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Hume, Hegel, and Abstract General Ideas

  • Kenneth R. Westphal (a1)

Abstract:

Hegel's phenomenological method allows and requires him to justify his own positive views only by thorough internal critique of the views he opposes; Hegel calls this ‘determinate negation’ (§1). Hegel's transcendental-pragmatic epistemology is sharply opposed to empiricism. One key tenet of Modern empiricism is aconceptual ‘knowledge by acquaintance’ of particulars. This view is deeply embedded in Hume's official ‘copy theory’ of sensory impressions and ideas. Both of these views are required by Hume's account of abstract general ideas. Both of these views saw widespread revival in twentieth-century empiricism. Can these views be criticised on strictly internal grounds, as Hegel requires? This paper answers in the affirmative. More thoroughly than any other philosopher, Hume attempted to analyse our conceptual, propositionally-structured thought solely in terms of our ultimate awareness of nothing but objects, whether they be sensory impressions or their copies, ‘ideas’. In this context, Hume's account of our ideas of space and time have long been regarded as anomalies in, if not exceptions to, his account of the generality of thought. I argue that these ideas are not anomalous, but rather are typical of Hume's account of the generality of thought, an account that ultimately undermines Hume's official empiricist account of the generality of thought, based on his copy theory. I reexamine Hume's ‘idea of existence’ to identify some key equivocations between ‘ideas’ as objects and ‘ideas’ as concepts that are crucial to Hume's attempt to account for the generality of thought. The main issue is clarified by placing it within its Modern context (§2). The key issues are then specified by considering Hume's idea of existence (§3). The fundamental role played in Hume's account by his equivocations are then developed in detail by examining Hume's accounts of abstract ideas (§4), of distinctions of reason (§5), of the idea of equality (§6), and of the ideas of space and time (§7). On this basis I contend that Hume's account of the generality of thought is fundamentally linguistic, and is rooted in judgmental discriminations of kinds that cannot be accounted for by appeal to impressions of sensation or reflection, nor their corresponding idea-objects. These conclusions are reinforced and extended by critical evaluation of Garrett's analysis and defence of Hume's account of abstract ideas (§8). Hume is thus not only the great Modern exponent of the copy theory of impressions and ideas, he is also its first and still one of its most profound critics (§9). To this considerable extent, not only are the most basic principles of Hume's empiricism subject to internal critique, as Hegel requires, but Hume himself provides all the essentials of such a critique. These results serve to substantiate and highlight the philosophical significance of Hegel's critique of ‘Sense Certainty’ (§10).

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Hume, Hegel, and Abstract General Ideas

  • Kenneth R. Westphal (a1)

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