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An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. (1748)

Sect. V. Sceptical Solution of these Doubts

David Hume.

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An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.

David Hume.

Sect. V. Sceptical Solution of these Doubts
                                PART I.

  34. The passion for philosophy, like that for religion, seems liable
to this inconvenience, that, though it aims at the correction of our
manners, and extirpation of our vices, it may only serve, by imprudent
management. to foster a predominant inclination, and push the mind,
with more determined resolution, towards that side which already draws
too much, by the bias and propensity of the natural temper. It is
certain that, while we aspire to the magnanimous firmness of the
philosophic sage, and endeavour to confine our pleasures altogether
within our own minds, we may, at last, render our philosophy like that
of Epictetus, and other Stoics, only a more refined system of
selfishness, and reason ourselves out of all virtue as well as
social enjoyment. While we study with attention the vanity of human
life, and turn all our thoughts towards the empty and transitory
nature of riches and honours, we are, perhaps, all the while
flattering our natural indolence, which, hating the bustle of the
world, and drudgery of business, seeks a pretence of reason to give
itself a full and uncontrolled indulgence. There is, however, one
species of philosophy which seems little liable to this inconvenience,
and that because it strikes in with no disorderly passion of the human
mind, nor can mingle itself with any natural affection or
propensity; and that is the Academic or Sceptical philosophy. The
academics always talk of doubt and suspense of judgement, of danger in
hasty determinations, of confining to very narrow bounds the enquiries
of the understanding, and of renouncing all speculations which lie not
within the limits of common life and practice. Nothing, therefore, can
be more contrary than such a philosophy to the supine indolence of the
mind, its rash arrogance, its lofty pretensions, and its superstitious
credulity. Every passion is mortified by it, except the love of truth;
and that passion never is, nor can be, carried to too high a degree.
It is surprising, therefore, that this philosophy, which, in almost
every instance, must be harmless and innocent, should be the subject
of so much groundless reproach and obloquy. But, perhaps, the very
circumstance which renders it so innocent is what chiefly exposes it
to the public hatred and resentment. By flattering no irregular
passion, it gains few partizans: By opposing so many vices and
follies, it raises to itself abundance of enemies, who stigmatize it
as libertine, profane, and irreligious.

  Nor need we fear that this philosophy, while it endeavours to
limit our enquiries to common life, should ever undermine the
reasonings of common life, and carry its doubts so far as to destroy
all action, as well as speculation. Nature will always maintain her
rights, and prevail in the end over any abstract reasoning whatsoever.
Though we should conclude, for instance, as in the foregoing
section, that, in all reasonings from experience, there is a step
taken by the mind which is not supported by any argument or process of
the understanding; there is no danger that these reasonings, on
which almost all knowledge depends, will ever be affected by such a
discovery. If the mind be not engaged by argument to make this step,
it must be induced by some other principle of equal weight and
authority; and that principle will preserve its influence as long as
human nature remains the same. What that principle is may well be
worth the pains of enquiry.

  35. Suppose a person, though endowed with the strongest faculties of
reason and reflection, to be brought on a sudden into this world; he
would, indeed, immediately observe a continual succession of
objects, and one event following another; but he would not be able
to discover anything farther. He would not, at first, by any
reasoning, be able to reach the idea of cause and effect; since the
particular powers, by which all natural operations are performed,
never appear to the senses; nor is it reasonable to conclude, merely
because one event, in one instance, precedes another, that therefore
the one is the cause, the other the effect. Their conjunction may be
arbitrary and casual. There may be no reason to infer the existence of
one from the appearance of the other. And in a word, such a person,
without more experience, could never employ his conjecture or
reasoning concerning any matter of fact, or be assured of anything
beyond what was immediately present to his memory and senses.

  Suppose, again, that he has acquired more experience, and has
lived so long in the world as to have observed familiar objects or
events to be constantly conjoined together; what is the consequence of
this experience? He immediately infers the existence of one object
from the appearance of the other. Yet he has not, by all his
experience, acquired any idea or knowledge of the secret power by
which the one object produces the other; nor is it, by any process
of reasoning, he is engaged to draw this inference. But still he finds
himself determined to draw it: And though he should be convinced
that his understanding has no part in the operation, he would
nevertheless continue in the same course of thinking. There is some
other principle which determines him to form such a conclusion.

