Rene Desacartes and David Hume

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Rene Desacartes and David Hume

Rene Descartes and David Hume were two great philosophers during the modern period. Many of their issues focused on the existence of God. Hume’s writings on the existence of God are different to Descartes’. Descartes tries to prove Gods existence while Hume tries to show the foolishness of believing in God. However, both philosophers fail to solve the issue because they both hold many arguments. The major issue between Descartes and Hume is their conflicting methods on how the issue should be approached. Rene Descartes was an Enlightenment philosopher.

He was also a rationalist. This is the opposite of empiricism as this theory claims that some knowledge can be known a priori, independently of experience. This means that if God were to be proved then experience would not necessarily be needed as some truth. The explanation of oneself is essential to Descartes’ thesis. That all “object relations except God are delusions promoted by the coherence of experience” (Weissman); that is, our everlasting subjective experience of the world could be false, although God is known to be true.

Having decided that the empirical world and matter could be simply the creation of a devil, Descartes decides to follow his own consciousness, which is the only thing he could rely on. He is the type of person who only depends on himself and always thinks “I am” in situations. Descartes makes the unnecessary assumption that he is the carrier of his combined states. He states, “It is so self-evident that it is I who doubt, who understand and who wish, that there is no need to add anything to explain it”.

This, as well as the truths of mathematics, is perceived “clearly and distinctly”. Clear and distinct ideas are very much relied on in the Cartesian philosophy of mind; for Descartes they are the necessary truths, grabbed by the intelligence. This central consciousness he claims equates to a “person”; the divisible body as an extended thing in space and time is finite, opposed to the infinite, non-physical, monadic soul. This distinction is the foundation of Cartesian ontological dualism.

The mind and body are separate materials, existing on their own. Descartes believed that he developed a method by breaking a problem down into parts, accepting ideas that couldn’t be doubted and getting rid of one conclusion from another. Descartes came to the conclusion that the universe has a mathematically logical structure providing a unified body of knowledge. He believed that in order to obtain knowledge, there must be a normal method for achieving the truth, or any experience can not be a dependable source.

David Hume was an empiricist which means that he believes all knowledge must come from experience, as there is no innate knowledge within the mind. If the existence of God were to be proved, it would require someone to experience or suppose his existence from experience in some way, because reason alone is inadequate to prove his existence. Hume’s position about knowledge is skepticism, which means he doesn’t believe we have knowledge for certain things. He is heavily influenced by the two philosophers, Locke and Berkley.

Hume is similar to Berkley but without the part of believing in God. He believes in the analysis of causation. For example you know your friend is in France when you receive a post card from them in France. Hume’s explanations are more concerned with a passive physical brain and a graphic order of mind; the mind alone can tell us anything about the world. It contains an idea that simple and complex ideas are formed by direct perception of objects or self-reflection. Hume’s change incorporates an explanation on Locke’s ambiguous use of ‘idea’.

He refers separately to perceptions of sensations and those of reflection. Simple ideas of Locke such as space and time became complex ideas for Hume. All perceptions are substances, capable of existence independent of the observer. Therefore we are perceptions, with a non-observable ‘self’. Furthermore since there can be no ‘impression’ of self, the idea of identity is weak. It is important to know that in Hume’s plan in order for people to obtain knowledge of something they must experience it first.

Descartes believed that everything known, depends on perception, but if perception doesn’t have evidence not only from itself but also from the outside world than it will not be able to verify anything. According to Hume, “perceptions,” can be cut down to impressions and ideas. Axioms, were self evident principals which were “so clear and distinct” that they could not be doubted, and therefore accepted as certain contents of knowledge. Contrary to Descartes belief that effects must come from a cause, Hume believed that causes are senseless and uncertain.

This contrasts sharply with Descartes’ proposal of ‘primary and secondary’ qualities. The primary qualities of objects are their geometric, indubitable measurements such as their extension, mass and location in space. These are only indirectly perceived through the secondary qualities of appearance, such as colour and tangibility. Descartes seeks to avoid a merely representationalist stance and attempts to further justify a belief in an external reality beyond our mental field of perception, and show that it is dependent on God.

This is closely linked with Descartes’ equivocation of “clear and distinct” ideas; they refer both to the mathematical axioms of geometry – in a “triangle there is a certain determinate nature or essence or form of it, immutable and eternal, which has not been feigned by me, nor does it depend on [me]” – and to empirical statements about extension in space; in the Fifth Meditation he seeks to discover “something certain concerning material things…


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  • University/College: University of California

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 5 November 2016

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