David Hume   An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

Section II

      
     Editorial Note

Hume's text is in the public domain and may be freely reproduced. This essay is an edited excerpt from the book, originally published in 1748.  The edited text on this page was produced by Theodore Gracyk. (Copyright Theodore Gracyk 2002) It may be freely reproduced, so long as this complete citation is included with any such reproductions.

This is a highly edited version. Many of the sections have been shortened. Major cuts are indicated with ellipsis marks ( . . . )   Most British spelling has been modernized to American spelling. My additions and substitutions to the text are indicated by square brackets.

Paragraph numbering below has been added to facilitate class discussion. It was not included in the original text.

 


Section II:  Of the Origin of Ideas

  1. EVERY one will readily allow, that there is a considerable difference between the perceptions of the mind, when a man feels the pain of excessive heat, or the pleasure of moderate warmth, and when he afterwards recalls to his memory this sensation, or anticipates it by his imagination. These faculties [of memory and imagination] may mimic or copy the perceptions of the senses; but they never can entirely reach the force and vivacity of the original [perception]. The utmost we say of them, even when they operate with greatest vigor, is, that they represent their object in so lively a manner, that we could almost say we feel or see it. But, except the mind be disordered by disease or madness, [the ideas of memory and imagination] never can arrive at such a pitch of vivacity [or animation], as to render these [copied] perceptions altogether undistinguishable [from sensations]. All the colors of poetry, however splendid, 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.

  2. We may observe a like distinction to run through all the other perceptions of the mind. 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 [or idea] of his situation; but never can mistake that [idea] for the real [experience of] the passion. When we [remember] on our past sentiments and affections, our thought is a faithful mirror, and [memory] copies its objects truly. But the colors which it employs are faint and dull, in comparison of those in which our original perceptions were clothed. It requires no [expertise] to mark the distinction between [perceptions and memories of them].

  3. Here therefore we may divide all the perceptions of the mind into two classes or species, which are distinguished by their different degrees of force and vivacity. The less forcible and lively are commonly denominated Thoughts or Ideas. The other species [of perception does not have] a name in our language, and in most others; I suppose, because [only philosophers] rank them under a general term or [name]. Let us, therefore, use a little freedom [and name them], and call them Impressions; employing that word in a sense somewhat different from the usual. By the term impression, then, I mean all our more lively perceptions, when we hear, or see, or feel, or love, or hate, or desire, or will. And impressions are distinguished from ideas, which are the less lively perceptions, of which we are conscious, when we [afterwards] reflect on any of those sensations or movements above mentioned.

  4. Nothing, at first view, may seem more unbounded than the thought of man . . . [Our thoughts can] form monsters, and join incongruous shapes and appearances. [This creative activity] costs the imagination no more trouble than to conceive the most natural and familiar objects. And while the body is confined to one planet, along which it creeps with pain and difficulty; the thought can in an instant transport us into the most distant regions of the universe; or even beyond the universe, into the unbounded chaos, where nature is supposed to lie in total confusion. What never was seen, or heard of, may yet be conceived; nor is any thing beyond the power of thought, except what implies an absolute contradiction.

  5. But though our thought seems to possess this unbounded [freedom], we shall find, upon a nearer examination, that it is really confined within very narrow limits. All this creative power of the mind amounts to no more than the faculty of compounding, transposing, augmenting, or diminishing the [thoughts or ideas] afforded us by the senses and experience. When we think of a golden mountain, we only join two consistent ideas, gold, and mountain, with which we were formerly acquainted. A virtuous horse we can conceive; because, from our own feeling, we can conceive virtue; and this we may unite to the figure and shape of a horse, which is an animal familiar to us. In short, all the materials of thinking are derived either from our outward or inward sentiment: the mixture and composition of these belongs alone to the mind and will. Or, to express myself in philosophical language, all our ideas or more feeble perceptions are copies of our impressions or more lively ones.

  6. To prove [that all our ideas  are copies of our impressions], the two following arguments will, I hope, be sufficient. First, when we analyze our thoughts or ideas, however compounded or sublime, we always find that they resolve themselves into such simple ideas as were copied from a precedent feeling or sentiment. Even those ideas, which, at first view, seem the most [original] are found, upon a nearer scrutiny, to be derived from [previous impressions]. The idea of God, as meaning an infinitely intelligent, wise, and good Being, arises from reflecting on the operations of our own mind, and augmenting, without limit, those qualities of goodness and wisdom. . . .  We shall always find, that every idea which we examine is copied from a similar impression. Those who would assert that this position is not universally true nor without exception, have only one, and that an easy method of refuting it. [They can refute my theory] by producing that idea, which, in their opinion, is not derived from this source. It will then be incumbent on us, if we would maintain our doctrine, to produce the impression, or lively perception, which corresponds to it.

