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A Critique Of David Hume’s Empiricism



One of the never ending processes in life is the process of knowledge acquisition which to the lay man may not constitute any problem as regards how it is acquired. But to philosophers, from time past this has constituted serious debacles. However, in philosophy, it has become the special concern of epistemology one of it’s branches to analyze how knowledge is acquired.

Epistemology has rationalism and empiricism as its most outstanding schools. These two schools in analyzing how knowledge is acquired have come to be the opposite of each other, because while rationalism hold that knowledge comes through reason,empiricism on the other hand holds that it comes through sense-experience. In this long history of philosophy, however, David Hume has remained the most consistent empiricist and for some reasons, we deemed it necessary to make the aim of this work be the critical analysis of David Hume’s theory of empiricism so that in the end we would have demonstrated whether it exhausts all possible knowledge of reality or not.

Now our problem is what must have led to Hume’s radical position that sense-experience is the only possible guide to the acquisition of knowledge that is certain? We however, discover that it is not unconnected to the fact that the search for knowledge that is certain, which Aristotle shifted to concrete objects through experimentation and which also cut through the time of John Locke and George Berkeley who laid emphasis on perception, influenced Hume to a great extent. Therefore by building on the philosophy of Locke and Berkeley which emphasized sense perception, Hume came to develop his radical position about sense experience as the limit of human knowledge.

In this, Hume categorized the objects of human reason into relations of ideas and matters of facts and he concentrated on the latter which he argued can only be ascertained through sense-experience. He went further to hold that these sense-experiences are acquired as impressions that is at the time of direct contact with an object, and later as ideas when the mind reflects on the impressions.

Analytically one discovers that impressions are however Humes only guarantee for measuring reality, even the ideas in the mind he argued must conform to these impressions so as to be considered as guaranteeing knowledge as real. In short, for something to be considered as real, it must generate impression.

Hume argued, causality can not be real because in reality, only what we experience are the proceeding and succeeding events separately and not any causal relation between the two events. All other metaphysical concepts are not real because they do not generate impressions and therefore cannot be experienced. To demonstrate his utter rejection of metaphysics, Hume campaigned for the burning of every book that contains metaphysics.

In spite of all these, Hume’s rejection of metaphysics was an unsuccessful exercise because Hume used the method of knowledge acquisition through sensation which does not apply to metaphysics.

Then come our wonder, why should sense-experience be the only standard of the measurement of reality for Hume? Are the senses not fallible? Of course, they are. Hardly do two people perceive on thing the same way, what of illusions and hallucinations, all these demonstrates that the senses furnish us most times with appearances and not reality. It therefore amounts to wrong conception of reality as guaranteeing reality.

What the sense furnish us with has to be moderated by human reason before they are considered, qualified as certain knowledge.



1.1    Background of  study

1.2    Statement of  problem

1.3    Purpose of study

1.4    Significance of  study

1.5    Scope and Scopmethodology

1.6    Methodology

1.7    Literature Review

End Notes


2.1    Hume’s life and works

2.2    Intellectual influences on David Hume

2.3    General overview of empiricist philosophy

End Notes


3.1    Hume’s theory of empiricism

3.2    Contents of the mind and Association of ideas

3.3    Hume’s concept of causality

3.4    Hume’s attack on metaphysics

End Notes


4.2    The limitations of the senses as a source of knowledge

4.2    Wrong conception of reality

4.3    A systematic empiricism leads to idealism

End Notes


5.1 End notes

5.2 Bibliography




The search for knowledge that is both absolute and certain has been continuous. However, since at least the time of Aristotle, there has been a strong epistemological tradition based mainly on human experience, which is not directed towards the possibility of achieving absolute knowledge.

This tradition is a typical example of the doctrine of empiricism. Empiricists argue that it is unreasonable to set a goal of absolute and all-inclusive knowledge, especially when there is close at hand the power to increase practical knowledge by slower but dependable methods.

Empiricist are content in building a system of knowledge that has a high probability of being true even though it’s absolute certainty cannot be guaranteed.

David Hume is one of the greatest empiricists in the history of epistemology and metaphysics who has distinguished himself as a consistent and coherent radical empiricist.

According to him, the only true knowledge is experimental, and any concept that is not available to sense perception is mere fanciful thinking.

The only abstract objects of the abstract science or of demonstration are quantity and number, and all attempts to extend this more perfect species of knowledge beyond these bounds are mere sophistry and illusion.1

With an ideological ferocity, he calls for a book-burning campaign of any metaphysical work.

