Hume's (Berkeleyan) Language of Representation

Although Hume appeals to the representational features of perceptions in many arguments in the Treatise, his theory of representation has traditionally been regarded as a weak link in his epistemology. In particular, it has proven difficult to reconcile Hume's use of representation as causal derivation and resemblance (the Copy Principle) with his use of representation in the context of impressions and abstract ideas. This paper offers a unified interpretation of representation in Hume that draws on the resources of Berkeley's doctrine of signs. On this account, while the Copy Principle still occupies the core of Hume's "content empiricism," the manner in which any perception represents is understood as involving a relation of sign to thing signified. A sign/signified interpretation has the virtue of allowing Hume to remain within the strictures of his empiricism, while underwriting the various senses in which an impression or idea could possess content. Such an interpretation is not only adequate to account for the role that mental representations play in everyday behavior, but also for the purposes of elaborating the foundations of civil society that are Hume's concern in Book 3 of the Treatise.