  36. This principle is Custom or Habit. For wherever the repetition
of any particular act or operation produces a propensity to renew
the same act or operation, without being impelled by any reasoning
or process of the understanding, we always say, that this propensity
is the effect of Custom. By employing that word, we pretend not to
have given the ultimate reason of such a propensity. We only point out
a principle of human nature, which is universally acknowledged, and
which is well known by its effects. Perhaps we can push our
enquiries no farther, or pretend to give the cause of this cause;
but must rest contented with it as the ultimate principle, which we
can assign, of all our conclusions from experience. It is sufficient
satisfaction, that we can go so far, without repining at the
narrowness of our faculties because they will carry us no farther. And
it is certain we here advance a very intelligible proposition at
least, if not a true one, when we assert that, after the constant
conjunction of two objects- heat and flame, for instance, weight and
solidity- we are determined by custom alone to expect the one from the
appearance of the other. This hypothesis seems even the only one which
explains the difficulty, why we draw, from a thousand instances, an
inference which we are not able to draw from one instance, that is, in
no respect, different from them. Reason is incapable of any such
variation. The conclusions which it draws from considering one
circle are the same which it would form upon surveying all the circles
in the universe. But no man, having seen only one body move after
being impelled by another, could infer that every other body will move
after a like impulse. All inferences from experience, therefore, are
effects of custom, not of reasoning.*

  * Nothing is more useful than for writers, even, on moral,
political, or physical subjects, to distinguish between reason and
experience, and to suppose, that these species of argumentation are
entirely different from each other. The former are taken for the
mere result of our intellectual faculties, which, by considering
priori the nature of things, and examining the effects, that must
follow from their operation, establish particular principles of
science and philosophy. The latter are supposed to be derived entirely
from sense and observation, by which we learn what has actually
resulted from the operation of particular objects, and are thence able
to infer, what will, for the future, result from them. Thus, for
instance, the limitations and restraints of civil government, and a
legal constitution, may be defended, either from reason, which
reflecting on the great frailty and corruption of human nature,
teaches, that no man can safely be trusted with unlimited authority;
or from experience and history, which inform us of the enormous
abuses, that ambition, in every age and country, has been found to
make of so imprudent a confidence.

  The same distinction between reason and experience is maintained
in all our deliberations concerning the conduct of life; while the
experienced statesman, general, physician, or merchant is trusted
and followed; and the unpractised novice, with whatever natural
talents endowed, neglected and despised. Though it be allowed, that
reason may form very plausible conjectures with regard to the
consequences of such a particular conduct in such particular
circumstances; it is still supposed imperfect, without the
assistance of experience, which is alone able to give stability and
certainty to the maxims, derived from study and reflection.

  But notwithstanding that this distinction be thus universally
received, both in the active speculative scenes of life, I shall not
scruple to pronounce, that it is, at bottom, erroneous, at least,

  If we examine those arguments, which, in any of the sciences above
mentioned, are supposed to be mere effects of reasoning and
reflection, they will be found to terminate, at last, in some
general principle or conclusion, for which we can assign no reason but
observation and experience. The only difference between them and those
maxims, which are vulgarly esteemed the result of pure experience, is,
that the former cannot be established without some process of thought,
and some reflection on what we have observed, in order to
distinguish its circumstances, and trace its consequences: Whereas
in the latter, the experienced event is exactly and fully familiar
to that which we infer as the result of any particular situation.
The history of a Tiberius or a Nero makes us dread a like tyranny,
were our monarchs freed from the restraints of laws and senates: But
the observation of any fraud or cruelty in private life is sufficient,
with the aid of a little thought, to give us the same apprehension;
while it serves as an instance of the general corruption of human
nature, and shows us the danger which we must incur by reposing an
entire confidence in mankind. In both cases, it is experience which is
ultimately the foundation of our inference and conclusion.