He proclaims:

When we run over libraries persuaded of these (empirical) principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume: of or school metaphysics, for instance lets ask does it contain any abstract reasoning containing quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter-of-fact and existence? No. Commit to it to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.2

Hume’s proposal of vigorous sensism as an alternative to our natural and acquired scientific, metaphysical and socio-cultural deposits, creates more problems than it resolves. It withers all foundation of science and philosophy. It leaves us in make-shift, sandy subjectivism of dry empiricism.

David Hume’s empiricism within the context of knowledge is great, but a consistent empirist will end up destroying the very foundation of knowledge. The epistemological, scientific and ontological heritage of humanity is we think more than a series of impressions.3 To reduce them as bundles of impressions. To reduce them as bundles of impressions as Hume would want to believe is myopic.

The above as a way of introduction forms the background of our study.


There are problems in Hume’s theory of empiricism. The major one arises in an attempt to answer the question of how reliable is our senses. Very often, our senses deceive us. This is true when we see a mirage, in the changing size of objects according to our psychological and physiological state, in hallucination and other forms of illusions.

The problem is that there is no way of immediately differentiating the real from the unreal in such situations. The mirage for example is an effect caused by hot air in deserts or on roads, that makes you think you can see something, such as water, which is not there.

Now the question is, how do we differentiate between a true sense experience from a false or illusory sense experience?

Thus, arises the famous arguments from illusion which places doubts on the reliability of sense experience.


It has already been pointed out that David Hume maintained a radical stand in his position on knowledge acquisition by maintaining that knowledge comes only from sense experience. He did this by drawing out the problems inherent in reason as a source of knowledge.

The purpose of this study is therefore to examine David Hume’s position and also to show that in as much as we agree that human beings acquire knowledge through senses experience, sense experience alone cannot constitute or guarantee knowledge. Just as Jacques Maritain pointed out that every philosophical system contains some truth and tells something about the real, some philosophies however exaggerate their claims and this is where they then run into problems. This is so with David Hume, he ran into this kind of problem and this was because though knowledge can be acquired through sense experience, he exaggerated the position by maintaining that knowledge can only come through sense experience. David Hume’s Empiricism

It therefore becomes part of the purpose of this study to point out some of these problems as we can in order to show that though sense experience leads to knowledge, however knowledge does not stop there after there are some limitations to the senses in epistemological procedure so that whatever information we receive through the senses are subjected to judgment before it is accepted. David Hume’s Empiricism


When this work is completed, it is our hope that it is going to be of importance in the sense that at least we would have succeeded in bringing to light some of the very important aspects of David Hume’s empiricism and at the same time would have also succeeded in pointing out problems inherent in it. David Hume’s Empiricism

The work will equally be of help or assistance to students who will want to do some works in the area of David Hume’s empiricism as it will provide some aid to them by providing them with a kind of insight into the nature of Hume’s empiricism. But we must point out here that this work should not be taken as all there is in Hume’s empiricism. But where however, we could not cover, the references. That appear at the end of the work will therefore be adequate to direct or refer students to where information as regards those areas will be gathered.

To people who may not be doing works on David Hume`s Empiricism; to non-philosophers, who may thus be reading for knowledge acquisition or for pleasure, this work will equally be of immense help as the approach that will be adopted here and the choice of works will not be difficult to understand. David Hume’s Empiricism


We have already shown from the title of this work that this work is concerned with providing a critique of David Hume’s empiricism. However, just as it is done in every critical study, we are not going to rush into the criticism just like that, we therefore will have a guide or focus as regards what to criticize. Hume’s empiricism itself is to provide the guide because, as we are going to criticize it, we will have to present his empiricism so as to point out what it entails. After doing this, we will then know how to anchor our criticism to the problems we will observe, having discovered the nature of Hume’s Empiricism.


The method to be adopted in this work is that of critical study. As the work is on David Hume’s empiricism, the method will therefore be, first of all to present a general overview of empiricism. After this we will then narrow our attention down to Hume’s notion of the subject matter empiricism. It will be after presenting these that we will therefore settle down to criticize. David Hume’s Empiricism

For the purpose of convenience however, our criticism is going to be in two phases.  The first phase will be to provide the attacks which had been leveled against Hume’s empiricism by other people, this is because we are quite aware that Hume’s empiricism has come under attacks over the years. David Hume’s Empiricism

The second phase of the criticism will therefore be our own criticism. We will here point out as will be able, some of those problems Hume’s empiricism are shrouded with due to Hume’s radical position, and based on these, we will therefore draw our criticisms against his empiricism. David Hume’s Empiricism

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