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commit it then to the flames

Alberto sat staring down at the table. He finally turned and looked out of the window.

"It\'s clouding over," said Sophie.

"Yes, it\'s muggy."

"Are you going to talk about Berkeley now?"

"He was the next of the three British empiricists. But as he is in a category of his own in many ways, we will first concentrate on David Hume, who lived from 1711 to 1776. He stands out as the most important of the empiricists. He is also significant as the person who set the great philosopher Immanuel Kant on the road to his philosophy."

"Doesn\'t it matter to you that I\'m more interested in Berkeley\'s philosophy?"

"That\'s of no importance. Hume grew up near Edinburgh in Scotland. His family wanted him to take up law but he felt \'an insurmountable resistance to everything but philosophy and learning.\' He lived in the Age of Enlightenment at the same time as great French thinkers like Voltaire and Rousseau, and he traveled widely in Europe before returning to settle down in Edinburgh toward the end of his life. His main work, A Treatise of Human Nature, was published when Hume was twenty-eight years old, but he claimed that he got the idea for the book when he was only fifteen."

"I see I don\'t have any time to waste."

 "You have already begun."

"But if I were going to formulate my own philosophy, it would be quite different from anything I\'ve heard up to now."

"Is there anything in particular that\'s missing?"

"Well, to start with, all the philosophers you have talked about are men. And men seem to live in a world of their own. I am more interested in the real world, where there are flowers and animals and children that are born and grow up. Your philosophers are always talking about \'man\' and \'humans,\' and now here\'s another treatise on \'human nature.\' It\'s as if this \'human\' is a middle-aged man. I mean, life begins with pregnancy and birth, and I\'ve heard nothing about diapers or crying babies so far. And hardly anything about love and friendship."

"You are right, of course. But Hume was a philosopher who thought in a different way. More than any other philosopher, he took the everyday world as his starting point. I even think Hume had a strong feeling for the way children--the new citizens of the world-- experienced life."

"I\'d better listen then."

"As an empiricist, Hume took it upon himself to clean up all the woolly concepts and thought constructions that these male philosophers had invented. There were piles of old wreckage, both written and spoken, from the Middle Ages and the rationalist philosophy of the seventeenth century. Hume proposed the return to our spontaneous experience of the world. No philosopher \'will ever be able to take us behind the daily experiences or give us rules of conduct that are different from those we get through reflections on everyday life,\' he said."

"Sounds promising so far. Can you give any examples?"

"In the time of Hume there was a widespread belief in angels. That is, human figures with wings. Have you ever seen such a creature, Sophie?"


"But you have seen a human figure?"

"Dumb question."

 "You have also seen wings?"

"Of course, but not on a human figure."

"So, according to Hume, an \'angel\' is a complex idea. It consists of two different experiences which are not in fact related, but which nevertheless are associated in man\'s imagination. In other words, it is a false idea which must be immediately rejected. We must tidy up all our thoughts and ideas, as well as our book collections, in the same way. For as Hume put it: If we take in our hands any volume ... let us ask, \'Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number?\' No. \'Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence?\' No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion."

"That was drastic."

"But the world still exists. More fresh and sharply outlined than ever. Hume wanted to know how a child experiences the world. Didn\'t you say that many of the philosophers you have heard about lived in their own world, and that you were more interested in the real world?"

"Something like that."

"Hume could have said the same thing. But let us follow his train of thought more closely."

"I\'m with you."

"Hume begins by establishing that man has two different types of perceptions, namely impressions and ideas. By \'impressions\' he means the immediate sensation of external reality. By \'ideas\' he means the recollection of such impressions."

"Could you give me an example?"

"If you burn yourself on a hot oven, you get an immediate \'impression.\' Afterward you can recollect that you burned yourself. That impression insofar as it is recalled is what Hume calls an \'idea.\' The difference is that an impression is stronger and livelier than your reflective memory of that impression. You could say that the sensation is the original and that the idea, or reflection, is only a pale imitation. It is the impression which is the direct cause of the idea stored in the mind."

 "I follow you--so far."

"Hume emphasizes further that both an impression and an idea can be either simple or complex. You remember we talked about an apple in connection with Locke. The direct experience of an apple is an example of a complex impression."

"Sorry to interrupt, but is this terribly important?"

"Important? How can you ask? Even though philosophers may have been preoccupied with a number of pseudoproblems, you mustn\'t give up now over the construction of an argument. Hume would probably agree with Descartes that it is essential to construct a thought process right from the ground."

"Okay, okay."

"Hume\'s point is that we sometimes form complex ideas for which there is no corresponding object in the physical world. We\'ve already talked about angels. Previously we referred to crocophants. Another example is Pegasus, a winged horse. In all these cases we have to admit that the mind has done a good job of cutting out and pasting together all on its own. Each element was once sensed, and entered the theater of the mind in the form of a real \'impression.\' Nothing is ever actually invented by the mind. The mind puts things together and constructs false \'ideas.\' "

"Yes, I see. That is important."

"All right, then. Hume wanted to investigate every single idea to see whether it was compounded in a way that does not correspond to reality. He asked: From which impression does this idea originate? First of all he had to find out which \'single ideas\' went into the making of a complex idea. This would provide him with a critical method by which to analyze our ideas, and thus enable him to tidy up our thoughts and notions."

"Do you have an example or two?"

"In Hume\'s day, there were a lot of people who had very clear ideas of \'heaven\' or the \'New Jerusalem.\' You remember how Descartes indicated that \'clear and distinct\' ideas in themselves could be a guarantee that they corresponded to something that really existed?"