  There is no man so young and unexperienced, as not to have formed,
from observation, many general and just maxims concerning human
affairs and the conduct of life; but it must be confessed, that,
when a man comes to put these in practice, he will be extremely liable
to error, till time and farther experience both enlarge these
maxims, and teach him their proper use and application. In every
situation or incident, there are many particular and seemingly
minute circumstances, which the man of greatest talent is, at first,
apt to overlook, though on them the justness of his conclusions, and
consequently the prudence of his conduct, entirely depend. Not to
mention, that, to a young beginner, the general observations and
maxims occur not always on the proper occasions, nor can be
immediately applied with due calmness and distinction. The truth is,
an unexperienced reasoner could be no reasoner at all, were he
absolutely unexperienced; and when we assign that character to any
one, we mean it only in a comparative sense, and suppose him possessed
of experience, in a smaller and more imperfect degree.

  Custom, then, is the great guide of human life. It is that principle
alone which renders our experience useful to us, and makes us
expect, for the future, a similar train of events with those which
have appeared in the past. Without the influence of custom, we
should be entirely ignorant of every matter of fact beyond what is
immediately present to the memory and senses. We should never know how
to adjust means to ends, or to employ our natural powers in the
production of any effect. There would be an end at once of all action,
as well as of the chief part of speculation.

  37. But here it may be proper to remark, that though our conclusions
from experience carry us beyond our memory and senses, and assure us
of matters of fact which happened in the most distant places and
most remote ages, yet some fact must always be present to the senses
or memory, from which we may first proceed in drawing these
conclusions. A man, who should find in a desert country the remains of
pompous buildings, would conclude that the country had, in ancient
times, been cultivated by civilized inhabitants; but did nothing of
this nature occur to him, he could never form such an inference. We
learn the events of former ages from history; but then we must
peruse the volumes in which this instruction is contained, and
thence carry up our inferences from one testimony to another, till
we arrive at the eyewitnesses and spectators of these distant
events. In a word, if we proceed not upon some fact, present to the
memory or senses, our reasonings would be merely hypothetical; and
however the particular links might be connected with each other, the
whole chain of inferences would have nothing to support it, nor
could we ever, by its means, arrive at the knowledge of any real
existence. If I ask why you believe any particular matter of fact,
which you relate, you must tell me some reason; and this reason will
be some other fact, connected with it. But as you cannot proceed after
this manner, in infinitum, you must at last terminate in some fact,
which is present to your memory or senses; or must allow that your
belief is entirely without foundation.

  38. What, then, is the conclusion of the whole matter? A simple one;
though, it must be confessed, pretty remote from the common theories
of philosophy. All belief of matter of fact or real existence is
derived merely from some object, present to the memory or senses,
and a customary conjunction between that and some other object. Or
in other words; having found, in many instances, that any two kinds of
objects- flame and heat, snow and cold- have always been conjoined
together; if flame or snow be presented anew to the senses, the mind
is carried by custom to expect heat or cold, and to believe that
such a quality does exist, and will discover itself upon a nearer
approach. This belief is the necessary result of placing the mind in
such circumstances. It is an operation of the soul, when we are so
situated, as unavoidable as to feel the passion of love, when we
receive benefits; or hatred, when we meet with injuries. All these
operations are a species of natural instincts, which no reasoning or
process of the thought and understanding is able either to produce
or to prevent.

  At this point, it would be very allowable for us to stop our
philosophical researches. In most questions we can never make a single
step further; and in all questions we must terminate here at last,
after our most restless and curious enquiries. But still our curiosity
will be pardonable, perhaps commendable, if it carry us on to still
farther researches, and make us examine more accurately the nature
of this belief, and of the customary conjunction, whence it is
derived. By this means we may meet with some explications and
analogies that will give satisfaction; at least to such as love the
abstract sciences, and can be entertained with speculations, which,
however accurate, may still retain a degree of doubt and
uncertainty. As to readers of a different taste; the remaining part of
this section is not calculated for them, and the following enquiries
may well be understood, though it be neglected.

                             PART II.

