David Hume (1711–1776)

1. Brief Vita

David Hume was born in Edinburgh on 26 April, 1711. In his brief autobiographical essay “My Own Life” (1777), he recalls that he developed very early “that passion for literature” which was to be “the great source of […] enjoyment” for the rest of his life. His precocious talents led to the publication, at the early age of 28, of his masterpiece, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40). The book was an editorial failure and even if Hume carefully avoided any direct discussion of theological matters, he came to be quickly perceived as a skeptic and atheist. This charge proved to be an insurmountable obstacle to his academic aspirations: he was twice refused the chair of Moral Philosophy, first at Edinburgh in 1744 and then at Glasgow in 1752; eventually, he never obtained one.

The sharpness of his mind and a very Scottish determination “to maintain unimpaired […his] independency” combined to make of him a very original and influential author, whose contributions in epistemology and moral philosophy are of lasting significance. The importance of his works for the philosophy of religion and for theology can scarcely be overestimated. In The Natural History of Religion (1775) and the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779)—a book which went to press only after his death on 25 August, 1776—Hume provided a devastating criticism of the theistic conception of God, a blow from which natural theology, the attempt to provide a rational justification of belief in God, never fully recovered.

Kant’s famous saying in the Prolegomena (1783) that Hume awakened him from his “dogmatic slumber” nicely captures the significance of Hume’s thought in the history of philosophy. Whitehead recognized Hume as “one of the greatest of philosophers” (S 52), yet did not believe that his influence on Kant and upon the main stream of Western philosophy had been a positive one. Moreover, he thought it would be a mistake to give Hume the last word on the nature and existence of God.

2. The Metaphysics of Causation

Whitehead repeatedly criticizes Hume’s account of the epistemic and ontological status of causal relations. In his view, the consequences of a mistake with regard to this point go well beyond the restricted field of epistemology and invest the very possibility and nature of metaphysics (PR 166-67). In order to understand the point of Whitehead’s critique, his position as to the nature of causation needs to be briefly recalled.

Whitehead makes it abundantly clear that phenomenology provides the key to his ontology. The phenomenon of short-term memory is particularly significant: “We must consider the immediate present in its relationship to the immediate past” (S 41). And in a very important passage from Adventures of Ideas, he writes:

[I]f we hold […] that all final individual actualities have the metaphysical character of occasions of experience, then on that hypothesis the direct evidence as to the connectedness of one’s immediately present occasion of experience with one’s immediately past occasions, can be validly used to suggest categories applying to the connectedness of all occasions in nature (AI 284).

As an illustration of what Whitehead means with the phrase “direct evidence as to the connectedness of one’s immediately present occasion of experience with one’s immediately past occasions,” the reader may consider his/her experience at this very moment. On the one hand, he/she is trying to follow the explanation while moving forward with his/her reading; on the other, he/she is aware of what has just been read. Indeed, if the present moment of experience did not preserve the antecedent ones, there would be no such thing as an experience of reading at all: the apprehension of the meaning of a sentence or of a line requires that the presently apperceived content be organically related to former ones. The feature that this example is meant to illustrate—the fact that the present partially “echoes” or “repeats” the past—is for Whitehead a constitutive aspect of all moments of experience. One could think of our hearing of steps or of our appreciation of a musical piece as further examples: we never experience the mere present but always the present as a direct continuation of the past.

The phenomenological insight that each moment of present experience echoes the immediate past by retaining aspects of it lies at the foundation of Whitehead’s ontology. Whitehead argues indeed that the basic constituents of reality are best thought of as occasions of experience, that is, feeling-events whose being consists in the appropriation (prehension) of previous feelings and in their integration (concrescence) within a novel unity of experience. On this view, the process of appropriation and of integration of data inherited from the past generates a unified whole which survives as partially repeated (objectified) in later experiences.

Paradoxical as it might seem, Whitehead argues that aspects of the past enter the present in propria persona, not merely by way of representation. But how can the same experience be both past and part of the present? Whitehead solves this puzzle by means of the distinction between subjective immediacy and objective immortality. Whereas in the process of self-constitution, the occasion of experience enjoys subjective immediacy, once it has achieved self-completion, the occasion becomes a public datum for the novel becoming occasion. The distinction between subjective immediacy and objective immortality is thus a distinction between two different modes of existence: the objectified past exists within the present in the mode of objective immortality, whereas the present exists in the mode of subjective immediacy. Nothing actual is only a subject or only an object, but all occasions of experience begin their life as subjects and continue it as objects, as “stubborn facts” that future occasions will have to take notice of.

