Explaining Hume’s Assumption Of The Thing On Its Own
by Philip McPherson Rudisill

May 16, 2001 (edited 4/14/2015)

David Hume, the Scottish empiricist, finally descended into “academic skepticism” when he found that his own theory for explaining human knowledge was inadequate for explaining how it was that he was able to know that the table he saw with his eyes was only an image which changed shape and size depending upon his distance from the table, while the table itself was independent and uniform in its existence, i.e., of a constant size and shape.*

* See Hume's Enquiry, Section 118 (use back button to return here).

Essentially Hume’s system had the humans (and animals alike) passively exposed to objects and gradually coming mentally to reflect the patterns and sequences noted in these objects, e.g., that ice often follows upon cooled water, etc. The problem then was that all sightings of things in space showed that they were smaller at a distance than when close up, and so it followed from his system that this should have been the sort of knowledge that we have of them. Hence it was a surprise for Hume that he and we realize that these objects did not change size as they so manifestly appear to do so. No impression at all could have revealed this constancy of object to him, and so there was no basis on which he could come to know this constant-size nature of things, unless he wanted to admit some sort of intuition of real things, but which would have decimated his entire theory. Not asserting knowledge but only attacking the pretentious assertions of others became Hume’s final fate, i.e., academic skepticism.

I propose to explain how it is that we come to this recognition that so baffled Hume. I shall follow the lead suggested by Kant.

In order to establish the context for this explanation we need to appreciate the fact that there are, as Hume tacitly admitted, two entirely different ways of looking at and viewing things in space about us, either as getting larger and smaller on their own, or else remaining always the same size and merely appearing to grow larger and smaller, and in both cases in accordance with one’s distance from the object, at least as far as has been observed thus far. This proviso concerning distance between eye and objects indicates that even though the size of an object is, subjectively speaking, a function of the retinal surface of the eye covered or encompassed by the object (and so which does in fact physically change according to the distance of the object from the eye), the recognition of the correlation of distance and this size* is a function of our way of looking at things, as can be easily realized when we consider the little Necker cube that many people often doodle out on a piece of paper when idle. These short, connected lines clearly appear as a cube which is extended in space, but, as we know, this space is entirely within us as the way our eyes comprehend the lines that make up that cube. In the same way the things we see in space before our eyes are actually on our retinas, and we project them out into space in very much the same way that we can imagine a circle to ourselves and picture it in our heads, or alternatively we can also project that circle out into thin air in space before our eyes and point it out to others and trace it out and discuss it with them.

* In other words, we might be cognizant of things getting larger and smaller, but not notice the correlation of this change with our distance from the object. But even if we did notice this correlation, which would be a sheer viewing and our way of looking at the objects, this would tell us nothing whatsoever as to whether the object were changing size on its own, or whether the change were merely in our eye. In fact this latter consideration is so strange, given the obvious visual change in size, that it is hard to imagine how any perceiving being, including therefore also the human, would ever come even to the suspicion that there were not a change in size in the physical object.

Thus we are called upon now to explain how it is that we opt out of the obviously more natural way of looking at these appearances* on our retinas, namely that they are the things themselves (which they certainly seem to be); and instead choose the more curious and unnatural way, namely that they are only images of things and do not reveal the things on their own at all. We are thus faced with these two possible views (or "takes" on things), and we must decide between them.

* Appearance is the usual rendering of Erscheinung the "shinning forth" of Kant's German. He uses it to refer to rainbows as all Germans do, and then also to the objects on the retina of the eye especially. In the German, once an appearance is determined to be a reflection of an object independently of the eye, then that object is referred to as image, but otherwise, for example in the case of the rainbow, since there is no object in space which corresponds to it, people continue to utilize appearance.

We do it in this way. First of all we must make a correlation of sight and touch, and we do this by observing that touch (as a feeling) arises when the visual hand makes contact with another visual object.* We think or wonder that this is the case and are intrigued, and we go so far as to make an experiment to make sure, and perhaps even several times, i.e., achieve to a perception.** In this way we conceive of an object, Kant's transcendental object = x = something in general, and use that conception to combine the visual and the touch (and later the other senses such as smell, texture, etc.). We conceive of a blue ball, for example, and conclude through a deliberate, conscious trial/experiment that the touch we feel is in the ball; namely we do not feel the touch unless we are touching (visually) the round blue thing. This ball (a notion or concept we dream up per the reflection of the organization of the mind) becomes the object and it serves to force us to unify all judgments about it, e.g., that it is heavy; that it is blue. We discover this heaviness by noting that when the ball is held by the hand heaviness is felt, and this feeling vanishes as soon as the ball is released, and the ball falls to the floor. We will also have suspected this were the case, i.e., this correlation of the feeling of heaviness and the visual holding in hand,*** and, intrigued again (per our categorically organized unterstanding), will have then undertaken an experiment to see that this does in fact happen by deliberately letting the ball go and noticing the immediate cessation of the feeling of heaviness. Again: the perception is a function of a deliberately undertaken experiment and observation.