  39. Nothing is more free than the imagination of man; and though
it cannot exceed that original stock of ideas furnished by the
internal and external senses, it has unlimited power of mixing,
compounding, separating, and dividing these ideas, in all the
varieties of fiction and vision. It can feign a train of events,
with all the appearance of reality, ascribe to them a particular
time and place, conceive them as existent, and paint them out to
itself with every circumstance, that belongs to any historical fact,
which it believes with the greatest certainty. Wherein, therefore,
consists the difference between such a fiction and belief? It lies not
merely in any peculiar idea, which is annexed to such a conception
as commands our assent, and which is wanting to every known fiction.
For as the mind has authority over all its ideas, it could voluntarily
annex this particular idea to any fiction, and consequently be able to
believe whatever it pleases; contrary to what we find by daily
experience. We can, in our conception, join the head of a man to the
body of a horse; but it is not in our power to believe that such an
animal has ever really existed.

  It follows, therefore, that the difference between fiction and
belief lies in some sentiment or feeling, which is annexed to the
latter, not to the former, and which depends not on the will, nor
can be commanded at pleasure. It must be excited by nature, like all
other sentiments; and must arise from the particular situation, in
which the mind is placed at any particular juncture. Whenever any
object is presented to the memory or senses, it immediately, by the
force of custom, carries the imagination to conceive that object,
which is usually conjoined to it; and this conception is attended with
a feeling or sentiment, different from the loose reveries of the
fancy. In this consists the whole nature of belief. For as there is no
matter of fact which we believe so firmly that we cannot conceive
the contrary, there would be no difference between the conception
assented to and that which is rejected, were it not for some sentiment
which distinguishes the one from the other. If I see a billiard-ball
moving towards another, on a smooth table, I can easily conceive it to
stop upon contact. This conception implies no contradiction; but still
it feels very differently from that conception by which I represent to
myself the impulse and the communication of motion from one ball to

  40. Were we to attempt a definition of this sentiment, we should,
perhaps, find it a very difficult, if not an impossible task; in the
same manner as if we should endeavour to define the feeling of cold or
passion of anger, to a creature who never had any experience of
these sentiments. Belief is the true and proper name of this
feeling; and no one is ever at a loss to know the meaning of that
term; because every man is every moment conscious of the sentiment
represented by it. It may not, however, be improper to attempt a
description of this sentiment; in hopes we may, by that means,
arrive at some analogies, which may afford a more perfect
explication of it. I say, then, that belief is nothing but a more
vivid, lively, forcible, firm, steady conception of an object, than
what the imagination alone is ever able to attain. This variety of
terms, which may seem so unphilosophical, is intended only to
express that act of the mind, which renders realities, or what is
taken for such, more present to us than fictions, causes them to weigh
more in the thought, and gives them a superior influence on the
passions and imagination. Provided we agree about the thing, it is
needless to dispute about the terms. The imagination has the command
over all its ideas, and can join and mix and vary them, in all the
ways possible. It may conceive fictitious objects with all the
circumstances of place and time. It may set them, in a manner,
before our eyes, in their true colours, just as they might have
existed. But as it is impossible that this faculty of imagination
can ever, of itself, reach belief, it is evident that belief
consists not in the peculiar nature or order of ideas, but in the
manner of their conception, and in their feeling to the mind. I
confess, that it is impossible perfectly to explain this feeling or
manner of conception. We may make use of words which express something
near it. But its true and proper name, as we observed before, is
belief; which is a term that every one sufficiently understands in
common life. And in philosophy, we can go no farther than assert, that
belief is something felt by the mind, which distinguishes the ideas of
the judgement from the fictions of the imagination. It gives them more
weight and influence; makes them appear of greater importance;
enforces them in the mind; and renders them the governing principle of
our actions. I hear at present, for instance, a person's voice, with
whom I am acquainted; and the sound comes as from the next room.
This impression of my senses immediately conveys my thought to the
person, together with all the surrounding objects. I paint them out to
myself as existing at present, with the same qualities and
relations, of which I formerly knew them possessed. These ideas take
faster hold of my mind than ideas of an enchanted castle. They are
very different to the feeling, and have a much greater influence of
every kind, either to give pleasure or pain, joy or sorrow.

