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International Phenomenological Society Philosophy and Phenomenological Research Husserl's Critique of Hume's

International Phenomenological Society Philosophy and Phenomenological Research

Husserl's Critique of Hume's Notion of Distinctions of Reason Author(s): Robert E. Butts Source: Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Dec., 1959), pp. 213-221 Published by: International Phenomenological Society Stable URL: Accessed: 15-02-2016 18:38 UTC

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It is commonlyoverlookedthat Hume'ssectionon abstractideasin the Treatise1 actually proposesanswersto two quite different,though inti-


its conclusionthat generalityonly arisesbecauseparticularideasfunction representatively,i.e., stand for or represent(denotatively)other particu- lar ideas of the "samesort," Hume'sfirst task was to explainhow par- ticularideas function"beyondtheirnature""asif (they)wereuniversal." Hume'sanswerto this questionwas, of course,psychological.He ascribed to generalnamesthe capacityto stimulatein the imaginationthe dispo- sition to recall the other resemblingparticulars.And though there are difficultiesin the notion of dispositionwhich trouble both theoretical psychologistsand philosophersof science, some recent commentatorson Hume'stheoryof generalideashave praisedthis dispositionaltheory.3

Hume'ssecond problemin the

section on abstractideas - and this is

what is generallyoverlooked- is the following.Every particularidea is to be presumedto be orderedundermany groupsof similarity,4yet each time it functionsrepresentativelyit standsfor ideas fallinginto only one

suchgroup.The white cuberesemblesboth the blackcube and the white sphere,yet the generalname "white"recallsonly the imageof the white sphere,togetherwith otherimagesof white objects,and not the imageof the blackcube. Hume'ssecondproblemwas then the problemof showing howit is that these similaritygroupsarenot confusedin thinking,making

* This paperis a revisionof part of ChapterIII of the author'sdoctoraldissertation, Huaserl's Criticisms of Hume's Theory of Knowledge(1957), written under the super- vision of ProfessorPaul Schreckerof the University of Pennsylvania.

1 David Hume, A Treatiseof Human Nature, edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge, Oxford, The ClarendonPress, 1951, Pt. I, Bk. I, Sect. VII, pp. 17-25.

2 J

am indebted to

Edmund Husserl for this insight. See LogischeUntersuchungen,

Band II, Teil 1, pp. 188-89, fourth edition, Halle A. D. S.: Max Niemeyer, 1928.

3 See R. I. Aaron, The Theoryof Universals,Oxford, The ClarendonPress, 1952,

"Hume's Theory of GeneralIdeas," The Reviewof 1955, p. 236 ff.


Metaphysics,Vol. IX, No. 2, Dec.

4 Thus Hume writes: "'Tis certain that the mind wou'd never have dream'd of distinguishinga figurefromthe body figur'd, as being in reality neitherdistinguishable, nor different,nor separable;did it not observe, that evenin this simplicitytheremight

be contain'dmany differentresemblancesand relations." Op. cit., p. 25. Italics mine.

75-85; and Andrew Ushenko,


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clarification and simplification

generalization more an obfuscation than a

of thinking, as it is usually thought to be. How, when I employ the name "white," and my mental association at the time of employment is the image of a white cube, do I prevent my mind from calling up associations with different colored cubes, instead of different white objects? Hume's second task was to answer this kind of question without admitting uni- versals, which had already been outlawed in the dispositional part of his representative theory of general meaning. If Hume's theory of abstract ideas is seen as involving these two related questions, and it seldom is, then there is no difficulty at all in under-

standing why Hume devoted the last couple of pages of this section of

of distinctions of reason, because it was

the Treatise to the scholastic idea

this very idea which Hume thought answered his second problem. It is worthy of note that Norman Kemp Smith, an otherwise very astute and perceptive student of Hume, does not read Hume's theory as dealing separately with the two mentioned problems, so his explanation of why Hume introduced the distinctions of reason is simply that Hume could not get along without universals after all, and the closing pages of the section are simply his confused way of admitting this.5


