Hume on Causes

The great British empiricist philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) wrote that “There are no ideas which occur in metaphysics more obscure and uncertain than those of ‘power’, ‘force’, ‘energy’, or ‘necessary connection'” (An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Library of Liberal Arts ed., p. 73).

Hume is most famous for his critique of naive or dogmatic assumptions about causality. “[T]here is not, in any particular instance of cause and effect, anything which can suggest the idea of power and necessary connection” (p. 75). To me, it seems to be the idea of an underlying power or force responsible for causality that he is mainly questioning. He has no doubt that we continually experience instances of cause and effect.

“[There is] no such thing as chance in the world” (p. 69). “[T]he conjunction between motives and voluntary actions is as regular and uniform as that between the cause and effect in any part of nature” (p. 98). Clearly, then, he did believe in the reality of cause and effect, but only wanted to reject naive claims about our knowledge of the world that purport to link experienced instances of cause and effect to explanations in terms of the operation of underlying powers. What we actually experience in these cases is just lawful regularity.

“It is certain that the easy and obvious philosophy will always, with the generality of mankind, have the preference above the accurate and abstruse…. The fame of Cicero flourishes at present, but that of Aristotle is utterly decayed” (pp. 16-17). But on the other hand, “All polite letters are nothing but pictures of human life in various attitudes and situations…. An artist must be better qualified to succeed in this undertaking who, besides a delicate taste and a quick apprehension, possesses an accurate knowledge of the internal fabric, the operations of the understanding, the workings of the passions…. However painful soever this inward search or inquiry may appear, it becomes in some manner requisite to those who would describe with success the obvious and outward appearances of life and manners…. Accuracy is, in every case, advantageous to beauty, and just reasoning to delicate sentiment. In vain would we exalt the one by depreciating the other” (p. 19). Clearly, then, Hume’s polemic against scholastic modes of reasoning does not at all mean he simply rejects the values of “accurate and abstruse” philosophy.

Neoplatonizing tendencies in the Aristotelian commentary tradition led to the common Latin scholastic view of causes as metaphysical powers operating behind the scenes that Hume is mainly concerned to criticize. Aristotle himself identified causes more broadly and much less speculatively with every kind of “reasons why” things are as they are and behave as they do. He did so without making extravagant claims to certain knowledge. Whereas scholastic philosophers characteristically debated the pros and cons of accepting various abstract propositions, Aristotle himself was fundamentally concerned with the use of reason to help interpret concrete human experience (see Aristotelian Causes).

Hume is a great philosopher, and so far I have focused on a positive appropriation of his work, having some points in common with themes I have been pursuing about causality and the notion of power. Robert Brandom’s innovative reading of Kant’s response to Hume points out that there are distinct limits to Hume’s approach.

“Kant read Hume’s practical and theoretical philosophies as raising variants of a single question. On the side of practical reasoning, Hume asks what our warrant is for moving from descriptions of how things are to prescriptions of how they ought to be. How can we rationally justify the move from ‘is’ to ‘ought’? On the side of theoretical reasoning, Hume asks what our warrant is for moving from descriptions of what in fact happens to characterizations of what must happen and what could not happen…. Hume’s predicament is that he finds that even his best understanding of facts doesn’t yield an understanding of either of the two sorts of rules governing and relating those facts, underwriting assessments of which of the things that actually happen (all he thought we can directly experience) ought to happen (are normatively necessary) or must happen (are naturally necessary).”

“Kant’s response to the proposed predicament is that we cannot be in the situation that Hume envisages: understanding matter-of-factual empirical claims perfectly well, but having no idea what is meant by modal or normative ones” (Brandom, Reason in Philosophy, p. 54).

