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  • The False Hume in Pragmatism
  • Catherine Kemp

there are two lines of influence of David Hume on the history of classical American pragmatism: the familiar atomist-nominalist-associationist of empirical psychology reviled by Kantian and idealist critics, on the one side, and the conjectural historian and early developmentalist, or evolutionary, philosopher who was important to Darwin, on the other. The classical pragmatists received the first most directly through the work of Thomas Hill Green, in his edition of the Treatise of Human Nature—with its long critical introduction—that appeared in the 1870s. In this essay I argue that the atomist of the traditional reading is a false Hume, with the hope that identification of the error will make way for a better understanding of what American pragmatism really inherited from Hume.

The first part of the essay traces the origins and reception of the atomist Hume in and for American pragmatism and summarizes the very different but now generally received view of twentieth- (and twenty-first-) century Hume scholarship. The second part begins by noting that Hume's emphasis on simple perceptions in the Treatise is misleading and the source of much of the confusion about his views, and then shows that Hume assumes without argument that we encounter in experience not parts but whole events, objects, and states of affairs. Finally, I argue that, for Hume, distinction and separation of parts or aspects are (1) possible only after our experience of wholes and (2) not real but hypothetical.


The locus classicus for pragmatism's atomist Hume is the extended discussion of empirical psychology in James's Principles of Psychology (1890). There, James calls Hume "the hero of the atomistic theory"1 and declares his (James's) intention [End Page 1] to "impeach the entire English psychology derived from Locke and Hume" with the charge of exchanging the "continuous flow of the mental stream" for "an atomism, a brickbat plan of construction" (PP 1: 196). The section in the chapter "The Consciousness of Self" devoted to "the Associationist theory" begins with a digest of Hume's views from the Treatise section on personal identity (PP 1: 350ff.). There, James quotes the same passage from the Appendix of the Treatise cited everywhere by critics of the atomist Hume ("All our distinct perceptions are distinct existences," etc.). He declares that "Hume is at bottom as much of a metaphysician as Thomas Aquinas" in the insistence that only the "chain of distinct existences into which Hume thus chopped up our 'stream'" is real (PP 1: 353).2 The error here, shared by John Stuart Mill, is the view that "the sensations per se . . . have no 'tie'" (PP 1: 358). James says that Hume's atomist premise requires him "to deny the reality of most relations out of the mind as well as in it" (PP 1: 244–45). The isolated atoms received in experience must be assembled by the mind into the artificial constructs we know otherwise as real things, events, natural laws, selves, and other people. The assembly-required aspect is the associationism attributed to Hume; the resulting constructs to which we give the names of real things form the basis of the nominalism also attributed to him (PP 1: 194–97). The atomist Hume is thus a nominalist-associationist, the effect of all of which is the well-known annihilating skepticism not only about metaphysical objects but also the natural and social worlds and everything in them except isolated individual sensations, which alone of all things are real—for Hume the atomist.

James and the early pragmatists received this view of Hume most directly from Thomas Hill Green's edition of the Treatise that, together with Green's critical introduction, was published in 1874. Max Fisch reviews correspondence among members that indicates that the revival (or second incarnation) of the "Metaphysical Club" (c. 1876–79) commenced its efforts with a reading of Green's introduction and the Treatise in the winter of 1876 that itself marked the start a discussion of Hume that lasted for more than a year.3 In January 1876, James writes to Francis Abbott that the group included, besides himself, Nicholas St. John Green, Oliver...


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