I am writing about the question of the possibility of knowledge. In order to do this, I will use works by Rene Descartes and David Hume. Descartes believed that knowledge is possible due to the thinking mind. Hume believed that knowledge is possible from sensory experiences that are impressed upon the mind. I will be arguing for Hume over Descartes
Descartes’s theory of knowledge is essentially based in skepticism. He argued that in order to understand the world, first a person has to completely suspend their judgements of the world around them. This is the impressions that the world makes on their mind. In this way, the physical world is not what leads to knowledge. Instead, the mind finds rationally seeks knowledge. The question is, essentially, “should we believe beyond the evidence?” (Kessler, 2013, p. 332). In this way, the ideas are rooted in the nature of doubt. This is an inherent nature of the mind, which is the result of the nature of man as made by God. In this way, the mind is guided by god towards knowledge in its infallible ability to reason about reality. In this way, the mind’s reasoning ability, even in the absence of physical reality, can ultimately lead to knowledge.
This argument is based in the uncertainty of knowledge. Descartes argues that we cannot be certain of the physical impressions upon our minds because the world can potentially deceive the mind, leaving it with false impressions. Due to the fact that our minds can conceive of a reality in which we are dreaming or some nefarious force is tricking us, we must be wary of the ideas that are impressed upon our minds by the physical world. This is due to the uncertainty and changing nature of the physical world (Kessler, 2013, p. 351). The mind, on the other hand does not have physical form, and so exists a priori to the physical body. Essentially, our minds can doubt the world but they cannot doubt the mind, as it is the thing doing the doubting.
Hume’s arguments are also based in the ideas of skepticism, although they result in a radically different theory of knowledge. This is primarily due to his reliance upon induction rather than deduction in his reasoning. Hume relies upon the senses, and the impressions made upon the mind by the physical world, in order to develop his theories. In this way, he diminishes the importance of the mind as fundamental reality in favor of the forces of the physical world. In this sense, the mind is important, but more in its capability of turning the impressions from the physical world into ideas in the mind. This diminishes the important of the mind, but does not necessarily make it subservient to the physical world.
In this way, if there is something that the mind has an idea of, but there is no impression of it that can be rooted in the real world, than that idea should be doubted. The idea of perception is important for this reasons. Those impressions that the world creates to inform our perceptions are then built into ideas, which are used to create more complex modes of knowledge and thought. Hume, therefore, builds an approach to knowledge that involves both body and mind. None of these take precedent over the other, both the reasoning of the mind and the perceptions from the physical world should be doubted (Kessler, 2013, p. 367). By this argument, knowledge is possible due to the interaction between the physical world and the mind. While the world is impressing upon the mind, the mind is building ideas of the physical world.
The arguments that Hume makes put the physical world as a priori, in favor of the mind. While the mind seems to be an important element in the process of understanding knowledge, the impressions that the real world create should be considered important as well, as they are the aspects that can be based in reality. In this way, the importance of knowledge as being based in reality can be established. By basing his arguments on the ideas that are built from impressions that reality creates on the mind, Hume was able to create a connection between reality and the mind, which had previously been separated. In this way, he does not assume that one of the pieces of the process are more important than the other, and so maintains more of an objective perspective in the framing of his argument.
Furthermore, the arguments made by Descartes rely too heavily upon the understanding and reality of God as well as the divinity and infallibility of the mind in order for his arguments to work. If a person begins from a skeptical standpoint, then it would seem that incorporating complex and intangible ideas such as God and the mind into the argument are too great of leaps in reasoning. By assuming that God exists and by assuming that the mind is infallible, Descartes made an error in judgement that Hume was able to overcome. While Descartes presented his arguments from the standpoint of a skeptic, he does not seem to have completely suspended his judgement concerning all facets of knowledge.
Hume’s arguments suggest a departure from the idea that the mind is the essential substance of the universe, and so infallible. In this way, his arguments take a step towards a more objective approach to the idea of knowledge. In this way, his arguments are more focused on what could be considered a scientific perspective. This perspective is more rooted in rational inquiry than the idealization of specific aspects of reality. Essentially, Hume is able to maintain a more firm connection with his criteria for approaching the issue through the fact that he has suspended his judgements.
Kessler, Gary E. (2013). Voices of Wisdom: A Multicultural Philosophy Reader. 8 Ed.
California State University. 330-371.