  7. Secondly. If it happen, from a defect of the [sensory] organ, that a man is not susceptible of any species of sensation, we always find that he is as little susceptible of the correspondent ideas. A blind man can form no notion of colors; a deaf man [can form no notion] of sounds. Restore either of them that sense in which he is deficient; by opening this new inlet for his sensations, you also open an inlet for the ideas; and he finds no difficulty in conceiving these objects. The case is the same, if the object, proper for exciting any sensation, has never been applied to the organ. [People who live in an isolated culture that does not grow grapes for wine have] no notion of the [taste] of wine. And though there are few or no instances of a like deficiency in the mind, where a person has never felt or is wholly incapable of a sentiment or passion [or emotion] that belongs to his species; yet we find the same observation to take place in a less degree. 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. It is readily allowed, that other beings may possess many senses of which we can have no conception; because the ideas of them have never been introduced to us in the only manner by which an idea can have access to the mind, to wit, by the actual feeling and sensation.

  8. There is, however, one contradictory phenomenon, which may prove that it is not absolutely impossible for ideas to arise, independent of their correspondent impressions. I believe it will readily be allowed, that the several distinct ideas of color, which enter by the eye, or those of sound, which are conveyed by the ear, are really different from each other; though, at the same time, resembling [one another]. Now if this be true of different colors, it must be no less so of the different shades of the same color; and each shade produces a distinct idea, independent of the rest. For if this should be denied, it is possible, by the continual gradation of shades, to run a color insensibly into what is most remote from it; and if you will not allow any of the means to be different, you cannot, without absurdity, deny the extremes to be the same. Suppose, therefore, a person to have enjoyed his sight for thirty years, and to have become perfectly acquainted with colors of all kinds except one particular shade of blue, for instance, which it never has been his fortune to meet with. Let [samples of] all the different shades of that color, except that single one, be placed before him, descending gradually from the deepest to the lightest. It is plain that he will perceive a blank [in the sequence], where that shade is missing, and will be sensible that there is a greater distance in that place between the contiguous color than in any other. Now I ask, whether it be possible for him, from his own imagination, to supply this deficiency, and raise up to himself the idea of that particular shade, though it had never been conveyed to him by his senses? I believe there are few but will be of opinion that he can: and this may serve as a proof that the simple ideas are not always, in every instance, derived from the correspondent impressions; though this instance is so singular, that it is scarcely worth our observing, and does not merit that for it alone we should alter our general maxim [or rule].

  9. Here, therefore, is a proposition, which not only seems, in itself, simple and intelligible; but, if a proper use were made of it, might render every dispute equally intelligible. [It would] banish all that jargon, which has so long taken possession of [philosophical debate], and drawn disgrace upon them. All ideas, especially abstract ones, are naturally faint and obscure: the mind has but a slender hold of them: they are apt to be confounded with other resembling ideas; and when we have often employed any term, though without a distinct meaning, we are apt to imagine it has a determinate idea annexed to it. On the contrary, all impressions, that is, all sensations, either outward or inward, are strong and vivid: the limits between them are more exactly determined; nor is it easy to fall into any error or mistake with regard to them. When we entertain therefore, any suspicion that a philosophical term is employed without any meaning or idea (as is but too frequent), we need but enquire, from what impression is that supposed idea derived? And if it be impossible to assign any, this will serve to confirm our suspicion. By bringing ideas into so clear a light we may reasonably hope to remove all dispute, which may arise, concerning their nature and reality. [1]



Footnote 1.  It is probable that no more was meant by those, who denied innate ideas, than that all ideas were copies of our impressions. [But their terminology was] not chosen with such caution, nor so exactly defined, as to prevent all mistakes about their doctrine. For what is meant by innate? [On the one hand,] if innate be equivalent to natural, then all the perceptions and ideas of the mind must be allowed to be innate or natural, in whatever sense we take the latter word, whether in opposition to what is uncommon, artificial, or miraculous. [On the other hand,] if by innate be meant contemporary to our birth, the dispute seems to be frivolous; nor is it worth while to enquire at what time thinking begins, whether before, at, or after our birth. Again, the word idea, seems to be commonly taken in a very loose sense, by [John] LOCKE and others; as standing for any of our perceptions, our sensations and passions, as well as thoughts. Now in this sense, I should desire to know, what can be meant by asserting, that [our emotion of] self-love, or resentment of injuries, or the passion between the sexes is not innate?

But admitting these terms, impressions and ideas, in the sense above explained, and understanding by innate, what is original or copied from no precedent perception, then may we assert that all our impressions are innate, and our ideas not innate.

To be ingenuous, I must own it to be my opinion, that LOCKE was betrayed into this question by [philosophers who made] use of undefined terms. . .  . A like ambiguity and circumlocution seem to run through that philosopher’s reasonings on this as well as most other subjects.