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I was drawn to this work for a few reasons. The first is that it is credited with being the foundation of modern psychology. Behaviorist psychology in particular examines humanity from the point of view of pain and pleasure, showing how the things we are drawn to and those we shy away from form our behavior. Hume set the stage for this perspective by demonstrating the influence of the passions upon motivation, exploring how we are drawn to things we desire and averse to the things that cause us pain. The second reason came from Kant. Immanuel Kant is one of the most revolutionary philosophers in the Western tradition, and he credited Hume with putting him on the track of his philosophy: recognizing the qualities of mind that shape our perception of the universe. Finally, a fair portion of the book is dedicated to our understanding of space and time, and the quantum view of these subjects, like that of Robert Lanza in Biocentrism, is fascinating to me.
The first thing that stood out to me was the language. Hume’s work may be brilliant, but it bears the hallmarks of his era. The language of the 18th Century seems a bit unwieldy to me, a bit drawn out and cumbersome. Despite this, it is colorful, showing a number of issues with science and certainty in metaphors and demonstrations. I especially like that Hume shows the relation of all of the sciences to the understanding of humanity. It is human beings who engage in these sciences, after all. Whatever conditions and shapes human understanding will be reflected in all sciences and all branches of learning. This seems like a pretty solid approach, and I’m surprised it took so many centuries for philosophy to reach this conclusion. I’m actually thankful for the summary, which lays out a number of these concepts in simple language, making it easier to follow Hume’s later expression.
Hume begins with an in-depth examination of the nature of ideas, showing them to be an internal representation of impressions we receive through the senses. He also makes a division between simple and complex ideas, showing simple ideas to be a representation of simple impressions. He believes complex ideas to be compounds of simple ideas. This basically means that all our ideas arise from initial impressions, from experience. This was one of the features that ran contrary to idealism, the perspective that the mind is the source of all ideas and that experience itself was not to be trusted when seeking certain knowledge.
Hume makes a number of other divisions in this exploration: memory and imagination, the ways in which ideas are associated, and the means by which ideas are related in our understanding. He also explores the nature of modes and substances, and of abstract ideas. This part is a bit abstract, but in essence points out that any concept we have of the substance of things around us is a complex concept, a collection of specific sense impressions that are associated within our experience. He then shows that all abstract ideas are extensions of particular ideas, like the specific idea of a triangle that can be extended to different sizes and circumstances.
This leads then to the portion on space and time. Once again, I was thrown off a bit by Hume’s language, and once again, I was glad of the summary to clarify the intention of his argument. Hume begins with a discussion of infinite divisibility, the capacity to divide a line or any specific thing infinitely. In essence, he claims that this is a complex idea based in our capacity to divide anything a number of times, and our extension of this concept to the infinitely large and small. However, there comes a point where something is too small to be perceived and experienced. Similarly, once something becomes large enough, we can no longer directly perceive further enlargement.
This is then applied to time, showing that while we have a notion that we can divide time infinitely, our experience is more like a collection of finite moments. Past a certain point, these moments become too small to be accessible to experience. Furthermore, we can perceive a succession of impressions, like a series of notes on a flute. This can give us an idea and impression of time, but time is not an additional impression to the experience of each note. Time is also suggested by change, which is an experience of successive impressions in which what we experience is different each time. The takeaway from this is that time isn’t something we experience. We experience a succession of impressions, and some character of consciousness turns this into a perception of time. Time is a condition of perception, a quality of thought rather than any solid experience of the world.
One key implication of this perspective of time is in the realm of causality. Causality is based in the relation between cause and effect. But since all we observe are a series of impressions, nothing in our experience can establish a causal effect with certainty. In fact, nothing experiential can be proven with any certainty. It may be probably true that the sun will rise, as we have an impression of so many sunrises following the night, but although this probability approaches certainty, it is not certain. Nothing in previous experience can determine anything of our future experience with true certainty. It’s a bit of a mind-bender, but it follows from his logic pretty clearly.
Although this has covered a fair bit of ground, Hume is just beginning. He explores the nature of identity, finding it to be a collection of impressions, another quality of consciousness. This is really cool, as it reflects some of the more Eastern concepts on the nature of self. He also thoroughly explores the nature of passion and emotions. This part is very interesting as well, as he comes to the conclusion that the proper place of reason is as a servant to the passions, a conclusion that few philosophers before him had taken into account. All in all, I found it a profound work, and it’s shifted the way I look at quite a few aspects of thought and experience.
6 of 6 people found this review helpful
I like how Bouseman gives a short biography and summary to start.
The first half of the book was of little interest to me, but the second half made up for it. The final 6 hours or so (political philosophy and morals) is very strong.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
Not an easy listen. The Treatise is NOT my first choice as an introduction to Hume. This book contains some of the greatest philosophical insights ever put on paper, but unfortunately in a cumbersome and overlong format. Hume corrected this mistake in his later and more concise books - the two Enquiries - which together are a better place to start.
But despite its frustrations and shortcomings, most notably its lack of editorial oversight (which translates into reader-unfriendliness), the Treatise is a multifaceted masterpiece that revolutionised epistemology, psychology and moral philosophy - not bad for a single work.
Whether you think he was right or not (and I happen to think he was 90%* of the time), no serious scholar of philosophy should overlook this book. For even though the two Enquiries are overall better summaries of his position, the messy sprawl of the Treatise's labyrinthine thicket contains rough diamonds of ideas, many of them quite radical, that were ironed out or downplayed by the more "mature" Hume.
The deep jungle of Hume's unfiltered mind is a daunting place that is worth investigating, but only if you have read the Enquiries already.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
I have the hardcopy Oxford edition with revised text by P.H. Nidditch. The first few chapters of the audiobook did not match my physical book at all. I was going to ask for a refund but after a few chapters things seemed to match. Overall a ver helpful reading and clear. Shane the chapters don't have titles though. Would buy again.
2 of 3 people found this review helpful