* This is part of the procedure whereby we come to the conclusion that the hand, visually merely a squirrel-like thing flying about now and then in space before our eyes and occasionally just resting here and there, is actually our hand. Essentially this calls for us to distinguish our own body, visually speaking, from the other bodies all about, a distinction which is not immediately apparent from the sheer appearances themselves, but which requires a differentiation between appearance and image and a consequent determination.

** Thus the perception is actually a construction on the part of a categorically organized mind which is working on the materials given by sight and by our other sense organs; as will be discussed below in more detail. This is something that Hume missed entirely, namely that the perception (the careful-look [German: Wahrnehmung]) on which his entire system of knowledge was constructed was itself a construction of the human mind.

*** This suspicion is the same consciousness that we have when we have sought to lock a door or set an alarm clock while preoccupied (like driving on "auto pilot") and then wondering if we really did that or not. Likewise then there is a hint of a pattern given to us in some impression, and we then wonder if we really observed that or not, e.g., that the object goes to the floor immediately when released by the hand. And in the same way that we return to the door or alarm clock and pay attention to what we are doing, we pick up the object and again release it to see if indeed it does head toward the floor and just when released. This "paying attention" consciousness is the basis we have for a perception. Without this all our knowledge, so-called, would be of the character of that when we locked the door without paying attention; and thus while anything might prompt a reaction on our part, there would be no awareness of what we were doing. In the recitation of the alphabet, for example A prompts B, and then B does two things, namely it prompts C in turn and at the same time annihilates A, and then C does then also destroyes B, and so on to Z, at which point we are speechless. And so we would be able to associate things mentally, but we would never be conscious of the association but only of the results as a consciousness. In a word, there would be no awareness of self.

Fortified now with this knowledge we can turn to our primary concern, namely the determination of the viewing/looking with regard to whether objects get smaller on their own at a distance, or only seem to do so. We take the ball in our hand and we stretch out our arm away from our face and notice two things: 1. the ball reduces in size and 2. the heaviness of the ball and the feeling of the tension of our grip remain constant. If the ball (and the hand!) were actually getting smaller, then we would expect the weight to diminish also and accordingly.* Therefore we conclude that the object itself is independent and uniform in its existence (for the weight and the resistance to intrusion will earlier have been attributed to the object, due to the coincidence of visual contact and feeling of touch); and so, therefore, we can conclude that the eyes play tricks on us, and that the visual is something of an illusion, while the touch represents the thing on its own.**

* This presupposition we will have already established and validated earlier by holding two similar but unequal objects, and finding the smaller to weigh less.

** Essentially we discover and recognize our own eye, i.e., that the object we spy is unchanging. Indeed Schopenhauer declared the eye to be the first object of experience, i.e., that experience with objects could not even begin until we recognzied that all visuals were merely appearances and not thing on their own at all.

And so it is in this way that Hume’s real thing on its own, which (according to his system) the human mind merely reflects more or less, is actually a product or invention* of the active, categorical mind in its search for order and connection in and amongst all the appearances (objects of our retinas and other sense organs). There is in the mind

1. a pervasive and preceding assumption of order and connection, near or remote, among all appearances, and then there is

2. the intrigue that patterns prompt in us as a result of this assumption, e.g., getting smaller and larger depending on the distance, and then there is

3. the experiment/observation undertaken to establish the fact of the pattern, resulting in the perception proper, and there is then

4. the conception of the object, a transcendental object = x (an invention of the mind based on the categorical make up), whereby we are able then to recognize the object;

and it is in this way that the perception of an object or some fact regarding that object first arises.

* By "invention" we don’t want to say that it is merely an illusion. It is real enough, but its reality is fashioned by the categorically organized mind working on (experimenting with) the materials given through the senses. Indeed it is by means of the synthesis (connection and unification) of the mind that the empirical thing on its own is first conceived and so then first recognized (albeit always only empirically), and without which we would think, as perhaps the animals still do (if they even care), that appearances are things on their own and so therefore things do change their size on their own and merely coincidentally with how close they are to us, e.g., much as though we were individual gods, and things of the world related to us by getting larger phsyically as we approached them, and moving toward us as we moved toward them.

