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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 16.4 (2002) 243-255

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Experience Matters:
Indifference and Determination in Hume's Treatise

Catherine Kemp
The University of Colorado at Denver

There are in Hume's philosophy two very important forces: "the liberty of the imagination to transpose and change its ideas" (1978, 10) and the principles that guide and limit this liberty by binding ideas in regular relations. 1 Many traditional readings of Hume fasten on one or the other of these forces as a foundation for criticism of Hume's account of the mind and experience. According to some, Hume fails to provide proper limits to the activity of the imagination: knowledge and belief are a free-for-all, "to the perversion of all proper standards of thought and action" (Kemp Smith 1941, 378). 2 Hume's venerable reputation as a philosophical skeptic is owed at least in part to this characterization of the imagination as 'libertine.' Other critics deplore what they perceive to be a restriction of Hume's notion of experience to the past, which makes belief merely a summary of our prior experience without any element of anticipation or any possibility of novelty or innovation. 3 What Hume's critics miss in this transaction between libertinism and limitation, between the liberty of the imagination and its determination in experience, 4 is the importance of an element Hume styles in the Treatise the mind's "native situation of indifference" (1978, 125). In this essay I begin a hunt for clues to the nature of this indifference and the role it plays in our experience, and in the end suggest that it renders Hume's ideas as much—and in much the same way—anticipations of our future experience as they are records of our past experience. Although there are several phenomena described by Hume that involve [End Page 243] this element of the mind's indifference, I focus here on just one: its role in what Hume calls our knowledge "from probabilities" (1978, 124). It is here, perhaps ironically, that the jointly anticipatory as well as compendious character of our ideas is most readily observed.

In this emphasis on the role of indifference I depart from the reading offered by Annette Baier which dismisses Hume's assertion of 'native indifference' in favor of a preference for and a tendency to proofs and perfection. 5 Baier attributes to Hume "a presumption favoring generality, a native expectation that nature will have her habits, and show them to us" (1991, 304 n. 3). In my view, it is indifference, rather than a tendency to generality, which is "native" for Hume. It is also, I believe, what makes our application of the "experimental Method of Reasoning" 6 in the "science of human nature" (1978, xvii-viii) possible and efficacious. The "empiricist" Hume of the tradition is narrowly confined within what are taken to be 'his own first premises,' most notoriously, the requirement that all ideas have a foundation in impressions. The Treatise, however, is not the empiricist reduction it is traditionally taken for; instead, Hume gives us an account of what the mind does with its impressions, 7 where much of the work takes place in the course of the activity of experience. The Hume I am pursuing here is an early figure, in advance of Kant's Copernican revolution, in the history of efforts to account for the subjective constitution of objects in experience. 8 The mind's indifference and its determination in experience suggest that Hume's empiricism is altogether unlike that traditionally attributed to him.


"The chain of distinct existences into which Hume thus chopped up our 'stream' was adopted by all of his successors as a complete inventory of the facts. The associationist Philosophy was founded." (James 1890, 353) 9
"The 'simple impression' of Hume, the 'simple idea' of Locke are abstractions, never realized in experience." (487)

In order to clear the way for this pursuit of the mind's indifference, we must make some adjustments to our traditional understanding of Hume's exposition. Many of Hume...


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