A Conversation with Hume and Kant

Assistant professor Mark Pickering from Lynn University explored Hume and Kant’s actual and possible responses to each other’s philosophy at BYU’s Philosophy Lecture Series.

PROVO, Utah (March 2, 2017)—Immanuel Kant once said, “I freely admit that…David Hume was the very thing that many years ago first interrupted my dogmatic slumber and gave a completely different direction to my…philosophy.” Before Kant read Hume, he was “just an okay philosopher,” in the words of Mark Pickering, assistant professor of philosophy at Lynn University. Pickering, in his presentation at BYU’s Philosophy Lecture Series, compared Kant’s philosophies of identity and substance, inspired by Hume, to those of Hume himself.

Hume argues that you can have both simple and complex impressions or ideas, as you can experience things with multiple senses at once and you can take individual impressions and combine them in your mind to imagine something new. To illustrate this point, Hume used the example of the city of New Jerusalem. He said in his Treatise of Human Nature that although he had never seen streets of gold, he’d had the impression of streets and the impression of gold, and he could combine those to make a complex idea of the city of New Jerusalem in his mind.

One of the arguments Hume makes in the Treatise of Human Nature is that personal identity is false and we are simply “a bundle of perceptions at any given reference point,” according to philosopher and writer Justin Caouette. Hume, Pickering explained, “the idea of identity must come either from a single object or multiple objects.” Hume believes continuity of objects over time is impossible to ascertain through our senses, because senses tend to smooth our impressions into one continuum, even though what seems like continuity is really just millions of impressions. “So,” Caouette continues, “what we identify as ourselves at any one point in time is different from any [other] point in time because the bundle [of perceptions] has changed.”

Hume’s argument on the idea of substance is based on the same rationale. Pickering explained, “a substance is entirely different from an impression, therefore an impression can’t resemble a substance and the idea of a substance can’t come from the senses.” As an empiricist, Hume concludes that since you can prove a substance’s existence through the senses, that idea cannot be relied upon.

Kant, in his Critique of Pure Reason addresses the same issues, but “some people aren’t even sure that Kant was even answering Hume or trying to answer Hume in the Critique of Pure Reason,” Pickering explained. However, seeing as they both discuss identity and substance, Pickering treated Kant’s theories of identity and substance as responses to Hume’s.

Pickering clarified Kant’s terminology, which is slightly different from Hume’s. “Kant uses the term ‘intuition’ to mean something very similar to what David Hume means by ‘impression.’ When Kant uses the word ‘concept,’ it’s a bit closer to Hume’s notion of the word ‘idea.’”

Kant argues that in order to have consciousness, one must have the capability to synthesize intuitions – in other words, an awareness symbolized by the words, “I think” – or else “a crowd of intuitions would fill our souls.” Pickering said.

As far as Kant’s argument for substance, Pickering said, “He’s making a pretty bold claim here, [that] if there were no enduring thing, then we couldn’t make any time determinations, [and] we couldn’t make any temporal judgments.” This “enduring thing” is substance, which Kant says is necessary for determining continuity.

Pickering then laid out the arguments that Hume could have made in response to Kant’s theories of identity and substance. For example, “Hume [could tell Kant] I’ve never seen a substance before, yet I can make sense of morning, afternoon and night so clearly [you] have a problem.” But however accurate it may be, what Hume could have said must remain speculation – David Hume died before he ever read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.


Olivia Madsen (BA French language, ’18) 

Olivia covers events for the Philosophy Department of the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in French language with a minor in international development.


Images via Lynn University and Griffing Blog