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  • Hegel and Hume on Perception and Concept-Empiricism
  • Kenneth R. Westphal


my thesis is that the chapter on “Perception” in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is a critique of the section of Hume’s Treatise titled “Of Scepticism with regard to the senses” (I.iv §2). Both discussions proceed under the assumption that the objects of perception are ordinary things around us, each of which has various perceptible properties.1 Both discussions examine the capacity of concept-empiricism to account for the concept of the identity of a perceptible thing—a crucial component of the belief in ordinary physical objects. However, to extend his concept-empiricism to handle the nonlogical concept of the identity of a perceptible thing, Hume is forced to introduce a variety of psychological “propensities” to generate, in effect, a priori concepts; he is forced to confront a certain kind of “contradiction” in the concept of the identity of a perceptible thing; and ultimately he is forced to regard this concept as a “fiction.” Hegel reexamines Hume’s account to show that the concept of the identity of a perceptible thing is indeed nonlogical and cannot be defined in accordance with concept-empiricism. This is an important point in favor of Hegel’s concept-pragmatism. This point is also important in connection with [End Page 99] the quite general problem of how we bring various sensations together into the perception of any one object.2

“Of Scepticism with regard to the senses” is an extremely important section of Hume’s Treatise. Though Hume’s skepticism received growing attention in Germany at the turn of the nineteenth century, Hegel was alone among his contemporaries in recognizing the importance of this section.3 I admit that Hegel makes no bibliographic reference to Hume’s Treatise—at least not in his surviving manuscripts. However, close consideration of the historical background of Hegel’s analysis of perception, along with the many ways in which Hume’s skepticism is especially important for Hegel, shows that it is altogether likely that Hegel read Hume’s Treatise, including the above-named section. Hegel’s concern with that section is further supported by the fact that referring to it affords a complete, intelligible, and sound reconstruction of the aim and course of Hegel’s argument in “Perception.” On this reconstruction, Hegel’s argument constitutes a two-pronged reductio ad absurdum of two key empiricist theses: on the one hand, the thesis that the concept of the identity of a perceptible thing can be reduced to or defined in terms of the two quantitative concepts “unity” and “plurality” (or analogously “whole” and “part”), and on the other hand, the thesis that human perception only involves passive reception of sensations. Justifying this interpretation of Hegel’s chapter requires of course a complete reconstruction, which is more than can be undertaken here. I provide a full reconstruction elsewhere.4 Here I summarize the main grounds supporting my interpretation and show one key point at which Hegel’s analysis and conclusions refer to Hume’s.


The fundamental importance of Hume’s skepticism for Kant has been long recognized. Unlike Kant, who expressly acknowledged Hume’s stimulus to his own thought, Hegel only rarely names his main sources and opponents, especially in the Phenomenology.5 However, Hegel recognized early in his career [End Page 100] that a philosophical view, including his own, cannot be justified merely by its proclamation; it can be justified only through critical engagement with alternative views.6 Hume’s Treatise provides an important philosophical point of reference which alone affords an intelligible and self-sufficient interpretation of Hegel’s analysis of perception in the Phenomenology. Such an interpretation is crucial to the aim of Hegel’s arguments in the Phenomenology. Only by reference to common problems in the history of philosophy, independent of Hegel’s own proposed system, can Hegel’s Phenomenology provide an exoteric “ladder” to—that is, a philosophically sound proof of—the “actuality” of absolute knowledge.7 In other words: only by engaging with alternative philosophies on their own terms can Hegel, in accord with his own methodological requirements of the Phenomenology, avoid one of the main objections of Pyrrhonian skepticism...


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