Hume’s Theory of Imagination

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When I hear a barking sound I cannot help believing that there is a dog in the garden. So far, Hume claims to have shown that believing does not consist in adding some extra idea to those which were before our minds already. When A believes a proposition p and B disbelieves it or just entertains it neutrally, the ideas before their minds are exactly the same, or to put it another way, the state of affairs they conceive of is exactly the same.

If it were not, there would be no disagreement between A and B. Hume concludes that the difference can only lie in the manner of conceiving, since what is conceived is the same in both cases. Before elaborating this answer, Hume points out not very clearly that his problem only arises with regard to propositions concerning matters of fact.

With matter of fact propositions, however, it is very different. What he says is false, but it is not self-contradictory. In this case the imagination is free to conceive both sides of the question, but with an a priori proposition it is not. I think this really amounts to saying that in the a priori sciences, such as mathematics, there is no room for belief, as distinct from knowledge. When once you fully understand what is being said, you know either that it is true i. But if this is Hume's view, it needs to be amended a little.

What he is believing is that there is some logically-necessary proposition which these symbols symbolize, without grasping what exactly this proposition is. In all these cases, their belief, I suggest, is really about a sentence or other set of symbols: and what they are believing is that there is some important and true propositions which is formulated by the sentence, but they do not know what exactly the proposition is.

David Hume

We all of us operate very often with uncashed or not fully cashed symbols; and we do this in a priori studies, such as arithmetic and logic, as well as elsewhere. And that is how belief as distinct from knowledge does after all have a place in a priori thinking. Hume's problem, however, as he sees it himself, is concerned only with empirical propositions. Here again there is no room for belief, on Hume's view. We are just directly aware of these impressions at the moment when we experience them.

His problem really concerns empirical propositions which go beyond what is actually present to sense or introspection , as when I hear a barking sound and believe that there is a dog outside the door when I do not actually see the dog, or see a flame and believe that it is hot, though I do not at the moment feel the heat.

Perspective of David Hume about Self

This is what Hume calls belief about matters of fact. So far, he has only said that the difference must lie in the manner of conceiving. To put it otherwise, what you are thinking of is the same as what I am thinking of. The difference is that you think of it in an incredulous manner and I in a believing manner. Similarly, if I come to believe something which I previously disbelieved or doubted, the change which occurs in me is just a change in my manner of conceiving—not in what I conceive of.

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Perhaps we should all agree with Hume so far. Surely he is just saying in rather peculiar language that the difference between belief and incredulity is a difference in mental attitude as opposed to a difference in the object? And surely this is perfectly obvious? Perhaps it is, but one may wonder whether it seemed so before Hume wrote. And this is the most important and the most controversial part of his theory. When we pass from incredulity to belief, the idea which we are conceiving does not alter at all in respect of its content, as we have seen.

But, he says, it does become more lively or vivacious. And he points out himself that none of them are altogether accurate. His hope is that if we consider all of them together, we shall be able to see for ourselves what he is talking about.

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I will quote his own words. And so Hume is supposed to be maintaining that believing something just consists in having a vivid mental image. We may make use of words that express something near it. But its true and proper name is belief , which is a term that every one sufficiently understands in common life. If Hume really had thought that believing just consists in having a vivid mental image associated with a present impression, he would not have had all these difficulties in conveying his meaning to the reader. On the contrary, it would have been quite easy. Hume illustrates the difference between ideas which are believed and ideas which are not believed by several examples.

David Hume - Wikipedia

I shall now mention two of them. The same ideas are before the minds of both. But clearly these ideas feel very different to the two readers. I suppose, has stronger emotions about them. He is led to consider other propositions which are implied or made probable by what he reads—propositions about the actions or characters of the persons described, about their friendships and enmities, and even about their personal appearance.

In considering this rather curious illustration, we must remember that Hume himself was both a historian and a tough-minded lowland Scot. It is possible that a more flightly-minded Celt might react the opposite way. So far then, Hume has argued that the difference between belief and incredulity is a difference in the manner of conceiving, not in the ideas conceived.


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An idea which we believe feels different from one which we do not believe. We may however approximately describe it by saying that an idea which we believe has a liveliness or force or strength or steadiness or solidity, which other ideas have not; adding, that it has an effect upon the subsequent course of our thoughts, and also upon our emotions and our actions, which other ideas have not. What sort of relation or association does he mean? It is the sort which arises from past experience of constant conjunctions.

Suppose impressions of kind A and impressions of kind B flame and heat for example have been constantly conjoined in my past experience; then if an impression of kind A occurs again, it will bring to my mind the idea of B. When I now see a flame I shall think of heat. But this is not all. The impression reminds me of its usual accompaniment.

Sections II and III

But it does something else as well. The impression, like all impressions, has an intrinsic forcefulness of vivacity.

And it communicates some of this forcefulness or vivacity to the idea which is associated with it. When I see the flame, I not only think of heat, I think of it in a lively or forceful manner. In other words, I believe that the heat is actually there. When you see the flame, it is almost though not quite as if you felt the heat. When you hear the growling sound from behind you, it is almost as if you saw the dog, or felt it biting you. Seeing is believing, it is said. The remark is obviously false, and Hume does not think it true.

Nor does he think that believing is seeing. But he does think that believing approaches in some measure to seeing. When you believe, it is only an idea which is before your mind. One may illustrate this last point—about the way an impression communicates some of its forcefulness or vivacity to an idea associated with it by constant conjunction—by an example which Hume himself gives in the Appendix 24 though he uses it for a rather different purpose.

If I am looking out of a basement window and see a pair of legs walking on the pavement outside, I shall believe that a complete human being is passing by.

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