Treatise of Human Nature

In the Treatise of Human Nature, Hume argues that reason is a slave to passion by attempting to dispose of three traditional philosophical beliefs. He argues that reason cannot motivate us to act, that reason cannot combat passion and that a passion cannot be called unreasonable. However, Hume also goes back and highlights pieces of the traditional arguments that he believes to be reasonable in certain contexts. After briefly outlining his contrary ideas, I will focus more on Hume’s positive views towards the argument.

After this I will pose a critical query of Hume’s work, questioning the separation of reason and passion. In order to understand reason and passion, we must first understand their origin. Hume explains that all experienced psychological phenomena – including everything that is involved in thinking and feeling – are called perceptions of the mind. Perceptions of the mind can be divided into to two sections: impressions (feelings) and ideas (linked to thinking) (2).

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Within impressions lies a further division: impressions of sensation and impressions of reflexion.

Impressions of sensation and reflexion

Impressions of sensation are received through our senses and represent our experience of the world. They occur before impressions and thus are called primary. Impressions of reflexion are received in a different manner. First, there is an impression of sensation and then an idea (a pale copy of the sensation) is made and returned to the soul. At this point, it produces an impression of reflexion otherwise called a passion. Reason, Hume states, on the other hand, is a mechanism used to discover truth or falsehood (458).

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Reason uses ideas that are not found in the soul, to come to conclusions about truth and falsehood and therefore have no effect upon the soul. Hume’s first argument to support his case is that while passions can motivate us to act, reason alone cannot. He says that things involving reason – for example math – are ‘motivationally inert’ (413-414). Reason is a different kind of force than passion because while passions are impressions in the soul – reason stems from mere copies of impression.

Hume believes that how one feels and how one acts are completely different, and that one’s actions are dependent upon passions, which are independent of reason. Hume however admits that there is something that reason can do: reason can prompt a pre-existing passion. It can either do this by providing information about existence or providing information about cause and effect. To understand this, we must realize that within reason there are two further divisions: relation among ideas, and matters of fact.

Questions of existence and questions of causality

Relation among ideas can be demonstrated by way of the idea of a triangle coincides with a shape whose angles add up to 180 degrees. Within matters of fact, there are two types of questions that need to be taken into account: questions of existence (e. g. is that a red shirt? ) and questions of causality (e. g. if a piece of chalk falls will it break from the force of hitting the floor?). Reason can provide information about existence and can therefore prompt a passion by indicating that there is something that can fulfill it.

For example if a person loves peaches and if reason informs him that there is a peach in the next room, this could prompt a passion that would motivate him to go eat that peach. Reason can also provide information about how a certain action might cause an effect to occur. For example, if a person who loves peaches is standing next to a peach tree, reason might lead him to realize that by shaking the tree a peach may fall out, and he may be motivated to act upon that realization (459). Hume’s second argument attempts to prove that reason is a slave to passion by saying that no fight exists between them.

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Mind Essays

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Hume's Treatise. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

Hume's Treatise

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