The Implication Of David Hume’s Philosophy Of Impressions And Ideas

 The Implication Of David Hume’s Philosophy Of  Impressions And Ideas


1.0          Introduction

Are we not often at times shocked by the discovery that what we thought was certain is later proved dubious and false? If this be a regular occurrence, is it not the case that we may become suspicious of all claims to certainty? But then, the history of human opinion rightly forms the most fertile source material for the




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After payment, text the name of the project, email address and your names to 08064502337 development of any theory of knowledge. Yet, no theory or belief has proved so full of absurdity, that it lacked its own disciples. The history of science is itself replete with theories priory accepted by the sages of old but later on discredited.

Philosophers are therefore concerned with the basis of all knowledge claims, so that they might arrive at a consensus for judging these claims. For it, much of what had been taken as certain has instead been proved false or sceptical. Then, what can we really know and how can we really ever be certain?

Such were the feelings of David Hume, as he posited his philosophy of “impression and ideas” of which this work is to throw more light on.

The philosophy of David Hume then is both an attack on rationalism and a “reducto and absurdum” of empiricism since the empiricism he defines is one-sided as the rationalism he attacks. He frankly confessed his dissatisfaction with his position in a passage which seems to be the starting point for a consideration of the outline of his work.:

There are two principles which I cannot render consistent nor is it in my power to renounce either of them, namely, that all our distinct perceptions are distinct existence, and that the mind never perceives any real connection among distinct existence.[1]

Thus, the appeal to those two principles and the understanding of them is the key of Hume’s work. The first principle, that what we can distinguish in perception is distinguished in existence is subjective. I rather see it as making the articulations and distinctions of things depend on the distinctions of the mind. But the second principle is based on the opposite assumptions.

Hume’s whole account of causation depends on his perception that causation is not a relation among the mind’s own ideas, in the sense that it can be got at by any kind of introspection or reflection. Thus, the result of Hume’s theory of causation seems to be subjective when he reduces the conception of necessary connection to a feeling, and this is precisely because he believes that causation is a relation between real existences and cannot be perceived by the mind. About causation, he said:

Causation is a relation, which can be traced beyond our senses and informs us of existence and objects, which we do not see or feel.[2]

In Hume’s philosophy, the theory of the “association of ideas” plays  the most important part and was the most recognized in the later  history of English Empiricism. No wonder Hume was constantly making association the work of the understanding and through this theory, he succeeded in narrowing the fundamental principles of knowledge to mere feeling. His account of the general principle; also lobbied his explanation of particular instances of cause and effect. Thus, little did he mean to think that by causation, we only mean constant conjunction, but that we sometimes infer causation from the observation of only one instance.

In his own period, Hume affected the inheritance of the Cartesian rationalism into empiricism and made atomization of perception the very nerve of his philosophy. From this insight, he viewed every question especially metaphysical and proposed every solution.

It is then our task in this work, to expose the implications of the concept of his “impressions – ideas” theory, which evidently forms his basic epistemological stand. We shall therefore see how plausible they are with a critical mind.

1.1          Statement of the Problem

The genesis of the history of philosophy is the treatment of the Ionian philosophers whose main concern was to determine the basic constitution of the material substances of the universe[3].

In this immortal search, Thales posited water, Anaximander posited air, and Pythagoras came up with units i.e. the mathematical numbers. The departure of Pythagoras and his subsequent followers was a gathering storm, which ushered in a sharp digression in philosophical inquiry. Attention now shifted to the problem of change and permanence. In this pre-Socratic era philosophy was more cosmocentric in nature.

Plato in the ancient period posited the world of forms, saying that the real things exist in the worlds of ideas. Socrates also on his part believes that knowledge is certain, objective and universal. It is quite possible for man to acquire knowledge. His was the dialectical method i.e. beginning from particular cases and concluding with universal knowledge.

In the Mediaeval period, Augustine toes the line of Plato. Augustine distrusted the senses as source of knowledge. The senses in his view do not give us certain knowledge. The objects of knowledge are not the material things of this world, but the external ideas in the mind of God.[4] St Thomas is said by some scholars to have succeeded merely in Christianizing Aristotle. These mediaeval or Christian philosophers were influenced by the church supremacy at their time.

