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International Phenomenological Society

Philosophy and Phenomenological Research

Husserl's Critique of Hume's Notion of Distinctions of Reason

Author(s): Robert E. Butts
Source: Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Dec., 1959), pp. 213-221
Published by: International Phenomenological Society
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2104357
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It is commonlyoverlookedthat Hume'ssectionon abstractideas in the
Treatise1 actually proposesanswersto two quite different,though inti-
mately related,questions.2Having endorsedBerkeley'snominalism,with
its conclusionthat generalityonly arisesbecauseparticularideas function
representatively,i.e., stand for or represent(denotatively)other particu-
lar ideas of the "same sort," Hume's first task was to explain how par-
ticularideas function "beyondtheir nature""as if (they)wereuniversal."
Hume'sanswerto this questionwas, of course,psychological.He ascribed
to generalnames the capacity to stimulatein the imaginationthe dispo-
sition to recall the other resemblingparticulars.And though there are
difficultiesin the notion of disposition which trouble both theoretical
psychologistsand philosophersof science, some recent commentatorson
Hume'stheory of generalideas have praisedthis dispositionaltheory.3
Hume's second problemin the section on abstract ideas - and this is
what is generallyoverlooked- is the following.Every particularidea is
to be presumedto be orderedundermany groupsof similarity,4yet each
time it functionsrepresentativelyit stands for ideas falling into only one
such group. The white cube resemblesboth the black cube and the white
sphere,yet the generalname "white"recalls only the image of the white
sphere,togetherwith otherimages of white objects, and not the image of
the black cube. Hume'ssecondproblemwas then the problemof showing
how it is that these similaritygroupsare not confusedin thinking,making

* This paper is a revision of part of ChapterIII of the author'sdoctoral dissertation,

Huaserl's Criticisms of Hume's Theoryof Knowledge(1957), written under the super-
vision of Professor Paul Schreckerof the University of Pennsylvania.
1 David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge, Oxford,
The ClarendonPress, 1951, Pt. I, Bk. I, Sect. VII, pp. 17-25.
2 J am indebted to Edmund Husserl for this insight. See Logische Untersuchungen,
Band II, Teil 1, pp. 188-89, fourth edition, Halle A. D. S.: Max Niemeyer, 1928.
3 See R. I. Aaron, The Theory of Universals, Oxford, The ClarendonPress, 1952,
pp. 75-85; and Andrew Ushenko, "Hume's Theory of General Ideas," The Review of
Metaphysics,Vol. IX, No. 2, Dec. 1955, p. 236 ff.
4 Thus Hume writes: "'Tis certain that the mind wou'd never have dream'd of
distinguishinga figure from the body figur'd, as being in reality neither distinguishable,
nor different, nor separable; did it not observe, that even in this simplicity theremight
be contain'dmany differentresemblancesand relations." Op. cit., p. 25. Italics mine.

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generalization more an obfuscation than a clarification and simplification

of thinking, as it is usually thought to be. How, when I employ the name
"white," and my mental association at the time of employment is the
image of a white cube, do I prevent my mind from calling up associations
with different colored cubes, instead of different white objects? Hume's
second task was to answer this kind of question without admitting uni-
versals, which had already been outlawed in the dispositional part of his
representative theory of general meaning.
If Hume's theory of abstract ideas is seen as involving these two related
questions, and it seldom is, then there is no difficulty at all in under-
standing why Hume devoted the last couple of pages of this section of
the Treatise to the scholastic idea of distinctions of reason, because it was
this very idea which Hume thought answered his second problem. It is
worthy of note that Norman Kemp Smith, an otherwise very astute and
perceptive student of Hume, does not read Hume's theory as dealing
separately with the two mentioned problems, so his explanation of why
Hume introduced the distinctions of reason is simply that Hume could not
get along without universals after all, and the closing pages of the section
are simply his confused way of admitting this.5


What Hume wrote about the distinctio rations needs only summary
treatment here.6 Suppose we were to compare a white sphere with a black
sphere and then with a white cube. The comparison leads us to note two
different similarities. Through repeated comparisons of this sort, objects
come to be arranged for us into similarity groups, and we learn through
"habit" to "view them in different aspects." Thus, for example, when we
consider the color white, we consider its resemblance to the white cube,
together with all other remembered white objects, accompanying our
ideas "with a kind of reflection, of which custom renders us, in a great
measure, insensible." In this insensible reflection a white sphere appears
and there appears conjointly a resemblance with respect to the color, thus
ordering the white sphere in the similarity group of color. In this rather
special sense this kind of reflection can be said to "abstract" the dis-
tinguished property.
Thus, it is by means of a habitual comparing of simple objects, a habit
which eventually renders us insensible to the kind of reflection which
makes the comparing possible, that objects are thought together with
respect to just certain of their similarities, and it is to be presumed that
5 NormanKemp Smith, The Philosophyof David Hume, London, Macmillanand Co.,
1941, p. 264 ff.
6 This account follows Hume, op. cit., p. 25.

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this kind of reflection,of which we are now largely, if not wholly, in-
sensible,keepsus from confusingdifferentsimilaritygroups.In this way
Hume'stheory of the distinctionof reasonsupposedlyanswersthe second
questionwhichhis inquiryinto abstractideas poses. Here, as in the case
of fume's first problem,his answeris psychological,and this, as we shall
see, in great measureaccountsfor the unsatisfactorinessof his theory of
generalideas as a logical characterizationof this type of meaning.

