From Descartes to Hume: From Certainty to Uncertainty On Epistemology, Metaphysics, and Ethics

In modern philosophy, René Descartes best known as the father of modern philosophy because of his contribution on invented of subject. Before him, philosophy does not care about subject. Especially in middle age, philosophy task was only face the theological assumption. After Descartes, subjectivity has the central position in philosophy. It is why term modern (taken from moderna, which is mean nowness) is attached to philosophy. Descartes implemented geometrical principle into his philosophical project. He was obsessed with certainty, which geometry could give certainty. By methodical doubtful, Descartes did begin inventing a certainty, a bedrock of certainty. He doubted all of things, included all sensorial data, and found ontological state of subject, I, that can not be doubted. I can doubt anything, but that I doubt anything can not be doubted. Extremely, if you try to say “I doubt that I exist”, in fact it proved that you do exist. Shortly, Descartes finally found the bedrock of certainty on the mind and discover its innate ideas: self, identity, substance, and even God.

As an empiricist, David Hume reputed as a man who do shifting paradigm from Descartes’ view. As we know, there is a different principle between rationalism and empiricism especially on the epistemological view. But, why shifting paradigm from Descartes does not to John Locke or Bishop Berkeley? Why Hume? Both on John Locke or Bishop Berkeley, still admitted that there is a substance. On their empiric epistemological view, both of the external world and subject that perceive it, have a substance. Subject that experiences everything is a substance and the external world that perceived has a substance inside. For example on Locke view, there is a real world out there and it has certain real qualities, the primary qualities. These qualities must be quality of a real thing, and the real things are substances.

Hume do empirical thought beyond what’ve done by another empiricist. According to Hume, all we perceive, and definable, were only impressions and ideas. Obviously, both of them do not directly refer to what the real thing in it self. On some interpretation, if Hume sits in a room, he perceives all impression and ideas of a table ahead. He can see its color, which is black; he can smell its scent; he can hear a sound when he knocks it; But, what will happen if all these qualities of impressions were deleted? Of course Hume lost the table! Hume does skeptical thinking of reality. He is the most perplexing of the British empiricists.

What basically Hume do in epistemology and metaphysics (for some reason, both of them can not be separated clearly) conceptually? Hume began with a revival of Leibniz’s analytic-synthetic distinction, on Hume words a distinction between relation of ideas and matters of fact. Analytical proposition are characterized by sentences: whose negation leads to self contradiction; that are a priori; that are true by definition, clear in definition; therefore necessarily true. While synthetic propositions have some characters: whose negation does not lead to self contradiction; that are a posteriori; that are not true by definition; when they are true, they are not necessarily true (can be false). Hume admitted that there are such things as priory necessary truths that held by philosophers, for example mathematics. But, Hume defuses from these things by saying that all tautological are redundant, repetitive, only a verbal truth. By saying this, I interpret, that Hume began to consider all his philosophical view as has synthetic character. This is why Hume does skeptical thought of anything because there is no a real thing unless all impressions we perceive.

Not only the external world, but also subjectivity has synthetic character. If another empiricist (and of course all rationalist) accept subject as a substance, or at least has a substance inside, Hume precisely deny to saying that subject is a substance. Self, which is considered as subject, no more than a bundle of perceptions. Descartes maybe already come to a certainty of a subject, self. But, maybe Hume would say to Descartes: what self? Self on Hume thought is not a clear thing, can not be claimed as tautological. Self is synthetically. If we lost all perceptions qualities, then we will lose the self! Something that can we say about self only imagination about substance of self. Nothing is substance there unless an imagination. Hume quite do shifting paradigm from Descartes. That is, shifting from certainty to uncertainty.

Maybe, Hume did not discuss ethics as a full system of thinking. I meant, ethics is not a central point of Hume thought. It mere derivation from term emotion on Hume words and he discussed it as a moral, for some reason it has a little differences with ethics. When we learn the topic of ethics on any philosophical sketch, perhaps we can categorize the central point of ethics on two ways: subject or object. Where something has a value of good or evil? In subject? Or, in object? Because there is no analytical character of reality, so there is no enough access to know something has good or evil in the object. No good in itself. No evil in itself. Hume escapes from this situation into subject. He talked about passion and emotion that are related to ethics. Shortly, there is no real value of good or evil in it self, but we can “desire” to one form of thing that we value it is good. For example, rob is not have evil in itself, but we (subject) has “desire” (or intention) to value it’s as an evil. Equally, help poor people has no good value in itself, it’s only emotion intention. On my reading on Hume’s, our method to valuing morality (or ethics) is the same method that we apply into, lets say, our preference in fashion.

To summarize, Hume strove with Descartes’ bedrock of certainty by offer uncertainty. His philosophy argues that all things are particular. When Descartes found substance, it was only imagination on Hume. Skeptically, particularly, synthetically, are the ground of all Hume thought in epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics. As Kant was awake up from dogmatic sleeping, I also try to know a way to slip away from dogmatic understanding by reading Hume’s.


About Herdito Sandi Pratama

Dosen Muda Filsafat di Dept. Filsafat Fakultas Ilmu Pengetahuan Budaya, Universitas Indonesia; meminati filsafat ilmu pengetahuan, metodologi, epistemologi, filsafat ekonomi, dan filsafat politik.

Posted on January 3, 2009, in Filsafat. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Very nice vidps3atxvipx

  2. we study of philosophy to wake from ignorance and its consumation is ignorance!

  3. can philosophy bake bread?

  4. nope. Philosophy can not ever bake bread. But, life is not only about bread. 🙂

  5. I will have to read more of your posts!
    Sekarang ini, saya belajar di Universitas Murdoch (Saya berasal dari Australia Barat).
    Pelajaran kesukaan saya adalah filsafat, lalu bahasa Indonesia 😉
    Saya berharap bahwa saya bisa membaca pesan anda, untuk belajar dari anda!
    (Maaf, untuk bahasa yang jelek… Saya masih belajar!)

  6. Salam kenal Rebecca. Studi apa yang diambil di Universitas Murdoch?
    Bahasa Indonesia Anda cukup baik. Senang berkenalan dengan Anda.

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