Appendix I

The Role And Provision Of The Unified Consciousness

The unity of the mind in pursuit of a perception as described above is that of a unified consciousness, one which precedes all perception as a potentiality for apprehending and comprehending a manifold as a unity, namely as an object. For this reason it is called transcendental in that it makes recognitions possible. It is indeed by means of this same unified consciousness that we come to recognize ourselves as a single being with diverse representations over time. The drive of this transcendental and original apperception, as Kant calls it, is that of the categorically organized understanding which enables us to become intrigued by patterns and coincidences such that we pause and take a closer look through the experiment/observation, and whereupon the perception (a careful take) first arises. If there were not a unified consciousness as a potentiality under the rule of a categoric mind, then there would be no reason to expect any two diverse perceptions to have anything in common. The example I used in my paper in Kant-Studien to express this was a person who had the presence of mind of Hobbes’ village idiot, who learned to say “one one one” upon the strike of three o'clock by the town clock. In a like way such a person with a dispersed consciousness could sit and watch a football game and sing the songs of opposing sides and cheer for opposing sides in succession without ever realizing that he were contradicting himself; for when he was cheering for Alabama, for example, he was cheering for Alabama, and when he was cheering for Georgia Tech, he was cheering for Georgia Tech, and both at the same game. In such a disparate consciousness there is no sense of the unity of self. Hence, as Kant concludes: the categoric mind must precede in order to have the first perception, built as it is upon the unification of otherwise diverse impressions; and it is based on this first perception that we are able also to recognize our own unity in consciousness, namely that we are a single person with diverse depictions over time, not to mention the unified consciousness which represents a nature, i.e., a single world.

In the first version of the Transcendental Deduction of the Categories of the Critique of Pure Reason Kant calls this unified consciousness the transcendental affinity of all appearances, and means by that: since all appearances are presupposed to be connected, our connection of the elements of any pattern by means of a name and descriptive/identifying rule for constructing (and thus also recognizing) that pattern by means of one of the categories of our understanding is already consistent with all other connections that will ever be made. In other words, the unity of consciousness needful in order to apprehend and consolidate and unify the elements of a single perception is the same unity of consciousness needful for the connection of all perceptions with each other; and unity of mind and unity of recognition and perception is maintained from the very first perception, and this is only possible by means of the categoric mind which alone can provide this pervasive and total unity.* It is in this way that Kant will show that the perceptions of Hume and the empiricists, while indeed the building blocks of human knowledge, are themselves productions of, and so therefore also subject to, the categoric mind, at least with regard to their possibility and actuality as human recognitions.

* In a word: the apprehension of the elements in our very first perception is directed by the categoric mind in order that a total, pervasive unity will always be maintained. The details are given in the Transcendental Deduction.

Appendix II

Regarding Wittgenstein

I am intrigued with Wittgenstein by what I hear about him, although not so much by what I know about him. According to him, as I conclude from what I think I hear, we would never make an experimental certification that things don’t actually get smaller the further removed they are from us, but would simply come to talk that way in accordance with a sort of code of courtesy. In other words, in the same way that we learn to say “thank you” when done a favor, if we are “proper” boys and girls who please our parents, we would also learn to say “things appear to get smaller” in the place of “things get smaller” and so would never have to consider the question of whether they actually do get smaller or not, for we would know how to talk.

I disagree with this (perhaps erroneous impression) and stand rather with Kant who asserts that while we may very well be first intrigued and then driven by talk, it is in order to make sense and unity and connection in the diversity of talk, and it is by means of the (category-driven) experiments/observations that we come to order the talk and make sense out of it. Without such an experiment then we would be limited to a Wittgensteinian world where we simply learn to be “polite” in our talk and not to speak in a way that causes people to laugh at us or slap us, e.g., saying that 7+5=13 or that things get smaller as they are more remote. We are driven by our categorical mind to order all appearances and thereby to assert such things as the rainbow is in our eye and not out in the space of the rain on its own, while, in contrast, the rain is really out in the space I see it in. Otherwise we would be like the hapless Captain Hook and would think that people were making fun of us by looking at the rain right over there (as we might point out to them in the distance) with the beautiful rainbow and admit seeing the rain but deny seeing any rainbow.*

* That some experimentation is needful here to determine this viewing/conception of rainbows is clear from this consideration: another viewing/take would be that since some objects, e.g., the rainbow, come into and go out of existence suddenly, it follows that all objects are equally able to do the same thing, and if we have never noticed other objects doing this it might be that we simply have not looked long enough or hard enough. In any case we would not be surprised to suddenly have a mountain or house vanish before our eyes. The experiment necessary for making the determination of the rainbow would require a situation, I think, where we are very close to a rainbow, say in a small, nearby waterfall, and we can move about easily and see that it disappears and returns to view, but also in a very patterned way and depending on our position and perspective. Then we can relate this to such things as the split finger touching our nose, which we determine through an experiment, and conclude that the rainbow, like the split of the finger, is totally in our eye and head, and does not reflect the object at all, as Hume knew, but could not explain.

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