This is a transcript of episode #054 on David Hume. Check out the episode page HERE.
One interesting thing to consider about even the most brilliant people that have ever lived is that many of them spend years and years of their lives in a state of complete confusion… about what would eventually become their area of expertise. It's funny, you think back to someone like Immanuel Kant…an Albert Einstein…a Sir Isaac Newton and it's easy to project onto these people an air of invincibility. It's easy to think of Kant as some sort of philosophical prodigy…you know…somehow he was just born with an incredible ability to revolutionize thinking, but in reality even someone like Kant spent many years of his life in a state of limbo…baffled about how to move forward with anything.
I want to take you back in time to the earlier years of Kant's career…when he was but a young man from a poor family living in Prussia who was very much interested in philosophy. He had read a bunch of it. Was putting out work on it…he spent much of his early life writing on various things in the realms of science and philosophy, but if you read what he was writing during this period in his life…something was missing from it.
He was kinda all over the place when it came to his fundamentals. Like, if you read his earlier stuff you'll see that it all feels very Kantian at its core. The stuff is filled with all kinds of foreshadowing to ideas that he talks about later in his more influential works, but whenever he starts talking even for a moment about epistemology…depending on which work you're reading the guy switches back and forth between a couple three different ideas. He was confused…But then something happened. He tells a story to explain what happened.
Nobody knows how literally we should take the anecdote by Kant. Nobody knows whether this actually happened, or whether it was a metaphor or a parable…but then again if you're Immanuel Kant and you're going to make up a story about yourself…I think you'd make up something a little more cool than this. you know its like saying your dad invented Toaster Strudel…why would you ever make that up? You'd make up something way cooler than that. And what Immanuel Kant says is that one day as he was in this state of confusion early on in his life…he was searching for answers…searching for clarity and he was re-reading David Hume and he was struck by something. Intellectually…he wasn't physically struck with a rolling pin…he said famously that something came over him in that moment…that he was:
“I freely admit that it was the remembrance of David Hume which, many years ago, first interrupted my dogmatic slumber and gave my investigations in the field of speculative philosophy a completely different direction.”
Keep in mind as you hear this that Kant is RE-READING David Hume when he has this eureka moment. He had already read Hume, gotten whatever he could from him the first time around and was STILL confused. It was only after going back and reading him again that he had this insight that would change everything…the way that HE looked at the world…the direction of his future thinking…and as it turns out…it changed philosophy itself.
You know, there's something to take from this anecdote. If you're someone that feels stuck on a particular subject you've been thinking about for years…if you're someone who feels like you've exhausted every resource that's available to you when educating yourself on something…and you're STILL confused about it…this is a good lesson to take from Kant. Sometimes the answer may be behind you. Sometimes you may want to go back…sometime you may want to re-read things that you've already read in the past because who knows…for whatever reason when you first read it you weren't in the right frame of mind to receive it. maybe you weren't feeling well the day that you read it…Which brings me to the point of this episode and really the point of this entire podcast…I want to tell you about a man named Jesus Christ. Just Kidding.
But in all seriousness, what if Kant had never gone back and re-read Hume? See, Hume's commentary on causality and all these assumptions we make about things that we see interacting in the world…this was a game changer for Kant. Because it was by reading that that he realized that even the great David Hume…the great skeptic himself…he was like Siri if you wanted to find assumptions in arguments…Kant realized that EVEN DAVID HUME had been making a massive assumption all along. What was that assumption? Well let's talk for a second about the divide we're all aware of that existed prior to Immanuel Kant between rationalism and empiricism.
Let's talk about it. For hundreds of years there was this scandalous and kind of complicated relationship between people when it came to how we arrive at knowledge. A schism between the rationalists and empiricists. They didn't always get along. In fact, sometimes they hated each other. Sometimes they all just started snapping and made really weird eye contact with each other and broke into one of those dance fight scenes like in West Side Story. They didn't agree on some stuff, but the point is that like the rival factions in West Side Story aside from all their territorial differences…they were actually remarkably similar in a lot of ways!
