James Batcho, PhD | Impressions of Hume
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Impressions of Hume

CHIANG MAI. Over the past month I’ve been revisiting philosopher David Hume. I first read him as an undergrad and then for my Ph.D. research. But this third go round I’m starting his lengthy Treatise on Human Understanding from the beginning. I’ve always enjoyed reading him. He’s so clear in expressing his conceptions of how the mind works through memory, imagination, language and sensation in coming around to idea, belief, custom and habit. It’s a reminder how much consciousness really just wants to close down thought to a decision and move on. The scariest thing in the world is the suspension of openness because of the danger of confusion. It’s better to claim understanding than to risk not knowing. We work really hard to convince ourselves that we know, and in the process we lose the capacity to learn.

This is more thought from reading Hume than Hume himself, but it’s clear to me how important it is that we have positive experiences of events, because these impressions are what we habitually recall as ideas. We tend to fix meanings to words. But conjuring an association from a word is an individual process, an act that moves along the experiences that gave us the impressions we associate with that word. Any word then means something very different to people who have lived different experiences. Everything is individuated.

It’s odd then how we try to impose a generality on the thoughts of others. This to me is why we really need to tell good stories and not just go fact-hunting. Facts don’t have impressions, so we can’t expect anyone to care. This is I think in part why Hume de-emphasizes reason and favors experience. Reason creates its own cause, from which truth is an effect. Reason creates maxims and laws, but it can only cycle back to customs already in play through reason. There is no imagination to reason.

A story, by contrast, is a fiction that engages the imagination in a creative interplay with memory. A story situates language and ideas in characters/people, an experience to care about and carry forward, one that leaves a good… impression.