Hume's Impression/Idea Distinction

Hume Studies 32 (1):119-139 (2006)
Abstract
Understanding the distinction between impressions and ideas that Hume draws in the opening paragraphs of his A Treatise on Human Nature is essential for understanding much of Hume’s philosophy. This, however, is a task that has been the cause of a good deal of controversy in the literature on Hume. I here argue that the significant philosophical and exegetical issues previous treatments of this distinction (such as the force and vivacity reading and the external-world reading) encounter are extremely problematic. I propose an alternative reading of this distinction as being between original mental entities and copied mental entities. I argue that Hume takes himself to discover this distinction as that which underlies our pre-theoretical sorting of mental entities. Thus, while the Copy Principle is initially treated by Hume as a mere empirical fact, it later comes to play a more substantial explanatory role in his account of human nature. This reading makes Hume’s distinction a more philosophically robust one, and avoids many of the exegetical difficulties of previous interpretations
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