"I said I was not especially forgetful."

 "We soon realize that our idea of \'heaven\' is compounded of a great many elements. Heaven is made up of \'pearly gates,"streets of gold,"angels\' by the score and so on and so forth. And still we have not broken everything down into single elements, for pearly gates, streets of gold, and angels are all complex ideas in themselves. Only when we recognize that our idea of heaven consists of single notions such as \'pearl,"gate,"street,"gold,"white-robed figure,\' and \'wings\' can we ask ourselves if we ever really had any such \'simple impressions.\' "

"We did. But we cut out and pasted all these \'simple impressions\' into one idea."

"That\'s just what we did. Because if there is something we humans do when we visualize, it\'s use scissors and paste. But Hume emphasizes that all the elements we put together in our ideas must at some time have entered the mind in the form of \'simple impressions.\' A person who has never seen gold will never be able to visualize streets of gold."

"He was very clever. What about Descartes having a clear and distinct idea of God?"

"Hume had an answer to that too. Let\'s say we imagine God as an infinitely \'intelligent, wise, and good being.\' We have thus a \'complex idea\' that consists of something infinitely intelligent, something infinitely wise, and something infinitely good. If we had never known intelligence, wisdom, and goodness, we would never have such an idea of God. Our idea of God might also be that he is a \'severe but just Father\'--that is to say, a concept made up of \'severity\',\'justice,\' and \'father.\' Many critics of religion since Hume have claimed that such ideas of God can be associated with how we experienced our own father when we were little. It was said that the idea of a father led to the idea of a \'heavenly father.\' "

"Maybe that\'s true, but I have never accepted that God had to be a man. Sometimes my mother calls God \'Godiva,\' just to even things up."

"Anyway, Hume opposed all thoughts and ideas that could not be traced back to corresponding sense perceptions. He said he wanted to \'dismiss all this meaningless nonsense which long has dominated metaphysical thought and brought it into disrepute.\'

"But even in everyday life we use complex ideas without stopping to wonder whether they are valid. For example, take the question of T--or the ego. This was the very basis of Descartes\'s philosophy. It was the one clear and distinct perception that the whole of his phi-losophy was built on."

"I hope Hume didn\'t try to deny that I am me. He\'d be talking off the top of his head."

"Sophie, if there is one thing I want this course to teach you, it\'s not to jump to conclusions."

"Sorry. Go on."

"No, why don\'t you use Hume\'s method and analyze what you perceive as your \'ego.\' "

"First I\'d have to figure out whether the ego is a single or a complex idea."

"And what conclusion do you come to?"

"I really have to admit that I feel quite complex. I\'m very volatile, for instance. And I have trouble making up my mind about things. And I can both like and dislike the same people."

"In other words, the \'ego concept\' is a \'complex idea.\' "

"Okay. So now I guess I must figure out if I have had a corresponding \'complex impression\' of my own ego. And I guess I have. I always had, actually."

"Does that worry you?"

"I\'m very changeable. I\'m not the same today as I was when I was four years old. My temperament and how I see myself alter from one minute to the next. I can suddenly feel like I am a \'new person.\' "

"So the feeling of having an unalterable ego is a false perception. The perception of the ego is in reality a long chain of simple impressions that you have never experienced simultaneously. It is \'nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed one another with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement,\' as Hume expressed it. The mind is \'a kind of theater, where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, re-pass, slide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations.\' Hume pointed out that we have no underlying \'personal identity\' beneath or behind these perceptions and feelings which come and go. It is just like the images on a movie screen. They change so rapidly we do not register that the film is made up of single pictures. In reality the pictures are not connected. The film is a collection of instants."

"I think I give in."

"Does that mean you give up the idea of having an unalterable ego?"

"I guess it does."

"A moment ago you believed the opposite. I should add that Hume\'s analysis of the human mind and his rejection of the unalterable ego was put forward almost 2,500 years earlier on the other side of the world."

"Who by?"

"By Buddha. It\'s almost uncanny how similarly the two formulate their ideas. Buddha saw life as an unbroken succession of mental and physical processes which keep people in a continual state of change. The infant is not the same as the adult; I am not the same today as I was yesterday. There is nothing of which I can say \'this is mine,\' said Buddha, and nothing of which I can say \'this is me.\' There is thus no T or unalterable ego."

"Yes, that was typically Hume."

"In continuation of the idea of an unalterable ego, many rationalists had taken it for granted that man had an eternal soul."

"Is that a false perception too?"

"According to Hume and Buddha, yes. Do you know what Buddha said to his followers just before he died?"

"No, how could I?"

" \'Decay is inherent in all compound things. Work out your own salvation with diligence.\' Hume could have said the same thing. Or Democritus, for that matter. We know at all events that Hume rejected any attempt to prove the immortality of the soul or the existence of God. That does not mean that he ruled out either one, but to prove religious faith by human reason was rationalistic claptrap, he thought. Hume was not a Christian, neither was he a confirmed atheist. He was what we call an agnostic."

"What\'s that?"

"An agnostic is someone who holds that the existence of God or a god can neither be proved nor disproved. When Hume was dying a friend asked him if he believed in life after death. He is said to have answered:

"It is also possible that a knob of coal placed upon the fire will not burn."

"I see."

"The answer was typical of his unconditional open-mindedness. He only accepted what he had perceived through his senses.............
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