Hume, David (1711–76)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DB040-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2005
Retrieved January 23, 2019, from

2. The contents and faculties of the mind

Hume calls all of the contents of the mind perceptions, which he distinguishes as impressions and ideas. Ideas differ as a class from impressions not in their intrinsic content or character but rather in their lesser ‘force and vivacity’: in sensing or feeling, the mind has impressions, while in thinking, it has ideas. (Hume thus uses the term ‘idea’ more narrowly than do Descartes and Locke, who use the term in a way roughly equivalent to Hume’s use of ‘perception’.) Perceptions – both impressions and ideas – may also be distinguished as simple and complex: the former have no perceptions as parts, whereas the latter are composed of simpler perceptions. These distinctions allow the formulation of one of Hume’s most fundamental principles: that all ideas are either copied from resembling impressions or composed of simpler ideas that are copied from resembling impressions. He cites as evidence for this principle (sometimes called the Copy Principle) the mind’s possession of simple ideas corresponding to its simple impressions, the temporal priority of impressions over their corresponding ideas, and the absence of ideas of particular kinds in the minds of those who have never had the corresponding impressions (THN 1.1.1; EHU 1). This principle plays a role in many of Hume’s most important arguments on a wide variety of topics, and it also gives rise to a methodological directive: where the character of an idea is unclear or uncertain, trace it to the more forceful and vivacious impression from which it is derived in order to bestow clarity on the idea. Similarly, Hume argues, if one suspects that a term is being used without a meaning – that is, without standing for any idea – the inability to find a corresponding impression may serve to confirm the suspicion.

Within the class of impressions, Hume draws a further distinction between impressions of sensation and impressions of reflection. The former, which include impressions of colour, taste, smell, sound, heat and touch, have immediate causes that are external to the mind. The latter, which include the passions, moral sentiments, aesthetic sentiments and other internal feelings of the mind, arise as a result of other perceptions, typically ideas – for example, hatred and anger may arise from thinking of pain or harm caused by another. Within the class of ideas, he distinguishes between those that are particular and those that are abstract. For although he asserts (against Locke and with George BERKELEY) that all ideas are fully determinate in their own nature, he maintains that an idea can acquire a general signification through its association with a word or term that disposes the mind to ‘revive’ or ‘survey’ similar ideas as needed in cognitive operations (THN 1.1.7). Such an idea thereby becomes an ‘abstract’ idea – what we would call a concept.

Abstract ideas, for Hume, may be of kinds of substances, qualities or modes of things, or of relations between things. Relations are respects in which two or more things may be compared. While he distinguishes seven general kinds of ‘philosophical relations’, relations of three of these kinds can also function as ‘natural relations’ – by which Hume means that the holding of the relation between things can serve as a natural principle of mental association, leading the ideas of the related things to succeed one another in the mind or be combined into complex ideas (such as those of substances). These ‘natural relations’ are resemblance, contiguity in space or time and cause and effect. Whereas Locke had appealed to ‘the association of ideas’ chiefly to explain error and insanity, Hume dramatically expands its explanatory role in normal cognitive functioning so as to make it a kind of mental analogue of the fundamental Newtonian attractive force of gravitation, but one operating on perceptions rather than on bodies.

In the course of analyzing the operations of the human mind, Hume discusses a number of cognitive faculties. In addition to sensation and reflection, which are faculties for having impressions, Hume distinguishes two faculties for having ideas. Memory is a faculty for having ideas that retain not only the character but also the order and a large share of the original force and vivacity of the impressions from which they are copied. The imagination, in contrast, does not retain this large share of the force and vivacity of the original impressions and is not constrained to preserve their order; instead, the imagination can separate and recombine ideas freely. Because it is a faculty for having ideas, the imagination is, like memory, fundamentally a representational faculty. Such additional cognitive faculties as judgment and reason are nevertheless functions of the imagination, in Hume’s view, because they ultimately constitute particular ways of having ideas. This, in turn, is because belief itself, in which judgment consists and which constitutes the characteristic outcome of reasoning, is itself a lower degree of force and vivacity, or ’liveliness’, below that of impressions and memory.

Notably absent from Hume’s account of cognitive faculties is any further representational faculty of intellect of the kind proposed by such philosophers as Descartes, Malebranche, Spinoza and Leibniz – that is, a representational faculty whose representations are not derived from sensory or internal experience and which can serve as the basis for a higher kind of cognition than mere experience can provide. Hume’s adoption of the Copy Principle constitutes a rejection of such a faculty, for it commits him to accounting for all human cognition exclusively in terms of representations that are images of sensory and inner impressions.

While Hume uses the term ‘imagination’ in a wide sense to designate ‘the faculty by which we form our fainter (that is, non-memory) ideas’, he also carefully distinguishes a narrower sense of the term as well, according to which it is ‘the same faculty, excluding only our demonstrative and probable reasonings’. Demonstrative reasoning, as he characterizes it, depends only on the intrinsic content of ideas; accordingly, whatever is demonstrated has a denial that is contradictory and literally inconceivable, and the result of demonstrative reasoning is knowledge, in a strict and technical sense derived from Locke. All other reasoning – resulting not in knowledge, in this technical sense, but in probability – is probable reasoning, the investigation of which is a central task of Hume’s philosophical project. Given this narrower sense of ‘imagination’ as excluding reasoning, Hume can and often does ask whether a particular feature or content of the mind derives from the senses, reason or the imagination. One of the most general theses of the Treatise is that the character of human thought and action is determined to a very considerable extent by features of the imagination in this narrower sense.

In contrast to the understanding are the passions, which determine much of human conative nature. What Hume calls the direct passions – including joy, grief, desire, aversion, hope and fear – arise immediately from ‘good or evil, pleasure or pain’; the indirect passions also arise from pleasure and pain, but ‘by the conjunction of other qualities’. Among the most important indirect passions are pride, humility, love and hatred. Each of these four indirect passions has a characteristic and natural object – either oneself (as in the case of pride and humility) or another person (as in the case of love and hate); this object is that to which the passion directs the thought of the person undergoing the passion. These indirect passions arise through a process of conversion (called ‘the double relation of impressions and ideas’), whereby a pleasure or pain is transformed into a resembling passion when the cause of the pleasure or pain is closely associated with the object of the passion. Voluntary action, for Hume, is the result of the will, or volition, which is itself just another impression of reflection, typically prompted by desire or aversion – which may, in turn, be prompted by other passions. The moral sentiments of approbation and disapprobation arise from reflection on traits of character – ongoing motives, dispositions and tendencies – and constitute the source of moral distinctions, much as the sentiments of beauty and deformity constitute the source of aesthetic distinctions. Indeed, Hume characterizes virtue as a kind of ‘moral beauty’.

Citing this article:
Garrett, Don. The contents and faculties of the mind. Hume, David (1711–76), 2005, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DB040-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

Related Articles