In this period, the movement was actually a rebirth of knowledge, a revival of interest and zeal for knowledge. It began with a renewed interest in Ancient writings and eventually developed into humanistic and scientific movements, with emphasis on man rather than God. Two important schools flourished in this period.

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The continental rationalists (Descartes Spinoza and Leibniz) adopted the mathematical method and believed that reason alone, using the mathematical method can attain truth without the aid of the senses. They denied that sense perception was necessary in order to attain knowledge. The empiricists on the other hand, asserted that all-genuine knowledge derive from sense perception. Neither Locke nor Berkeley was a consistent empiricist. But Hume was and he brought empiricism to its logical conclusion.[5] He tried to portray this by his philosophy of impression and idea. When we perceive objects, they make impression on us. Ideas are formed from these impressions. Whether he succeeded in doing this is what we shall be looking at in this work. We shall be evaluating critically his position about impression and idea, within which we shall portray the explicit implication of his position.

1.2          Purpose

My aim or purpose in this research now is to expose the implications of the concept of Hume’s impressions and ideas theory. We shall therefore see how plausible they are, with a critical mind. This work will seek to x-ray the extent to which pure knowledge can be gotten only through impression or that we can only know something through experience and without impression, there will be no ideas.

1.3          Scope

This research does not intend to give an exhaustive study of David Hume’s philosophies. Rather, it centered on his theory of impression and idea. How he tried to resolve the diverse conceptions of philosophers on the acquisition of pure knowledge.

1.4          The Methodology of the Work

In this sensitive philosophical discourse, we shall make use of expository method in understanding the notion of impression and ideas and Hume’s argument in denying and rejecting reason as a way of attaining knowledge. Again, we shall use critical method in evaluating Hume’s view. In general, the methodology is going to be scholarly, academic, and philosophical.

This research work is divided into five chapters. Chapter one deals mainly with the introduction and the framework of the entire study, chapter two deals with the literature review. This takes into account the contributions of other philosophers on the related topic in the various epochs. Chapter three x-rays the Epistemological foundation of Hume’s philosophy, chapter four centered on the impossibility of the metaphysics while chapter five gives an evaluation and critical conclusion to the work




David Hume was born in Edinburgh on the 26th of April 1711. He was of a good family, both by father and mother. His father’s family was a branch of the Earl of Hume’s and his ancestors were proprietors of the Estate, which was the daughter of Sir David Falcone, president of the college of Justice.

David wanted to study Law but could not finish, in the course of his studies; he composed and published his Treatise of Human Nature at the end of 1738, a book, which he complained, “fell dead-born from the press.” In 1747, he became judge –advocate-general to General Claire. In 1752, he became keeper of the embassy in Paris and was for a few months in-charge of its affairs. As from 1768, he was under-secretary to the secretary of state. In 1769, he retired to Edinburgh. In 1775, he contracted cancer of the bowels, a sickness which he could not survive and which led to his death in 1776.

His Works Include The Following:

  • His Treatise of Human Nature first published in 1739.
  • Essays moral and political published in 1741- 1742
  • An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding Principles of Morals, 1951.
  • Political Dialogue, 1752
  • Dialogues on Natural Religion, published post-humorously in 1779.

The problem of impression and idea is the origin of philosophy. Philosophy started with man’s curiosity and wonders about the existence of things. From the up-shoot of philosophy which is the treatment of the Ionian philosophers, whose main concern was to seek the basic make-up of the material substance of the universe.

Western philosophy grew out of religion and mythology in Greece about 600BC.[6] This does not mean that prior to that, that the Greeks were not asking themselves fundamental questions about reality, about man or the cosmos. They did and sought answers to these questions through religion and mythology.[7]

These mythological and cosmological explanations to the happenings in the universe can be seen vividly in the works of Thales. According to him despite the fact that things change, there was continuity in the midst of the changes. Secondly, these early philosophers also observed that there was a basic unity in the midst of the plurality of things. They came to a conclusion that there must be an original stuff from which all things are made. Thales called this original or primary stuff “water” Anaximander on his part said that the primary stuff from which all things are made must be neutral element, different from all the elements we know and it must be infinite and eternal. Anaximenes postulated air as the primary element from which all things were made.

