Empiricism & David Hume

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  • 0:01 Where Do Beliefs Originate?
  • 0:35 Science and Natural Laws
  • 1:56 Physical and Spiritual
  • 3:11 Impressions and Ideas
  • 4:11 The Physical Realm
  • 5:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

Learn why David Hume took an interest in the perceptions of the mind and what kind of approach he used to understand it. Consider what philosophical questions were important to him and which ones he had no interest in pursuing.

Where Do Beliefs Originate?

Many philosophers in history have had a deep interest in questions like, 'What is the nature of the soul?' and 'Does God exist?' David Hume was not one of these people.

In fact, his focus was less about explaining the mysteries of existence and more about considering the question, 'Why do we believe what we believe?' In this lesson, we'll look at how Hume categorized different human experiences and how this influenced his approach to philosophy.

Science and Natural Laws

Hume believed that what we know comes from sense experience, a school of thought called empiricism. As a Scottish philosopher living in the 18th century, he took a great interest in the scientific discoveries of his time. These discoveries involved testing, calculations, and experiments to learn about the world.

One of the key concepts during this era in science was the idea that natural laws could explain much of the phenomena we see in the world. For instance, an apple falling from a tree could be observed and the law of gravity used to explain it. Measurements and calculations could be used to better understand and speculate about many other phenomena, like the shape of the earth or the speed of sound.

Hume was drawn to consider philosophy from this perspective of the physical world and its natural laws. This is part of why he took less interest in metaphysical questions like, 'What is the nature of the soul?' and more interest in a somewhat more concrete topic like, 'How we come to know what we know.' He was looking to explain what could be observed, rather than speculate about spiritual matters like whether God exists.

The Physical and the Spiritual

If you stop for a moment and observe your own train of thought, you might notice how many different kinds of thoughts you have and how sensations in your body affect you. For instance, as you read this, your mind is working to comprehend what is being said. Meanwhile, if you have an itch on your arm, your mind will also become focused on that sensation.

Some philosophers believe that sensations and emotions are physical in nature. For instance, they would describe what it's like when you scratch your arm as physical. These philosophers might go on to claim that the ideas we have about these sensations and emotions are spiritual in nature, like you processing the information in this lesson and understanding it with your mind.

While watching this lesson might not seem spiritual in the same way as prayer or other religious practices, some philosophers still view it as separate from our physical existence, and therefore something spiritual in nature. They draw a distinction between the physical experience -- your itchy arm -- and the spiritual experience -- your ideas and beliefs.

Impressions and Ideas

So what did Hume think about this? On one hand, he did agree that it is helpful to describe the sensations we receive from an itchy arm using a different term than the word we would use to describe a concept from this lesson. Mental perceptions, in Hume's view, fall into the category of either impressions or ideas. Your itchy arm is an impression, whereas the concepts in this lesson are ideas.

Other examples of an impression are the feeling you would have if you stubbed your toe, or the emotion of anger you feel when you stub it.

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