It is by way of objectification that an occasion of experience leaves its legacy upon the future and, as Whitehead construes this notion, causally affects it. Having written that “the present event issues subject to the limitations laid upon it by the actual nature of the immediate past” (S 46), he goes on to say that “[c]ausal efficacy is the hand of the settled past in the formation of the present” (S 50). The thought is clarified further in Process and Reality:

[t]he ‘objectifications’ of the actual entities in the actual world, relative to a definite actual entity, constitute the efficient causes out of which that actual entity arises (PR 87).

Whitehead’s view can be summarized as follows: (1) causal efficacy is to be construed in terms of the notion of objectification; (2) we have an illustration of objectification in instances of short-term memory, where aspects of a moment of experience in the immediate past are preserved in the present one; (3) this understanding of causation can be generalized to causal relationships between all actualities in nature. The metaphysical upshot of this doctrine is a highly original version of panpsychism; with regard to the notion of causation, two main consequences follow.

In the first place, Whitehead’s account implies that causal relations are objective connections between the constituents of what there is: causation cannot be understood in terms of a regularity-theory, as the constant conjunction of one event (a “cause”) with another, succeeding one (an “effect”); cause and effect are not merely successive events, for a cause is immanent in its effect by way of objectification (PR 237).

Second, Whitehead argues that the causal nexus can be directly apprehended. Since occasions of experience are repeated within later ones and repetition is the vehicle of causation, it is to be expected that at least some occasions should be aware of the efficacy of the past. Whitehead refers to this non-sensory modality of our experience as “perception in the mode of causal efficacy,” a mode characterized by the fact that the occasions “have a sense for the fate from which they have emerged” (S 44). This perceptive modality is to be contrasted with “perception in the mode of presentational immediacy,” where the experienced contents are distinctly perceived sense-data, contents which just represent themselves, bearing no sign or indication as to their origin.

This account of causation and the nature of a moment of human mentality is Whitehead’s alternative to the one provided by Hume. In the Treatise,Hume puts forward, as a preliminary to more advanced investigations, a general theory of the nature of the mind and of its contents. Having divided all of the mind’s perceptions into impressions, by which he means “all our sensations, passions and emotions, as they make their first appearance in the soul,” and ideas, “the faint images of these [the impressions] in thinking and reasoning,” Hume arranges different sorts of perceptions according to the order in which they occur within the mind. Thus impressions of sensation are said to give rise to and to be copied by ideas of sensation. In turn, these give rise to impressions of reflection, which may be copied by ideas of reflection (Hume 1739, 7-8).

A question arises concerning the causes of our impressions of sensations: where do they come from? Whitehead provides a phenomenalist reading of Hume: in perception we are acquainted with sense-impressions, whose ultimate cause is unknown to us. On this interpretation, Hume’s view of the mind is radically different from the one advocated by Whitehead, for whom the mind is not shut within the circle of its impressions but directly connects with an external world through objectification. From the vantage point of Whitehead’s theory of experience the skeptical question “how do we know that there is an external world?” is a spurious problem based upon a faulty analysis of experience. We know that the external world exists because at each moment of our existence it leaves its mark upon us, i.e. because we connect with it directly in perception in the mode of causal efficacy. According to Whitehead, Hume made popular the “sensationalist-mythology”—the mistaken belief that all perception occurs in the mode of presentational immediacy—because he conceived of the mind in terms of the traditional categories of subject and predicate. But to conceive of the mind’s contents as the adjectives of a substance, is to conceive of them as that substance’s private possessions. How, then, are these private sensations related to the external world? On this basis, the problems of skepticism and solipsism immediately arise.

In view of the fact that Hume criticized the traditional view of the substantial mind—arguing that the self is phenomenologically given as a flux of perceived contents, that we have no direct access to any such thing as a substantial self, and that the metaphysical hypothesis of an underlying substratum is not required in order to explain our belief in personal identity—this accusation may seem rather surprising. Whitehead holds that Hume is inconsistent, however, and that his philosophy is a particularly significant example of how difficult it is, even for a great philosopher, not to fall prey to traditional modes of thought (PR 138).

