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Hume's Attack on Abstract Ideas: Real and Imagined

  • Gerald Vision (a1)

A very material question has been started concerning abstract or general ideas, whether they be general or particular in the mind's conception of them. A great philosopher [Dr. Berkeley] has disputed the receiv'd opinion in this particular, and has asserted, that all general ideas are nothing but particular ones, annexed to a certain term, which gives them a more extensive signification, and makes them recall upon occasion other individuals, which are similar to them. As I look upon this to be one of the greatest and most valuable discoveries that has been made of late years in the republic of letters, I shall here endeavour to confirm it by some arguments, which I hope will put it beyond all doubt and controversy.

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1 Treatise of Human Nature (henceforth “T"), ed. L.A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford, 1888), p. 17 (I, I, VII). Hume's Enquiry Concerning the Human Understanding [L.A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford, 1963)] will be cited as “Enquiry.” Berkeley's works are abbreviated as follows: A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge = PHK Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous = DAn Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision = ENTV Commonplace Book = CPB Section numbers in CPB follow the G.A. Johnston edition (London, 1930). Page numbers in D are from The Works of George Berkeley, vol. II, ed. A.A. Luce and T.E. Jessup.

2 This does not imply that Berkeley's applications of his attack on abstraction are correct. Sometimes he uses 'abstract idea' as a casual term of abuse, tantamount only to 'non- existent' and in certain instances otherwise similar arguments make no mention of abstract ideas, with no apparent loss in force. Despite this we can detect in some detail the further nature of the (supposed) abstract ideas under attack on these occasions.

3 PHK §§ 10, 124, 130; ENTV § 43; CPB § 377; D(I) pp. 199-200; De Motu § 43.

4 PHK § 13.

5 PHK §§ 5-6; CPB § 655.

6 PHK § 28.

7 Alciphron VII § 16.

8 PHK § 98. 9 PHK §§ 98, 116. The charge of abstraction here is somewhat puzzling. Relations are not ideas at all for Berkeley. Though he does extend his critique of abstractionism to 'notions' as well as 'ideas' [PHK, Intro. §§ 6,10; PHK § 143; De Motu § 23], it is not likely that such relations would be considered notions by him either.

10 PHK § 67; D(II), p. 221.

11 To discuss intelligibly the views of Berkeley and Hume two controversial assumptions must be allowed: (a) that ideas have contents describable in ways that counterparts in the non-mental world would be described, but which are essentially adjuncts of ideas and thus mental, (b) that such contents may be called particular or general on the basis of their internal features. The second assumption is discussed below.

12 PHK, Intro. § 8.

13 PHK, Intro. § 9.

14 Bearsdley Monroe C., “Berkeley on 'Abstract Ideas',” Mind, vol. LII (1943).

15 PHK §§ 11.

16 PHK §§ 11.

17 In our opening quotation Hume uses these expressions interchangeably. Even Berkeley, falling into looser forms of expression than are consistent with his more careful analysis, seems to suppose particular ideas always contrast with abstract ones (PHK, Intro. § 24; PHK, § 97).

18 In the Enquiry Hume's remarks are brief asides, contained in the penultimate paragraph of section XII, part I and the last footnote appended to part II of the same section.

19 Cf. Smith Norman Kemp, The Philosophy of David Hume (London, 1949), p. 259. In the last two paragraphs of this section of the Treatise (pp. 24-25) Hume takes up the question of abstract particulars: what he calls a “distinction of reason.” We shall return to those remarks. Now we need only note that they are attached almost as an afterthought to his main discussion, and do not form an integral part of it.

20 T (1,1,1), p. 4.

21 T, p. 5.

22 PHK § 13, § 98; see also De Motu § 43.

23 T (I, III, XIV), pp. 165-66.

24 E.g., at T, p. 18. Given Hume's sharp distinction between distinguishability and separa-bility, it is significant that he says'... all simple ideas may be separated by the imagination, and may be united again in what form it pleases.” (p. 10, my emphasis.)

25 When Berkeley sums up the heat/pain argument in the first Dialogue by saying that one experiences both “with one simple and uncompounded idea” (p. 176), he seems to mean the experience is single, not that it is not analyzable into separately attendable elements. At ENTV § 109 when he says number may be a simple idea, he appears to have something other in mind than Locke's simple ideas; otherwise his conclusion, that counting is always of things, seems incompatible with number being a simple idea.

26 Some prominent occurrences in CPB at §§ 141, 231,404,448-50,486,498,530, 567, 575, 674,681,915-17.

27 E.g., CPB § 499.

28 T, p. 25.

29 PHK, Intro., § 15; T, pp. 20-22.

30 The regular use of arithmetical and geometrical examples in Berkeley and Hume may encourage us to miss this point. There is less reluctance to admit that a triangle in the content of an idea is an instance of a triangle than that a 'content-horse' is a horse. 31 E.g., How many hairs on its mane? Has it a perforated ulcer?

32 “The conception of a pound troy is the conception of a quantity, and of a precise degreee of that quantity; but it is an abstract general conception notwithstanding, because it may be the attribute of many individual bodies, and of many kinds of bodies.” Reid Thomas, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man (Cambridge, Mass., 1969), p. 417. This may also be a reason why Hume is unable to disprove even the existence of certain abstract general ideas by establishing (1).

33 Of course, another basis for the distinction might be the history of the idea. If it was (or would have been) obtained by separating elements of an already present concrete idea, it may be particular. If arrived at by comparing and extrapolating features or categories from two or more ideas it would be general. But, for all this, if the procedures could be carried out, the resulting ideas might still be indistinguishable. (This would depend on the ‘general’ idea's not being too general.)

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Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review / Revue canadienne de philosophie
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  • EISSN: 1759-0949
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