Sam's Reviews > An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume
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Apr 16, 12

Read from March 27 to April 16, 2012

This intro to an essay I wrote on this book pretty much sums it up:
David Hume delves into all doctrines of life in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, unearthing the fallibility of all human-made dogmas. His stance lends no credence to the predictability of the future, and instead infringes upon the reliability of any human experience outside of the experience itself. Hume sees every cause and effect as an isolated happenstance, and even with similarities in experiences, places no stock in these incidents building upon person’s knowledge of the world. In fact, Hume states that the current state of human knowledge is so limited that nothing we claim to know is solidified, but it is in human nature to simplify and catalog the world in terms that are relatable and relevant to past experience. Human senses can rarely decipher all of the minute elements leading to an effect, and therefore can only create speculative matters of fact, lest life in a world of random happenings. However, not until humans can understand the inner workings of the intricate world in which we inhabit, can they endeavor to know anything for certain.

Hume’s standpoint on actions and their results may seem at first to give support for unaccountability in the effects of an action, but upon further inspection challenges the reader and all humans to endeavor always for accountability in their actions. He states that “the experimental reasoning itself, which we possess in common with beasts, and on which the whole conduct of life depends, is nothing but a species of instinct or mechanical power, that acts in us unknown to ourselves; and in its chief operations, is not directed by any such relations or comparisons of ideas, as are the proper objects of our intellectual faculties” (72). Humans, born with higher brain capacities than animals, should act in a more premeditated and thoughtful way, but if a human does not act up to these moral expectations, it is a failing of circumstances out of their control and not any failing of the person. Behind this statement lies a challenge for all humans to live up to their utmost ability to act in a way which reflects their true nature. Although this statement absolves any animal unable to reach this zenith of awareness of accountability in their actions, it challenges every human reader to allay their ignorance, and pull themselves above the instinctual reactions of animals, and instead always endeavor for a holistic knowledge instead of a blind trajectory.

Hume concedes free will in all living organisms in a certain situation, claiming all living things, animals and humans alike, have the ability to react in a certain way which is original to them in every situation. These differences in reactions are due to the customs that organism has learned to emulate from experience, and as each animal and human have different experiences, each has different reactions to arising situations. These differences, however, do not deviate from the norms which govern all living things. Travelers to far-off lands bring back no accounts of men behaving and existing in society in vastly different ways from others. The same basic needs drive all creatures, perhaps with differing strength, and “our idea of necessity and causation arises entirely from the uniformity, observable in the operations of nature” (54-55). Hume asserts the uniformity of the drives behind all human and animal actions, but grants that these uniformities should not “be carried to such a length, as that all men in the same circumstances, will always act out precisely in the same manner, without making any allowance for the diversity of characters, prejudices and opinions” (57). This explains why animalistic behavior is substantially more uniform than human action, as a person’s thoughts and ideas cloud their steadfast trajectory in fulfilling their needs as a living organism, while an animal’s lack of rational thought leads to their uniform and primal actions.
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