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OF SIMPLICITY AND WONDER: A BRIEF REFLECTION

ON DAVID HUME’S EPISTEMOLOGY

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Hume’s epistemological theory begins with his assertion that our mental perceptions are
composed of impressions and ideas. Our ideas, he said, are actually a blend of several
impressions put together. In other words, whatever ideas we have in our minds are neither simple
nor plain but rather complex and compound.

For Hume, if we want to have a clear idea about something, we have to break down this
very idea because we oftentimes have ideas which never in any way correspond to anything in
reality. These ideas, in Hume’s own words, are simply “copy-pasted” and “put-up” into
something which does not actually exist.

The point of Hume, although he did not explicitly express this matter, is simply that we
must not jump immediately to conclusions.

For those who tend to uncritically accept things at face value and rush into conclusion,
quite a lot of unwanted repercussions are almost always sure in coming. For example, a person
who easily believes in ugly gossips which are never really true is bound to end up in discord and
disharmony with other people. The same goes true for those who are opinionated and
superstitious, closed-minded and dogmatic.

The primary lesson Hume is teaching us in his epistemology is that, by not jumping
immediately into conclusion, we always have to be careful with our ideas. In another manner of
saying, Hume wants us all to sharpen our awareness. Apparently, one whose awareness is
sharpened can easily investigate his ideas and see whether they are valid or not.

Many centuries ago at his Lyceum, Aristotle pointed out to his students that truth only
occurs when an idea corresponds to reality. Now, as Hume has seen, our ideas do not always
correspond to reality. Hence, what ideas we possess in our minds do not always contain the truth.
Of course, nobody can have the monopoly of truth, but it doesn’t mean that one has to stop
altogether in searching for the truth. In fact, this is what philosophy is all about: a quest for truth.
The moment we cease to search for truth is also the very moment we stop philosophizing.

Hume, then, by counseling us to investigate first our ideas is actually simply telling us to
go on philosophizing. By assuming the proper attitude of a philosopher, we will avoid
committing unnecessary mistakes.

In the Great Learning, Confucius beautifully echoed Hume’s whole point of investigating
our ideas before making any conclusion. The most respected Chinese philosopher said,

When things are investigated, knowledge is extended.


When knowledge is extended, the will becomes sincere.
When the will is sincere, the mind is correct.
When the mind is correct, the self is cultivated.
When the self is cultivated, the clan is harmonized.
When the clan is harmonized, the country is well governed.
When the country is well governed, there will be peace throughout the land.1

In the light of Confucius’ wisdom, Hume’s epistemology shines even brighter. Indeed,
we often experience making wrong judgments and biased stands on something because of our
very lack of investigation of our everyday ideas.

The truth is that, as Hume very well noted, we as adults stick to a lot of our preconceived
ideas and opinions. And yet as Hume would say, we did not really think that way when we were
still small children. Adults as we are, having grown in age and acquired significant experiences
in life, we lose our sense of wonder. We fall into the habit of seeing things the way we have
always seen them. We forget that everyday in our lives, we form complex ideas which need to be
broken down, segregated, and investigated.

Plato had long ago argued that wonder is the beginning of science, of philosophy, of why
we engage into philosophizing and venture into the quest for truth. Unfortunately, many people

1 Confucius, The Great Learning, 5.


nowadays no longer know how to wonder. They easily get bored because their lives have fallen
into a very dry routine.

During his time, Hume must have been disappointed at the loss of the sense of wonder in
the great majority of people.2 This is very much implicit in his point why we should first have to
stop and investigate our ideas before jumping into conclusions.

So for Hume, there is so much that we can learn again from small children. Small
children, without the habit of seeing things ordinarily and with their lack of experience in life,
always approach things with wonder.

To imitate the ways of small children, to be a child once again, to restore that sense of
wonder in us is not only philosophically wise, but also spiritually commendable. One can even
read in the Bible a passage wherein Jesus encouraged His disciples to become like little children
if they want to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

In the previous century, a young Carmelite nun from Lisieux in France became instantly
famous after her death when her autobiography was published. She is Saint Therese of the Child
Jesus and her Story of a Soul depicts her teachings on the importance of spiritual childhood. Thus
she is worthy of mention because her idea that children are to be always imitated resonates with
Hume’s.

In the last analysis, Hume’s epistemology teaches us not to add anything to the already
complex ideas that we have that do not anymore correspond to reality. In his insistence to
simplify our complex ideas, Hume is also telling us to make our lives less complicated and live
simply.

In the end, Hume’s epistemology also counsels us to be open-minded, especially with


regard to the change in ourselves. The most difficult change to accept is almost always that

2
Hume’s biographers declared that when he published his first philosophical book, A
Treatise of Human Nature, he lamented at its very poor reception by the public.
which concerns our ego. Yet here again, Hume would say that all we have to do is accept these
changes, like a child, with wonder.