Hume's account of causation

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




J. F. Bennett


David Hume, Causation

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | Philosophy


Hume begins his discussion of causation with the promise that he will explain fully the relation of cause and effect, and argues strenuously that there is no impression from which the idea of necessary connection is derived. At the end of his discussion, he summarizes his views by offering his "two definitions of cause" where he asserts that the causal relation can be nothing but the regular succession of cause and effect. This is traditionally thought to be evidence for the view that Hume reduces causation to regular succession and that he denies causal realism which asserts that there are necessary connections in nature to be taken into consideration.

There is no evidence for the claim that Hume distinguishes between what we know of causation and what causation in itself is. On the contrary, he denies the existence of an external physical world (of which we can have inadequate ideas) and limits reality to our ideas. It seems to be a mistake, therefore, to claim that he believes that there are necessary connections that we can never know.

Just as there are analytical elements, there are both naturalistic and sceptical elements in his philosophy. However, the way in which these three elements are interrelated is quite different. His natural theory of belief does not concern causal realism but our causal beliefs. He never claims that we have a natural belief that there are necessary connections in nature. What he claims (instead) is that after the observation of a regular succession of cause and effect, the experience of the cause not only brings the idea of the effect into our mind but brings this idea together with an "impression of necessity". When we examine the way in which Hume characterizes this impression, we see that it plays an important role in Hume's theory of natural beliefs. It is the irresistible way in which the idea of the effect enters into our mind. It is what, Hume calls the "vivacity" or "violence" which turns a simple conception of the idea of the effect into a causal belief about the occurrence of this effect. And this is the context in which Hume introduces his scepticism. It does not consist of his belief that we lack knowledge of causation but consists of his criticism of our nature in forming such causal beliefs. (Abstract shortened by UMI.)


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