Another important distinction introduced by Hume is that between simple and complex perceptions. Hume appeals to this distinction in his characterization of the human imagination as the power to combine simple (or less complex) ideas in novel ways, so as to create complex (or more complex) ones. This distinction also enables him to provide a clear statement of the basic insight that all ideas derive from experience, an insight which he formulates as follows: “all our simple ideas in their first appearance are deriv’d from simple impressions, which are correspondent to them, and which they exactly represent” (Hume 1739, 4; Hume’s emphasis). The principle summarizes the two main features of Hume’s theory of the mind. Besides expressing the empiricist doctrine that all mental contents have their source in experience, it presupposes an atomistic view of the mind as a combination of simple perceptions, each of which is conceived as an independent “thing,” as existent in its own right.

Despite its simplicity, the principle is a powerful analytical tool. If it is true, it must be possible to trace all ideas back to their corresponding impressions. What follows if the principle is applied to our idea of causation? Hume observes that we commonly think of the cause as being prior to the effect and contiguous with it; these are universal features of the causal nexus, which we can easily identify if we consider the example of a billiard ball hitting another. The ideas of temporal succession and spatial contiguity do not exhaust the meaning of our notion of causation, for we also think that the effect is necessary, an inevitable outcome of the cause. When I see a billiard ball hitting another, however, what I see is one event followed by another: where is the necessity in this experience? There is no impression of sensation corresponding to it. Hume’s fundamental principle requires that ideas be derived from impressions, not that they be derived from impressions of sensation. Hence he concludes that the experiential correlate of our notion of necessity must be an impression of reflection, which we do not acquire by observation of the external world but of the workings of our mind (Hume 1739, 77-78).

Hume draws attention to the following simple psychological phenomenon: “after a repetition of similar instances the mind is carried by habit, upon the appearance of one event, to expect its usual attendant, and to believe that it will exist” (Hume 1748, 75). In other words, the experience we have made of one sort of event being constantly followed by another, establishes an associative track in the mind. When we perceive an event of one kind, the mind very naturally runs along this path and forms the idea of the other sort of event. Hume brings his explanation to an end by contending that the transition from the impression to the idea is accompanied by two phenomena. First, some of the impression’s liveliness is transmitted to the idea; this is supposed to explain why we do not merely conceive the effect, but have a real sense of expectation and believe that the effect will occur. Secondly, during the transition the mind feels that it cannot avoid moving along the associative path. This feeling of necessity—we cannot help believing that the billiard ball will move when hit—takes the place of the missing sensory impression of necessary connection; as Hume puts it: “This connexion, therefore, which we feel in the mind, this customary transition of the imagination from one object to its usual attendant, is the sentiment or impression from which we form the idea of power or necessary connexion” (Hume 1748, 75; for a more detailed account of Hume on causation, see Stroud 1977 and Pears 1990).

Hume’s explanation would seem to have a rather surprising consequence with regard to the ontological status of causal relations. If the idea of necessary connexion is grounded upon a feeling of compulsion, which accompanies the transition from a perceived cause to a conceived effect, why do we think of necessity as a real link between events in the external world? Hume appeals to what he takes to be a natural projective tendency of the mind: a subjective feeling in the mind is projected onto the world and mistaken for an objective relation between external things. Hume’s reasoning seems therefore to lead to the conclusion that there is no necessity in the external world, but only in our minds. In discussing Hume’s empiricism, Whitehead remarks:

[T]he followers of Hume and the followers of Kant have […] their diverse, but allied, objections to the notion of any direct perception of causal efficacy, in the sense in which direct perception is antecedent to thought about it. Both schools find ‘causal efficacy’ to be the importation, into the data, of a way of thinking or judging about these data. One school calls it a habit of thought; the other school calls it a category of thought (S 40).

Rightly or wrongly, Whitehead is here ascribing to Hume the belief that necessity is merely subjective; furthermore, he assimilates this position to Kant’s doctrine that causation is a category of the intellect. If we want to escape this conclusion and regain a realistic conception more in tune with our common experience of the world, we have to turn back to the source of the mistake and provide a refutation of Hume’s empiricism.

3. Empiricism, Causation and God

Whitehead attacks Hume’s empiricist principle that all ideas derive from experience by means of two counter-examples. The first one was discovered by Hume himself, who argued that it is conceivable that an observer, confronted with the scale of all shades of the color blue, a scale complete except for one position, would be capable of filling the gap by framing the idea of the missing shade in his imagination. Notoriously, Hume dismisses this counter-example rather superficially, holding that “the instance is so particular and singular, that ‘tis scarce worth our observing, and does not merit that for it alone we should alter our general maxim” (Hume 1739, 6). As against this, Whitehead rightly observes that it is plainly false that “the instance is […] particular and singular,” for the objection holds with respect to all shades of all colours, as well as for other classes of sensations (PR 132).

