Before psychology emerged as a science, it was incumbent on philosophers to study how humans perceive reality. From the Renaissance, two great philosophical currents clashed to answer this question; on the one hand there were the rationalists, who believed in the existence of certain universal truths with which we are already born and which allow us to interpret our environment, and on the other there were the empiricists, who they denied the existence of innate knowledge and they believed that we would only learn by experience.
David Hume was not only one of the great representatives of the empiricist current, but he was also one of the most radical in this regard. His powerful ideas are still relevant today, and indeed other 20th-century philosophers were inspired by them. Let’s see who exactly was David Hume’s empiricist theory.
Who was David Hume?
This English philosopher was born in 1711 in Edinburgh, Scotland. At the age of twelve he entered the University of Edinburgh, and years later, after suffering a nervous breakdown, he moved to France, where he began to develop his philosophical interests through writing. . From the Treatise on Human Nature, completed in 1739. This work contains the seeds of his empiricist theory.
Much later, around 1763, Hume befriends Jean-Jacques Rousseau and he began to make himself better known as a thinker and a philosopher. He died in Edinburgh in 1776.
Hume’s empiricist theory
The main ideas of David Hume’s philosophy are summarized in the following basic principles.
1. Innate knowledge does not exist
We human beings come to life without prior knowledge or thought patterns that demarcate how we should conceive of reality. Everything we learn to know will be learned through exposure to the experiences..
In this way, David Hume denied the rationalist dogma that there are truths which exist by themselves and which we could access in any possible context, only by reason.
2. There are two types of mental content
Hume distinguishes between impressions, which are those thoughts which are based on things that we have experienced through the senses, and ideas, which are copies of the above and its nature is no longer ambiguous and abstract. not having the limits or details of something that corresponds to a sensation caused by the eyes, ears, etc.
The bad thing about ideas is that if they correspond exactly to the truth, they tell us very little or nothing about what reality looks like, and in practice what matters is knowing the environment within. which we live in: nature.
3. There are two types of declarations
In explaining reality, Hume distinguishes between demonstrative and probable statements. Demonstratives, as the name suggests, are those whose validity can be demonstrated by evaluating their logical structure. For example, to say that the sum of two units is equal to the number two is a demonstrative statement. It implies that its truth or falsehood is obvious, Without needing to study other things which are not contained in the declaration or which do not form part of the semantic framework in which this declaration fits.
Probabilities, on the other hand, refer to what is happening in a given time and space, and so it is not possible to know with complete certainty whether they are true at the time they are stated. For example, “it will rain tomorrow”.
4. We need probable statements
While we may not be fully confident in its validity, we have to back it up with probable statements in order to live, i.e. trust some beliefs more and others less. Otherwise, we would doubt everything and do nothing.
So what are our habits and lifestyle based on solid beliefs? For Hume, the principles that guide us are valuable because they are likely to reflect something true, not because they correspond exactly to reality.
5. The limits of inductive thinking
For Hume, our lives are characterized by being settled on the belief that we know some invariable characteristics of nature and everything that does not surround it. These beliefs arise from exposure to various similar experiences.
For example, we learned that when you turn on the faucet, two things can happen: the liquid falls or does not fall. However, it cannot happen that liquid comes out but instead of falling, the jet is projected upwards, towards the sky. The latter, however, seems obvious, given the premises above … what justifies that it always continues to happen in the same way? For Hume, nothing justifies it. From the occurrence of many similar experiences in the past, it does not logically follow that this will always happen.
So while there is a lot about how the world works that seem obvious, to Hume these “truths” are not really, and we only act as if they are for convenience or, more precisely, because that they are part of our routine. We first expose ourselves to a repetition of experiences, then we assume a truth that is not really there.