Heraclitus stated that conflict was the very condition of life; it was through conflict that things came in being and remained in existence.[8] The main doctrine of Parmenides was that change is simply an illusion of the senses, that being is one and unchanging. All other philosophers that followed suit were persons like Empedocles, Anaxagoras, and Democritus.

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On the arrival of the sophist, there was a shift in the main direction of philosophy. They no longer focused on the underlying unity in the midst of diversity, stability in the midst of change, the original stuff from which all things are made of. Their focus was on man in the society. The sophist were very sceptical, they doubted the possibility of knowing anything with certainty. Their skepticism can be seen as the outcome of the cosmological speculation of the earlier philosophers with their conflicting theories. Is it possible for man to know any truth with certainty? What is the foundation of knowledge and no longer on the question of the nature of the universe. The problem of knowledge began with the sophists.


Socrates rejected the relativism and the skepticism of the sophists and maintained that there was objective, universal knowledge.[9] He was very critical of the sophists precisely because of the skepticism and relativism, which he opposed. For him, knowledge is certain, objective and universal. It is quite possible for man to acquire an objective knowledge. He adopted the inductive method i.e the method of beginning from particular cases and concluding with universal knowledge.

Socrates believed in innate knowledge. Every man, according to him is pregnant with knowledge, the knowledge that is innate in him. He believes therefore that pure knowledge can be arrived at through his dialectic method of question and answer.


Plato was very critical of the skepticism and relativism of the sophists and was convinced of the objectivity and universality of knowledge. Knowledge for him is stable and certain. Knowledge is acquired by reason not by sense perception. He made a sharp distinction between reason and sense-perception. Only reasons lead us to knowledge. Sense perception can only lead us to opinion, not knowledge.

The objects of knowledge are not the material things in this world, but the forms in the world of forms.[10] Consequently, the things in the material world are not the real things. They are shadows of the real things. Hence, they cannot be the objects of knowledge.

According to Plato, the soul prior to its coming into this world, used to live in the world of forms. When it now came to the world, it forgot most of the things if knew before. When the soul sees the things in this world, which are reflections of the forms, they remind it of what it used to know in the worlds of forms before coming into the world. But it is only through reasoning that the soul can get back intellectually to the world of forms and become acquainted again with the forms.


While Plato believed in innate ideas, Aristotle rejected any such thing and held that all ideas and all knowledge come from sense perception. ‘Man is not born with any idea in his mind. At birth, the human mind is totally blank, tabula rasa’.[11] So there is nothing, no knowledge in the human mind, which did not come through the senses.


Philosophy by its definition subjects everything; God, nature, ethics etc. to critical rational thinking through reason. But in this medieval era, philosophers have their minds fixed on the doctrine of the church as they philosophize.

Therefore, the aim of philosophy was defeated in this period. As such, most of the philosophers we shall be discussing expressed their views on acquisition of pure knowledge in defense of one doctrine or the other.


Augustine did not agree with the skeptics that nothing can be known for certain. For him it is a contradiction in terms. By the mere fact that the skeptic is certain that nothing can be known is already a pointer that he knows something for certain. And, that is the fact that nothing can be known, which is a contradiction to the skeptic stand that nothing can be known for certain.

Aristotle toed the line of Plato by stating that the senses cannot give us pure knowledge. He succeeded in Christianizing Plato’s world of forms calling it the mind of God. Since the object of knowledge, which is, the ideas in the mind of God, is eternal, immutable and indestructible. They are superior to the human mind, which is not eternal, not immutable, and destructible. Since the human mind grasps these things that are superior to it, Augustine says it is by divine illumination that the human mind is able to grasp or acquire true knowledge. God is the source of genuine idea and it is only by divine illumination coming from God that human mind is able to grasp it.[12]


Aquinas just like Aristotle holds that there are no innate ideas in man. From birth, man’s brain is ‘tabula rasa’ all knowledge comes through sense perception.