Whitehead’s second counter-example is based upon Hume’s explanation of the origin of novel ideas, which he thinks are generated through the combining power of the imagination. The notion of a “manner of combination” is problematic: where does the idea of a new manner of combination come from? Certainly, if the idea constructed by the imagination is to be “new” in any relevant sense of the word, it cannot be derived from experience. Accordingly, Whitehead draws the conclusion that “he [Hume] should also admit that there is a novel simple idea conveying the novel ‘manner,’ which is not a copy of an impression” (PR 132). The problem the theory of the imagination should solve is: how can there be novelty in the mind? Hume acknowledges that there is origination of novelty, but fails to explain how this is possible.

A refutation of the empiricist principle does not show that Hume’s account of causation is wrong, however. After all, the phenomenon of mental transition may be a real one, and could really provide an explanation of the origin of our idea of causation, even if Hume’s general account of the mind is rejected. In this respect, a fundamental problem with Hume’s explanation of the origin of the idea of causation becomes evident if one asks how the associative track is established in the first place. Certainly, memory must play a role in this process, but is Hume’s account of memory sufficient to account for this?

In the Treatise, Hume recognizes that the distinction between ideas of imagination and those of memory must lie in the fact that the former combine simple ideas in novel ways, whereas the latter preserve the original order of our experiences. However, Hume also observes that we are able to distinguish ideas of imagination from ideas of memory, even if we cannot compare them with the original past events: what phenomenological feature enables us to distinguish memories from imaginations? Given the conceptual apparatus at his disposal, Hume is forced to the conclusion that the difference between memory and imagination is the superior force and vivacity of the former, that is, the peculiarity of memory is reduced to a special degree of liveliness of a mental representation. Quite rightly, Whitehead observes that this explanation, besides being empirically false, fails to capture the most distinctive feature of memory, namely that it involves a reference to the past. From Whitehead’s perspective, Hume’s failure to account for memory involves more than a failure to provide a satisfactory account of causation: since short-term memory provides the key to an understanding of the connectedness between all occasions in nature, Hume’s superficial treatment shows that he failed to recognize memory’s more general philosophical significance.

Still, all this just proves that Hume’s explanation is incomplete. Hume’s argument is not solely philosophical but psychological as well; ultimately, what needs to be tested is its empirical plausibility. Whitehead argues that Hume’s empiricism is, paradoxically at first sight, not radical enough, for his explanations run counter to evidence provided by well-known phenomena. Why, for example, do most animals, including human beings, grow nervous in the dark? The explanation must be that we feel at the mercy of unknown external forces: in the lack of the usual visual sensations, our awareness of the objective reality of independent causal powers increases. This is not what we should expect on Hume’s theory: if our feeling of causation is the feeling of compulsion we experience during the transition from a perception to an idea, and if the transition originates with a perception, then our awareness of causality should be weaker and not stronger when our perceptions are reduced. True, as against Whitehead it would be possible to object that past experiences teach us that obscurity is potentially dangerous; for example, we may have knocked our head against a hard object in a dark room. Yet Whitehead’s main concern is to direct our attention towards a level of experience that he thinks constantly accompanies our conscious perceptions. And if we seriously attend to the nature of our experience, we must admit that there is more to it than sense-data.

Although Whitehead’s criticisms of Hume center for the most part on epistemological and ontological issues, another aspect of their relationship needs to be touched upon before bringing this discussion to an end. Whitehead is deeply concerned with the theological implications of Hume’s philosophy, and in Part V of Process and Reality he introduces his discussion of the nature of God by acknowledging that “what follows is merely an attempt to add another speaker to that masterpiece, Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion” (PR 343). In this book, the skeptic Philo provides a devastating critique of the theistic belief in God as an omnipotent and benevolent being, creator of the world and active in it. Philo conclusively refutes the reasoning of his two opponents, Demea and Cleanthes, who advance traditional proofs for the existence of God such as the cosmological argument, according to which we have to postulate God as the ultimate self-determining cause of the universe to avoid the absurdity of an endless regress of causes, and the design argument, according to which the order of reality is taken to provide evidence of an underlying creative intention. Moreover, Hume shows that the belief in a benign and omnipotent God cannot be held in the face of the many imperfections and evils in the world, and by a consequent application of his empiricism he confronts his opponents with the straightforward dilemma that, necessarily, they are bound to have either an anthropomorphic conception of God or none at all.