Brandom continues, “To judge, claim, or believe that the cat is on the mat, one must have at least a minimal practical ability to sort material inferences in which that content is involved (as premise or conclusion) into good ones and bad ones, and to discriminate what is from what is not materially incompatible with it. Part of doing that is associating with those inferences ranges of counterfactual robustness…. So, for example, one must have such dispositions as to treat the cat’s being on the mat as compatible with a nearby tree being somewhat nearer, or the temperature a few degrees higher, but not with the sun being as close as the tree or the temperature being thousands of degrees higher. One must know such things as that the cat might chase a mouse or flee from a dog, but that the mat can do neither, and that the mat would remain essentially as it is if one jumped up and down on it or beat it with a stick, while the cat would not. It is not that there is any one of the counterfactual inferences I have mentioned that is necessary for understanding what it is for the cat to be on the mat. But if one makes no distinctions of this sort — treats the possibility of the cat’s jumping off the mat or yawning as on a par with is sprouting wings and starting to fly, or suddenly becoming microscopically small; does not at all distinguish between what can and cannot happen to the cat and what can and cannot happen to the mat — then one does not count as understanding the claim well enough to endorse it” (pp. 54-55).

Brandom concludes, “If that is right, then in being able to employ concepts such as cat and mat in ordinary empirical descriptive claims one already knows how to do everything one needs to know how to do in order to deploy concepts such as possible and necessary — albeit fallibly and imperfectly” (p. 55).

I am actually a little more sympathetic to Hume, in that I don’t read him as categorically rejecting the validity of concepts of necessity, only any possibility of certain knowledge of how they apply to the real world. I personally like the position of Leibnitz that necessity is real but always hypothetical, never categorical. But Brandom is right that Hume does not go on to emphasize how essential our fallible understanding of necessity is to our understanding of ordinary experience.

Sense Certainty?

The first chapter of Hegel’s Phenomenology is devoted to “sense certainty”. In spite of his polemic against those who want to ground human knowledge in immediacy, it seems to me Hegel is actually very charitable here, in conceding that there is already a truth to which “certainty” could apply.

Again with apologies for my use of the old Baillie translation, Hegel says “This bare fact of certainty, however, is really and admittedly the abstractest and the poorest kind of truth. It merely says regarding what it knows: it is; and its truth contains solely the being of the fact it knows. Consciousness, on its part, in the case of this form of certainty, takes the shape merely of pure Ego. In other words, I in such a case am merely qua pure This, and the object likewise is merely qua pure This. I, this particular conscious I, am certain of this fact before me, not because I qua consciousness have developed myself in connection with it and in manifold ways set thought to work about it: and not, again, because the fact, the thing, of which I am certain, in virtue of its having a multitude of distinct qualities, was replete with possible modes of relation and a variety of connections with other things. Neither has anything to do with the truth sensuous certainty contains: neither the I nor the thing has here the meaning of a manifold relation with a variety of other things, of mediation in a variety of ways. The I does not contain or imply a manifold of ideas, the I here does not think: nor does the thing mean what has a multiplicity of qualities. Rather, the thing, the fact, is; and it is merely because it is. It is — that is the essential point for sense-knowledge, and that bare fact of being, that simple immediacy, constitutes its truth” (pp. 149-150).

Hegel goes on to point out that this otherwise completely indeterminate “bare fact of being” implicitly presupposes a distinction between “I” and “object”. “When we reflect on this distinction, it is seen that neither the one nor the other is merely immediate, merely is in sense-certainty, but is at the same time mediated: I have the certainty through the other, viz. through the actual fact; and this, again, exists in that certainty through an other, viz. through the I” (p. 150). And so begins the dialectical path that Hegel claims can eventually lead to a knowledge free of the kind of transcendental illusion Kant had said was inevitable for us humans.

So Hegel is saying even the standpoint that takes itself to be grounded in pure immediacy actually turns out not to be purely immediate. But he generously nonetheless allows it its “truth” of “this is“.

What immediate sensation gives us is only something we can point at as “this”, but Hegel is also accepting the very general and minimal claim that whenever we sense something — even if we are totally ignorant or mistaken about what it is — we can still be certain that we are sensing “something”. Completely without prejudice as to what it is, he is generously counting our impression that it in some way is as a minimal kind of knowledge. A “this” by itself can be neither true nor false, but “that this is” is arguably a kind of minimal proposition to which truth and certainty could apply.

