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What is the concept of "power" in the context of "causation" in the philosophy of John Locke and David Hume?

At one instance, in his treatise "An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding", Hume seems to mean "necessary connection" by the "concept of power", which is as follows:

It appears, then, that this idea of a necessary connection among events arises from a number of similar instances which occur, of the constant conjunction of these events; nor can that idea ever be suggested by any one of these instances surveyed in all possible lights and positions. But there is nothing in a number of instances, different from every single instance, which is supposed to be exactly similar, except only that after a repetition of similar instances the mind is carried by habit, upon the appearance of one event, to expect its usual attendant and to believe that it will exist. This connection, therefore, which we feel in the mind, this customary transition of the imagination from one object to its usual attendant, is the sentiment or impression from which we form the idea of power or necessary connection.

I came across a similar connotation for this word in John Locke's "An Essay on Human Understanding" which is as follows:

The mind being every day informed, by the senses, of the alteration of those simple ideas, it observes in things without; and taking notice how one comes to an end, and ceases to be, and another begins to exist which was not before; reflecting also on what passes within itself, and observing a constant change of its ideas, sometimes by the impression of outward objects on the senses, and sometimes by the determination of its own choice; and concluding from what it has so constantly observed to have been, that the like changes will for the future be made in the same things, by like agents, and by the like ways, considers in one thing the possibility of having any of its simple ideas changed, and in another the possibility of making that change; and so comes by that idea which we call power.

Here, he also seems to mean by "power" the idea of causation.

  1. Am I correct in taking this meaning?
  2. If it is correct, then why it is termed as power? And, if not, then what does it mean?
  3. Did these philosophers coin this term or was it used previously?
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    I rephrased your last question as it was a little hard to understand. I hope this is what you meant to ask. You can make another edit if not. – Eliran Nov 22 '18 at 19:00
  • Thank! This is exactly what was in my mind! Thanks once again! – Mushrraf Baig Ashraf Nov 23 '18 at 4:31
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Locke on power

There is a useful exposition by Michael Ayers :

The idea of power is formed as follows: The mind . .. concluding from what it has so constantly observed to have been, that the like changes will for the future be made in the same things, by like agents, and by the like ways, considers in one thing the possibility of having any of its simple ideas changed, and in another the possibility of making that change; and so comes by that idea which we call power. Thus we say, fire has a power to melt gold . . . and gold has a power to be melted. ... In which, and the like cases, the power we consider is in reference to the change of perceivable ideas (Essay 2.21.1).

What is Locke saying, in this and in surrounding passages? As the last sentence quoted reminds us, he is concerned to show that the content of our idea of power - and of our ideas of particular powers -extends no further than we can observe. And yet the idea has reference to what we do not observe, a postulated something in agent and patient, lying behind the observed relationship between them. The idea of power is quite unlike the idea of yellow, in that, first, it is not acquired in a special experience and, secondly, it is used to refer to something beyond experience; but the corollary is that it has no positive content by itself, since its positive content in any particular case is supplied by the observable effect. It seems to me that Locke sees it as operating in everyday thought as a sort of dummy concept, faute de mieux.

In other words, the function of the idea springs from the rationality of explaining observed interactions by underlying, unobserved properties of the things interacting. But from observation we know these properties only as whatever properties have such and such an effect in such and such conditions. In Russellian terms, our knowledge is knowledge by description.

Thus it is entirely natural that, when he is assuming the atomic hypothesis, Locke should sometimes identify the power with the actual primary qualities supposed responsible for the effect: ". .. what is sweet, blue, or warm in idea, is but the certain bulk, figure, and motion of the insensible parts in the bodies themselves which we call so" (2.8.15).

It is not the observation of mere change, but of repeated, regular change, that is said to give us the idea of power. The idea is acquired or suggested to the mind by contact with things that always or nearly always behave observably in a given way in given observable circumstances. It is because we regularly observe the melting of gold whenever it comes into contact with fire that we cannot reasonably avoid thinking in terms of continuously existing but intermittently operative properties in each, which are independent of this relationship and reaction. Yet we come to see that the idea has universal application, so that "whatever change is observed, the mind must collect a power somewhere, able to make that change, as well as a possibility in the thing itself to receive it" (2.21.4). Power becomes abstractly definable as "the source from whence all action proceeds" (2.22.11)-not just observably regular action. (M. Ayers, 'The Ideas of Power and Substance in Locke's Philosophy', The Philosophical Quarterly (1950-), Vol. 25, No. 98 (Jan., 1975), pp. 1-27: 4-5.)

In fine, Locke regards power a necessitating factor lying behind observed relationships, inaccessible directly to experience, but responsible for, among other things, causal relations. Fire melts gold; we cannot observe what makes the gold melt (what would it be like to observe gold being made to melt but melt it does), and we assume a power at work producing and necessitating this effect.

Hume on power

Hume will have none of this; and in this respect is the more authentic empiricist. Here is what he says in the Treatise :

The idea of necessity arises from some impression. There is no impression convey'd by our senses, which can give rise to that idea. It must, therefore, be deriv'd from some internal impression or impression of reflexion. There is no internal impression, which has any relation to the present business, but that propensity, which custom produces, to pass from an object to the idea of its usual attendant. This therefore is the essence of necessity. ( David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, L. A. Selby-Bigge and P. H. Nidditch (eds) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), 165.

This connexion, therefore, which we feel in the mind, this customary transition of the imagination from one object to its usual attendant, is the sentiment or impression from which we form the idea of power or necessary connexion. (David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, L. A. Selby-Bigge and P. H. Nidditch (eds) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), 75.)

Hume agrees with Locke that power cannot be observed but he draws a different conclusion. While Locke conceives power as something we cannot observe but which is at work behind observation, Hume dismisses power from his philosophy. Since we cannot observe it, and all ideas derive from observation ('impressions'), we cannot make any justified use of the idea of power. It cannot explain anything. Rather, itself needs to be explained. Hume's explanation is that when one observation (impression) is regularly associated with another - there is a 'constant conjunction' between them - the ease with which the mind passes from one impression to the other creates an imaginary connection between them. We suppose that fire causes gold to melt, that fire has the power to melt gold. Nothing like this is true in Hume's view. Gold so constantly melts when exposed to fire that we suppose fire to have the power to melt gold. But all that experience yields is a regularity between gold's being exposed to fire and gold's melting. We observe no power at work here, readily as we may suppose that we do.

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