He did not however agree with Aristotle on the idea of what one knows becoming part of him. As a Christian philosopher, if he should accept that, it will imply that since God knows the world, and since the world is imperfect, it implies that God is imperfect.

On the contrary, Aquinas states that since God is the author of the universe, by knowing himself, he knows the world, since the world came from him. According to him, what we know of God is by analogy and not the essence of God.


This period extends from renaissance period to the end of the nineteenth century. This period marked a turning point in the history of Europe. There was a rebirth of knowledge. It began with a renewed interest in Ancient writings and eventually developed into humanistic and scientific movements, with emphasis on man (rather than God) and on experimental science (rather than religion). The authority of science replaced the authority of the bible. This marked the beginning of modern science and modern philosophy.

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In this period, we experienced a lot of oppositions against the correctness of human knowledge. These two opposing schools of thought were outstanding in this period; rationalist and empiricists. Rationalism is an age-long epistemological concept, which stresses on reason as the basic source of human knowledge. While empiricism on the other hand is a doctrine, which holds that experience is the source of all knowledge.


Descartes, as a rationalist, relied so much on reason as the only means of acquiring pure knowledge. He observed that there was hardly any statement in philosophy that was not disputed. All these arguments are because philosophy was founded on a shaky foundation.[13] Philosophy for him should be based on a new foundation. This new foundation should be clear, certain and indisputable. He decide to use the mathematical method in the reconstruction so that philosophy would become clear, certain and indisputable like mathematics.

He based his logic on intuition and deduction. Intuition grasps truths in the light of reason while deduction makes inferences and draws necessary implications from such knowledge. Descartes rejected the senses as sources of knowledge. Senses for him are deceptive and unreliable. Only reason leads to clear and distinct knowledge.


Spinoza as a rationalist upheld reason as the highest degree of knowledge. In his first degree of knowledge, he talked about knowing things in isolation. For him when we isolate things and separate them from the totality, ‘we only succeed in having inadequate knowledge or confused ideas of them’.[14] This is the only kind of knowledge we can acquire from sense perception.

The second degree of knowledge is knowledge derived from logical deduction. The third degree of knowledge and which is the highest is that of intuitive knowledge. This is knowledge grasped in the light of reason.


Locke rejects innate ideas and argues that “if there were innate ideas children and even idiots would know them”.[15] If moral principles were innate, why the differences in moral principles according to people. Thus, he maintained that there is nothing like innate ideas, all knowledge comes from sense perception.

Ideas for him are immediate objects of human knowledge. We have no direct knowledge of things but only our ideas about them. When we perceive things, they impress themselves on our minds and leave their images there. This is our ideas of things. Locke tells us “that which produces any simple or complex idea we denote by the general name, impression; and that which is produced, idea”.[16]


Just like other empiricists, he rejects innate ideas. For him whatever we know comes through sense perception. Whatever we perceive is an idea in the mind. They exist only in so far as they are perceived. For him sense perception is idea.


Hume was a consistent empiricist. Hume as a radical empiricist brought empiricism to its logical conclusion.

While Descartes applied the mathematical method to philosophy, Hume applied the method of experimental sciences. He stated that there are no innate ideas; all knowledge for him comes from sense perception.[17] According to Hume, when we perceive objects, they make impression on us. Then ideas are formed from these impressions. Without impressions, there can be no ideas. The original stuff of thought is an impression, and an idea is merely a copy of an impression. Thus for every idea there must be an a priori impression.

From the history of philosophy, this problem of how pure knowledge can be acquired has been a very big problem. The different epochs approached it from different dimensions. The ancient philosophers saw it from the cosmological point of view, of trying to know the primary stuff from which things are made. The medieval philosophers being influenced by the authority of the church in their time Christianized some views of the ancient philosophers. In this era, the authority of the bible was replaced by the authority of science. The emphasis was on man. It was in that condition of freedom and everyone trying to prove his worth that the modern period rationalists and empiricists gained their ground.

However, it was Hume who brought empiricism to its logical conclusion. For him without impression there can be no ideas. In the next chapter, we shall seeing his epistemological foundations for holding this vie


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