What Hume wrote about the distinctio rations needs only summary treatment here.6 Suppose we were to compare a white sphere with a black sphere and then with a white cube. The comparison leads us to note two different similarities. Through repeated comparisons of this sort, objects come to be arranged for us into similarity groups, and we learn through "habit" to "view them in different aspects." Thus, for example, when we consider the color white, we consider its resemblance to the white cube, together with all other remembered white objects, accompanying our ideas "with a kind of reflection, of which custom renders us, in a great measure, insensible." In this insensible reflection a white sphere appears and there appears conjointly a resemblance with respect to the color, thus ordering the white sphere in the similarity group of color. In this rather special sense this kind of reflection can be said to "abstract" the dis- tinguished property. Thus, it is by means of a habitual comparing of simple objects, a habit which eventually renders us insensible to the kind of reflection which makes the comparing possible, that objects are thought together with respect to just certain of their similarities, and it is to be presumed that

5 NormanKemp Smith, ThePhilosophyof David Hume,London,Macmillanand Co., 1941,p. 264 ff.

6 This account follows Hume, op. cit., p. 25.

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this kind of reflection,of which we are now largely,if not wholly, in- sensible,keepsus fromconfusingdifferentsimilaritygroups.In this way Hume'stheoryof the distinctionof reasonsupposedlyanswersthe second

questionwhichhis inquiryinto abstractideas poses. Here, as in

of fume's firstproblem,his answeris psychological,and this, as we shall

the case

see, in greatmeasureaccountsfor the unsatisfactorinessof his theory of generalideasas a logicalcharacterizationof this type of meaning.


I shouldlike now to turn to EdmundHusserl'sanalysisof Hume'suse

of the distinctio rationis as give

in Logische Untersuchungen,7an analysis

which shows that Hume's attempt at an answerto his second question is greatlyunsatisfactory. In Husserl'sestimation,Hume'sdistinctionsof reasondoctrineis stated ambiguously,and can be given both a "moderate"and a "radical"in- terpretation.On the "moderate"readingof this passagein the Treatise Hume's view is that every concretephenomenalobject (impressionor simpleidea) is absolutelysimplein the sense that its characteristicsare inseparablefromit. If this was Hume'sintendedview, then a distinction of reasonis merelya "mentalpointing"and generalizationis to be attri- buted to the psychologicalpowerof attention.This, of course,was a part of the theory of Berkeley. Though Husserl criticizes this "moderate" interpretationat length in his considerationof Berkeley's theory of attention,8only the "radical"interpretationwill be dealt with in this paper. The second possibleway of viewing Hume's theory of distinctionsof reason(the "radical"interpretation)involvesthe quiteparadoxicalimpli- cation that different,mutually inseparablecharacteristicsof presented contents(color,form,and the like), whichwe believeare apprehendedas partspresentin the contents,arenot reallyin them at all. Thereis only one kind of real parts - those parts whichcan also appearseparatelyby themselves, or Hume's "simple ideas." The "radical" interpretation furthersuggeststhat abstractpartialcontents,for example, color quali- ties, arein a sense merefictions,since thoughthey can be consideredby themselves (by means of distinctionsof reason)they cannot be or be observedby themselves.Thus coloris not in the coloredcontent, nor is formin the content formed;there are only those similaritygroupsinto which phenomenalobjects are grouped,and certainhabits which attend

7 Husserl, op. cit., p. 192 ff.

8 Ibid., p. 137ff. Cf.Smith, op. cit., p. 266. Smith evidently thought this was Hume's only intended view, and that it covertly admits the generality of abstract ideas, thus destroying Hume's case for the particularityof abstract ideas.

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the intuition of phenomena - habits as unconscious dispositions (imper-

ceptiblepsychicaloccurrencesstimulatedby the intuition).

