In this paper, I will compare the arguments of Rene Descartes and David Hume about the nature of knowledge while arguing that it is specifically the argumentative stance of the latter, which should be given most credits.
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Probably the main discursive aspect of Descartes’ view on the nature of knowledge is that, according to the philosopher, it is indeed possible for a person to attain a thoroughly adequate understanding of the surrounding reality’s workings – at least in theory. The reason for this is that there are many axiomatic qualities to the relationship between such reality and a ‘thinking individual’ within it. This, in turn, presupposes the full objectiveness of one’s existence. As Descartes pointed out: “After considering everything very thoroughly, I must finally conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind” (17). The philosopher used to promote the idea that knowledge is, in fact, something that derives out of one’s analytical ability to ‘process’ informational inputs, which come in the form of different experiences. Therefore, according to him, deduction indeed represents a thoroughly legitimate gnoseological instrument.
The epistemological stance of David Hume, in this respect, could not be more different. Being a committed empiricist, Hume strived for nothing less than undermining the scientific validity of the ‘metaphysical’ paradigm in philosophy.
Hume’s understanding of the objective reality implies the absence of ‘substance’, within the framework of one’s rationale-based reasoning. The logic behind this is concerned with the idea that there is a deep-seated fallacy to the very methodology of deductive reasoning; as such that reflects the mechanics of one’s rationalist mindset. As he noted: “If there be any suspicion that the course of nature may change, and that the past may be no rule for the future, all experience becomes useless, and can give rise to no inference or conclusion” (Hume 32).
We are all aware of how an apple tastes, for example. However, within the context of Hume’s philosophy, our assumption that apples will taste the same, regardless of how many times we savor them, constitutes a logical fallacy, as there is absolutely no objective reason as to why apples should not taste like roast beef, on a millionth and one time we try them. Hence, Hume’s suggestion that the method of inductive/deductive inquiry cannot be deemed fully appropriate – all because it presupposes the axiomatic irreversibility of the manner in which causes and effects interrelate. According to the philosopher, however, this presupposition is essentially observational and as such, it cannot contain any in-depth insights into the subject matter in question, by definition.
As can be seen above, the views of Descartes and Hume on the nature of knowledge are rather incompatible. Whereas the former believed that information (knowledge) exists independently of people’s cognitive domain, the latter never ceased arguing that this could not possibly be the case, because even the most abstract types of knowledge are ‘impressionable’ to an extent, and therefore subjective.
I personally find Hume’s line of argumentation, in this respect, much more convincing. The reason for this is that the Cartesian gnoseology refers to God, as the main force that ensures the continued stability of the universe, which in turn puts us in the position of being able to learn its laws. However, it never occurred to Descartes that the very notion of divine omnipotence presupposes the impossibility for the universe to function in the way to which we are accustomed. The reason for this is simple – if God did, in fact, create the universe, it would have been reflective of his miraculous ways. That is, it would have been possible for the material objects in this world to be simultaneously both: existent and non-existent. It would also be possible to reverse the effects of the laws of nature on the surrounding environment. However, as we are well aware of, such ‘possibilities’ simply do not exist.
Another weakness of Descartes’ argumentative positioning, in regards to the issue of gnoseology, is that according to the philosopher, a person’s ability to operate with abstract categories is ‘metaphysical’ to a degree, in the sense that one’s consciousness can exist independently of his or her body. In light of the recent discoveries in the field of biology/neurology, however, such a claim will appear highly disputable.
Hume, on the other hand, was able to reveal that even the most axiomatic sounding abstractions (such as math formulas, for example) strongly connect with people’s ‘sensual’ sphere. He desacralized cognitive processes inside of one’s mind, by exposing them to be the extrapolations of his or her atavistic agenda. By doing it, Hume proved himself to be much ahead of his time, in the intellectual sense of this word. After all, his theory of knowledge can be discussed as the actual precursor of epistemological relativism – a philosophical trend that nowadays continues to become increasingly popular in the West.
Even though Hume’s epistemological stance may appear overly defeatist, it is nevertheless strongly humanistic. The reason for this is apparent – according to the philosopher, no one is in the position to claim that there are ‘pure’ and ‘tainted’ types of knowledge. All that we know about the surrounding world and our place in it is subjective in one way or another. Consequently, this presupposes the sheer inappropriateness of assuming that knowledge has the value of ‘thing in itself’, which can be recognized outside of the affiliated societal circumstances – the idea that resonates perfectly well with what the recent discoveries in the sociological domain.
This, however, does not mean that Descartes’ argument about what is knowledge should be brushed aside. After all, even though it revolves around the notion of God, this argument is concerned with addressing the issue of human imperfection, as something predetermined by the impersonal laws of nature. Because of this, the philosopher’s views continue to be appreciated by contemporaries.
Descartes, Rene. Meditations on First Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984. Print.
Hume, David 2010, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. PDF file. 2016. Web.