  Let us, then, take in the whole compass of this doctrine, and allow,
that the sentiment of belief is nothing but a conception more
intense and steady than what attends the mere fictions of the
imagination, and that this manner of conception arises from a
customary conjunction of the object with something present to the
memory or senses: I believe that it will not be difficult, upon
these suppositions, to find other operations of the mind analogous
to it, and to trace up these phenomena to principles still more

  41. We have already observed that nature has established
connexions among particular ideas, and that no sooner one idea
occurs to our thoughts than it introduces its correlative, and carries
our attention towards it, by a gentle and insensible movement. These
principles of connexion or association we have reduced to three,
namely, Resemblance, Contiguity and Causation; which are the only
bonds that unite our thoughts together, and beget that regular train
of reflection or discourse, which, in a greater or less degree,
takes place among all mankind. Now here arises a question, on which
the solution of the present difficulty will depend. Does it happen, in
all these relations, that, when one of the objects is presented to the
senses or memory, the mind is not only carried to the conception of
the correlative, but reaches a steadier and stronger conception of
it than what otherwise it would have been able to attain? This seems
to be the case with that belief which arises from the relation of
cause and effect. And if the case be the same with the other relations
or principles of associations, this may be established as a general
law, which takes place in all the operations of the mind.

  We may, therefore, observe, as the first experiment to our present
purpose, that, upon the appearance of the picture of an absent friend,
our idea of him is evidently enlivened by the resemblance, and that
every passion, which that idea occasions, whether of joy or sorrow,
acquires new force and vigour. In producing this effect, there
concur both a relation and a present impression. Where the picture
bears him no resemblance, at least was not intended for him, it
never so much as conveys our thought to him: And where it is absent,
as well as the person, though the mind may pass from the thought of
the one to that of the other, it feels its idea to be rather
weakened than enlivened by that transition. We take a pleasure in
viewing the picture of a friend, when it is set before us; but when it
is removed, rather choose to consider him directly than by
reflection in an image, which is equally distant and obscure.

  The ceremonies of the Roman Catholic religion may be considered as
instances of the same nature. The devotees of that superstition
usually plead in excuse for the mummeries, with which they are
upbraided, that they feel the good effect of those external motions,
and postures, and actions, in enlivening their devotion and quickening
their fervour, which otherwise would decay, if directed entirely to
distant and immaterial objects. We shadow out the objects of our
faith, say they, in sensible types and images, and render them more
present to us by the immediate presence of these types, than it is
possible for us to do merely by an intellectual view and
contemplation. Sensible objects have always a greater influence on the
fancy than any other; and this influence they readily convey to
those ideas to which they are related, and which they resemble. I
shall only infer from these practices, and this reasoning, that the
effect of resemblance in enlivening the ideas is very common; and as
in every case a resemblance and a present impression must concur, we
are abundantly supplied with experiments to prove the reality of the
foregoing principle.

  42. We may add force to these experiments by others of a different
kind, in considering the effects of contiguity as well as of
resemblance. It is certain that distance diminishes the force of every
idea, and that, upon our approach to any object, though it does not
discover itself to our senses it operates upon the mind with an
influence, which imitates an immediate impression. The thinking on any
object readily transports the mind to what is contiguous; but it is
only the actual presence of an object, that transports it with a
superior vivacity. When I am a few miles from home, whatever relates
to it touches me more nearly than when I am two hundred leagues
distant; though even at that distance the reflecting on anything in
the neighbourhood of my friends or family naturally produces an idea
of them. But as in this latter case, both the objects of the mind
are ideas; notwithstanding there is an easy transition between them;
that transition alone is not able to give a superior vivacity to any
of the ideas, for want of some immediate impression.*

  * "Naturane nobis, inquit, datum dicam, an errore quodam, ut, cum ea
loca videamus, in quibus memoria dignos viros acceperimus multum
esse versatos, magis moveamur, quam siquando eorum ipsorum aut facta audiamus aut scriptum aliquod legamus? Velut ego nunc moveor. Venit enim mihi Plato in mentem, quem accepimus primum hic disputare
solitum: cuius etiam illi hortuli propinqui non memoriam solum mihi
afferunt, sed ipsum videntur in conspectu meo hic ponere. Hic
Speusippus, hic Xenocrates, hic eius auditor Polemo; cuius ipsa illa
sessio fuit, quam videmus. Equidem etiam curiam nostram, Hostiliam
dico, non hanc novam, quae mihi minor esse videtur postquam est maior, solebam intuens, Scipionem, Catonem, Laelium, nostrum vero in primis avum cogitare. Tanta vis admonitionis est in locis; ut non sine
causa ex his memoriae deducta sit disciplina."

