Term Paper: Philosophy Nietzsche Often Identified Life

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[. . .] In exploring the extent and limits of human understanding, David Hume arrives at the conclusion that justification for many common beliefs about the "natural world" is impossible. In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, he writes,."..it is not reasoning which engages us to suppose the past resembling the future, and to expect similar effects from causes which are, to appearance, similar." Here Hume states his primary thesis about the so-called "law of cause and effect" -- it does not have a justification through deductive reasoning or a demonstrative argument. Therefore, skepticism regarding natural phenomena, accompanied by a practical understanding of the apparent causal chain in the universe, is the closest thing to justification that humans can have (Huwig 2001).

Concluding this exposition of perceptions, Hume advocates a fundamental empiricist criterion for analyzing the meaning of philosophical terms - he claims that since "ideas...are copies of our impressions," that the only meaningful words are those which refer to actual ideas, which in turn are derived from impressions (qtd. In Huwig 2001). Therefore, transcendent metaphysics is impossible.

Hume claims that seemingly boundless human thought is created through "compounding, transposing, augmenting, or diminishing the materials afforded us by the senses and experience." He later states that ideas are connected under three principles: resemblance, contiguity in space or time, and causality. The next piece of Hume's argument involves the distinction between relations of ideas and matters of fact. To Hume, the objects of human inquiry -- i.e., questions of truth and falsehood -- are either questions about ideas in relation to other ideas, or questions regarding a "real existence...beyond the testimony of our senses." The first sort are represented by mathematical and logical truths, that is, those which are "intuitively or demonstratively certain" by definition and logical deduction alone (Kant would call this "analytic a priori").

Here is an interesting assumption on Hume's part; logical truths and propositions attainable through deductive reasoning alone are unquestionably certain truths. Unlike Descartes, Hume does not even attempt to doubt the efficacy of logic, and so there is irony in the fact that Descartes, whose foray into philosophy was to argue against complete skepticism, may be more psychologically skeptical than Hume, whose philosophy entails a highly skeptical view of objective reality.

Hume's philosophy not only results in skepticism about propositions regarding the "real world," but also an indictment of the possibility of transcendental metaphysics - indeed, the whole of what Immanuel Kant would call "synthetic a priori" knowledge. Kant realized that Hume's argument was very incisive, and he acknowledged that given Hume's empiricist presuppositions, any sort of metaphysics was indeed impossible. However, Kant also pointed out that the skepticism into which the British philosopher had fallen was entirely due to the fact that he did not allow for the possibility of synthetic a priori knowledge of truth -- knowledge from reason alone that is truly factual, and not just explication. But what sorts of truths fall into this category?

First, Kant disagrees with Hume about the nature of mathematical truth - Kant claims that such truth is actually synthetic, not analytic. His rationale is that mathematics does not merely proceed from some preexisting ideas, but that the act of constructing new concepts is central to gaining mathematical knowledge. Discovering mathematical truth is not merely a clarification or explication of definitions and logical implications, but instead it genuinely expands the realm of human knowledge; mathematical knowledge is therefore synthetic. Kant writes in Prolegomena, what [Hume] said was equivalent to this: that mathematics contains only analytical, but metaphysics synthetical, a priori propositions. In this, however, he was greatly mistaken, and the mistake had a highly injurious effect upon his whole conception" (1783). The dilemma in Hume's argument, therefore, is this: either there is no such thing as synthetic a priori knowledge, and mathematics should be subject to the same skepticism as metaphysics; or, such knowledge is possible, and Hume's intellectual eschewment of metaphysics was unwarranted. Given the choice between the impossibility of knowing even mathematical truths and the possibility of synthetic a priori knowledge, Kant takes the latter. In response to Hume's challenge of metaphysics, Kant concedes, "All metaphysicians are therefore solemnly and legally suspended from their occupations till they shall have adequately answered the question, 'How are synthetic cognitions a priori possible?'" (1783). The whole of transcendental philosophy, free from skepticism, is dependent on the answer.

Having generalized Hume's skepticism about cause and effect in the natural world to a question of the possibility of expansive knowledge without references to experience, Kant then explains how synthetic a priori cognitions are possible about mathematics, the natural world, and metaphysics. He introduces the notion of intuition, or knowledge that is not inferential, but rather direct understanding of an idea - the basis of all synthetic knowledge. But this definition is perhaps misleading. Kant distinguishes between two sorts of intuition: "empirical intuition" (sense perception) and pure intuition (Huwig 2001). Obviously "empirical intuition" must lead to a posteriori judgments, since by definition it is sense experience.

According to Kant, mathematical knowledge (i.e., the branch of knowledge which deals with the implications of quantity) rests on its applications to the pure intuitions of space and time. These concepts must be pure intuitions, because they are independent of, and therefore prior to, the objects to which they are applied, namely the appearances of bodies in motion. So to Kant, space and time are "forms of our sensibility, which must precede all empirical intuition, that is, perception of actual objects, and conformably to which objects can be known a priori, but only as they appear to us." Space and time do not describe some object of sense experience, but rather provide the framework for making our sense experience comprehensible (Findlay 1981)

This, coupled with the proposition "everything which can be given to our senses is intuited by us as it appears to us, not as it is in itself" (representationalism, as opposed to Berkeley's radical idealism), allows mathematics to be completely synthetic and prior to sense experience -- it relies on a priori ideas of abstract truths, but these truths are not deduced, but intuited. The representational nature of knowledge allows such a system to apply to "the real world," since it deals with the form of experience itself, while avoiding the justified skepticism which is directed toward a posteriori empirical propositions. Mathematical pursuits, such as geometry and arithmetic, are essentially studies of the characteristics of the pure concepts of space and time, and what can be known about systems of concepts that include such intuitions (Huwig 2001).

Now that Kant has established the status of the concepts of space and time, he can turn to Hume's skepticism regarding causality in the natural world. Like space and time, the principle of causality does not apply to some object of experience, but rather to experience itself. To Kant,

Hume's mistake was to assume that if causality could not be proven analytically, then it must be based on induction from empirical evidence, and therefore is not a necessary truth. But causality precedes any particular object of sense experience, and furthermore it is not contingent upon the objects of sense experience; therefore it meets Kant's criterion of dealing only with the form of sensibility (Despland 1973). Kant agrees with Hume: one cannot know anything about an object's causes or effects when merely presented with its empirical intuition. This is because causality is not determined by the properties of an object of experience -- instead, it is determined by the form of experience itself.

In order to be called experience, rather than mere hallucinatory sensation, we require that the objects of our understanding conform to things like causality, exclusivity in space, linearity in time, et cetera. To Kant, human beings are like an organism, ingesting sense perception, using some of it to gain knowledge, and discarding that which is not useful because of its incomprehensibility according to the form of experience (Findlay 1981). Our minds are not merely passive empty slates upon which sense experience writes; they are active participants, even architects, of the knowledge they gain.

It is interesting that both Hume and Kant felt deductive logic to be beyond reproach, when such an esteemed rationalist thinker as Descartes at least attempted to bring it under question (Collins 1960). It is also very interesting that Hume did not question the justification of logical rules of inference, while he saw fit to question the causal rules of inference that we apply to empirical observation. We have the benefit of hindsight - Hume and Kant were both in large part products of their times.

It is indeed quite flattering to Hume that the whole of Prolegomena is more or less designed to alleviate the skepticism that resulted from noticing the synthetic nature of causality. I believe that Kant's severe restriction of the scope of human knowledge may not in fact be an improvement over Hume's pragmatic skepticism - in both cases, we remain ultimately ignorant of… [END OF PREVIEW]

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