Notes on Hume and Skepticism of the Senses

Croatian Journal of Philosophy 3 (3):289-303 (2003)
In A Treatise of Human Nature Hume wrote a long section titled “Of skepticism with regard to the senses.” The discussion examines two key features of our beliefs about the objects making up the external world: 1. They continue to exist, even when unperceived. 2. They are distinct from the mind and its perceptions. The upshot of the discussion is a graceful sort of intellectual despair:I cannot conceive how such trivial qualities of the fancy, conducted by such false suppositions, can ever lead to any solid and rational system... ’Tis a gross illusion to suppose, that our resembling perceptions are numerically the same; and ’tis this illusion, which leads us into the opinion, that these perceptions are uninterrupted, and are still existent, even when they are not present to the senses. This is the case with our popular system. And as to our philosophical one, ’tis liable to the same difficulties; and is over-and-above loaded with this absurdity, that it at once denies and establishes the vulgar supposition. (Treatise, 217-8)These notes examine the argument of this section of the Treatise in detail. The upshot is that Hume’s despair is founded on an error. The notes finish by drawing some lessons about the epistemology of our common-sense world view
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