Did Hume hold a regularity theory of causation?

British Journal for the History of Philosophy 1 (1):99 – 114 (1993)
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In The Secret Connexion1 Galen Strawson argues against the traditional interpretation of Hume, according to which Hume’s theory of meaning leads him to a regularity theory of causation. In actual fact, says Strawson, ‘Hume believes firmly in some sort of natural necessity’ (p. 277). What Hume denied was that we are aware of causal connections outrunning regular succession, and that we have a ‘positively or descriptively contentful conception’ of such powers (p. 283); he did not deny that there are such powers, or that they are what we are talking about when we talk about causation. Strawson has four central lines of argument. His ‘most direct evidence’ (p. 2) against a regularity interpretation consists of (1) passages where Hume refers to hidden powers underlying the regularities of which we are aware. Strawson’s broader motivations for rejecting the traditional interpretation are (2) that the regularity theory is in itself quite absurd, and (3) that it is incompatible with Hume’s ‘non-committal scepticism’. And the method which he uses to defend his interpretation against pressure from the theory of ideas is (4) to develop some comments of Hume’s on ‘relative’ ideas into something like a further theory of content to supplement the theory of ideas. Strawson develops almost the strongest case I can imagine for his claims. I shall try to explain why he leaves me unconvinced.



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Justin Broackes
Brown University

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