The Metaphysics of Causation: Hume's Theory

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  • 0:01 Hume
  • 1:12 Impressions & Ideas
  • 1:52 Causation
  • 3:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will explore David Hume's metaphysical stance on causation. We'll define empiricism and skepticism as well as highlight Hume's thoughts on impressions versus ideas.


When I was about 14, my sister banned me from her closet. Yes, I did accidentally spill red fruit punch all over her favorite sweater, but a lifetime ban seemed like total overkill. Really, just because I ruined one sweater didn't mean I was going to ruin them all. Too bad for me I didn't know about the great philosopher, David Hume. If I had, I could have given my sister an earful. To explain what I mean, let's take a look at David Hume's thoughts on the metaphysics of causation.

We'll start with a definition and a bio. Keeping it simple, metaphysics is the part of philosophy that deals with concepts like being, substance, cause and identity.

Moving on to the bio, David Hume was a famous 18th-century Scottish empiricist. He believed all knowledge is derived from the senses, which is called empiricism. Stated simply, empiricism argues that the only way we can know something is through touch, taste, sight, smell and so on. Making him even more of an enigma, Hume also held to skepticism, which is the belief that true knowledge is unattainable.

Impressions & Ideas

Following the logic of empiricism, Hume distinguished between impressions and ideas. These two things helped form the basis for his thoughts on causation. Impressions are everything we derive from our senses. However, ideas are just faint images of thinking, reasoning and belief based on our impressions.

Revisiting the great sweater debacle of 1989, the red-stained sweater was an impression my sister could unfortunately see. There was no denying it. From this impression, she formed the idea that I ruin sweaters. However, like Hume would tell her, ideas are just faint images of beliefs!


Proving my case even more, Hume asserted we often form our ideas through causation, or the relationship between cause and effect. In other words, when we experience the outcome of an impression, we assume that impression will always bring about the same effect. Keeping with the theme, let's pick on my sister a little bit more.

Just because I happened to ruin one expensive sweater, she believed letting me wear another sweater would end in the same disaster. Fortunately for young me, Hume would have told her she may have jumped the gun! In fact, using his skepticism, the idea that true knowledge is unattainable, he would have told her assumptions can seldom be truly trusted.

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