Philosophy 303

Dr. Sowaal

November 6, 2013

Counter Example to the Copy Principle

The copy principle claims that all ideas are from impressions, moreover, complex ideas can be reduced to simple ideas. A counter example, would be a proof that, there is a simple idea that is not a copy of a prior impression. In the example from the book, the simple idea, the missing shade of blue, would be such an example. Hume creates an argument against his own copy principle; he illustrates a situation where an individual has been exposed to a variety of colors, however, there existed a certain shade of blue that they have never came across. If this shade of blue were to be presented to him, clear as day, he would not have had a prior exposure to this shade; it would only have had existed in his mind. The clinch for the argument is that suppose the individual, independent of prior impressions, was able to imagine or conceive of a shade of blue that has yet to exist in the world. This is the meat of Hume’s counter-example for his copy principle, which is if one could have a simple idea of a shade of blue, independent of a prior impression, then Hume’s copy principle would be unravelled. In fact, for Hume colors are, “one contradictory phenomenon, which may prove, that it is not absolutely impossible for ideas to arise, independent of their correspondent impressions.” (Hume)

Hume’s General Project

Hume’s overarching purpose is to create a system in which metaphysics are not needed. As an empiricist, all his projects are devoted to actualizing a philosophical framework that can explain the world from an epistemic perspective. His development of  his copy principle, for example, demonstrates his commitment to eliminating the need for abstract ideas such as ‘prime matter’ or ‘substance’. However, Hume also understands the limitation of his own view, which is heavily dependent on scientific truths. For Hume, scientific truths can never lead us to knowledge, but at most, to a belief. For this purpose, Hume introduces a counter-example to his copy principle in order to prove that we do not know if all ideas originate from a prior impression.

Rejection of the Counter-Example

Contrary to Descartes, Hume’s philosophy is strictly in the domain of epistemology, whereas, Descartes bases his epistemology strictly on the foundation of his metaphysics. The stark contrast between the two is that Hume flees from metaphysics; his philosophy depends solely on scientific truths, which are based on the experience gained from the physical universe. Consequently, Hume doesn’t believe that scientific truths are not necessary, therefore, also not universal.  Scientific truths are discovered through what we know of the physical universe, however, for Hume, we can never attain true knowledge of anything, at best, we stumble upon beliefs. What follows is, Hume dismisses his own counter-example because true knowledge cannot be obtained, therefore, to state that one have an idea of a certain shade of blue, without a prior event, would be to appeal to some metaphysic conclusion. Hume, as an empiricist,  will not accept a metaphysical answer, subsequently, Hume disregards this counter-example based on his opinion that this problem is minor and is not sufficient enough to halt the course of his greater project of establishing a philosophy whose foundation is explicitly grounded in epistemology alone. The primary reason, I would speculate why Hume would include such an example, would be to show the possibility that his own thinking might be flawed.

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