Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding
In David Hume’s Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding he states that all human reason can be separated into two kinds, either Relations of Ideas or Matters of Fact. This essay aims to explain Hume’s theory and clearly distinguish the differences between the two. He gives examples of the two and why he believes this to be true for all people. This is Hume’s version of a priori/a posteriori differentiation.
Relations of Ideas is defined by Hume as “the “sciences of geometry, algebra, and arithmetic” and “every affirmation which is either intuitively or demonstratively certain”. These are the notions of beliefs that are cultivated entirely within the mind. These beliefs cannot be disputed because they have no external reference to contradict them. An example of a Relation of Idea is two plus two equals four or a square always has four sides. Another example is a bachelor is not married. The Relation of Idea is Hume’s a priori, which is by definition, knowledge that is based on reason, independent of experience. Although Hume only briefly writes about the Relation of Ideas theory in the Inquiry, he does go into much more explanation when discussing the Matters of Fact theory. Because he goes into much more detail the reader begins to also understand and distinguish from the first much more.
Hume wanted to explain the foundation of true knowledge; this is where the Matters of Fact came into play. Matters of Fact are our beliefs in nature or what we experience. He uses the example of the sun will raise tomorrow. But, what he questions is, how do we know that the sun will rise tomorrow? We don’t according to Hume. We rely on our experience to make judgments for our future. We refer to this as cause and effect. Although we rely on cause and effect heavily, is it really a fact? Even though we must continue to live this way, it does not necessarily make it fact. A person will conclude that if they were to place their hand into a fire that it will burn there hand. Hume questions if it was the fire that in fact caused the burn. We know this from our experiences, but he begs to differ. He presents the idea that even though experience had taught us that we a burn to our hand will result if we were to place it within an open flame, how do we know that the flame caused the burn. The idea is that even though we continue to live our lives and make certain assumptions based on our experience what would we do if the circumstances were to change? We live knowing that our hand will get burned by and open flame, but what if the next time we put our hand into that flame we do not get burned? Then everything we have come to know about fire and the result of it are false.
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The fire itself may not have been the cause of the burn it could have been just a coincidence. He states that we must infer a conclusion from our past experiences but only after several experiments. But yet we cannot know them to be true as a fact. Another example is the one referenced to earlier; day after day the sun rises. This is something that we have come to learn from our experience. Every morning the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, but what if it did not? The sun may not come up tomorrow and it may not rise in the east. This is something that we did not conceive of in our minds so it falls under the category of Matters of Fact. It is something we do not have control over. It is nature. Hume’s Matter of Fact theory is a posteriori, which by definition means, knowledge that may involve the use of reason, it depends on evidence from experience.
Hume presents two ideas that form all human reasoning. They can be broken down into two kinds, the Relations of Ideas and the Matters of Fact. Hume see’s certain things such as mathematics or anything else that is formed within the mind as absolutes, these are Relations of Ideas. Matters of Fact rely on our own experience to predict future events, such as the sun rising every morning. These experiences can be called into question. Matters of fact are always uncertain, even though we heavily rely on then throughout our lifetime.
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