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Hume Studies Volume XXIII, Number 2, November 1997, pp. 227-244 Hume on Geometry and Infinite Divisibility in the Treatise H. MARK PRESSMAN Scholars have recognized that in the Treatise "Hume seeks to find a foundation for geometry in sense-experience."1 In this essay, I examine to what extent Hume succeeds in his attempt to ground geometry visually. I argue that the geometry Hume describes in the Treatise faces a serious set of problems. Geometric Lines Hume maintains that ideas "are images" (T 6) which may be called up "when I shut my eyes" (T 3). "That we may fix the meaning of a word, figure," according to Hume, "we may revolve in our mind the ideas of circles, squares, parallelograms, triangles of different sizes and proportions, and may not rest on one image or idea" (T 22). As Arthur Pap notes, "'Idea' is in Hume's usage synonymous with 'mental image'." D.C.G. MacNabb also notes that "Hume thought of ideas as images, and primarily as visual images."2 When Hume argues, then, that "we have the idea of indivisible points, lines and surfaces conformable to the [geometer's] definition" (T 44), he is arguing that we have mental images of geometry's points, lines and planes. Consider geometric lines first. Geometers define a line "to be length without breadth or depth" (T 42). It is not apparent to everyone that we have mental images of such lines. According to "L'Art de penser" (T 43), published in 1662, it is impossible "to conceive a length without any breadth" (T 43). H. Mark Pressman is at the Department of Philosophy, University of California, Davis, 1238 Social Sciences and Humanities Building, Davis CA 95616-8673 USA. email: imn78@cvin.fresno.com 228 H. Mark Pressman We can only by an abstraction "consider the one without regarding the other" (T 43). Hume, however, offers "clear proof" (T 44), in the form of two arguments, that we actually possess ideas or mental images of geometry's lines. First, we have ideas or mental images of lengths with breadth, though these are supposed never to be without breadth and thus not geometric lines. (A mental image oflength is also a mental image with length, just as "to say the idea of extension agrees to any thing, is to say it is extended" [T 240].) Hume reduces to absurdity the view that our mental images of length are always with breadth and thus not images of geometric lines. If our length-images were always with breadth, then our mental images would be endlessly divisible in breadth, since they would always have some positive breadth (T 43). But no mental image is endlessly divisible, for the mind arrives "at an end in the division of its ideas, nor are there any possible means of evading the evidence of this conclusion" (T 27). We thus have an idea or image of length without (divisible) breadth conforming to the geometer's definition (T 44). Second, we can imagine or picture the termination of a geometric plane. But a geometric plane must terminate in a geometric line (T 44). (Proof: Assume L is a line with breadth which terminates plane P. Since L has breadth, L must contain at least two parts, w and y, exactly one of which actually terminates P. But whether it is w or y, L doesn't terminate P, which was the assumption.) Since we can picture the termination of a geometric plane, we can picture a geometric line, length without divisible breadth. It is one thing to have ideas or mental images of geometric lines which may be called up "when I shut my eyes" (T 3). It is another for such objects actually to exist "in nature." The conceptualist holds that though (a) geometry 's points, lines and planes are ideas, nevertheless (b) there are no such things in nature and that (c) there can't be such things in nature: [T]he objects of geometry... are mere ideas in the mind, and not only never did, but never can exist in nature. They never did exist; for no one will pretend to draw a line or make a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 227-244
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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