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277 HUME'S IMPRESSIONS OF BELIEF Introduction Hume's theory of belief is often taken to be fully stated in his opening remarks on the subject in A Treatise of Human Nature, Book I, Part III, Section VII: "An opinion, therefore, or belief may be most accurately defin'd, A LIVELY IDEA RELATED TO OR ASSOCIATED WITH A PRESENT IMPRESSION."1 Taking this definition as Hume's final account leaves the reader with many problems. What is it for an idea to be lively? How is an idea related to or associated with an impression? Is belief really so simple a phenomenon ? I argue that Hume's theory of belief is much more complex than this, and that the Treatise contains only a rough, preliminary account of belief. By the time he wrote An Enquiry Concerning the Human Understanding, Hume had developed his theory in full detail. As I show, in this latter account a belief is an intentional state involving a combination of Humean ideas and impressions. The nature of these ideas and impressions allows the mind to take note of a belief as something quite different from its other perceptions. In the Treatise, however, Hume did not have a clear understanding of how the mind could distinguish beliefs from other perceptions. He could only go so far as to say that an idea believed is livelier than other ideas. He argued that a present impression is capable of calling to mind an idea of something that has been associated with that impression in the past, and of transferring some of its own vivacity to that idea. As we look at the account of belief in the Treatise, we will see how the preliminary concepts of force and liveliness and a transference of vivacity lay the foundation for his 278 final account, yet point to a need for a fuller explication of the difference the mind notes between beliefs and other perceptions. We will see that in the Appendix to the Treatise Hume tried to work out this difference in terms of 'feeling' but this was unsuccessful without the notion of an intentional act. Finally, we will see that Hume concluded in the Enquiry that a belief is an intentional state in which a new impression of reflection arises about the idea believed. This new impression is the feeling of belief by which beliefs are distinguished from other 2 perceptions of the mind. The Account in the Treatise We begin our explication of Hume's theory of belief by looking at the account in A Treatise of Human Nature. Here Hume maintains that it is ideas which are believed, and that these beliefs differ from other ideas only in their "force and vivacity" (T 96). This force and vivacity is a result of the believed idea's relation to an impression. These theses lead us to the familiar Treatise definition of belief as "A LIVELY IDEA RELATED TO OR ASSOCIATED WITH A PRESENT IMPRESSION" (T 96). Hume begins his analysis of belief in Section VII of the Treatise by stating that "the idea of an object is an essential part of the belief of it, but not the whole" (T 94). The suggestion is that there is more to being in a state of belief than merely entertaining the idea believed. The simple phrase "belief o_f_ an object" leads us to presume that it is ideas that are believed, or that we have beliefs o_f ideas. We will need to examine Hume's meaning of 'idea' in enough depth to understand the role it plays in the theory of belief. 279 Hume gives some examples of the way we may conceive ideas without believing them: Suppose a person present with me, who advances propositions, to which I do not assent, that Caesar dy'd in his bed, that silver is more fusible than lead, or mercury heavier than gold; 'tis evident, that notwithstanding my incredulity, I clearly understand his meaning, and form all the same ideas, which he forms (T 95). Note that Hume says one may form all the same ideas as another. Yet the ideas one forms are just what Hume had earlier called the propositions one...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 277-304
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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