Maarten Maartensz

Philosophy - Hume - A Treatise Of Human Nature  - I.I.I.
Of the origin of our ideas



Note 1: All the perceptions of the human mind resolve themselves into two distinct kinds, which I shall call IMPRESSIONS and IDEAS.

No, I don't think so, especially not because the ideas are taken to be mostly faint impressions, and impressions again comprise sensations, emotions and passions.

First, here is another division of "the perceptions of the human mind": Sensations, Memories and Fantasies (or: Imaginations, but without implying these must be images), where the Fantasies would comprise the emotions and passions, for example because these seem to be all appreciations of real or fantastical events or things, and thus tend to accompany other things (whether sensed, remembered or imagined).

Next, the reason why I prefer my division is that it seems we can all distinguish between what we sense and what we remember, and we know that anything we think or feel that is not merely sensed nor merely remembered must be a fantasy of some kind, which means it must embody something we put there ourselves, even if this is a very small change, addition or subtraction, and also even if the fantasy happens to be real (which we again may not know, at any specific point in time).

However, there is another category of impressions that Hume entirely misses while they are specifically human:

Symbols, such as written or spoken words that, when looked upon and understood, remind us of the things they stand for, much rather than what the symbols themselves look like, which is all that non-symbols - like our ordinary ideas and sensations - make us think of: The very things themselves or, at least, the hypothetical things themselves. (We get there as well via symbols, but we first need to understand them, and at least part of the language they are in.)

Note 2:
By ideas I mean the faint imag
es of these in thinking and reasoning; such as, for instance, are all the perceptions excited by the present discourse, excepting only those which arise from the sight and touch, and excepting the immediate pleasure or uneasiness it may occasion.

One problem I have with this is that while I agree many of my ideas are derived from sensations, and in that case often are like faint (and also regularly: partial) images, sometimes my ideas may be quite lively, and also more lively than my current sensations - "Don't disturb me: I'm thinking!" - yet they still are easily distinguished ny me from any and all sensations or memories.

This means that mere faintness is not the mark of ideas. There also is another problem here, of which Hume seems not to have been aware: Some men - like myself - are good visualisers, whereas others are bad visualisers, or indeed have no visual recollections of things they do quite well remember. Also, this has nothing to do with intelligence (and some very bright men were extremely bad at visualising).

This again means that
mere faintness is not the mark of ideas: Some have - perfectly correct, quite distinct, and clearly articulated - ideas of things they have seen, without having any visual recollections.

Note 3 : I believe it will not be very necessary to employ many words in explaining this distinction. Every one of himself will readily perceive the difference betwixt feeling and thinking.

Well... perhaps, but this does seem to me to be another distinction. Besides, feelings tend to be about something other than feelings, while this is much less so in thinking.

Note 4 : Thus in sleep, in a fever, in madness, or in any very violent emotions of soul, our ideas may approach to our impressions: As on the other hand it sometimes happens, that our impressions are so faint and low, that we cannot distinguish them from our ideas. But notwithstanding this near resemblance in a few instances, they are in general so very different, that no-one can make a scruple to rank them under distinct heads, and assign to each a peculiar name to mark the difference.

This is close enough if you grant there are only impressions and ideas, but (1) the distinction between these is not merely or only a matter of liveliness (for ideas tend to add or subtract things to or from sensations: they are rarely merely faint copies) while (2) Hume really missed Symbols (words and statements, especially), for these are specifically human.

Indeed, this is also how I distinguish ideas from sensations: They tend to be fainter, and they differ from real sensations in not being localized in time and place (as sensations are, at least originally: that sensation at that time and that place); in not being delivered through one of the sense-organs (but by memory); and in adding or subtracting things from their original source, which is memory.

Note 5: There is another division of our perceptions, which it will be convenient to observe, and which extends itself both to our impressions and ideas. This division is into SIMPLE and COMPLEX. Simple perceptions or impressions and ideas are such as admit of no distinction nor separation. The complex are the contrary to these, and may be distinguished into parts. 

This may hold for sensations - say: a specific color, taste or smell - and for ideas that are mostly copies of sensations, but even in the case of admittedly simple sensations, such as a specific view of a specific tint of red, (1) there tend to be aspects (such as: brightness, size, tint) that can be distinguished in these simple parts, and (2) apart from these, the mind tends to associate some specific other things or feelings with the sensations it has or memorized.

