David Hume: Impressions and Ideas

by | Dec 27, 2021 | Sujantra's Philosophy, Western Philosophy

Reflections and Meditations based on Hume’s Philosophy

An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
David Hume (1711-1776) lived in beautiful Edinburg, Scotland which was known at that time as the Athens of the North. He was a central figure in the Scottish Enlightenment. His writings, particularly An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, were pivotal in the lives of Charles Darwin, Immanuel Kant, and Albert Einstein.

In this essay, I will combine his profound insights with a meditation technique, or as Hume would say, a reflection, that can help you to experience the depth of your mind. All quotes in this writing are from Hume’s writing.

He published An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding in 1739 at the age of 24. In his writing, he refers to the act of reflection which he uses to glean his insights. This reflection is a form of meditation.

Reflecting on our inner workings, what would today be called meta-cognition, is a challenge. “It is remarkable concerning the operations of the mind, that, though most intimately present to us, yet, whenever they become the object of reflection, they seem involved in obscurity…the objects [within our minds] are too fine to remain long in the same aspect or situation; and must be apprehended in an instant, by a superior penetration, derived from nature, and improved by habit and reflection.”

It is this obscurity that prevents us from experiencing the majesty and a profound joy that is the essence of the mind. It is through the mind that we experience existence. In moments of reflection and meditation, we strip away the surface noise and experience deeper levels of mind.

Hume’s brilliance, in addition to being a great writer with the ability to convey profound insights through clear and accessible writing, resides in his ability to observe the workings of his mind, or as he puts it, “…to enquire seriously into the nature of human understanding.”

From an evolutionary standpoint, for Hume steered clear of “religious fears and prejudices,” we can conceptualize the mind as an apex of nature. We are semi-conscious of our minds in that there is much to the structure and deep content of mind, conscious and subconscious, that we are not aware of. We are most often “involved in obscurity” as to its workings.

Basic Workings of the Mind
Hume begins by noting the basic workings of the mind of which we are often aware: will, understanding, imagination, and passions. By imagination, he does not mean flights of fancy but rather our ability to create our experience of the world. He envisions that philosophical reflection may carry us into “…the secret springs and principles, by which the human mind is actuated in its operations.” Though these reflections are challenging and abstract they should not be abandoned for the wisdom gleaned is of “unspeakable importance.”

This unspeakable importance manifests not just in conceptual knowledge but in an ever-deepening feeling of our being and the delight of consciousness. This delight in Sanskrit is called ananda, the bliss of existence.

Exploring Contents of Mind
Next Hume examines the content of our mind. “…we may therefore divide all the perceptions of the mind into two classes or species, which are distinguished by their different degrees of force and vivacity.

First comes what he call impressions. “By the term impression, then, I mean all our more lively perceptions, when we hear, or see, or feel, or love, or hate, or desire, or will…all impressions, that is sensations, either outward or inward, are strong and vivid…”

Secondly, come ideas and thoughts, “which are less lively perceptions, of which we are conscious when we reflect on any of those sensations or movements above mentioned…All ideas, especially abstract ones, are naturally faint and obscure: The mind has but a slender hold of them…”

Although we can do so much with our thoughts, “…the thought can in an instant transport us into the most distant regions of the universe, or even beyond the universe into the unbounded chaos…” he notes that, “all this creative power of the mind amounts to no more than the faculty of compounding, transposing, augmenting, or diminishing the materials afforded us by the senses and experience.” The infinite power of our mind is fueled by impressions and rises to new heights through thought.

In our reflection, we will view the contents of our minds and work on distinguishing between direct sense impressions and the thoughts that arise from them. Before going into our reflection we need to explore an aspect of mind I think Hume did not reflect on deeply enough.

The Sensation of Self
One of the most powerful, yet subtle, impressions that we experience is the sense of self, the sense of being. Philosophers, including Hume, all too quickly jump to the sense of self as an object to be observed and thought about. Hume notes the difference between ideas and impressions. Impressions, sensations, are direct experiences. We each have the direct, though subtle, the sensation of being, of self. It is one thing to stay with the feeling of that impression; it is quite another to turn that feeling into thought, an idea, and then philosophize about self.

In all experienced reality, there is the observer and the observed. The observed is impressions and thoughts, the observer is self. If the sensation of self is objectified into thought it is no longer the self.

The sensation of self, of being, is strong and vivid but we rarely give it our full attention. Because of our innate survival instincts, we naturally focus on external sensations in our environment and the thoughts that arise from them. From habituation of this process, our awareness of self greatly diminishes. It slips into the background. We become lost in our thoughts which become our reality.

We always maintain at least a vague awareness of self. In our reflection, we will pick up on that awareness. Remember Hume’s words regarding impressions, “…all impressions, that is sensations, either outward or inward, are strong and vivid…” The sensation of self is just waiting for your attention.

A Reflection
In this reflection, you will differentiate between your sense of self, which is essentially you the observer, and that which you observe: impressions and ideas.

I suggest reading through this entire reflection to become familiar with it and then either doing it while again reading through it or reading it into your phone recorder and then listening back while you do the technique. After doing the exercise a few times you will be able to remember how to do it without prompts.

You can also use this YouTube video that I have created. You can do this reflection in five minutes. Try to do it at least once a day. With practice, you will be able to do it in a few breaths. You are learning to become aware of, and distinguish between, sense of self, impressions, and thoughts. Give yourself 5-10 breath cycles for each aspect of the technique.

Find a quiet spot for reflection. Do approximately 5-10 deep, slow breath cycles to relax your body and gather up your awareness.

Close your eyes, hold them still, and gaze into the back of your eyelids. Observe the colors, shapes, and images you see.

Now shift awareness to your ears and sound impressions. Notice how you shift from hearing a sound to labeling it with thought and how one thought leads to others. Notice the difference between sensations and thoughts. Try to stay grounded in sensations.

Now add in sensations arising from your body. The feeling of your body touching the seat you have taken, what your hands and feet are touching. Again, notice how thoughts arise from the sensations. Differentiate between the two. Try to stay rooted in sensations.

Now become aware of the feeling of yourself the observer. Try to stay rooted in the feeling of self. Your attention will get pulled away to sensations and thought. Just bring awareness back to yourself the observer. Differentiate sensations, ideas, and the feeling of yourself the observer.

Come out of the reflection slowly, keeping as much awareness as you can on the feeling of self. Doing this type of reflection as often as possible will help you to become conscious and aware of that which is of “unspeakable importance.”

Please enjoy my other writing on David Hume.

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