                                        Cicero, De finibus, Book V.

  43. No one can doubt but causation has the same influence as the
other two relations of resemblance and contiguity. Superstitious
people are fond of the reliques of saints and holy men, for the same
reason, that they seek after types or images, in order to enliven
their devotion, and give them a more intimate and strong conception of
those exemplary lives, which they desire to imitate. Now it is
evident, that one of the best reliques, which a devotee could procure,
would be the handywork of a saint; and if his cloaths and furniture
are ever to be considered in this light, it is because they were
once at his disposal, and were moved and affected by him; in which
respect they are to be considered as imperfect effects, and as
connected with him by a shorter chain of consequences than any of
those, by which we learn the reality of his existence.

  Suppose, that the son of a friend, who had been long dead or absent,
were presented to us; it is evident, that this object would
instantly revive its correlative idea, and recal to our thoughts all
past intimacies and familiarities, in more lively colours than they
would otherwise have appeared to us. This is another phaenomenon,
which seems to prove the principle above mentioned.

  44. We may observe, that, in these phaenomena, the belief of the
correlative object is always presupposed; without which the relation
could have no effect. The influence of the picture supposes, that we
believe our friend to have once existed. Continguity to home can never
excite our ideas of home, unless we believe that it really exists. Now
I assert, that this belief, where it reaches beyond the memory or
senses, is of a similar nature, and arises from similar causes, with
the transition of thought and vivacity of conception here explained.
When I throw a piece of dry wood into a fire, my mind is immediately
carried to conceive, that it augments, not extinguishes the flame.
This transition of thought from the cause to the effect proceeds not
from reason. It derives its origin altogether from custom and
experience. And as it first begins from an object, present to the
senses, it renders the idea or conception of flame more strong and
lively than any loose, floating reverie of the imagination. That
idea arises immediately. The thought moves instantly towards it, and
conveys to it all that force of conception, which is derived from
the impression present to the senses. When a sword is levelled at my
breast, does not the idea of wound and pain strike me more strongly,
than when a glass of wine is presented to me, even though by
accident this idea should occur after the appearance of the latter
object? But what is there in this whole matter to cause such a
strong conception, except only a present object and a customary
transition to the idea of another object, which we have been
accustomed to conjoin with the former? This is the whole operation
of the mind, in all our conclusions concerning matter of fact and
existence; and it is a satisfaction to find some analogies, by which
it may be explained. The transition from a present object does in
all cases give strength and solidity to the related idea.

  Here, then, is a kind of pre-established harmony between the
course of nature and the succession of our ideas; and though the
powers and forces, by which the former is governed, be wholly
unknown to us; yet our thoughts and conceptions have still, we find,
gone on in the same train with the other works of nature. Custom is
that principle, by which this correspondence has been effected; so
necessary to the subsistence of our species, and the regulation of our
conduct, in every circumstance and occurrence of human life. Had not
the presence of an object, instantly excited the idea of those
objects, commonly conjoined with it, all our knowledge must have
been limited to the narrow sphere of our memory and senses; and we
should never have been able to adjust means to ends, or employ our
natural powers, either to the producing of good, or avoiding of
evil. Those, who delight in the discovery and contemplation of final
causes, have here ample subject to employ their wonder and admiration.

  45. I shall add, for a further confirmation of the foregoing theory,
that, as this operation of the mind, by which we infer like effects
from like causes, and vice versa, is so essential to the subsistence
of all human creatures, it is not probable, that it could be trusted
to the fallacious deductions of our reason, which is slow in its
operations; appears not, in any degree, during the first years of
infancy; and at best is, in every age and period of human life,
extremely liable to error and mistake. It is more conformable to the
ordinary wisdom of nature to secure so necessary an act of the mind,
by some instinct or mechanical tendency, which may be infallible in
its operations, may discover itself at the first appearance of life
and thought, and may be independent of all the laboured deductions
of the understanding. As nature has taught us the use of our limbs,
without giving us the knowledge of the muscles and nerves, by which
they are actuated; so has she implanted in us an instinct, which
carries forward the thought in a correspondent course to that which
she has established among external objects; though we are ignorant
of those powers and forces, on which this regular course and
succession of objects totally depends.

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