I'm sure you guys have either had this thought or heard someone have this thought when you're talking to them about this great divide between rationalism and empiricism. Why does it need to be one or the other? Why can't we all just get along? Why can't it be a combination of the two? Rationalism AND Empiricism. And it's a good question. But the reality is, basically none of these people on either side of the argument really thought the other guys were COMPLETELY wrong. Like, if you were an empiricist you understood the value of reason when it came to drawing conclusions about the world…and vice versa. The question was: which is more imperative? Which was more important as a requisite to knowledge?
You know, of course there are more extreme viewpoints on either side and you guys know I'm not aiming to define every rationalist with a single sentence, but the arguments are ones that we've heard throughout the history of this podcast. You got more extreme rationalists on one side like Plato for instance who talk about total knowledge of the universe being innate. He talks about how the process that we think of as learning is REALLY just a process of remembering things that we already know by virtue of them being programmed into us.
Remember the story we talked about with Socrates and the slave boy that he teaches the basic ideas of geometry? The slave hadn't ever experienced geometry before. He hadn't ever seen or smelled or touched the things that Socrates was showing him, yet somehow he was able to use reason and arrive at the correct answer…as if he already knew it. Socrates wasn't teaching him new ideas…he was delivering new ideas like a midwife delivers a baby. To someone like Plato, it was obvious that REASON was a much more important tool when it came to arriving at knowledge, and you know the story, Plato is seen as a rationalist.
But then you got people like Hume right? Custom is the great guide of human life. Reason in his work takes a subservient role. Yes, he acknowledges people use their ability to reason and it IS very important, but ultimately all knowledge at least initially comes from experience. You can't just magically conjure up new ideas with this mysterious thing called "reason". They would argue that the slave boy from the story isn't REALLY unearthing new ideas when Socrates is drawing squares in the dirt…you know just through his life as a slave he's encountered concepts like addition and subtraction and the number four and all the other tools he'd need to reason to the correct answer…and he's just using these tools that he initially gained through experience on a new project…i.e. the squares Socrates is drawing in the dirt. Hume's not arguing that he isn't USING reason…he's arguing that at least initially, his knowledge was borne of experience.
Now, the common argument back from rationalists in this case would be…well if everything is truly derived from some experience that I've had…then how come I can imagine things that I've never seen before? I can imagine a chair made entirely out of kittens! This idea obviously isn't something I've experienced…how do you explain that?
The common argument back to that is that you HAVE experienced it. You've experienced kittens and you've experienced chairs and you're just creating a complex idea by combining two concepts you've experienced in the past. The more serious implications of this is that:
When Descartes or Spinoza or Leibniz arrive at some fundamental truth about the nature of the universe…and then from there construct an ENTIRE SYSTEM on top of it using this thing they have called reason that they've used to arrive at these "new" ideas, that HAVE to be true…it's very tempting to think that they've arrived at something true there…but what the empiricists would say is that they aren't actually arriving at anything completely foreign to their experiences. This system that they've created is just a creative conglomeration of things they've experienced in the past. Which explains why many of the things they talk about are mutually exclusive.
Anyway, this argument can go back and forth all day. And it did. For many days. For many years. The point is, none of these people were extremists…they all understood the merits of the other side of the argument…they just thought that either reason or experience was MORE important than the other. And again if you're someone on the Empiricist side of things like David Hume…imagine how tempting it would be to feel like empiricism is the answer to arriving at knowledge…considering this scientific revolution and the very REAL improvements in the lives of the average citizen came from a method that used empirical observation…a far cry from the centuries of speculation that came before.
But then along came Kant.
