Hey guys I'm reading Hume's 'An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding' and there's something I can't quite understand. Through sections I and II Hume talks about how he is trying to come up with the foundations of a science of the mind or at least he is arguing why it is necessary. Then he goes on to talk about how metaphysics kind of takes advantage of hard philosophy being so complicated that it ends up being superstitious (probably referring to religion)

However I'm not really sure what metaphysics is so I was wondering if any one could give me an example of "real metaphysics" and another one of "fake metaphysics" which Hume is trying to distinguish.

There's also this conclusion he gets to at the end of section II where he says

All ideas, especially abstract ones, are naturally faint and obscure: the mind has but a slender hold of them: they are apt to be confounded with other resembling ideas; and when we have often employed any term, though without a distinct meaning, we are apt to imagine it has a determinate idea annexed to it. On the contrary, all impressions, that is, all sensations, either outward or inward, are strong and vivid: the limits between them are more exactly determined: nor is it easy to fall into any error or mistake with regard to them. When we entertain, therefore, any suspicion that a philosophical term is employed without any meaning or idea (as is but too frequent), we need but enquire, from what impression is that supposed idea derived? And if it be impossible to assign any, this will serve to confirm our suspicion. By bringing ideas into so clear a light we may reasonably hope to remove all dispute, which may arise, concerning their nature and reality.

I'm not sure what he means there regarding a "philosophical term employed without any meaning or idea" I feel like an example would help me understand it. What would be an example of a philosophical term WITHOUT any meaning? What would be an example of a philosophical term WITH meaning? At first I thought he was saying that ideas that can't be tracked back to their original impression wouldn't be valid ideas but then I realized that according to Hume ideas don't just come out of nowhere so there must be an impression first, so he is actually referring to TERMS that come out of nowhere and that we think are associated to an idea but in fact aren't. So I'm really curious about what a term like this would be.

Thanks in advance for the help.

1 Answer 1


Hume discriminates between ideas and impressions. Ideas are our mental combinations of impressions. A philosophical term without meaning would be a term combining two or more impressions in a wrong way.

A winged horse (horse + wings) or an aureate mountain (mountain + gold) are two terms without meaning, of course they are not philosophical terms.

As an example of a philosophical term, meaningless according to Hume, I consider the term „causation“. The term links two impressions which often occur in a fixed time order. According to Hume, „causation“ is no other then the regular temporal neighbourhood of both impressions.

For an academic paper on the subject see Hume's Explanations of Meaningless Beliefs. I can send you the paper on request.

  • Thanks! This makes sense. I would appreciate it very much if you could share the paper with me.
    – R Samuel
    Commented Jun 2, 2022 at 18:08
  • No problem, please get me your email address.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Jun 2, 2022 at 18:12

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