy completely cleansed of everything that can only be empirical and appropriate to anthropology”.

(Kant, 20-21) That Kant believes the establishment of such a moral arrangement possible, or even desirable illustrates the manner in which he approaches rationality and morality as two principles which occupy such a disposition in our shared consciousness and herein offers insight into the societal implications affecting a shared ‘knowledge. ’ Kant’s premises are placed into direct contrast with those of Hume, who produces what is, perhaps, a more effective way of understanding human behavior as it relates to rationality and morality.

His A Treatise on the Human Nature, published half-a-century prior to the Kant text appears as the far more progressive of the two. In the way that Hume is utterly more humanist than absolute principals allow, we can begin to detect a manner in which the ideal of knowledge ise at least in a certain capacity at the mercy of the individual actor or decider. This stems from what we have already recognized as Hume’s sense of discomfort with the idea of human reason as constituting the creation of rational actor.

In his Treatise, Hume contends that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions and can never pretend any other office than to serve and obey them. ” (Hume, 1738, p. 213) Hume means to argue that man’s nature makes him an unreliable arbiter of what is true or untrue, which our own sensibility tells us are in many ways subjected to variation across culture and context. This is a notion which is consistent with his promotion of knowledge as a condition which is contingent also upon these variations of experience.

The latter notion of context, especially, is likely to collide with the individual characteristics making up an actor in said context in order to produce knowledge bodies that are wholly unique and contributory to contextual reason. As Hume phrases it, “a passion is an original existence, or, if you will, modification of existence, and contains not any representative quality, which renders it a copy of any other existence or modification. ” (Hume, 1738, p. 213) This exclusion must apply, therefore, to many of the social or spiritual premises that suggest an absolute conception of varying quandaries of knowledge.

Unlike such thinkers as Kant, Hume is permissive to this variation in human perception and behavior. In the section of his Treatise entitled Of Vice and Virtue, Hume provides a discussion on morality that refutes a permanent and theologically-based fixation in the process of defining knowledge. In this section, Hume returns us to the thought of personal emotion as a primary factor by which knowledge dispositions are arrived at, with the intent of demonstrating a direct correlation between an individual’s various personal characteristics and a fundamental dichotomy providing for comprension in social contexts.

A passage offered here provides a most compelling response to the discomforting rigidity of more moralistic conceptions of knowledge, demonstrating that indeed, where we might detect a structure in society wherein we benefit from the execution of rational positive behaviors, thus inclining us rationally to behave according to the normative parameters instructed to us, there is yet equally the probability that some force may view the liberalism of normative assumptions as a vulnerability.

This is to indicate that for each gain availed us by the grace of a shared body of knowledge, so too is there the peril of an injury done us by the misperception of differently oriented perception of others. Hume here proposes a relative system of balance, where it is equally rational for some actors to be derived from varying points of understanding. Again, with knowledge defined according to the suggested normative properties of society, we might suggest that Hume offers a picture of rational man as equally likely to behave intelligently or ignorantly.

So Hume explains it, “every passion, habit or turn of character which has a tendency to our advantage or prejudice, gives a delight or uneasiness; and ‘tis from thence the approbation or disapprobation arises. We easily gain from the liberality of others, but are always in danger of losing by their avarice; Courage defends us, but cowardice lays us open to every attack; Justice is the support of society, but injustice, unless check’d wou’d quickly prove its ruin; Humility exalts; but pride mortifies us.

For these reasons the former qualities are esteem’d virtues, and the latter regarded as vices. Now since ‘tis granted there is a delight or uneasiness still attending merit or demerit of every kind. ” (Hume, 1738, p. 154) Here, Hume begins to the elucidate for us as the external observer as sense that, in fact, knowledge is a highly individualized strategy for the negotiation of passion, with individual experiences functioning as central effectors in the manifestation of this passion.

Hume appears to defend the idea that man is somehow individually programmed for a knowledge disposition consistent with his characteristic makeup. According to this perspective, we can see that more rationalist theories such as, Kant’s dangerously misapply an understanding to knowledge which prevents us from properly understanding the cause for and flexibility of knowledge. In attempting to arrive at an understanding of why Hume’s take on the morality issue is, in fact, ‘better’ than Kant’s, its humanism is a self-apparent explanation.

There is a point of fundamental importance here comporting to the idea that knowledge as a general abstract category of examination requires nuance, pragmatism and recognition of the relevance of context in order to be properly understood. In Hume, we find so distinctly human a branch of science that it is appealing to think that knowledge must indeed be perpetually held up to the reconsideration of setting and subject instead of bound to limited assumptions of ‘human reason. ’.

This allows for a flexibility facilitating future exploration of the subject of knowledge rather than a more restrictive approach which has instead promoted a historic discourse of defensive refutation.


Hume, David. 1738. A Treatise on the Human Nature. Escuela de Filosofia Universidad ARCIS. Kant, Immanuel. 1785. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Jonathan Bennett. Nichols, Shaun. (2004). Sentimental Rules: On the Natural Foundations of Moral Judgment. Oxford University Press.

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