On this "radical"view of Hume'smeaning,he has paid a great price indeedin orderto completehis representativetheory of generalideas by meansof the distinctiorations. Forif the only realpartsin any presented content are the simples,all supposedpartial contents of a presentation, whichordinarilyis viewedas a unifiedwhole,arenot reallypartsofit at all. Thusif I am thinkingaboutbluewhalesand my thinkingis accompanied by the intentionalimage of a blue whale with tiny yellow eyes and an enormousgusherof watercomingout of its spout, I am not reallyentitled to say that the blueof the whaleand the yellowof the eyes and the form

of the

spoutingwaterare parts of the presentedimage at all. And all of

this seemsto rundirectlycounterto the commonsenseandPlatonicadage that "I perceivewhat I perceivewhen I perceiveit." Rememberalso that this paradoxis generatedby Hume'sintroduction of the distinctionsof reasonpart of his theoryin anattemptto answerthe question:how is it that an object whichis in many way similarto other thingsis apprehendedin a given experienceas bearingjust this similarity to other objects? In order to show the general inferiorityof Hume's

answer, Husserl proposes this argument:

If the abstract contents which, in the concreteintuition, correspondto the abso- lute characteristicsare themselves nothing, then the connective and relational contents in the intuition of a formally unified totality are a potiori nothing.

Obviouslythe problem of the diatinctiorationiaand the principle of its solution are identical for all abstract contents. They are identical, therefore, for the re- lational and connective contents and for the absolute contents. The questionhow


apparent presentationof the color in the coloredobject, or the distinction of


color from this object, comes about, cannot be answered,therefore,through


referenceto a presentedsimilarity between this coloredobject and other colored objects. Indeed, if such an explanation is followed up consistently, this presen- tation would lead back to the presentation of a similarity relation between this similarityand other similarities(in the example of color: to a groupof similarities of similarities'asthey obtain between coloredobjects). And to this similarity the principleof explanation would again have to be applied, and so on.9

In short, Hume's implied conclusion that where we believe we perceive, say, a quality white, we are actually perceiving or otherwise presenting

only a certainsimilaritybetweenthe appearingobject and otherobjects, involves his distinctiorations explanationin an infinite regressof the

vicious kind.

Thus Husserl'sargumentleads us to concludethat the theory of the distinctionof reason,basedon a specialuse of the similarityrelation,does

9 Husserl,op. cit., p. 196.1 am indebtedto ProfessorSchreckerforseveralsuggestions pertaining to my translation of this passage.

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not count as a valid addition to Hume's theory of general meaning, becausethe explanationemployingthe notion of the distinctionof reason leadsto a viciousinfiniteregress.Cautionoughtto be observedin judging Husserl'sargument.On the face of it, it looks very muchlike the usual, now defunct,rationalistrejoinderto the resemblancetheory of general ideasas firstadvocatedby BerkeleyandHume.10Theorthodoxargument, whichhas, I think,beenadequatelyrefutedby Aaronand Price,1"among others, contends that the resemblancetheory really covertly assumes what it wishesto dispensewith - the very idea of resemblanceon which the theory rests must itself be regardedas a universal,as a common relationalquality in some Platonic sense: if this is not done, then the theory involves the vicious infinite regress.Now although Husserl ac- cepted, mistakenly,this orthodoxargument,12I do not think that the argumentquotedaboveinvolveseventhe impliedconclusionthat Hume's use of the distinctiorations covertlyassumesthe existenceof universals, an existenceobviatedby Hume'srepresentativeview of generalmeaning.


In order to see that Husserl's criticism of Hume's explanation by distinctionsof reason does not involve the ordinaryform of the infinite regressargument,considerthe line of thought proposedby R. I. Aaron. He claimsthat the infinite regressargument(in its orthodoxform)has been assumedto be a fatal objectionto the resemblancetheory of uni- versals,but continueswith the assertion:

I should like to question the assumption. For admitting the infinite regress, does this make the argument invalid? What the Resemblance theory needs by way of presuppositionis that we should be able to recognizea resemblancewhen we see one. Now we do see that the resemblancebetween a and b resemblesthe resemblancebetween x and y. And we see this without having to attempt the impossibletask of observingan infinite seriesof resemblances.Supposingwe have a case wherea is true if b is true, and b is true if c is true, and c is true if d is true, and so on, ad infinitum. Then admittedly we could not know that a was true. But our present case is a different one. The regressis there, but we can know the re- semblance in question without observing the infinity of resemblances. Conse- quently the argument does not refute the Resemblancetheory.13

