The Problem of Knowledge in Hume’s Philosophy

Adnan ESENYEL[I] The Problem of Knowledge in Hume’s Philosophy and Kant’s Attempt to Solve it Abstract The philosophical motion from Hume to Kant is a cornerstone in the history of philosophy. This is the motion which I will try to evaluate here. The problem of knowledge which was formulated by Hume shows us how the cartesian tradition since Descartes’ cogito finds itself in a blind alley. This is why Kant’s attempt to solve that problem is very vital for epistemolgy.

First of all we will see how Hume’s empiricism ends with universal scepticism and I will try to show why he can not avoid that end. Then we will pass on Kant’s response to Hume’s scepticism. I will discuss whether his response is right and legitimate. In conclusion we will see that despite the strength which Kant’s response possess, it contains also some unsolved problems which open door for scepticism. Key Terms Hume, Kant, Scepticism, Matters of Fact, Causality, Synthetic a prior’. Epistemology or the theory of knowledge is one of the main issues of modern philosophy.

Many reasons can be submitted for that fact, but it seems that the main reason is the idea that makes the subject the constituent of all our values, and hilosophy as one of the values of mankind makes no exception. Since Descartes – from whom we start modern philosophy – philosophy is based generally on human existence. Almost all philosophers tried to derive everything from the subject, they tried to understand the world based on human existence, and by trying to understand the world based on subject they asked unavoidably the question :”How we know the world That manner I think is the foundation of modern epistemology and philosophy.

Since Descartes’ cogito this is the question which guides mostly philosophy. And this is the question which motivates David Hume and Immanuel Kant. Although they start from the same question, very typical for philosophy they differ in the answer which they give for that question. When Hume came to the philosophical scene in the early and middle eighteenth century with his sceptical approach I think that modern epistemology which was discussed over two centuries since Descartes almost come to an end in the hands of Hume’s scepticism. This shows the strength of his philosophical conclusion about epistemology.

It seems like predecessors – Locke and Berkeley – he accepted and derivered without exception all consequences of his empirical philosophy. This is the point which makes Hume unique in the history of philosophy. His consistency was so strong that in the end even when he was not happy with his conclusion about knowledge, he remained his philosophical position. In his book An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding Hume starts his investigation with the nature of our ideas and thoughts. He simply asks:’ what is the source of my ideas or thoughts? “. The only answer he can give to that question is experience.

Then he makes distinction between two perceptions which come with experience: Impressions and ideas. Impressions are perceptions of ur senses and ideas are pale copies of these impressions. He argues that to have a thought or idea about something we must have it’s impression which comes from experience. So each thought we have, must correspond to an impression. (Hume, 1976: 14) Thus our knowledge is strictly limited with impressions. If our reasoning doesn’t involve thoughts which come from impressions then our reasoning has not a legitimate ground.

This point eliminates almost the entire metaphysics which was made until Hume because that metaphysics was made with concepts like “substance”, “essence”, “god”, “platonic ideas”, etc. It is clear to Hume that such concepts have not impressions and therefore it is pure nonsense to talk about them like they exist. Hume uses this approach to eliminate metaphysics from philosophy but we can see this approach as the first step towards scepticism. Yet until now knowledge is still possible for Hume within strict empirical rules.

But when Hume makes the next step in his empirical analyse this possibility will vanish and Hume will lose any ground to establish a certain theory of knowledge. Lets look at this analyse. The analysis which we mentioned is about our reasoning and Judgements. Hume distinguishes two kinds of reasoning: Relation of ideas and matters of fact. Sciences as Mathematics and Geometry draw into relation of ideas and depend only on operations of mind. These are reasoning which are a priori and doesn’t depend on something existent in the universe. They carry the evidence in themselves and are absolutely true all the time.

Hume isn’t concerned with this type of reasonings very much because it is clear for him how they function. (Hume, 1976: 22) He is primarily interested in matters of fact because this is the area in which we increase our nowledge about ourselves, the world and general the universe. Matters of fact doesn’t rely merely on operations of mind; to make this type of reasoning you have to go outside of your mind. You must depend on something which exists in the universe. In contrast to relation of ideas these are reasonings which are a posteriori and rely on experience. This is why they don’t hold necessarily truths like relation of ideas.

It is nothing logically wrong in saying that the sun will not rise tomorrow from east. This is why matters of fact can always be falsificated. The real question here for Hume is: how we know matters of fact? Because this is the problematic area in which everything is contingent and therefore establishing a certain epistemology is very vital. He asks the simplest question: “on what is based our knowledge about matters of fact? ” As we mentioned above we have impressions about facts, then these impressions cause ideas and thoughts. But what happens with these ideas and how our knowledge extents itself?

