Friday, June 6, 2008

Hume: Ideas are imitations of sense perceptions

David Hume believed that the most direct, "lively" mental images are those caused by sensory impressions, and that the gyrations of the imagination and intellect are weak imitations or hybrids. "All the colours of poetry, however splendid," he wrote, "can never paint natural objects in such a manner as to make the description be taken for a real landscape. The most lively thought is still inferior to the dullest sensation." I am unsure whether I agree with this, particular as, during my morning meditation, my opinions on Hume's book nearly succeeded in crowding out my attention to a bird chirping outside my window.

He also applied this to emotion, pointing out that we can recognize or imagine emotion in ourselves and others without actually feeling that emotion: "A man in a fit of anger, is actuated in a very different manner from one who only thinks of that emotion. If you tell me, that any person is in love, I easily understand your meaning, and form a just conception of his situation; but never can mistake that conception for the real disorders and agitations of the passion." One might add--I wish to point out--that when we hear of others' fortunes and misfortunes we often have our own emotional responses. Thus, when we hear about someone's unjust punishment, we actually become angry on her behalf, and when we watch the hero kiss his beloved on a movie screen, we actually feel the love we imagine he feels.

Many of our mental creations are hybrids in the simplest and most literal sense. "What never was seen, or heard of, may yet be conceived...When we think of a golden mountain, we only join two consistent ideas, gold, and mountain..." And yet, these ideas ultimately must be rooted in experience. He wrote, "A blind man can form no notion of colours, a deaf man of sounds." He also applied this to virtue: "A man of mild manners can form no idea of inveterate revenge or cruelty, nor can a selfish heart easily conceive the heights of friendship and generosity." Though it feels depressing to say so, this seems true to some degree. Why is it that deeply felt impulses and ethical commitments are so difficult to sympathize with in other people who experience them differently? If we were capable of understanding each other better, surely this would promote peace.

David Hume. Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. (1772) Section II: Of the Origin of Ideas.

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