Sunday, August 29, 2010

Is Hume an eliminativist about objects?

Hume's philosophy is more radical than we imagine. He did not hold, as Locke held, a representative theory of perception such that our sense impressions are fleeting and perishable, but are representative of objects which are relatively permanent and durable. He held that, when we analyse and examine the world carefully, we find that the things we call tables, chairs and houses really cease to exist when we are not perceiving them. For such things are really identical with our perceptions or sense impressions. He says* "it is impossible for us distinctly to conceive, objects to be in their nature any thing but exactly the same with perceptions". But "it is a gross illusion to suppose, that our resembling perceptions are numerically the same; and it is this illusion, which leads us into the opinion, that these perceptions are uninterrupted, and are still existent, even when they are not present to the senses. " Only philosophical analysis can penetrate and expose this illusion. Even that analysis can fail. The illusion is so strong that as soon as philosophers have discovered it - namely discovered, like Locke and the seventeenth century philosophers of perception, that our sense-impressions are fleeting and impermanent - that they immediately invent a new set of impressions that have the required permanence. Thus the representative theory at once refutes and re-establishes the illusion.

[...] it is liable to the same difficulties; and is over-and-above loaded with this absurdity, that it at once denies and establishes the vulgar supposition. Philosophers deny our resembling perceptions to be identically the same, and uninterrupted; and yet have so great a propensity to believe them such, that they arbitrarily invent a new set of perceptions, to which they attribute these qualities.

Does this make Hume an eliminativist, or a reductionist? I have argued elsewhere that the distinction is arbitrary, and I shall argue that this applies to Hume's position also. If we define 'material object' as something which is mind-independent and permanent, then it is clear Hume is denying the existence of any such things. The only objects we are aware of, he says, are these fleeting and perishable sense-impressions, which have no continued and uninterrupted existence. So he is an eliminativist regarding material objects defined in this way. But as I have argued, we don't have adopt this definition. If we define 'material object' as something identical with our sense-impression, then uninterrupted existence turns into a mere accidental feature of objects. An accidental feature that, as Hume argues, may not apply to any object at all, just as 'carried by the ether' does not apply to light, as people once thought.

In summary: whether Hume is an eliminativist or reductionist about the term 'material object' depends entirely on how you choose to define the term. There are the observable phenomena - the sense impressions - and there is whatever unobservable X explains or underlies these phenomena. And that X can have any features you like. There are no 'essential features' of things that are essentially unobservable.

* A Treatise of Human Nature, Book I. 4. ii - "Of scepticism with regard to the senses". This section is essential reading for any understanding of Hume. People often don't read it because it occurs towards the end of the first book, and because there is a lot of focus on the causation stuff in Part III. Part IV, particularly sections 2-4, are by far the most interesting and enjoyable and indeed strange parts of the work.

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