Therefore, while I agree to the distinction, it seems to me to be mostly relative.

Note 6: The one seem to be in a manner the reflexion of the other; so that all the perceptions of the mind are double, and appear both as impressions and ideas. When I shut my eyes and think of my chamber, the ideas I form are exact representations of the impressions I felt; nor is there any circumstance of the one, which is not to be found in the other. In running over my other perceptions, I find still the same resemblance and representation. Ideas and impressions appear always to correspond to each other. This circumstance seems to me remarkable, and engages my attention for a moment.

I doubt it, though I again also agree that many ideas resemble perceptions, for example, because they are memories of impressions.
But the resemblance between a memory and what is remembered tends not to be "
exact representations of the impressions" that started them, and indeed when I "shut my eyes and think of my chamber" my ideas will resemble it, but very probably not exactly and also not in all details, while I know bad visualisers may have no or only very faint and quite partial visual ideas.

But I agree with this thought: That some actual perceptions, that are impressions in Hume's terms, and the ideas that are derived from them, are such that the one and the other correspond in various details to such an extent that the one (perception or idea) may be said to represent the other (perception or idea) precisely because of the many resemblances (while still the idea may be vaguer and less detailed, and usually but not invariably is, than the actual impression that seems to have caused it).

Next, here is a qualification by Hume:

Note 7 : I observe, that many of our complex ideas never had impressions, that corresponded to them, and that many of our complex impressions never are exactly copied in ideas.

Yes, precisely - and this is again an argument that (at least) suggests that ideas and impressions are less alike than originally said, and should be compared on one or more other dimensions than liveliness (for ideas also tend to add or subtract things, and also tend to be based on one's wishes and feelings about the things they are about).

Note 8 : I perceive, therefore, that though there is in general a great resemblance betwixt our complex impressions and ideas, yet the rule is not universally true, that they are exact copies of each other.

Well...let's say there is a resemblance, without committing ourselves to "great". The reason is that - to take but one example - people may find their way to places they have never been before on the basis of very crude maps, that scarcely resemble what they map, except in a very few points that do help one finding one's way.

Therefore neither is the rule "
universally true" nor does the "resemblance" need to be more than minimal to work quite well.

Note 9 : After the most accurate examination, of which I am capable, I venture to affirm, that the rule here holds without any exception, and that every simple idea has a simple impression, which resembles it, and every simple impression a correspondent idea.

The problems here are mainly with the meaning(s) of "
simple" especially when attached to "idea". But let me accept it for the moment, with this qualification.

And let me add to this that I think there are both impressions (at least in the form of sensations) and ideas (at least in the form of representations, that may be quite crude or quite exact) and that these two are distinct even if they resemble a lot, for impressions tend do be dated (one had that impression then and there, and remembers a then and there for them) whereas ideas tend to be undated, precisely because we compare impressions by their ideas ((the idea of) that impression and
(the idea of) this impression are quite alike, except for dates).

Here is a sum-up of Hume:

Note 10 : The full examination of this question is the subject of the present treatise; and therefore we shall here content ourselves with establishing one general proposition, THAT ALL OUR SIMPLE IDEAS IN THEIR FIRST APPEARANCE ARE DERIVED FROM SIMPLE IMPRESSIONS, WHICH ARE CORRESPONDENT TO THEM, AND WHICH THEY EXACTLY REPRESENT.

In fact, I have accepted that under Note 9, with a qualification about "simple". But Hume is argueing it again, and part of his argument is this:

Note 11 : From this constant conjunction of resembling perceptions I immediately conclude, that there is a great connexion betwixt our correspondent impressions and ideas, and that the existence of the one has a considerable influence upon that of the other.

In fact, this is much as Hume will argue about causes and effects: All there is to be found in experience is a constant conjunction of what are deemed to be causes and said to be effects, but apart from temporal differences, this is all that can be discovered, just as there is nothing
else to be discovered except a sequence of constant conjunctions of similars. (More on this later.)

