Pragmatism is based on the philosophy that ideas must be tested and re-tested, that experiences dictate reality. Pragmatists also believe in no absolute truths or values existing. David Hume argues that, “no proof can be derived from any fact, of which we are so intimately conscious; nor is there anything of which we can be certain, if we doubt this” (Treatise 2645). Hume’s empiricist ideals were roots to early pragmatic thought, by way of the theory that, in our reality, nothing is certain and everything that can be sensed must be constantly qualified to find a place in reality.
Hume’s position on our experiences deciding our veracity follows the school of pragmatism by staying away from any conclusive ideals. Thus, his angle on empiricism melds with pragmatism on the level of determining one’s self’s existence. Similar to Descartes, he explains that even, and more often than not as per constant perception, metaphysical experience can mold one’s identity. “And were all my perceptions removed by death . . . I should be entirely annihilated, nor do I conceive what is farther requisite to make me a perfect nonentity” (2645).
Based so heavily in perception, he further deduces that when “insensible during sleep” and all perception of environment lies dormant, existence may halt (2645). Hume speculates most closely on miracles and opens his essay with the stance that, “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature . . . the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined” (Enquiry 2647). He continues throughout his essay, supporting his claim and also breaking down Christianity, highly-based in such phenomena, proving the impossibility of the existence of miracles.
This trend is something a pragmatist would argue against, firmly believing in there being nothing absolute. Yet, despite his resistance he concludes, “whoever is moved by faith . . . is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person . . . and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience” (2650). This statement, although a bit contradictory to his thesis, appeases to pragmatist thought, allowing for an explanation to those who are still determined to believe in miracles and the like and allows for them to own an
identity under his definition. It is at this end where his level of pragmatism veers from Charles Peirce to William James’ end of the spectrum. Hume’s doctrine, were it truly classified as pragmatism, is all-encompassing and goes beyond pure knowledge shaping the self. Hume utilizes experiences of every kind as an influence in reality’s perpetual state of progress and even further takes on the pragmatist protocol by denying religion that believes in an all-knowing entity.
This Agnostician point-of-view is what further fuels Hume’s philosophy and persists in categorizing him as a pragmatist. In his efforts to liken the mind to a theater he breaks down identity to a simplistic nature. “The mind is a kind of theater, where several perceptions successively make their appearance: pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations” (Treatise 2645). Hume believes all concepts to be greater, complicated and more intricate combinations of simpler forms.
Like individual ingredients baked into a cake, everything can be broken down into smaller, easier to understand parts. These many pieces or ideas fit together to create perception and thus, identity which is constantly evolving, finally leading to pragmatism. Hume would likely have subscribed to such a school of thought, the more developed formula. It seems, though, that he had the roots within his empiricist theories and the continuing progress would have led Hume down that path.