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Hume Studies Volume XX, Number 2, November 1994, pp. 163-177 The Objects of Hume's Treatise MARJORIE GRENE Objects have no discoverable connexion together; nor is it from any other principle but custom operating upon the imagination, that we can draw any inference from the appearance of one to the existence of another. (T 103) ...let us remember, that as every idea is deriv'd from a preceding perception, 'tis impossible our idea of a perception, and that of an object or external existence can ever represent what are specifically different from each other. Whatever difference we may suppose betwixt them, 'tis still incomprehensible to us; and we are oblig'd either to conceive an external object merely as a relation without a relative, or to make it the very same with a perception or impression. (T 241) 1. What does Hume mean by the term 'object'? To those who follow the once standard reading of Hume as the arch subjectivist, 'object' can either be given a "phenomenalist" reading, as the second passage here quoted strongly suggests, or be decried as anomalous and inconsistent. The German idealists read Hume that way: the Philosophisches Journal, for example, is full of articles by Fichte (under the pseudonym Anaesidemus) about how wonderful it is that all we know is our own minds, and our own minds as little inner bits. Russell Marjorie Grene is at the Center for the Study of Science in Society, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg VA 24061-0247 USA. 164 ΜαήοήÎμ Grene read Hume that way, too: see Enquiry and Human Knowledge. And there is certainly something in this reading: in challenging, and defeating, the dragon Reason, Hume is seeking to reduce all our inferences to their ground in experience . But experience reduces in the last analysis to simple impressions: little colored bits (or little sounds and smells and feels?). On this foundation, and with moderately calm determinations of the passions to guide us, we can stop short of extravagant speculations about immaterial substances and immortal souls and the miseries associated with such ill-grounded beliefs. We can get on with the business of everyday life in the way that reasonable men (not Rationalists or Theologians) rightly like to do. Yet, as Passmore has classically shown, such a subjective treatment of experience is not the single, unambiguous theme of Hume's Treatise.1 There is surely a real world we are all living in, and are part of. Only we are treating that world here in terms of moral rather than natural philosophy; we are starting with our perceptions, not with the anatomy or physiology that would attempt to describe their causes. The superiority of moral philosophy (in the eighteenth century, and Scottish, sense) consists in the obvious fact that even anatomy or physiology, or more broadly, the mechanical philosophy of Newton, has to be built experimentally (constructed, in the now fashionable jargon) on the ground of those very human perceptions the moral philosopher studies. Sometimes Hume sounds positively Kantian in his self-conscious effort to pay attention only, or primarily, to the appearances of things, without denying that "external" things are the causes of those phenomena. But that is not quite right: the bodily events, movements of the "spirits" and the like, that presumably cause our perceptions can indeed be studied—elsewhere and by others. They are not mysteriously "things-in-themselves" exempt from human investigation. Even in such studies, however, the natural philosopher, if he is wise, will follow the rules of causal reasoning that the moral philosopher has discovered (in T I 3 xv); and these rules, in turn, are rules for connecting impressions and ideas—not for connecting impressions and/or ideas with "objects" beyond experience. The latter habit, though unavoidable, is the product of imagination's inventiveness, not of proper causal reasoning. So, again, even when we place ourselves in the "real" world, we acknowledge the priority of moral to natural philosophy. Sometimes, however, Hume does talk, in the Treatise, about "objects" as other than perceptions, and about "external objects," and sometimes he does—though occasionally with apologies—treat perceptions "anatomically," with reference to the movement of the spirits and such like...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 163-177
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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