David Hume and skepticism

Allan Ramsay, David Hume, 1711 - 1776. Historian and philosopherDavid Hume (1711 – 1776) was a Scottish philosopher renowned for his empiricism and skepticism. He is one of the most prominent British Empiricists, along with John Locke and George Berkeley. Hume is unarguably among the most influential of modern philosophers, with several interpretations of his work leading to the development of utilitarianism, pragmatism and positivism (to name a few).

Arguably it is Hume’s theories regarding causation upon which the entire edifice of his work stands. Hume denies that there any objective causal connections in the world (see this post on the problem of induction for more detail). There are two popular interpretations of Humean causation: the verificationist (or positivist) interpretation and skeptical realist interpretation.

For example, per the vericationist view, when A is seen to follow B it is not that A has caused the effect B but rather that B has occurred after A as a regular unfolding of events. Hume goes on to say that the causal power and necessity we assign to the regular succession of events is subjective, or in simpler terms exists only in the mind of the perceiver. This interpretation of Hume seems to borrow heavily from Locke’s subjective secondary qualities of objects and Berkeley’s subjective idealism. The consequences of this view are catastrophic for both philosophy and science, for if true than any effect may in principle follow from any cause, or perhaps from no cause at all.

Per the skeptical realist view, when A follows B it is infact that there is a necessary causal conjunction between the cause A and the effect B. However, the skeptical realist maintains that knowledge of causation remains subjective due to the epistemic limitations of man. Many view the skeptical realist position as attempt to salvage Hume’s assertation that there are no objective causal connections while maintaining a realist orientation regarding natural science.


8 responses to this post.

  1. […] « David Hume and skepticism […]


  2. […] David Hume was arguably the most influential hand in the modern periods discounting of natural theology. For scholastic writers, such as Aquinas, an effect is necessarily conjoined to its cause and thus knowledge of God can be reasoned from the natural world. Hume severed this necessary connection, driving modern philosophy towards skepticism. […]


  3. […] have discussed previously the manner in which Hume’s theory of causality leads to skepticism of universals. In order for his theory to stand, Hume faces the challenging question of personal identity. For if […]


  4. […] can prove nothing about the actual world or “matters of fact”. Because of Hume’s skepticism in regards to causality and the resulting problem of induction, generalising to relations of ideas from matters of fact […]


  5. […] struggle of the Continental Rationalists and the British Empiricists had reached its nadir with the skepticism of Hume and the rationalist optimism of Leibniz and his monadology. Kant’s most important writing in […]


  6. […] external objects. In this regard, he is less skeptical than his empiricists counterparts, such as Hume. However, as Kant represents a type of middle ground between the rationalists and the empiricists, […]


  7. […] of course this is exactly the criticism that David Hume makes in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Hume says that if all that is necessary to […]


  8. […] David Hume’s criticism of this method was that human beings do not directly perceive the causal connections […]


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