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Hume on Human Nature

David Hume was a Modern Philosopher. Naturally, this means that his thought and thought process during the period of Modern Philosophy. This is why it is important to first discuss, albeit briefly the character of Modern Philosophy in order to grasp what Hume is telling us. Modern Philosophy came after Medieval Philosophy; metaphysics dominated the reasoning and conclusions in the latter. Events in between (as the scientific discovery that the world is round or spherical disproved the ancient belief that the world was flat) led man to realize that most of the principles and things that he lived by, were mostly false or inaccurate.

This is why Modern Philosophy was ushered with the attitude of doubt. The modern man’s attitude was always “[h]ow am I sure that this is true? ” Consequently, with the fear of once again being disappointed with his beliefs, the modern man always turned to physical evidence in assuring himself with what is true. He turned to empiricism. There should always be something that he could fathom, grasp, sense and understand on order to make himself believe that what he is seeing, feeling, thinking and sensing is what is the truth, is what is real.

In simple terms, everything has to have scientific proof, as we know it at present to be considered real or even moral. This was Hume’s attitude when he said that man should “reject every system…however subtle or ingenious, which is not founded on fact and observation,” and “hearken to no arguments but those which are derived from experience” (Hume, 173-175). Hume obtains his third species of moral philosophy by debunking the first two types through the mindset and principles of the modern man. The first specie, according to Hume is here men are treated as active creatures, who aim or avoid things, depending on their “perceived value.

” (www. plato. stanford. edu/entries/hume). The moral philosophers “make us feel what they say about our feelings” (www. plato. stanford. edu/entries/hume); thus, making moral philosophy seem so easy and simple for each and every individual to fully understand and grasp (www. plato. stanford. edu/entries/hume). The second specie on the other hand, consider men, while active creatures, as mere objects, through which they can deduce the principles by which men decided. They observe men as they are objects rather than as subjects to discover moral principles that govern the same (www. plato. stanford.

edu/entries/hume). Hume tells us that moral principles should not and could not be discovered through the first two species. It can only be discovered through the third specie, which ultimately makes use of empiricism. It is through empiricism that he is able to say that “[w]hat we do is never decided by reason but by desire” thus, “reason is the servant of desire” (www. plato. stanford. edu/entries/hume). For Hume, any and all philosophical questions can be answered through accounts of impression and ideas, and anything more than is beyond the senses – beyond empiricism, and is this metaphysical.

Simply put, his theory works this way. Each and every thing that man thinks is triggered by the senses or through perception. His usual example is the sound of water pelting on the window. This is the fact gathered through perception or through the auditory sense organ. From this fact, the person hearing the sound makes a conclusion, using “association” with other ideas or with other instances when he may have heard the same sound. He may conclude that it is raining, as he hears the same sound when it rains or that it is not raining as that is not the same sound that he hears when it rains.

He then confirms his conclusion by looking out the window and checking whether or not it is raining. For Hume, this process is important as what a person concludes is not more than what the senses themselves represent. The conclusion obtained is either of two things – whether or not it is raining. There are no gray areas. The answers are all in black and white. And the same is supported by empirical evidence (www. plato. stanford. edu/entries/hume). Simply, Hume is saying that there are principally, there are ideas. These ideas are obtained through the senses, and the same permutate to more complex ideas through the notion of association.

And the sure conclusion obtained through this. The answer may be a representation or misrepresentation of an idea, but at the end of the day the answer is always supported by something that is factual, sure and accurate – ideas. Translated into moral philosophy, Hume is simply saying that all of one’s decisions must be based on empirical data. This is why he says that one’s decisions are moved by desire and not by reason, as desire is connected to the senses. Desire is something that is connected to the senses such that what one desires is ultimately a factual evidence by which he can decide on a plan of action.

On the other hand, reason as it is beyond the senses is not empirical and thus is not representative of ideas, by which one can decide. There are no empirical proofs of reason, which is why the same cannot generate black and white or this or that answers. Take for instance this example. A little girl plays around the sewing machine of her mother. She reaches for the needle. As she reaches for the tip of the needle with the tip of her tiny fingers, she felt pain as little drops of blood dripped from these. In deciding whether or not to touch the needle, she did not use her reason, it was her desire or her senses that she used.

The fact at hand was that she saw a needle. It may be that as she is still very young, she does not know or she could not associate yet the needle with pain. This is why she decides to touch it anyway. It was her desire that moved her and not reason. The little girl grows up to be a miserable young lady. On the day that her father leaves her mother, she sees a blade on top of her father’s table. She decides to pick it up. Her facts are the sight of the blade and the pain that she felt when she touched the needle of her mother’s sewing machine, she then associates these ideas and realizes that through these, she will bleed.

She then decides to cut her pulse. She may or may not die with the bleeding. But the answer is sure that it is either of the two scenarios, not something else in between. In sum, what Hume teaches is that one’s decision-making is controlled by desire. It is controlled by what we see, feel, hear, taste and touch. It is not controlled with what we think because first and foremost what we think is what we see, fell, hear, taste and touch. Our senses are the source of our reason. Thus, our senses or our desires are what help us decide and not our reason. Reason is part of the process but it is not the root or source.


Bennett, Jonathan. Locke, Berkeley, Hume: Central Themes, 1971 (Oxford). David Hume, www. plato. stanford. edu/entries/hume <accessed on 25 February 2008>. Hume, David. Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge, 3rd edition revised by P. H. Nidditch, 1975 (Oxford: Clarendon Press). Mautner, Thomas. Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy, London, 1999, 258. Penelhum, Terence. David Hume: An Introduction to His Philosophical System, 1992 (Purdue). The Cambridge Companion to Hume, ed. by David Fate Norton (Cambridge, 1993).

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