10 In general, the resemblancetheory simply states that, contraryto both realism

and conceptualism,there are no universals, but

are able to note resemblancesbetween objects, which may or may not be viewed as possessing identical common qualities. See Aaron, op. cit., p. 151 ff. General words refer,denotatively, to the resemblingobjects in the given group. Forms of this theory were advancedby both Berkeley and Hume. 11 Aaron,op. cit., p. 153; H. H. Price, ThinkingandExperience,Cambridge,Harvard University Press, 1953, pp. 23-26.

generalizationis possible because we

12 Husserl,op. cit., p. 115.

13 Aaron,op. cit., p. 153.

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I think it will have to be admitted that

Aaron's suggestion counts

against the orthodoxinfinite regress argumentas directedagainst the normalformulationof the resemblancetheoryof generalideas.But is does not likewisecountagainstHusserl'sargumentagainstHume'sspecialuse of resemblancein his theory of the distinctiorations. The reasonfor this can best be seen by consideringhow Husserl'sargumentdiffersfromthe orthodoxinfiniteregressobjection,which states that to argueaway uni- versalson the basis of the similarityrelationis covertlyto allow at least one universal,namely,resemblanceitself. Husserl'sargumenttells us that if we allowthat thereis a resemblance betweengreenand blue and betweenviolet and aquamarine,then there is at leastonedistinctionwhichwe are able to makewith respectto quali-

ties of objects which are ex hypothesisnot to be distinguished.The re- semblanceitselfis distinguishablein the presentationof the two resembling cases. But Hume's position does not entitle one to make even this dis- tinction, and so again the apparentlydistinct resemblance- the case wherethe resemblanceof green and blue resemblesthe resemblanceof violet and aquamarine- must be accountedfor by a new distinctionof reason,andso on to infinity.Moreandmoresuchpseudodistinctionsmust followasnecessaryconsequencesof Hume'sviewpreciselybecausewithout them he has admitted what he does not wish to admit - that distinct aspects of complexideas are distinguishable.Thus Aaron'srefutationof the orthodoxinfinite regressobjection does not hold for Husserl'sob- jection to Hume's view when he (Aaron)assertsthat it is true that we can know the resemblancein question;for we could only know this in

everycase- in casesof simpleresemblanceas wellas casesof resemblances

of resemblances- by virtue of a distinctionof reason,which is after all artificial,sinceit is no real distinctionat all. It is thus the distinctiorations itself which makesthe vicious infinite

regressa consequenceof Hume's doctrine,and the really vital point is that this doctrineis unableto explainhow in a given experienceI single

out just this resemblancebetween phenomena]objects of

a given kind,

ratherthan one of the many otherresemblancesof which they are sus- ceptible. In.orderto begin to explain this I must admit that presented contentshave really distinct parts.


It followsfromthis line of approachthat Husserl'sformof the infinite regressargumentas directedagainst Hume is not the ordinaryform of

this argument - that to allowresemblanceis covertlyto allowuniversals

- and hence Aaron'sobjectiondoes not apply. The validity of Husserl's argumentmust thereforebe judged independentlyof the demonstrated

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invalidity of the orthodoxinfinite regressobjectionto the resemblance

theory. Husserl'sreally substantialpoint is that Hume's explanationof ab- stractionby meansof the distinctiorations is an inadequateexplanation, becauseit goes on to infinity. Now I think this is surely a valid point, especiallyif we strip the situation of all extraneousreferencesto uni- versals.ThusHumeis readas offeringthe distinctiorations as an explana-

tory hypothesisand all that needs asking is the questionof


really does explain. If the distinctiorations hypothesisis

to count as a

correctexplanatoryhypothesis, we must be able to say

what kind of

evidencewouldcount againstit. We knowwhat this evidencewouldbe,

of course;any discoveryof a genuinepartialcontent,any partasidefrom

a "concrete"part, a "simple,"would count againstthe hypothesis.But

clearlysucha discoverywillneverarisein Hume'sattemptedexplanation, sinceif we claimthat in his explanationa realpartis allowed,namely,the resemblanceitself, he will push back his explanationone step furtherby means of a new distinctionof reasondependingupon a new resemblance of higher order. Thus althoughwe know what kind of evidencewould invalidatehis view, Humeis reallytellingus that we shallneverfind any evidenceof this sort, and his proposedexplanationcan be patchedup at

eachstage of the gameby the introductionof a new artificialdistinction.


is in this sensethat Hume'sproposedexplanationleadsto infinity,and


is in this sensethat his explanationis no explanationat all. In orderto

save the theoryand thus not to makeany real distinctionsbetweenparts andtheirsupposedwholes,Humeis forcedinto the uncomfortableposition

of having to say, and surely there is no evidencefor saying it, that no

evidencewill everbe foundthat will invalidatehis closedhypothesis.And this is exactly why his explanationis, as Husserlargues,inadequate,and hencedoesnot validly extendhis resemblancetheoryof generalideas.


