A CRITICAL APPRAISAL OF THE EMPIRICISM OF DAVID HUME AND THE PROBLEM OF INDUCTION
Background to the Problem
Once the task of the rationalists in establishing “certain knowledge” derived from reasoning seemed set, Locke’s attempt to revive empiricism was necessitated. This allowed him to introduce into the scene the concept of tabula rasa or blank slate upon which experience imprints. This in turn seemed to have established the necessary foundations for Berkeley’s immaterialism to be set so that he showed how Locke’s empiricism could lead to skepticism of the external world and eventually, immaterialism. When David Hume took the chair of the empiricist tradition, his own aim was to show how science was misinformed in their supposition that induction was the principle according to which laws of science could be derived. He sought to show the fault in the reasoning by declaring that induction was only based upon a uniformity in nature, one that is wrongly presupposed to be valid. The conclusion was that Hume became a radical skeptic for we eventually see how his position will lead to saying knowledge cannot be attained.
1.1 The Philosophy of David Hume
Attempts of the continental rationalists to assert with some force of conviction the claim that it was only through reasoning that ultimate knowledge could be derived, as can be seen in the rationalist theories of Descartes, Leibniz and Spinoza. They unanimously, directly or indirectly subscribed to notions of innate concept that helped them define their rationalism. Lockean empiricism then appeared to shatter whatever ‘certain’ foundations they had purportedly built. This was followed by Bishop George Berkeley’s immaterialism. Consequently, David Hume wrote his famous Enquiry that laid bare his own conception of the distinction between knowledge derived from reasoning and experience. Though the foundations for this has been gradually laid since the time of pre-Socratic philosophy, and most especially in Descartes.
When John Locke developed his theory of empiricism, he divided our knowledge as being derived from sensations and reflection[i]. He claims that knowledge from reasoning and the mind came from reflection while sensation had to do with knowledge acquired from the external world through experience[ii]. Berkeley had come in a very controversial manner to undermine Lockean theory of perception. Hume however came also with a very different objective in mind to wit: “David Hume was fed up with the sorts of abstract philosophical systems that had been constructed by Cartesians and other such metaphysicians. He sought to criticize these (Cartesian) systems by demonstrating that they rested upon nothing other than “sophistry and illusion.”[iii] The major point he wanted to argue is that as long as beliefs and philosophies are ungrounded in observation and sensory experience, they must remain little more than superstitious fantasies that has no relation to reality.”[iv] This gives us a hint into his latter conclusion of being an empiricist, since he claims that any philosophy not grounded in observation will not amount to anything. It means in essence that any system that is not built on evidence gotten through the senses should be rendered to the flames he was himself an empiricist after all.