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Empiricism According to David Hume and Immanuel Kant


Empiricism is the philosophical view that the only source of knowledge is the senses. There are two schools of thought in regards to this idea. The empiricist philosophers, Locke, Bacon, and Hume support this view. The rationalist philosophers, Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz dispute this view, proposing that rationality is the source of knowledge. The ideas about empiricism have been developed over time, with David Hume being the last empiricist. This paper seeks to examine his views alongside Immanuel Kant’s. Immanuel Kant agreed partially with the empiricist view but totally disagreed with some of the propositions. Both David Hume (3) and Immanuel Kant (34) put forward their ideas in books (Norton and Taylor 23).

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The proponents of the empiricism view saw the mind as being in a blank state when a person is born. This blank space was capable of being filled with anything. However, only senses and experience enable a person to know the world. Without these, there is possibly no way one can claim to know anything. These philosophers believed that those people who claimed to know things they had not experienced had in fact forgotten that they had experienced those things (Zabeeh, 12).

Empiricism also claims that the knowledge acquired through the senses is expanded through experiments and observation. Thus, some of the philosophers in support of this view claim there is no God and our perceptions of Him come from how we perceive ourselves. We imagine God as a larger version of how we imagine ourselves. This is the reason some people rejected David Hume’s ideas, branding him as an atheist (Deleuze, 5).

David Hume’s Views on Empiricism

Hume, like all other empiricists, believed that the only possible source of human knowledge is the five senses. He proposed that illusions are created when several events regularly follow each other. These illusions may be confused for new knowledge, which in fact they are not. The other way people learn according to David Hume is through association with others. He borrowed some of his ideas from his predecessor Locke.

Perceptions and ideas are quite different in Hume’s view. Perceptions come from direct experiences. He also refers to them as impressions. These are more powerful than ideas which are reflections of perceptions. This is because the senses are involved in creating impressions. It is from this distinction that Hume created the Copy Principle. This is the idea that every idea represents a copy of an impression through the senses. Human beings can imagine things they have never experienced by compounding the knowledge gained from their senses. For example, if one has seen a valley before, and the color blue, then when asked to imagine a blue valley, these two ideas are combined (Hume, 35).

Hume also divided the compounding of knowledge by the mind into two classes. A priori knowledge is analytical and gained through the relation of facts. Synthetic knowledge, which represents matters of fact, is the knowledge gained through sensations. Thus, the rationale between cause and effect did not make sense to Hume. He claimed that there is no way one can identify the effect unless he had experienced them before. There is nothing about the appearance of fire that hints towards its ability to burn, only someone who had been burnt before could know (Wolff, 12).

Hume also proposes that people’s ideas of God are simply limitless compounded thoughts they have about themselves. There is no room for faith or any other source of knowledge in Hume’s arguments. This puts him in direct contradiction to previous scholars on the subject who merely mean different ideologies are developed (Zabeeh, 3).

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Immanuel Kant’s Views on Empiricism

Kant recognized that the beginning of knowledge is the senses. He agreed with empirical philosophers and disagreed with rationalist philosophers. He claimed that in this world, the phenomenal world, senses are the source of our knowledge because the mind is limited. One can only think within certain confines.

The senses are complemented by the mind in the creation of new knowledge. It begins in the senses but ends in the mind. People know new things by experiencing then thinking about the experience and drawing conclusions from this. Thus he claimed that we have no knowledge of things in them. All we know is from our experiences and thoughts (Kant, 45).

Kant referred to the world in which things are as they are as the real world. He also called it the noumenal world. The things in this world cannot be known by experience as in the phenomenal world. Immanuel Kant claimed that things such as God, morality, and human freedom exist in this world. According to Kant, morality is not just a feeling. It is what links the two worlds together (Hume, Berkely, and Locke, 12).

The nominal world could only be understood by an awareness of the existence of self-given by God. The phenomenal world is also understood because we are aware of our existence. If we were unaware of our own existence, then according to Kant, we would be unable to tell the meaning of what we sense (Kant 12).

Comparison between David Hume’s and Immanuel Kant’s Views

The two philosophers agreed that the senses are a source of human knowledge. While Hume believed that this was the only source of human knowledge, Kant believed that the mind was necessary for knowledge creation. Senses in themselves would not suffice. Hume claimed that what others called actions of the mind were merely relations of ideas created through experience (Hume, 34). However, Kant disputed this stating that it was actually possible to gain knowledge by thinking about our experiences.

The division of knowledge into synthetic and analytical employed by Hume was not used by Kant. Rather, he divided the worlds into two, a real and a physical world. Kant did this because he believed that the division of knowledge was not comprehensive enough. It was a subjective division as the knowledge had to be created in some world (Norton and Taylor 45).

David Hume believed that God was a creation of our imagination. He explained that all we claim to know about Him is an illusion created by our perceptions about ourselves. Immanuel Kant on the other hand recognized that God had to exist for morality to exist. To Kant, God, morality, and human freedom could not be known except through the nominal or real-world (Artherton 12).

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Kant proposed that when people are born, some things are innate. The person has a sense of existence. This is unlike David Hume who believed that on birth, the human mind is totally empty and is filled when we begin to experience things (Hume, 13).


The views of both are reasonable to some extent. It is true that we learn mostly through experience and experiments. However, learning does not end there. I, therefore, disagree with Hume’s view on this matter. If it were so, then human beings would be unable to think of hypothetical situations. In effect, Hume lowers humanity to the level of animals by denying the power of reasoning (Deleuze 72).

The matter of synthetic knowledge and analytical knowledge is a true concept. The knowledge we gain through any experience is usually much stronger than abstract ideas (Sassen 7). This is the reason why schools teach science subjects primarily through experiments. However, the question of whether there is a real-world and a physical world is open to debate. This is because Immanuel Kant provides no specific distinction between these two supposed worlds (Artherton 6).

Hume’s belief that the human mind is blank at birth is untrue. Babies are born knowing how to breastfeed, cry when uncomfortable, and respond to their mother’s touch. It is true that they learn many things growing up, but they are not born knowing anything. Hume was mistaken on the subject of God’s existence (Waxman

4). Kant was closer to the truth. The world is not finite as portrayed by Hume. Science has proven that there are other galaxies that man is yet to visit. Ideas about virtues can only come from a good God. The fact that He is invisible does not mean He does not exist. The many wonders of nature attest to God’s existence (Zabeeh 3).

Works Cited

Artherton, Margaret. The Empiricists: Critical Essays On Locke, Berkeley, And Hume (Critical Essays On The Classics). New York: Wiley, 2009.

Deleuze, Giles. Empiricism And Subjectivity. London: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Chicago: Digireads, 2006.

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Hume, David, George Berkely and John Locke. The Empiricists. Toronto: Anchor, 1960.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique Of Practical Reason. Toronto: Create Space, 2010.

Norton, David Fate and Jacqueline Taylor. The Cambridge Companion To Hume. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Sassen, Brigitte. Kant’s Early Critics: The Empiricist Critique Of The Theoretical Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Waxman, Wayne. Kant And The Empiricists: Understanding Understanding. Chicago: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Wolff, Robert Paul. About Philosophy. Chicago: Prentice Hall, 2008.

Zabeeh, F. Hume. Precursor Of Modern Empiricism : An Analysis Of His Opinions On Meaning Metaphysics Logic Mathematics. Chicago: Prentice Hall, 2010.

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