See, one day in the 1700's Kant was sitting down thinking about this very topic that we're talking about right now!…and he realized a giant assumption that even the great skeptic David Hume had been making. I can just imagine this conversation happening…I can just imagine Kant talking to David Hume if he ever left his basement: Listen Dave…help me with something real quick…i think I'm confused…as far as I can remember…there's no seminar that we all went to right after we're born, right? There's no Tony Robbins weekend extravaganza on the nature of space and time that we all attended right after we left the womb that I missed, right? So isn't it interesting that you think that all knowledge is ultimately derived from experience, yet you talk about causality and this chaotic mess of phenomena all interacting with each other as though you're appealing to something exterior to yourself.
But…where did THAT come from Mr. Hume? When did you experience something that taught you about the existence of space? How could you even know to expect to have a concept of I…or a concept of something being "exterior" to you at all? If all knowledge is derived from experience…where did you learn to make that distinction?
In fact, when you think about it, Kant says…how is it even POSSIBLE to make that distinction? For someone to arrive at knowledge about ANYTHING in the external world…they would first need to know that it was outside of them to begin with. But how can you even identify where you end and the outside world begins without already knowing about the concept of you and the concept of the outside world? In this way, Kant thinks there is no explanation other than the fact that the concept of "space" is something that we as humans are familiar with prior to experience of ANY kind. Or in cool philosophical language, apriori.
It's here that we can see what we were talking about before…it's here we can begin to see this nexus between rationalism and empiricism right? Kant looks at how we arrive at knowledge and he largely agrees with Hume…he definitely thinks experience is an important element when it comes to arriving at knowledge, but is it everything? Kant makes the argument that it CAN'T be everything…it has to be a combination of experience and certain Apriori intuitions of the mind like the concept of space.
Now, what does this mean? Well, aside from him finding an assumption that David Hume was making after dedicating so much of his time to finding assumptions…which is kind of funny if you think about it…the philosophical implications are what you guys wanna hear about.
Think of what this means people. The concept of space…this fundamental aspect of the way we perceive the world…as fundamental as anything really…whenever we perceive our house or our dog or a tree or anything for that matter, we attach to this tree this property of it having space…we understand that tree at least partially in terms of the space that tree occupies…but the property of space is NOT something that we're receiving through our senses when we look at that tree…the tree isn't giving us it's property of space….
No, what we're getting when we look at a tree is a flurry of raw information. Billions of bits of data flying into our eyes and ears and nose and all this information… at this level makes no sense to us! Think about it…have you ever seen a snow flurry? Before all the crazy living situations in California…I lived in Alabama for a while and we would have these snow flurries…big, thick snowflakes densely pouring down with winds coming from all directions…and these snowflakes would just spiral around and twist and tornado through the air and there's no rhyme or reason to any of it. There's no way to make sense of it. It's just pure madness dancing through the air.
This is what the world would be if we lived in the world of David Hume…where all knowledge is derived from experience! What Kant is saying is that no, that's NOT true…we have certain apriori principles of thought, things that we didn't gain from experience, that make it possible for us to make sense of anything in the exterior world. When we look at a tree…we aren't seeing the world as it truly is…we're seeing the map of the world that our mind creates after imposing those apriori organizing faculties onto what we are sensing.
I want you to think of it this way…because this is how Kant explicitly talks about it. There are two worlds: our bodies and the external world. And what he means by that is that you will never experience the world as it TRULY is…you'll never experience the things in themselves that exist OUT THERE somewhere outside of our experience of the world.
Now, don't just take this at face value…this goes beyond the veil of perception problem that we were talking about in the John Locke episodes..I'll say it again..there are two worlds…one of them you're never gonna see because it's OUT THERE somewhere…you know things in themselves…and the other one is the way that your mind depicts that world OUT THERE to make sense of it. The flurry of raw information gathered through the senses transmuted into something sensible by your mind.