Then there is this:

Note 12 : To give a child an idea of scarlet or orange, of sweet or bitter, I present the objects, or in other words, convey to him these impressions; but proceed not so absurdly, as to endeavour to produce the impressions by exciting the ideas. Our ideas upon their appearance produce not their correspondent impressions, nor do we perceive any colour, or feel any sensation merely upon thinking of them.

This is another difference between ideas and impressions: Simple ideas depend on simple impressions, and are quite similar to them - but even simple ideas when merely thought do not give us the impressions that gave rise to them (but something a lot vaguer).

Again I must say that Hume and I seem to differ somewhat in our powers of visualizing: I can choose to imagine what things seem like and what many statements mean, and I can also choose to do so without imagining these things. It is the same with words for colors:
Saying or reading "Red" or "Blue" I tend to have some imagination
of some tint of these colors, though not if I don't want to.

Also, there are even better visualisers than I am, while many men are worse.

Note 13 : On the other hand we find, that any impression either of the mind or body is constantly followed by an idea, which resembles it, and is only different in the degrees of force and liveliness.

Well... with two provisos: First, to have an idea we need to understand something. We usually do, at least for ordinary impressions of ordinary things, but sometimes we don't. Second, it is certainly not true that the "only" difference between "any impression" and the idea conjoined to it "is only different in the degrees of force and liveliness" - unless this is understood in an extremely wide sense, that allows nearly any degree of resemblance (as between a very crudely and sketchily drawn map, and the territory in which one has to find one's way).

Note 14 : The constant conjunction of our resembling perceptions, is a convincing proof, that the one are the causes of the other; and this priority of the impressions is an equal proof, that our impressions are the causes of our ideas, not our ideas of our impressions.

Well... yes and no, for Hume is going to argue that these "convincing proof"s are not convincing when one speaks of causes and effects (that are respectively, in Hume's opinion, merely the first and the second in a considerable series of such conjunctions).

Note 15 : To confirm this I consider another plain and convincing phaenomenon; which is, that, where-ever by any accident the faculties, which give rise to any impressions, are obstructed in their operations, as when one is born blind or deaf; not only the impressions are lost, but also their correspondent ideas; so that there never appear in the mind the least traces of either of them.

Again yes and no: Hume is quite right that in a man born blind there will be no ideas of colors nor of straightness, angles, lines, planes etc. But it is also true that those born blind may have quite good ideas of
straightness, angles, lines, planes etc. and be quite good at geometry,
because they succeeded in deriving these ideas from their sense of touch.

Note 16 : I believe there are few but will be of opinion that he can; and this may serve as a proof, that the simple ideas are not always derived from the correspondent impressions; though the instance is so particular and singular, that it is scarce worth our observing, and does not merit that for it alone we should alter our general maxim.

This is the end of a fairly long argument that tries to prove that someone with thirty years of good sight can develop an idea of a particular shade of blue that he has never seen.

I accept the argument, but observe that this does go counter to the general proposition laid down under Note 10, and I also am more doubtful of Hume's "general maxim" (under Note 10) than he is, mostly because he and I don't quite agree on ideas.

Next, there is this:

Note 17 : But besides this exception, it may not be amiss to remark on this head, that the principle of the priority of impressions to ideas must be understood with another limitation, viz., that as our ideas are images of our impressions, so we can form secondary ideas, which are images of the primary; as appears from this very reasoning concerning them.

I have several remarks. First, it seems that non-visualisers will be less prone to accept that their ideas are (like) "
images". But this is less important. More important is that, supposing we adopt the term "images" at least metaphorically, we can say that it is rather obvious that the resemblance between an idea and whatever it represents, whether another idea or an impression, may be very vague, indirect,
and partial, while at the same time being a quite adequate representation for a given purpose (as again may be shown by the very scant resemblance between a territory and a
map of it).

Note 18: To prove the ideas of passion and desire not to be innate, they observe that we have a preceding experience of these emotions in ourselves.

They may, but that does not prove anything. Hume seems to have not believed in innate ideas, and he may be right that such specific ideas as we call "our passions" or "our desires" are not innate but the outcomes of long processes of learning. But this does not prove that one's brain is empty nor does it prove the impossibility of some innate notions, though I agree it is difficult to say which.

First: February 11, 2015.
Last: February 17, 2015.