Locke and Hume on belief, judgment and assent

Topoi 22 (1):15-28 (2003)
Abstract
Hume's account of belief has been much reviled, especially considered as an account of what it is to assent to or judge a proposition to be true. In fact, given that he thinks that thoughts about existence can be composed of a single idea, and that relations are just complex ideas, it might be wondered whether he has an account of judgment at all. Nonetheless, Hume was extremely proud of his account of belief, discussing it at length in the Abstract, and developing it in the Appendix. Furthermore, he claimed several times that his account was new. It was not just a new answer to an old question, but an answer to a new question as well. Why did Hume think he was raising, and answering, a new question? Is his answer really so appalling? Why did he define belief in terms of a relationship with a present impression? In this paper, I propose answers to these questions. The answers emerge by contrasting Hume with Locke. Locke thought that belief was a pale imitation of knowledge, and that the assent we give to propositions is constituted in the very same act as forming those propositions. Hume saw the problems such a theory faced concerning existential beliefs. By ceasing to treat existence as a predicate, Hume was confronted with the issue of what it was to judge something to be true, or to assent to something. This issue had to be solved independently of the question of what it was to conceive something, or understand the content of a proposition. Hume thought this problem was new. He should be looked at, not as giving a bad answer to an important question, but rather as being the first in the early modern period to recognize that there was an important question here to be answered.
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