Kant doesn't care about what that true world is…well that's actually an overstatement…he spend any time with needless speculation about what that true world out there is like…leave that for people like Hegel and Schopenhauer….two people that are yet to come that were heavily influenced by Kant…but what he DOES do is make an important point… to a human species that had been agonizing for quite a while about finding the best way to KNOW things about the world…and that point is this:
Anything that we say we "know" about the world…is really just us understanding some measurable facet regarding how our minds DEPICT the world….not the world itself. Not things-in-themselves. So think about the gravity of this…people talk all the time about how important science or other things are as a means of arriving at more knowledge about the world…but Kant I think very rightly points out that if that knowledge that we're striving for is even possible…ONE THING IS FOR CERTAIN…that knowledge is going to be intrinsically connected to how our minds work. How our minds make sense of everything. So once you arrive at that conclusion…it seems pretty obvious what to do next…find out as much as you can about how the mind works. How do we think? How do we know things at all? Are there any other apriori intuitions our minds have?
Do you understand? This is why you see the names of his major works as things like the "Critique of Pure Reason" or the "Critique of Judgement". He's writing entire treatises describing different faculties of our mind…because he believed it was through understanding the mind itself that we could understand things around us.
But there's more! Think of how HUGE this is! Think of the other side of Kant's idea that the concept of space is one method that our mind uses to make sense of everything around us…the other big thing that this implies is that things in themselves…may not have space at all. Just because I look at a tree and I see it as three dimensional and I see it as something that takes up space…DOES NOT Necessarily MEAN that that thing that exists in the external world that my mind is projecting as a tree ACTUALLY takes up space. That would be an assumption. That would be me projecting the way my human mind perceives the world…(the world in my body) ONTO things in themselves (the external world). He doesn't say these things DON'T have the property of space…he just points out that to apply characteristics to things in themselves…to something beyond anything we can ever experience…is just assuming way too much.
Now that's pretty freaky right? We aren't looking at the things in themselves, but just some depiction of the things in themselves that our mind creates that is useful to us. We don't even know if the things in themselves have the property of space. And if you haven't already guessed…when it comes to these apriori things that our brains come with right off the factory floor…being able to perceive space or that something outside of us exists…is not the only thing that our brains come with!
What are some other things that we magically know from birth that can't be derived from experience? What other things didn't we learn from a weekend seminar before we experienced anything? Well, Time…yes we talked very briefly about that one last time…but how bout a more fun one. How about causality?
When we go about our lives in the world…we are CONSTANTLY thinking of things in terms of cause and effect. You wake up in the morning you have a crick in your neck…you look for a cause. You get a tummy ache…you look for a cause.
Sure, you may eat something bad and get a stomach ache multiple times and eventually arrive at the idea..oh my stomach hurts…there must be a cause…maybe I ate something bad. But, where do you get the notion of assuming causality to begin with?
In other words…yeah you may through tons of experiences arrive at the idea that certain things commonly cause other things…but where did you get the notion that phenomena are caused by other phenomena…to even think to find an association between two things? Where did you get that? This is yet another category of the mind…a pre-programmed way that the mind makes sense of the otherwise insensible world. This is yet again…something that our mind uses to make sense of things…and it would be a mistake to project this quality onto the things in themselves. Things in the external world.
So think about the implications of that! If the idea of cause and effect is just a way that our minds make sense of things in the world…then much like things having the property of space…things in themselves may not have the property of causality. Things in themselves may not have a cause. To assume that they DO have a cause is to project the way our minds make sense of the world onto the external world. But this is ludicrous to someone like Kant…cause and effect exist as a part of human experience. This external world that we know nothing about is BY DEFINITION BEYOND human experience!
You can imagine how Kant must have felt about everyone's favorite cause to contemplate. Or can you? One things for sure, as we move forward into the next few episodes…we're treading through some murky water. And the most baffling thing to me…even now knowing what the next few episodes will be is that there can be so much more to talk about with so little that we can know at all. Thank you for listening. I'll talk to you next time.