KANT: His Problem With David Hume


In the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics we find an interesting statement made by Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) that opens up a dilemma that he refers to as “Hume’s Problem” (referring to the philosopher David Hume 1711 – 1776). It is here in the Prolegomena that Kant writes,

“I openly confess that my remembering David Hume was the very thing which many years ago first interrupted my dogmatic slumber and gave my investigations in the filed of speculative philosophy a quite new direction”

That’s interesting, Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature was the catalyst that woke Kant from his “dogmatic slumber”. You might be thinking to yourself “what exactly does that mean”?

A very good question to be asking. The term “dogmatic” has taken on different meanings through out history. During Kant’s time it referred to a way of thinking that wasn’t grounded in the surety of empiricism or experiential; rather it was more speculative in nature. Kant was trained by a rationalist philosopher by the name of Christian Wolff (1679-1754) and for the most part he initially adopted much of Wolffs philosophy. So when Kant says that Hume woke him from his dogmatic slumber you come away with the idea that Kant was to a certain extent a rationalist interpreting reality through conceptual means such as logic and feeling pretty content with that. That is until Hume awoke him.

Moving on, I am going to attempt to pinpoint out of Hume’s philosophical corpus the main point of contention that Kant must respond to. In Hume’s work Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding we find a serious critique of one of the most fundamental claims of philosophy. Here Hume writes,

“Custom, then, is the great guide of human life. It is the principle alone, which renders our experience useful to us, and makes us expect, for the future, a similar train of events with those which have appeared in the past. Without the influence of custom, we should be entirely ignorant of every matter of fact, beyond what is immediately present to the memory and senses.”

Allow me to explain. Hume believed that experience was the bases for knowledge but he questioned causation. We typically think that event A caused event B because we observed it in the past. Hume says we have no basis for believing that the present will be like the past. When we see the subsequent event of A causing B it is a habit of thought or “custom”.

Going back to Kant. As I stated above Kant understands there is a problem with a purely rationalistic outlook on knowing and thus allows for experience in knowing. However, what Kant questions in Hume is the notion that causation is objectively vacuous. This in a nut shell is “Hume’s problem.” For Kant Hume is correct in his empiricism but his understanding of causation leads to a form of skepticism that Kant rejects.

Kant’s project is now laid out before him. What does one do if the claims of a pure rationalism or the claims of a pure empiricism are insufficient? You end up adopting a mixture of the two. That is exactly what Kant has done.




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