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The empiricist theory of David Hume

The empiricist theory of David Hume

July 18, 2022

Before Psychology appeared as a science, it was the task of philosophers to investigate the way in which the human being perceives reality. From the Renaissance, two great philosophical currents fought each other to answer that question; On the one hand there were the rationalists, who believed in the existence of certain universal truths with which we are already born and that allow us to interpret our surroundings, and on the other were the empiricists, who denied the existence of innate knowledge and they believed that we only learn through experience.

David Hume was not only one of the great representatives of the empiricist current, but he was also one of the most radical in that sense. His powerful ideas are still important today and, in fact, other philosophers of the twentieth century were inspired by them. Let's see what exactly was the empiricist theory of David Hume .


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Who was David Hume?

This English philosopher was born in the year 1711 in Edinburgh, Scotland. When he was only twelve years old he entered the University of Edinburgh, and years later, after suffering a nervous crisis, he moved to France, where he began to develop his philosophical concerns through the writing of the Treaty of Human Nature, finished in 1739. This work contains the germ of his empiricist theory.

Much later, around 1763, Hume became friends with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and he began to make himself known more as a thinker and philosopher. He died in Edinburgh in the year 1776.


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The empiricist theory of Hume

The main ideas of David Hume's philosophy they are summarized in the following basic principles.

1. Innate knowledge does not exist

Human beings come to life without previous knowledge or thought patterns that define how we should conceive reality. Everything we will come to know will be thanks to the exposure to experiences .

In this way, David Hume denied the rationalist dogma that there are truths that exist for themselves and to which we could have access in any possible context, only by reason.

2. There are two types of mental contents

Hume distinguishes between impressions, which are those thoughts that are based on things that we have experienced through the senses, and ideas, which are copies of the previous ones and their nature is more ambiguous and abstract because they do not have the limits or the details of something that corresponds to a sensation originated by eyes, ears, etc.


The bad thing about ideas is that, although they correspond exactly with the truth, they tell us very little or nothing about what reality is like, and in practice what matters is knowing the environment in which we live: nature.

3. There are two types of statements

When it comes to explaining reality, Hume distinguishes between demonstrative and probable statements. Demonstratives, as their name indicates, are those whose validity can be demonstrated by evaluating their logical structure. For example, to say that the sum of two units equals number two is a demonstrative statement. That implies that its truth or falsehood is self-evident , without needing to investigate about other things that are not contained in the statement or that are not part of the semantic framework in which that statement is framed.

The probable ones, on the other hand, refer to what happens in a certain time and space, and therefore it can not be known with total certainty if they are true at the moment in which they are enunciated. For example: "tomorrow will rain".

4. We need the probable statements

Although we can not fully trust its validity, we need to back us up with probable statements to live, that is, trust more in some beliefs and less in others. Otherwise, we would be doubting everything and we would not do anything.

So, what are our habits and our way of living based on solid beliefs? For Hume, the principles by which we are guided are valuable because they are likely to reflect something true, not because they correspond exactly to reality.

5. The limitations of inductive thinking

For Hume, our lives are characterized by being settled on the belief that we know certain invariable characteristics about nature and everything that does not surround. These beliefs are born from exposure to several similar experiences.

For example, we have learned that two things can happen when you turn on the tap: either liquid falls or does not fall. However, it can not happen that liquid comes out but, instead of falling, the jet projects upwards, towards the sky. The latter seems obvious, but, taking into account the previous premises ...What justifies that it will continue to happen always in the same way? For Hume, there is nothing to justify it. From the occurrence of many similar experiences in the past, it does not follow logically that this will always happen .

So, although there are many things about how the world works that seem obvious, for Hume these "truths" are not really true, and we only act as if they were for convenience or, more specifically, because they are part of our routine. First we expose ourselves to a repetition of experiences and then assume a truth that is not really there.


PHILOSOPHY - David Hume (July 2022).


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