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Hume's Account of Knowledge of External Objects ROBERT FENDEL ANDERSON THE BRIEF PARAGRAPHfound on pages 67 and 68 of David Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature I is regarded by many as one of the most significant passages in all his writhags , inasmuch as it expresses clearly and forcefully a point fundamental to his epistemology . The paragraph reads: Now since nothing is ever present to the mind but perceptions, and since all ideas are deriv'd from something antecedently present to the mind; it follows, that 'tis impossible for us so much as to conceive or form an idea of any thing specifically different from ideas and impressions. Let us fix our attention out of ourselves as much as possible: Let us chace our imagination to the heavens, or to the utmost limits of the universe; we never really advance a step beyond ourselves, nor can conceive any kind of existence, but those perceptions, which have appear'd in that narrow compass. This is the universe of the imagination, nor have we any idea but what is there produc'd. There is no doubt that Hume himself thinks the message conveyed here a very significant one. In his famous section entitled "Of scepticism with regard to the senses," beginning more than a hundred pages later, he makes pointed use of it at least twice.2 The way in which this brief paragraph is understood, therefore, seems rightly to determine in important ways the interpretation one gives to "Of scepticism with regard to the senses." And I believe all will agree that correct understanding of that section is necessary to correct understanding of Hume's epistemology. I shall first present what appears to be the common or "standard" interpretation of this paragraph and offer sample statements of it found in three valuable and interesting recent publications on Hume's epistemology. I shall offer some objections to this kind of interpretation and shall suggest an alternate which is at least equally as plausible. Finally, I shall consider whether my proposed interpretation of the paragraph is compatible with the remainder of the section in which it is found. For sake of brevity I shall refer to the paragraph in question simply as Treatise 67-68. I. The common and, indeed, initially plausible interpretation of Treatise 67-68 seems to be that perceptions are the only kind of entities which we can know, or even imagine, to exist. For Hume has said, '"tis impossible for us so much as to conceive or form an idea of any thing specifically different from ideas and impressions." Thus any other sort of entity, such as bodies or external objects, is inconceivable. He has said further that "we never really advance a step beyond ourselves, nor can conceive any kind 1 Ed. by L. A. Selby-Bigge(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1888).Hereafter cited as Treatise. ~ Treatise, pp. 188, 218. [471] 472 HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY of existence, but those perceptions, which have appear'd in that narrow compass." This is taken by many to be the view fundamental to Hume's epistemology. I have, in more than one doctoral oral examination, heard Treatise 67-68 appealed to as the strongest evidence that perceptions are the only entities whose existence Hume is willing to assert.3 A similar view is expressed by Maurice Mandelbaum in his recent book, Philosophy, Science, and Sense Perception: Historical and Critical Studies. Mandelbaum therein gives to his critique of Hume's epistemology the same title as Hume's well-known section , "Of scepticism with regard to the senses." He here quotes Treatise 67-68 and calls it :'One of the best known of Hume's statements concerning his acceptance of subjectivism, and perhaps his most rhetorical formulation of that thesis.... ,,4 Mandelbaum has defined subjectivism as follows: "By subjectivism I wish to designate the thesis that all we can know on the basis of sense perception are our own "states of mind," or "ideas"--taking the latter term in its broadest, Lockean significance.''~ We may observe that Mandelbaum's definition of subjectivism appears weaker than the view disclosed in Hume's own paragraph. For while Mandelbaum is saying that perceptions are "all we...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4586
Print ISSN
0022-5053
Pages
pp. 471-480
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
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