People base their knowledge based on what they have experienced in the past. They assume that something will happen because a similar event has already occurred in the past. Knowledge of the material world is a matter of experience rather than reasoning. One cannot reason that something he knows exists if he can already observe it. One has to have experienced a similar thing for him to be aware of its existence. People’s experiences develop into habits and they become customs. Custom determines how people will interpret the events they experience. It is irrational as it assumes that everything will always be as it has always been. This creates an expectation in them that similar causes will always have similar effects. People’s experiences have led them to believe that a particular effect will always follow a cause. The constant observation of cause and effect means that people depend less on reasoning.
People do not depend on reasoning to experience the material world. They are aware of the things they see, touch, and hear and they do not have to think about them to understand what they are. They have seen them in the past and they know their features and purpose. People’s idea of the material world is not justified or rational. It is not possible to justify their beliefs as relations of ideas. It is not possible for people to avoid the material world since it is natural. Their senses make them aware of the material world. Hume notes that people do not rely on the philosophical belief, which tends to distinguish between the perception and the material object.
People’s beliefs do not require reasoning as it is based on the experiences that they have had in the past. They do not believe when they experience something for the first time. They are ignorant concerning its existence, as they do not have any form of knowledge or existence about it. Hume defines beliefs as “something felt by the mind, which distinguishes the ideas of the judgment from the fictions of the imagination” (32). This feeling distinguishes belief from imagination. It is independent of a person’s will and one cannot command it whenever he wishes. In defining belief, Hume states that it is “nothing but a more vivid, lively, forcible, firm, steady conception of an object than what the imagination alone is ever able to attain” (32). Everyone believes something all the time and this makes people conscious of the feelings that they have, as they are a representation of their beliefs.
Not every being has the capability of high reasoning. For instance, children do not have the same rationality as adults do. However, they are able to know the consequences following their decision to take certain actions based on the experiences they have had, which constitutes of their customs or habits. Animals are aware of some facts based on the experiences they have had. A dog that has never been whipped will not react once he sees a whip. However, when a dog experiences the pain of a whip, it will always run to avoid such pain. It will not reason that the whip must be painful. It will use the knowledge it has gained from the experiences it has had to determine the course of action it should take.
People do not need to use high reasoning for them to be aware of certain facts. The experiences they have enable them to observe cause and effect and they are able to acquire knowledge based on this. They gain more experience the more they observe natural elements. Hume notes that a child knows from experience that he will be burnt when he touches a flame. The child does not need to reason this out. This kind of knowledge shows that he has experimented before and he has gained an understanding through the pain he experienced at first. In future, such a child will not only avoid the specific form of flame he touched but he will avoid anything that resembles it, as he does not wish to have the same experience. This form of knowledge is independent of the action of a higher form of reasoning. A child does not engage in any argument that seeks to find out whether he should touch the flame. He does not rationalize his actions before deciding to abandon them.
Hume posits that the experiences that people have are formed from their perceptions, which include impressions and ideas. These impressions include the sensations, emotions, passions, and feelings that people have. They come from the senses and the experiences of people’s minds. The ideas that people have are not clear and they and they are derived from impressions. Hume claims that people have to depend on their experiences. This requires people to try out something in order to have a clear idea of its effects. His emphasis on experience suggests the importance of practical experience. People do not have to reason through everything they do. Repeating something constantly will give someone the experience he needs to know its effects. Thus, Hume seems to be suggesting that people should not try to reason through their problems. They should experience the pain and this will enable them to solve a similar problem when they encounter it again.
A person increases his knowledge the more he acquires experience. One cannot reason something he does not know or rationalize something that does not exist. People who do not have impressions do not have ideas. People begin acquiring knowledge when they are able to associate different ideas. This involves combining simple ideas and applying the principles of resemblance, cause and effect and the contiguity in time and place. Hume advances the idea that people should be skeptical of the world and their personal identity. He argues that people cannot depend on uncertain and unobserved cases.
Living in a Humean world requires one to learn from experience while living in a Cartesian world would mean engaging in reason before taking action. The Cartesian world supposes that people are rational beings and that they will often think through their actions. Hume is different in the sense that he places much skepticism on reasoning. Indeed, he manages to show that being rational is not the only way that people can use to make decisions. He posits that even those who are intelligent have made erred in their reasoning and they have made mistakes in the past. On the other hand, he notes that even the children who have not yet developed their reasoning capabilities and skills are in a position to acquire knowledge and to take actions and make decisions based on their observations and the experiences that they have had. The Humean world requires people to find the effects of different causes. People have to experience two events to determine how they relate to each other. Experiencing the events several times makes them certain of the causal relationship.
Descartes emphasized the use of reasoning and logic. He noted the importance of individual reasoning as a way of gaining knowledge. He set out to believe only the things that he could prove and not just anything that he read. Therefore, living in a Cartesian world would mean practicing what one learns. Descartes found a way of solving problems. He realized that he could be able to solve the problems he had by reducing it to its simplest parts, engaging in a long chain of reasoning, and ordering his thoughts systematically from the simplest to the most difficult. Living in a Cartesian world would mean developing and following a moral code based on the rules governing the country and on ones religion. It would also mean avoiding extreme opinion and being firm in the decision that one makes. Descartes realized that he had imperfections and this led him to believe that there must be a perfect God, who only does what is good.
Descartes observed the importance of the intellect. People can only make certain judgment when they have certain level of intelligence. The absence of intellect makes any perception and imagination that a person has meaningless, since he will not be able to apply it in the appropriate manner. Their perceptions cannot help in gaining more knowledge about the world. Descartes points out that the intellect is the source of sensation and imagination. Whereas he recognizes the importance of the two elements, he does not give them as much importance as Hume does. He observes that the senses may represent a different picture from the reality. What a person sees, hears, and feels may be different from what actually exists. Therefore, people cannot be certain about their perceptions, hence the importance of using reasoning. Hume observes that sensation and imagination are important and essential. He notes that people use their imagination in different ways and this contributes to adding the knowledge they have. On the other hand, Descartes points out that the intellect is more important. Living in a Humean world would require one to depend more on his senses, while living in a Cartesian world would necessitate a person to depend on his intelligence.
Hume and Descartes differ in their perception of knowledge. For Descartes, it is important for people to gain knowledge, but they should examine all the information they have received. Descartes observed that people do not have to live depending on the wisdom that has been passed on through generations. Hume points out that experience are important as they lead to developing customs and habits. Parents are able to teach their children what they know based on the experiences they have had.
For Hume, reasoning and rationalization are not the only means through which people can acquire knowledge. He observes that those who are considered intelligent have made mistakes in their reasoning. On the other hand, even those who do not have reasoning skills have sufficient knowledge, which enables them to determine the decisions they should make, and the course of action they should take. Descartes attributes the difference between human and animals to the presence of the soul. He notes that since animals have the same organs as humans, their lack of reasoning must be attributed to the absence of the soul. This perspective contrasts with Hume’s thinking, as he believed that animals are able to learn from experience. They may not think or reason but they have been through enough experiences and this has contributed to the knowledge they have.
Hume, David and Eric Steinberg. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Hackett Publishing, 1992. Print.
Descartes, René and Donald Cress A. Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy. Hackett Publishing, 1998. Print.
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