An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding Book Summary - An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding Book explained in key points
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An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding summary

David Hume

A classic in modern philosophical literature

4.5 (258 ratings)
24 mins

What is An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding about?

An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) presents a succinct summary of Hume’s empirical and skeptical philosophy, and is one of the most influential texts of the early modern period. In calling for the use of reason in rejecting the “superstitions” of metaphysical philosophy and religion, this text helped to furnish the philosophical basis for the scientific method that was then coming to prominence in Enlightenment Europe. Even today, Hume’s Enquiry remains one of the best introductions to modern philosophy.

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    An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
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    All knowledge derives from experience.

    David Hume was born in the eighteenth century, slap-bang in the middle of the Enlightenment. With the scientific method ascending to prominence in Europe, it was a time of unparalleled optimism in the power of reason to discover truth.

    Over the course of this fruitful period, many great thinkers like Descartes, Locke, and Berkeley came up with novel ways to try and ground their philosophies in reason. But, despite their different approaches, all these philosophers made the same fundamental error – they all attempted to shoehorn their theological commitments into their rational philosophies.

    In many respects, Hume’s empirical philosophy responds to these developments. On the one hand, Hume continued the rationalist thread of the Enlightenment by imploring us to justify our beliefs with reason. On the other hand, by limiting the scope of reason to the realm of human experience, Hume decoupled reason from the realm of speculation that requires theological beliefs, and thereby set the stage for a purely secular philosophy.

    The key message here is: All knowledge derives from experience.

    Hume’s entire empirical philosophy is built on one foundational distinction: the distinction between impressions and ideas.

    Impressions are direct sensory experiences and emotions. For example, when you see the color red or when you feel angry, you’re experiencing direct impressions.

    Ideas, on the other hand, come from the imagination or from memory. You have an idea when, for example, you close your eyes and conjure the color red or the feeling of anger. As they’re abstracted from direct experiences, we experience ideas as diluted and vaguer than the original impressions.

    Now, since ideas are copies of impressions, it follows that we can’t have an idea until we’ve experienced the impression. You couldn’t, for example, really know what love is until you’ve actually been in love.

    Of course, you might object that you have all sorts of ideas that you’ve never directly experienced. With help from the imagination, you can summon all manner of fictional worlds full of monsters and strange landscapes that you’ve never encountered in reality.

    This is true. But, as Hume points out, the ideas of the imagination are all built out of simpler impressions that we’ve directly experienced. For example, we can imagine a mountain made of gold by mixing the simpler ideas of gold and mountain in our heads to form a new idea.

    Since all ideas are derived from simple impressions, this provides us with a simple method for determining whether or not an abstract idea, such as God, has any meaning. All we need to do is point to the impression that produced it. If no impression can be found, then we have good reason to reject the idea as empty and groundless.

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    Best quote from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

    Be a philosopher, but amid all your philosophy, be still a man.

    —David Hume
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    About the Author

    David Hume was a Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and diplomat who’s remembered mostly for his radical philosophical empiricism. Often considered the greatest philosopher to have written in the English language, Hume is one of the key figures of the Enlightenment, and, indeed, the entire Western philosophical tradition. Another key Enlightenment thinker, Immanuel Kant, later credited Hume with waking him from his “dogmatic slumber.”

    Who should read An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding?

    • Philosophy students looking for an introduction to Hume’s most important ideas
    • Rationalists who want to sharpen their reasoning skills
    • Anyone interested in the classics of Western philosophy

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