Phil 20C Hume Copy Principle Evaluation

Phil 20C

Hume’s Copy Principle Evaluation

David Hume expresses his point of view about the concept empiricism.He shows the distinction between impression and ideas as shown in his copy principle: all ideas are copies of impressions. In this paper, I will evaluate his perspective and offer my opinions on the topic.

According to Hume, impressions are what we experience through our outer senses (taste, smell, sight) and inner senses (emotion). Our ideas are just the reflections of past impressions as thoughts and memories. One of his most important principles is that all our ideas are copies of impressions. “When we analyze our thought or ideas, however compounds or sublime, we always find, that they resolved themselves into such simple ideas were copied from a precedent feeling or sentiment” (Hume 76).  Hume argues that all simple ideas come from impressions, whereas more complex ideas come from simple ideas. Therefore, all ideas have to start with an impression. For example, if I say “yellow strawberry”, you would immediately think about a fruit with the shape of strawberry, but with the color yellow instead of red. You would think this way because you already have the idea of what yellow looks like and what strawberries look like. Then we combine them to construct the idea of a “yellow strawberry”. Even though that type of fruit is not real, and you have never had the original impression of a“yellow strawberry” before, your brain is still able to figure what it would look like given that we have the impression of yellow and of strawberries. I assumed that you already have a concept of what the color yellow and fruit strawberry look like, which help you formulate the memories of yellow and a strawberry separately. This demonstrates the combination of two simple ideas form a complex idea of a “yellow strawberry”

Hume thinks many people have an argument against his copy principle, and that is why he brought up the idea of a person who has seen all the shades of blue before except one. This person could visualize the missing shade even though he or she never had an impression of it. However, Hume thinks that this objection is too singular to challenge his idea. But I think that the opponent of the copy principle could find many different reasons to go against Hume’s idea with the concept of innatism, a theory that some concepts are already a part of structure in our minds and were never gained through experience. For example, the idea of moral rightness and wrongness can not be derived through impression. A person can experience love, hate, anger, happiness, depression, excitement, etc... , and develop that into a thought or idea later on, but the person can not develop the moral from just impression by itself. For instance, everyone who thinks that murder is wrong shares that particular moral belief. As the word “murder” is mentioned, most people immediately think about how murder is a horrible thing and that it should never happen, but these thoughts cannot be the copy of an original impression because they have not experienced murder before. There is no impression of murder that can make us believe murder is wrong, but this idea is already programmed into our minds.

Hume’s second argument is that our thought is only limited to the things we have had an impression of before. In quote by Hume, he said, “A blind man can form no notion of colours; a deaf man of sounds. Restore each of them that sense, in which he is deficient; by opening this inlet for sensations, you also open an inlet for ideas; and he finds no difficulty in conceiving these objects.” (Hume 77). Hume uses a perfect example to prove his point in how a blind man never has an impression of color. Therefore, he wouldn’t have a memory of the color and he can not form an idea of color. It is a valid argument where for instance, if you tell a blind person a tomato is red, he or she will have no idea how the tomato looks because he or she does not know what the color red is. The only way for a person to realize a tomato is red is to have the memory of the red color already, and this cannot be the case unless one has seen the color red. This argument proves that without the impression of color, a person can not form the idea that a tomato is red, which demonstrates how without impression, ideas can not be constructed. This example is evidence that the copy principle is valid.

Another example would be when you eat a cookie, you taste the sweetness of the cookie, and that taste is an example of impression. Many people refer to cookies as “sweet”, because they have tasted the cookie before, and their memory of how the cookie tastes forms their idea of cookie being sweet. If a person has never tried a cookie before, nor have they heard about a cookie before, they would not have the idea that a cookie is sweet. They can not form the idea that a cookie is sweet until they taste a cookie, which proves that ideas are copies of impressions. By that being said, if you never have had an impression of a cookie, then you do not have the idea that cookie is sweet. Assuming the copy principle is true, which states that all our ideas are copies of our impressions, then the argument that without impression ideas would not exist must also hold true. The example above provides an argument supporting the copy principle.

David Hume was being very clear about his perspective. However, one of the common arguments against his copy principle is that all ideas are based on impression, but are not necessary copies of impressions. The cookie example described above can be refuted using this argument. However, it is also possible to argue that because people already tried candy, ice cream, donut, etc.. and many other similar foods that they categorized as sweet, they could have guessed that cookies are another sweet by comparing it to other things that are described as sweet. So the argument is that this person could know that a cookie is sweet without having an impression of a cookie, but rather by using many other impressions of other things to conclude the idea of sweetness in cookies, which is an example of an idea that is  based on impression, but is not a copy of impression.

However, Hume is fully aware of that argument where he shows a familiar objection  that is if people see all shades of blue, they would be able to see a shade of blue between them. But he thinks that that objection rarely happens, so it is an outlier and would not affect his copy principle. Even for the case like blue color case, Hume's idea could still be argued. For example, for people to have a sense that a cookie is sweet based on other dessert, they would need to try many many different desserts and all of them have to be sweet or else it could affect their judgement. If a person had only one dessert that is not sweet before, even after having another 100 desserts that are sweet, they still could not come to the idea that all deserts are sweet. Therefore, they can not develop the idea that a cookie is sweet if they have not had an impression of a cookie before, but rather they predict that a cookie would be sweet.. And also, assuming that people could guess that a cookie is sweet without ever having an impression of a cookie before, their idea of a cookie would be very vague because they only can assume one trait, but they still would not know the level of sweetness of the cookie or other characteristics of the cookie that could only be formed when a person actually tastes the cookie. By that being said, the argument that ideas are only based on impression, not copies of impressions is not a strong objection under the view of the proponents of Hume’s perspective.

However, I believe that Hume’s point of view and the copy principle would ultimately fail. Going back to the previous example about the cookie to prove the point that idea isn’t necessarily a copy of impression. If it is the first time a person tastes of a cookie, according to Hume, their idea of the cookie would be the copy of that impression. However, if that first time the person tries that cookie and it does not taste that good because they already are full, it could affect their impression of the cookie. The person would still form the idea of the cookie from that particular impression, but they could realize that the cookie did not taste too good because they were already full, so their brain would form the idea that cookies in the future could taste better than they did the first time they tried it (which is the impression). So in that example, their idea of the cookie is not the copy of their impression, because their impression was negative, yet their idea was positive. I realize that proponent of Hume’s perspective would consider my example as an outlier, but the example happens frequently enough to consider the copy principle not valid.

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