For example how can we derive a proposition like ” between these ideas . According to Hume if we look closely to the example and general to Matters of Fact we will see that all our reasonings about matters of fact epends on the relation of cause and effect and that relation is derived entirely from experience. (Hume 1976: 24) We experience for the first time that eating bread is feeding us and we conclude that from now on every time bread will feed us. We always think that the future will resemble the past. This is how we see the world. For us the world is based on causality and that is what constitutes our knowledge about matters of fact.

But here is the problem which arises for Hume, has causality a legitimate ground whatsoever in our knowledge? There is nothing logically wrong in aying that bread which feeded us yesterday will poison us tomorrow. Yet we are sure that such a thing will not happen. We always say that everything has a cause and we think about it like something universal. In our opinion bread causes feeding and always will. To have such an epistemological claim we must found a legitimate ground for causality. So Hume begins to investigate the foundation of the relation between cause and effect.

He asks whether we have a priori connections about cause and effect, because that a piori connection can be the legitimate ground of causality notion in epistemology. He analyses all sorts of relation, reasoning of our understanding, yet he can’t find anything a priori about causality. (Hume 1976: 29) All he can find as a pure empiricist is the experience of things. All we can have is experience. We merely perceive that something follows another. We perceive that bread feeds, that fire burns, that the stone we throw falls to earth. But is there a causal necessity between bread and feeding, between fire and burning.

What is the internal connection between these things? That is a question which transcendents experience thus it can’t be answered. Because even though we know the size, colour, and the structure of bread we can’t know with necessity that bread will feed us. We only experience many things together and conclude that something will follow another thing. This is Just a habit of human nature. (Hume, 1976: 37) Find a mankind that has not experienced any kind of fire, he would never know that fire burns, but if he had a priori knowledge about the causality between fire and burning he should know that fire will burn.

That conclusion made by Hume shaked up epistemology. The history of philosophy is almost entirely based on causality. Even all sciences are based on causality. So if you admit that cause and effect is simply a habit of human who merely is perceiving things together you are destroying all sort of theoretical foundation of knowledge. So scepticism appears here with all his power. Because knowledge requires certainty, objectivity and universality. But Hume transforms knowledge into some uncertain belief that the future will resemble the past.

That is simply admitting that certain, objective and universal knowledge is not possible, we could only have beliefs about something. In this way we lost our theoretical ground for knowledge. It seems for Hume that the entire philosophy since Ancient Greece was a waste of time because if you throw the notion of cause and effect from philosophy how can you establish any theory. In this sense scepticism is unavoidable. Hume also accepts the empirical claim that we can know directly and certainly only our mental content. But this means that we can not leave our mental state . This leads us to solipsism.

Because we can not determine what we perceive, are the only be a belief. Any kind of necessary truth about our experience can’t be established. We are left by Hume with scepticism almost about everything. After Hume philosophy was in a big crossroad and there was huge doubts against philosophers. In this situation Kant came to the philosophical scene with his critical approach and tried to answer all vital questions which was raised by Hume against philosophy. He offered a new and original way for epistemology. As it is known his critical philosophy is incredible detailed and therefore we can not touch on every detail of his thought.

I will try to give a general account of his philosophy in regard with his answer to Hume. To understand the complexity of his approach we shall look at the assumptions which he makes. First of all like Hume, Kant accepts that our knowledge begins with experience, in that point he is an empiricist. But he doesn’t stop here like Hume because in order to generate knowledge we must shape our experience. As he says in Prolegomena, if we don’t do that our experience cant have any certainty and universality; this was also Hume’s conclusion. We must have a priori forms which organize the untidiness of our perceptions. Kant took Hume’s tendencies of the mind to pass from one idea to another, without which we could not construct the world, and canonized them as a priori forms of the understanding. (Robinson, 2004). These a priori forms of our reason constitute the universality and necessity of our knowledge and without them we even can’t talk about knowledge because Hume showed us that the cluster of perceptions can’t build up anything necessary about knowledge. But according to Kant, Hume couldn’t see that we have these a priori forms. So for Kant knowledge is possible and scepticism therefore is false.

Now he have to show how that certain and universal knowledge is possible. Kant accepts the distinction between analytic a priori and synthetic a posteriori Judgments. This is the same distinction which was made by Hume between relation of ideas and matters of fact. But Kant argues that we have also a third kind of Judgment which any philosopher couldn’t see. He calls these judgments synthetic a priori . In these Judgements we have synthetic Judgments, which extent our knowledge about the universe, combined with a priori forms which shape our synthetic information.

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