Husserl'sargument,then, if my readingof it is correct,throwslight both on Hume'sreasonsfor includingthe often overlookedand seldom understoodpageson distinctionsof reasonand on the generalcharacterof his theory of generalideas. It appears,first, that Hume neededthe dis- tinctionsofreasonin orderto have his theoryinsurethe fact that different groupsof resemblanceswhich objects under considerationshare are not confusedin thinking.If his theory of generalideas had led to the view that resemblancescannotsomehowbe disentangledfromthe manygroups into which they fall, the theory would very clearly have violated an empiricalfact which Locke noticed, and Hume endorsed,namely, the

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employment of general ideas leads to greater economy in thinking.14

Thinkingwould not be

done economically,if resemblancegroups were

confusedin it; in fact, it wouldnot be thinkingat all, but the kindof lack

of thinkingwhichcharacterizesthe mentalactivities of those who find it impossibleto generalizeat all, or who generalizehaphazardlyand often incorrectly - for example,primitivepeoples,veryyoungchildrenandthose sufferingfrom various kinds of brain injury, particularlythose causing


Husserl'sargument,therefore,and this leads to the secondmajorcon- clusionof this paper,refutesmorethan he thoughtthat it did. For it not only refutesHume'sdoctrineof the distinctiorations, it also refutesthe representativetheory of generalmeaningwhich Hume thought needed reinforcementby means of the distinctiorations addition. Husserl's reading of Hume's theory of generalideas indicates very clearly that whetherHumeknewit ornot, his theorywasin fact an empiricalhypothe- sis of the psychologicalsort. In full, the hypothesisis as follows:general wordshavethe dispositionto stimulatethe imaginationto recallparticu- larswhichresemblethat one particularwhichis associated(as an image) with the generalword;andthe differentkindsof resemblanceclassesinto whichobjectsare groupedare kept separatein the mind by meansof an "insensiblereflection"whichHume calls a distinctionof reason.Husserl's argument shows that, as an empirical psychologicalhypothesis, the secondpart of Hume'sfull hypothesisis closed,i.e., thereis no possibility of findingevidencewhichwouldrefuteit. But since, as I have indicated, Hume'shypothesisneedsconfirmationofboth conjunctsin orderto satisfy the empiricalfact that generalideas simplifyand thus rendereconomical our thinking,the full hypothesisof Hume is refutedby Husserl'sargu- ment, though I do not think that Husserlhimselfwas awareof this more generalimplicationof his argument,thoughhe was awarethat there are other argumentswhich count against the first conjunctof Hume's hy- pothesis. The weaknessesof Hume'stheory of generalmeaningwhichthe impli- cationsof Husserl'sargumentdetect are, it seemsfair to remark,simply furthersignsof the generalunsatisfactorinessof psychologism,the major defects of which were pointed out by Husserl, Bradley and Frege. In Hume's case, his desirewas to reduceall sciencesto the science of the facts (the psychologicalfacts) of humannature. In this sense for Hume all science was psychology (in his peculiarsense of psychologyas the scienceof humannature).Andoncewe realizethat his attemptto charac-

14 John Locke,An Essay ConcerningHuman Understanding,edited by A. S. Pringle- Pattison, Oxford, The ClarendonPress, 1934, Bk. III, Ch. 3, Sect. 20, p. 237; and Hume, op. cit., p. 20.

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terize general meaning was not an attempt at logical or philosophical analysis, but rather an attempt at armchair psychology, Husserl's argu- ment establishes the invalidity on logical grounds of the hypothesis which Hume apparently thought proved on the basis of experience.



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