Whitehead fully recognizes the significance of Hume’s criticisms. Having enumerated the main traditional conceptions of the deity, he writes: “Hume’s Dialogues criticize unanswerably these modes of explaining the system of the world” (PR 343). Nevertheless, Whitehead believes with William James in the reality of authentic religious and moral experiences. Like other sorts of experiences, these should receive elucidation within a complete speculative system (PR 343, 167). The problem of God, belief in which is not dependent upon philosophical reasoning but upon the concrete experience of humankind, is therefore still an open one. Seeing this requires a more careful survey of the varieties of experience than the one at the basis of Hume’s philosophy—once more, his empiricism is not radical enough.

Works Cited and Further Readings

Works by David Hume

1975 [1739-40]. A Treatise of Human Nature, edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge, 2nd edition revised by P.H. Nidditch (Oxford, Clarendon Press).

1975 [1748]. Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, in Enquiries concerning Human Understanding and concerning the Principles of Morals, edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge, 3rd edition revised by P. H. Nidditch (Oxford, Clarendon Press).

1975 [1751]. Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge, 3rd edition revised by P. H. Nidditch (Oxford, Clarendon Press).

1967 [1775]. The Natural History of Religion, edited by H. E. Root (Stanford, Stanford University Press).

1935 [1779]. Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, edited by Norman Kemp Smith (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

1932. The Letters of David Hume, edited by J.Y.T. Greig (Oxford, Clarendon Press).

Works by Other Authors

Baier, Annette C. 1991. A Progress of Sentiments: Reflections on Hume’s “Treatise” (Cambridge, Harvard University Press).

Basile, Pierfrancesco. 2007. “The Experience of the Self and the Nature of Reality: Whitehead, Hume and the Phenomenology of Causation,” in Subjectivity, Process, and Rationality, edited by Michel Weber and Pierfrancesco Basile (Frankfurt, Ontos Verlag), 137-157.

Beauchamp, Tom L. and Alexander Rosenberg. 1981. Hume and the Problem of Causation (New York, Oxford University Press).

Fogelin, Robert. 1985. Hume’s Scepticism in the “Treatise of Human Nature” (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul).

Gross, Mason W. 1941. “Whitehead’s Answer to Hume: A Reply,” Journal of Philosophy, 38, 95-102.

Hartshorne, Charles. 1954. “Causal Necessities: An Alternative to Hume,” Philosophical Review, 63, 479-99.

Hartshorne, Charles. 1958. “The Logical Structure of Givenness,” Philosophical Quarterly 7, 307-316.

Kann, Cristoph. 2001. Fussnoten zu Platon. Philosophiegeschichte bei A. N. Whitehead (Hamburg, Felix Meiner).

King, Hugh R. 1949. “Whitehead’s Doctrine of Causal Efficacy,” Journal of Philosophy 46, 85-100.

Merrill, Kenneth R. 1976. “Hume, Whitehead, and Philosophic Method,” Southwestern Journal of Philosophy 7, 135-60.

Mossner, Ernest Campbell. 1954. The Life of David Hume (London, Nelson).

Murphy, Arthur E. 1929. “Review of “Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect,” Journal of Philosophy 26, 527-530.

Norton, David Fate (ed.). 1993. The Cambridge Companion to Hume (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

Pears, David. 1990. Hume’s System (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

Robson, J.W. 1941. “Whitehead’s Answer to Hume,” Journal of Philosophy 38, 85-95.

Russel, L.J. 1928. “Review of Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect,” Journal of Philosophical Studies 3, 527-530.

Sellars, Roy Wood. 1961. “Querying Whitehead’s Framework,” Revue Internationale de Philosophie 56-57, 1-32.

Smith, Norman Kemp. 1941. The Philosophy of David Hume (London, Macmillan).

Stokes, Walter E. 1962. “Whitehead’s Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics,” Heythrop Journal 3, 42-50.

Strawson, Galen. 1989. The Secret Connexion: Causation, Realism and David Hume (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

Stroud, Barry. 1977. Hume (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul).

Wright, John P. 1983. The Sceptical Realism of David Hume (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press).

Taylor, Harold. 1941. “Hume’s Answer to Whitehead,” Journal of Philosophy, 38, 409-416.

Author Information

Pierfrancesco Basile
Institut für Philosophie
Universität Bern, Länggassstrasse, 3000 Bern 9

How to Cite this Article

Basile, Pierfrancesco, “David Hume (1711–1776)”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <http://encyclopedia.whiteheadresearch.org/entries/bios/historico-speculative-context/hume/>.