An Enquiry Concerning David Hume

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An Enquiry Concerning David Hume’s Misunderstandin Essay, Research Paper An Enquiry Concerning David Hume’s Misunderstanding -David Hume1. IntroductionRemarkably, it is possible to sum up David Hume’s vital assumptions about reasoning in a single proposition: Reason does NOTHING except locate the presence or absence of contradictions. This paper will attempt three tasks: first, to show the textual support for my interpretation; second, to explain how Hume’s skepticism about induction depends on this assumption; and third, to briefly argue that Hume’s basic assumption is wrong.2. Textual SupportWhenever Hume wants to show that reasoning cannot support something, he uses the same argument: the alternative is not a contradiction. “The contrary of every matter of fact

is still possible; because it can never imply a contradiction, and is conceived by the mind with the same facility and distinctness, as if ever so conformable to reality. We should in vain, therefore, attempt to demonstrate its falsehood. Were it demonstratively false, it would imply a contradiction, and could never be distinctly conceived by the mind.”1 Suppose that we try to use reason to establish any matter of fact. Hume says that our effort is futile, because the alternative is conceivable. But if the alternative is conceivable, then it is not a contradiction, because contradictions are inconceivable. But reason can refute something only if it is a contradiction. Hence, reason can never establish any matter of fact.Hume liberally repeats this argument throughout his works

on epistemology. When he denies that reason justifies the law of cause-and-effect, he says, “That there are no demonstrative arguments in this case, seems evident; since it implies no contradiction, that the course of nature may change.”2 The argument is the same as above: An alternative is conceivable; contradictions are not conceivable; and reason can only demonstrate that something is false if it is a contradiction. Hence, reason cannot establish the law of cause-and-effect.Hume uses the same argument in A Treatise of Human Nature. “There is no object, which implies the existence of any other if we consider the objects in themselves. Such an inference wou’d amount to knowledge, and wou’d imply the absolute contradiction and impossibility of conceiving any thing

different.”3 Once again, Hume notes that he can conceive of one object without a second object. Since no contradictions are conceivable, this is not a contradiction. And since reason does nothing but locate the presence or absence of contradictions, reason cannot establish a connection between any two things. Later in the Treatise, Hume makes the argument still more explicit: “To form a clear idea of any thing, is an undeniable argument for its possibility, and is alone a refutation of any pretended demonstration against it.”4 Conceivability implies the absence of a contradiction, and the absence of a contradiction implies that reason has nothing to say on the matter.To cement my interpretation, let us turn to Hume’s Abstract of a Treatise of Human Nature, where he

repeats the argument. “The mind can always conceive any effect to follow from any cause, and indeed any event to follow upon another: whatever we conceive is possible, at least in a metaphysical sense: but wherever a demonstration takes place, the contrary is impossible, and implies a contradiction. There is no demonstration, therefore, for any conjunction of cause and effect.”5 As always, his argument flows from the conceivability of an alternative, to the absence of a contradiction, to the forced silence of reason on the question. “What is demonstratively false implies a contradiction; and what implies a contradiction cannot be conceived.”6Hume could hardly be more explicit. In all three works, he uses precisely the same argument. And this argument rests on a crucial