On Hume on space: Green's attack, James' empirical response

Journal of the History of Philosophy 47 (3):pp. 415-449 (2009)
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ABSTRACT. Associationist psychologists of the late 19th-century premised their research on a fundamentally Humean picture of the mind. So the very idea of mental science was called into question when T. H. Green, a founder of British idealism, wrote an influential attack on Hume’s Treatise. I first analyze Green’s interpretation and criticism of Hume, situating his reading with respect to more recent Hume scholarship. I focus on Green’s argument that Hume cannot consistently admit real ideas of spatial relations. I then argue that William James’s early work on spatial perception attempted to vindicate the new science of mind by showing how to avoid the problems Green had exposed in Hume’s empiricism. James’s solution involved rejecting a basic Humean assumption—that perceptual experience is fundamentally composed of so-called minima sensibilia, or psychological atoms. The claim that there are no psychological atoms is interesting because James supported it with experimental data rather than (as commentators typically suppose) with introspective description or a priori argument. James claimed to be the real descendant of British empiricism on grounds that his anti-atomistic model of perception fortified what Green had perhaps most wanted to demolish—the prospect of using empirical, scientific methods in the study of mind.

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Alexander Klein
McMaster University

Citations of this work

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References found in this work

The new Hume.Kenneth P. Winkler - 1991 - Philosophical Review 100 (4):541-579.
Are we automata?William James - 1879 - Mind 4 (13):1-22.

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