Hume’s fork

535961-ZoomIn a previous post, we have already seen Hume make the division between statements about nature and moral statements resulting in the famous is-ought problem. In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume makes another partition:

All the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, Relations of Ideas, and Matters of fact. Of the first kind are the sciences of Geometry, Algebra, and Arithmetic … [which are] discoverable by the mere operation of thought … Matters of fact, which are the second object of human reason, are not ascertained in the same manner; nor is our evidence of their truth, however great, of a like nature with the foregoing.

Consider a perfect equilateral triangle. Geometrically, one may know that any equilaterial triangle must have three sides and angles of equal proportion. According to Hume, this statement is a “relation of ideas” and is necessary and known before experience. It is necessary because it would be the same in the circumstance of any physical facts (or any possible world if you will) and known a posteriori because there exists no perfect equilaterial triangle in the material world from which to derive such knowledge. Think again about an imperfect equilateral triangle made out in green paint on a white wall. The statement, “this triangle I am perceiving is green” would be a “matter of fact”.

While we can be certain of relations of ideas, that knowledge is not as valuable as one might think because relations of ideas only relate to other relations of ideas and so 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 also goes out the window.

One can easily imagine the kind of devastating effect this schema along with Humean causality would have on the medieval/Scholastic tradition which relied on induction to move from the particular to the universal and deduction from the universal to the particular. Kant, who later credited Hume with “waking him from his dogmatic slumbers“, would subsequently recast Hume’s Fork into his own idealistic analytical-synthetic distinction.

Hume was insistent that any meaningful statement must fit into one of his two categories. But critics have asked, what of the fork itself? Is it a relation of ideas in which case it has no relevance in the real world, or is it merely an uncertain matter of fact lacking universal jurisdiction?


2 responses to this post.

  1. […] inspired by Hume’s fork, describes two (nominally) new categories: analytic and synthetic truths. An analytic proposition […]


  2. […] Hume’s fork first brought the problem of analytic and synthetic statements to the attention of modern philosophers. What would follow from Hume was the edifice of Immanuel Kant’s transcendental idealistic method and his redefining of the analytical and synthetic to also include the a priori and a posteriori. […]


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