Hume held that all that was meaningfully present to the mind consisted in matters of fact (impressions) and relations of ideas. But even ideas were faint impressions themselves, formed over time by associations. Epistemology, dealing with the nature of knowledge, is concerned with the nature of truth and error. For Hume, 'truth' and 'error', if they have meaning, would have to be something traceable to clear and distinct impressions and ideas. Hume himself held that truth consisted in the agreement of an impression or idea and error in the disagreement of an impression or idea. But as such, with impressions and ideas as the starting place of his epistemology, how can the truth about impressions and ideas be properly discussed and founded? Hume's analysis can deal with the notion of truth as it fits into the acceptance of his views about impressions and ideas, but it seems that such an analysis cannot deal with the nature of truth as applied to the question of the justification of such an analysis itself. The question 'what justifies the existence of impressions?' cannot rationally be answered by reference to impressions themselves, and thus, the principle that makes such impressions true must be in some way exterior to the impressions themselves, since it is impressions which are the object under investigation.

Since Hume gave little attention to questions of truth and error, and discussed such matters only in hindsight after assuming epistemological notions about truth and error which he applied to the arguments he provided for his psychological theories, is Hume's skeptic influence on epistemology today not somewhat unfounded? If not, then in what way is Hume redeemed of this oversight?

  • Could you please give a precise reference to Hume's work: "Hume himself held that truth consisted in the agreement of an impression or idea". I miss the object of comparison: the agreement of an impression with What? Thanks.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Jan 24, 2016 at 4:57

3 Answers 3


It's true that Hume situated his arguments within the framework of impressions and ideas. And it's true that the theory of impressions and ideas raises many peculiar problems. However, it turns out that Hume's more influential arguments (as to e.g. the notion of cause, and the problem of induction) do not really depend on the framework of impressions and ideas. Hume's important arguments can, without excessive difficultly, be separated from the psychological framework of impressions and ideas, and stand on their own.


Your objection seems to lead straight to Kant, who sought some sort of grounding for the so-called "impressions." Kant's conclusion, to put it bluntly, was that "truth," in the old sense, is simply no longer available.

This conclusion was pigeonholed as "idealist" in the Anglo-American tradition, but may be more properly described as a proto-pragmatistm, to which that tradition was eventually forced to return. In place of truth substitute "belief" or even probability and relative certainty... or, better yet, the structure of communicable "knowledge."

Hume's "epistemology" was lacking because he was not doing epistemology. He was critiquing metaphysics. He was clearing out the trash that was still being defined and debated as "truth." It was left to Kant to ask, how does Hume know what he knows? In other words, to update the limits of skepticism. On what basis is skepticism itself free of skepticism? By that time, this old question had taken on extremely complex layers... approaching the linguistic turn.

Quine's version of pragmatism or "naturalistic epistemology" defaults to a privileging of "science" that may be less convincing that it was in his day, or such is my guess. It can also be quite radical. But, to answer your question, how is Hume's epistemologically justified...or not? That is basically the whole of Kant.

Sorry for lack of references. More of a lay opinion than a decent answer, but there it is, for whatever it's worth.

  • That's fine. I appreciate the answer nonetheless.
    – Chosen One
    Commented Jan 27, 2016 at 1:25

The circularity objection you are raising was a popular objection against empiricism in classical epistemology, Husserl became famous for using it against "psychologism", empiricist theories of logic: since empirical knowledge is formed through logical reasoning how can it be used to ground the reasoning that forms it?

We are lucky because Hume had an influential philosophical reincarnation in the 20th century, who shared his empiricist intuitions and picked up his skeptical arguments just where he left them off, Quine. "What then of the doctrinal side, the justification of our knowledge of truths about nature?" he asks in Epistemology Naturalized, "On the doctrinal side, I do not see that we are farther along today than where Hume left us. The Humean predicament is the human predicament". The circularity objection had its force when Kant could point to logic, mathematics and physics as established sciences with "apodictic certainty" of synthetic a priori at their basis (Kant even opined that Hume forgot about mathematics, or his "good sense" would have abated his skepticism, Hume did not). Or when Husserl could point to epoche of pure consciousness as the ultimate ground for all sciences, or even when logical positivists could point to "atomic facts" to the same end. But not after all of that fell by the wayside.

Self-justification is undesirable only in the face of better options, but all pretenders to the latter role proved to be ephemeral. Empirical science is not justified on a "proper" basis? What is? The circularity objection remained valid, but it became irrelevant for empiricists. We discussed this some more in How does Quine answer the metaphysician's charge that scientism is self-refuting? Of course, Hume did not know all that, he did not yet have to deal with Kant's creative reimagining of justification, and its various derivatives. But he was already unimpressed even by the supposed certainty of justification in mathematics, and rightly surmised that the rest can not fare any better. "It was sad for epistemologists, Hume and others, to have to acquiesce in the impossibility of strictly deriving the science of the external world from sensory evidence". The Humean predicament is the human predicament.

And so came Quine's Humean response: "But why all this creative reconstruction, all this make believe? The stimulation of his sensory receptors is all the evidence anybody has to go on, utimately, in arriving at his picture of the world, why not just see how this construction really proceeds? Why not settle for psychology? Such a surrender of the epistemological burden to psychology is a move that was disallowed in earlier times as circular reasoning. If the epistemologist's goal is to validate empirical science he defeats his purpose by using psychology or other empirical science in the validation. However, such scruples against circularity have little point once we have stopped dreaming about deducing science from observations. If we are to simply understand the link between observation and science we are well advised to use any available information, including that provided by the very science whose link with observation we are seeking to understand".

  • Quine's naturalized epistemology faces many problems however. That Quine desires to rid of 'traditional epistemology' in favor of psychology does not make traditional epistemology and its concerns any less relevant. The questions surrounding justification cannot be evaded simply because one refuses to answer them. They are necesarry insofar as there is truth and error in human knowledge.
    – Chosen One
    Commented Jan 24, 2016 at 20:19
  • @Chosen One You are right that the issue remains for traditionalists, but NE does not evade it, it dissolves it. Traditionalists presuppose that knowledge can be layered by justification with foundation at the bottom. NE discards this presupposition, so objections based on it plainly beg the question. The price of dissolution is high, only Hume would pay it in his time, NE's current popularity is largely a sign of disillusionment with traditional epistemologies. Gödel's blow to Hilbert's justification programme in mathematics, and subsequent demise of logical positivism were the last straws.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jan 25, 2016 at 20:10
  • The hierarchy of thought according to 'foundations' is not necessarily the thrust of the argument for the relevance of traditional epistemology; it is rather in the fact that the problems with which traditional epistemology is concerned, such as the justification of relations of thought, is anything but dissolved into any other science such as psychology. This is because sciences are so arranged as to be investigating different aspects of being, each varying in specificity and nature.
    – Chosen One
    Commented Jan 26, 2016 at 22:58
  • The study of what justifies thought, which is obviously relevant to thinking creatures, cannot be consumed by a science that does have such an aspect of being as its subject matter (such as psychology, which is concerned rather with the nature of being as present in the mind).
    – Chosen One
    Commented Jan 26, 2016 at 22:59
  • @Chosen One "The study of what justifies thought, which is obviously relevant to thinking creatures, cannot be consumed by a science that does have such an aspect of being as its subject matter" just repeats the circularity objection. One may believe that it "cannot" because one believes in the traditional high-minded Knowledge, but it is merely an assertion. Based on historical precedent NE treats such concept of Knowledge as a flight of fancy, as did Hume, and for vanilla pragmatic knowledge there are no such cannots, one can do whatever works.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jan 26, 2016 at 23:29

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