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Critical Reflection On An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

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David Hume’s work, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, questions the principle upon which inductive knowledge is formed. Hume brainstorms on many subjects concerning knowledge in which he appears to attack fake knowledge. The work is divided into twelve sections in which Hume tackles different but correlating aspects of knowledge. He believes that the paper is a correction of his earlier publication. The following article seeks to critique Hume’s argument of skeptical doubts concerning the operations of the understanding discussed in section four of his paper.

Explanation of the Argument

Hume categorizes reason and human inquiry into either Relation of Ideas or Matters of facts. Our forms of knowledge are arrived at through the operation of our thoughts and not some occurrences elsewhere in the world. He finds perfect examples of mathematical formulae such as geometry and algebra whose objection lead to a logical contradiction. For ease of understanding, Hume gives common mathematical examples and demonstrate how an objection of either of them lead to a logical contradiction. In mathematics, some laws and rules apply to different shapes. One such law that Hume used to demonstrate his point is that the sum of the squares of two sides of a triangle is equivalent to the square of the hypothesis. Another example is that multiplying three by five will result in fifteen which is half of thirty. The two mathematical operations can be performed anywhere in the universe and proven without any objection. A matter of fact, on the other hand, can be objected without any logical contradiction. It is almost impossible to demonstrate how one arrived at a matter of fact empirically.

These are truths that are arrived through experience. Hume gives an example of the sun rising tomorrow. There is no empirical formula to demonstrate or falsify this claim apart from waiting for the affirmation. He describes this type of philosophy a difficult path in which people match without specific direction. He further argues that a matter of fact is often supported by another matter of fact in what results to cause and effect. For instance, if one is confronted with why he believes his friend is in France, the answer is likely to be another matter of fact like a letter received from the friend claiming the same. His general thesis statement is that matter of fact, as a source of knowledge lacks logical back up while a relation of ideas is supported by empirical formula and cannot be objected without causing a logical contradiction. He also adds that a matter of fact is an example of a cause and effect situation.

Critical Reflection

After categorizing objects of human inquiry and reason, Hume states his thesis statement and proceeds to support his argument. However, critical analysis of his argument exhibit inconsistencies as some of the examples given are either irrelevant or contradict his thesis statement. The irrelevance or contradictions between Hume’ arguments and thesis statement are as outlined in the following discourse.

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While elaborating on a matter of fact as an object of human reason, Hume proceeds to claim that another matter of fact can only prove a matter of fact. According to him, the kind of relationship that exists between the two matters of facts is that of a cause and effect. He gave two elaborations. In the first elaboration, he said that finding a watch on an isolated island implies that there were people on the island. In the second example, he said that the reason why one would believe that his friend is in France is a letter received stating the same. Critical evaluation of the two examples shows that neither of them qualifies to be regarded as a cause and effect event. In a cause and effect kind of relationship, there is certainty that the occurrence of one event must lead to the other. The probability of occurrence of one event due to the occurrence of the other is one. Both of his arguments lack this qualification. In the case of a friend in France for instance, how does sending a letter claiming to be in France make one to be in France? Or what cause and effect relationship exists between a collected watch and the existence of people in an island? There is no way either of the two examples given by Hume can be qualified as cause and effect.

Hume’s thesis statement claims that the two sources of knowledge are independent and distinct from each other. He claims that matter of fact and relations of ideas are independent as one is experiential while the other one is not. While he claims that relations of ideas can be proved logically, he fails to explain the origin of logic. Logic is established in the same way as a matter of fact. Despite ignoring the question of the origin of logic, he contradicts himself by claiming that the origin of a relation of ideas is an experience.

He claims that “When again it is asked, What is the foundation of all our reasonings and conclusions concerning that relation? It may be replied in one word, Experience” (Hume 23).

This is a contradiction of his thesis statement since his statement implies that the concept of relations of ideas is not an independent object of human reasoning but a subset of matter of fact. If he had made this claim earlier, then he would have had to restructure his thesis statement since relations of ideas and matter of fact would not have existed as two independent objects of human reason. Lastly, in his thesis statement, Hume claims that no contradiction occurs when one denies a matter of fact while objection of a relation of ideas leads to a contradiction; however, he admits that relation, just like a matter of fact has its foundation in experience. The two claims display inconsistency of thoughts.

In conclusion, Although David Hume claims that An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding is a corrected version of his earlier publication, A Treatise of Human Nature, critical evaluation of the paper still display inconsistencies that can be challenged. One of the instances where his work display random inconsistencies is chapter four where he explains the objects of human reason. While he has a brilliantly constructed thesis statement that is convincing, he fails to make arguments that can universally be accepted. Some of his arguments are either irrelevant or lack consistency with the thesis statement; hence can only be accepted by a superficial reader with no analytical skills.

Work Cited

  1. Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1977. Print.

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