Referring to Hegel’s contemporary notebooks, H. S. Harris in his commentary says that “The real paradigm of sense certainty is the consciousness of Hegel’s [peasant woman] who is comfortably at home in her world of singular things, each with its proper name” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 212). He quotes Hegel “The peasant-wife lives within the circle of her Lisa, her best cow; then the black one, the spotted one, and so on; also of Martin, her lad, and Ursula, her lass, etc.” (ibid).

Harris goes on to emphasize that “The Hegelian philosopher is like the peasant woman in that everything she does is part of actual living, part of the integral awareness of her own life…. We do not ever leave Sense-Certainty behind — though, of course we do leave some philosophical views that are founded upon it behind” (p. 213).

Hegel does not ask us to leave “natural consciousness” behind, but invites us to broaden its circle. It is philosophical views purporting to ground themselves in pure immediacy that will be conclusively left behind.

Each of the standpoints or shapes of experience successively described in the Phenomenology is discussed by Hegel from multiple perspectives. He tries to describe the way each standpoint sees itself; he may allude to ways in which he thinks other philosophers have misappropriated it; and he tries to clarify how he wants us to come to see it. What eventually happens with each of the standpoints thus has a certain ambiguity, depending on which perspective is under consideration.

In real life we don’t abstractly say to ourselves “this… is“, but are more like the peasant woman recognizing Lisa, her cow. We “immediately” experience Lisa the cow, not abstract sense data. Our “immediate” recognition of Lisa the cow involves a preconscious Kantian synthesis of a sensible manifold in light of many past experiences.

I am somewhat in doubt myself about counting a bare “this is” as a meaningful truth. It has the syntactic form of a proposition, but it seems totally unclear what is being asserted. It is applying an indeterminate to an indeterminate. “This is Lisa the cow” on the other hand I would count as a meaningful proposition of ordinary life. I think saying “this is“, though admittedly not the same as just saying “this”, is more like just saying “this” than it is like saying “this is Lisa the cow”. Lisa the cow at least is distinguishable from many other things even if “this” is not, so it means something to say “this is Lisa the cow”.

But Hegel and Harris are being deliberately generous here, and my earlier point about multiple perspectives on each “standpoint” applies. Technically I would want to say that in recognizing Lisa the cow we must have already reached beyond sense-certainty to what Hegel will call Perception, but it is nonetheless true that common sense elides this sort of distinction, and experiences itself as immediately seeing Lisa the cow. The Hegelian philosopher too as a living being will still “immediately see” Lisa the cow and many other already differentiated things; she just won’t build dogmatic theories that take this experienced immediacy as the last word.

Passive Synthesis, Active Sense

Husserl suggested an intriguing notion of passive synthesis, which I believe in his view would be the source of what Hegel calls mediated immediacy. Something like this could help round out the Kantian account of synthesis, which is strongly tilted toward active synthesis associated with deliberate conscious acts. Language is straining here; passive synthesis is just short of paradox. I think the idea here is that “passive” synthesis is synthesis that comes to us more or less ready-made, based on previous syntheses we have formed or socially assimilated.

Something related to this is also involved in the Aristotelian notion of a “common” sense, which in effect synthesizes our experience of sensible things into a unified whole. Aristotle’s remarks are in a very minimalist style, but were developed in a little more detail by the commentator Alexander of Aphrodisias. Kant and Aristotle both generally treat sense perception in passive terms, but Aristotle’s common sense clearly cannot be entirely passive. Many medieval authors working in the broadly Aristotelian tradition developed more detailed accounts of sense perception in general as also involving an active component.

These various efforts to describe such processes in terms that are neither purely active nor purely passive seem very important to me as laying the ground for a reasonable account of human agency, free of both voluntarism and simplistic determinism.