A Humean Critique of Descartes Essay

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A Humean Critique of Descartes


Montreal has big potholes. Lots of them. If one is to truly understand the philosophy of Hume and Descartes, one must understand what they would do with crummy roads as civil engineers in Montreal. Hume would probably repave the roads based on the success of past designs and the results of empirical data. Descartes, on the other hand, would probably leave nothing unscathed after attacking the problem with reason, scrapping the existing roadmap and re-building roads with new foundations and new directions. This allegory underlines a central question of a Hume-Descartes comparison: if Hume’s road to knowledge needs improvement, does Descartes know where to start or where he is going? The following
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Descartes used relations of ideas as the foundation for his method for acquiring knowledge. Descartes writes that disciplines which rely on “composite things are doubtful,” and arithmetic and geometry contain “something certain and indubitable” (Descartes 61). For example, 2+3=5 is a relation of ideas because 2+3≠5 is a contradiction. The Discourse on Method constitutes a series of demonstrative reasonings. For Descartes, knowledge is clarity and distinctness, and demonstrative, mathematical reasoning pave the way toward this knowledge. Descartes thought that logical deduction from first principles could uncover a whole series of truths about the world.

Hume rejects the use of relations of ideas to acquire knowledge and instead turns to accumulation of data. Hume writes that demonstrative reasoning fails to uncover the relation which governs our understanding of matter of fact: cause and effect. A priori reasoning which ignores experience cannot “draw any inference concerning real existence and matter of fact” (Hume17). This is the central proposition of the Inquiry: “causes and effects are discoverable, not by reason, but by experience” (17). For Hume, empiricism paves the way to knowledge and custom, the codified accumulation of knowledge, serves as “the great guide of human life” (28). Knowledge is simply a belief reinforced by experience—a far cry from the Cartesian certainty and clarity. The collection of data…

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