philosophy is for everyone
and not just philosophers

philosophers should know lots
of things besides philosophy

Philosophical Connections

Electronic Philosopher

Feature Articles

University of London BA

Philosophy Lovers Gallery

PhiloSophos Home

International Society for Philosophers

Hume on the continued and distinct existence of objects


To: Christian M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hume on the continued and distinct existence of objects
Date: 1 November 2007 12:47

Dear Christian,

Thank you for your email of 24 October, with your University of London BA degree one hour timed Modern Philosophy essay in response to the question, 'Why, according to Hume, does our belief in the continued and distinct existence of objects need to be explained? How satisfactory is his explanation of it?'

This is a good exam answer. However, there are a number of details in which the answer could be improved.

Also, an examiner will be looking to see whether you are able to make the problem appear gripping. Hume is driven to the point of complete bafflement by the problem of the continued and distinct existence of objects. The reader is looking for some explanation of how he could have been gripped so strongly by it.

The first thing you need to do is give Hume's definitions of 'continued' and 'distinct' existence. Hume makes a point of the fact that he is concerned with two attributes of external objects rather than only one. Objects continue to exist when unperceived, and exist distinct from the act of perception.

This is what we all believe. And yet, as Hume demonstrates, all it takes to cast doubt on this belief is to press one of your eyeballs with the result that you see double. How can the idea that the object I perceive is the object itself - for example, the red book on the table - if after pressing my eyeball I 'see' two books?

This brings to a sharp pitch the question of just what it is that the 'vulgar believe'. How can anyone believe something so obviously absurd as that I can make one red book turn into two red books by pressing my eye?

Vulgar belief is by definition unphilosophical. To Hume's mind, there is something about the very activity of philosophy that is problematic here. - Hence, Hume's radical 'solution' of going off to play a game of backgammon. It is tempting to say that this is the very paradigm of an 'unsatisfactory' resolution of the problem. However, it is unsatisfactory only if you believe that philosophy is able, in fact, to do better here than the account which Hume offers.

You say that Hume's account 'does not explain why we believe that our impressions come from *external* objects... the impressions could stem from god or our mind could produce them.' This seems to be mixing up the question of what, in fact, we believe and the various philosophical theories that are put forward to account for this belief (either as error theories, like Hume's, or in the case of the direct realist, in defence of the belief).

Thus, Berkeley, is presented with an analogous problem to Hume, of explaining in terms of his theory, how it is that we naturally believe something completely different from what the theory states. According to Berkeley, when I look at the red book I am looking at the inside of God's mind at God's perception of 'a red book'. But that is not how things *look*, that is not what anyone believes prior to doing philosophy.

You will gain marks for showing an appreciation of the difference between the question of the nature of 'vulgar' beliefs - or the beliefs that we form prior to undertaking philosophical inquiry - and the philosophical theories put forward to explain them.

It could also be argued that Hume's despair over the possibility of a coherent account of the continued and distinct existence of objects is misplaced. He does have a theory, which acts as a bridge between the philosophical theory and the explanation of our naive belief: his theory of 'fictions'.

Fictions are mental surrogates of 'real' external objects, ideas which we create ourselves, which in some sense 'stand in' for the objects themselves. I can say, truthfully, that the red book exists when I am not looking at it because I am talking about my idea of the red book, or the fictional red book that I have created in my own mind. By contrast with a reality existing in God's mind, according to Hume each of us has a model of 'the world' in our own minds, which is sufficient to account for the things that the 'vulgar' - not knowing the underlying philosophical explanation - say and believe.

Some commentators have pointed out that Hume's theory is not a million miles away from the account later put forward by Immanuel Kant, of the 'a priori category of substance', under which we subsume 'appearances'. All that is required to convert Hume's theory of fictions into a Kantian-style explanation is an argument which demonstrates the impossibility of experience which is not 'as of' external objects located in space: Kant's famous 'Refutation of idealism'. Hume's 'fictions' are Kant's 'appearances'.

All the best,