I shouldlike now to turn to EdmundHusserl'sanalysisof Hume'suse
of the distinctio rationis as give in Logische Untersuchungen,7an analysis
which shows that Hume's attempt at an answerto his second question
is greatly unsatisfactory.
In Husserl'sestimation,Hume'sdistinctionsof reasondoctrineis stated
ambiguously,and can be given both a "moderate"and a "radical"in-
terpretation.On the "moderate"readingof this passage in the Treatise
Hume's view is that every concrete phenomenalobject (impressionor
simple idea) is absolutely simple in the sense that its characteristicsare
inseparablefrom it. If this was Hume'sintendedview, then a distinction
of reasonis merely a "mentalpointing"and generalizationis to be attri-
buted to the psychologicalpowerof attention.This, of course,was a part
of the theory of Berkeley. Though Husserl criticizes this "moderate"
interpretation at length in his considerationof Berkeley's theory of
attention,8 only the "radical"interpretationwill be dealt with in this
The second possible way of viewing Hume's theory of distinctionsof
reason(the "radical"interpretation)involves the quite paradoxicalimpli-
cation that different, mutually inseparablecharacteristicsof presented
contents (color,form, and the like), which we believe are apprehendedas
parts presentin the contents, are not really in them at all. Thereis only
one kind of real parts - those parts which can also appearseparatelyby
themselves, or Hume's "simple ideas." The "radical" interpretation
furthersuggeststhat abstractpartial contents, for example, color quali-
ties, are in a sense mere fictions, since though they can be consideredby
themselves (by means of distinctionsof reason) they cannot be or be
observedby themselves.Thus color is not in the coloredcontent, nor is
form in the content formed; there are only those similaritygroupsinto
which phenomenalobjects are grouped,and certainhabits which attend
7 Husserl, op. cit., p. 192 ff.
8 Ibid., p. 137 ff. Cf. Smith, op. cit., p. 266. Smith evidently thought this was Hume's
only intended view, and that it covertly admits the generality of abstract ideas, thus
destroying Hume's case for the particularity of abstract ideas.

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the intuition of phenomena - habits as unconscious dispositions (imper-

ceptible psychicaloccurrencesstimulatedby the intuition).
On this "radical"view of Hume's meaning,he has paid a great price
indeed in orderto completehis representativetheory of generalideas by
means of the distinctiorations. For if the only real partsin any presented
content are the simples,all supposedpartial contents of a presentation,
whichordinarilyis viewedas a unifiedwhole,arenot reallypartsof it at all.
Thus if I am thinkingabout blue whalesand my thinkingis accompanied
by the intentionalimage of a blue whale with tiny yellow eyes and an
enormousgusherof water comingout of its spout, I am not really entitled
to say that the blue of the whale and the yellow of the eyes and the form
of the spoutingwater are parts of the presentedimage at all. And all of
this seems to run directlycounterto the commonsenseand Platonicadage
that "I perceivewhat I perceivewhen I perceiveit."
Rememberalso that this paradoxis generatedby Hume'sintroduction
of the distinctionsof reasonpart of his theory in an attemptto answerthe
question:how is it that an object which is in many way similarto other
things is apprehendedin a given experienceas bearingjust this similarity
to other objects? In order to show the general inferiority of Hume's
answer, Husserl proposes this argument:
If the abstract contents which, in the concrete intuition, correspondto the abso-
lute characteristics are themselves nothing, then the connective and relational
contents in the intuition of a formally unified totality are a potiori nothing.
Obviously the problem of the diatinctiorationia and the principle of its solution
are identical for all abstract contents. They are identical, therefore, for the re-
lational and connective contents and for the absolute contents. The question how
the apparent presentation of the color in the colored object, or the distinction of
the color from this object, comes about, cannot be answered, therefore, through
a referenceto a presented similarity between this coloredobject and other colored
objects. Indeed, if such an explanation is followed up consistently, this presen-
tation would lead back to the presentation of a similarity relation between this
similarity and other similarities (in the example of color: to a group of similarities
of similarities'asthey obtain between colored objects). And to this similarity the
principle of explanation would again have to be applied, and so on.9

In short, Hume's implied conclusion that where we believe we perceive,

say, a quality white, we are actually perceiving or otherwise presenting
only a certainsimilaritybetween the appearingobject and other objects,
involves his distinctiorations explanation in an infinite regress of the
vicious kind.
Thus Husserl'sargumentleads us to conclude that the theory of the
distinctionof reason,based on a specialuse of the similarityrelation,does
9 Husserl,op. cit., p. 196.1 am indebted to ProfessorSchreckerfor several suggestions
pertaining to my translation of this passage.

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not count as a valid addition to Hume's theory of general meaning,

becausethe explanationemployingthe notion of the distinctionof reason
leads to a viciousinfiniteregress.Cautionought to be observedin judging
Husserl'sargument.On the face of it, it looks very much like the usual,
now defunct,rationalistrejoinderto the resemblancetheory of general
ideas as first advocatedby Berkeleyand Hume.10The orthodoxargument,
whichhas, I think, been adequatelyrefutedby Aaronand Price,1"among
others, contends that the resemblancetheory really covertly assumes
what it wishes to dispensewith - the very idea of resemblanceon which
the theory rests must itself be regardedas a universal, as a common
relationalquality in some Platonic sense: if this is not done, then the
theory involves the vicious infinite regress. Now although Husserl ac-
cepted, mistakenly, this orthodox argument,12I do not think that the
argumentquotedabove involveseven the impliedconclusionthat Hume's
use of the distinctiorations covertly assumesthe existence of universals,
an existenceobviatedby Hume'srepresentativeview of generalmeaning.

In order to see that Husserl's criticism of Hume's explanation by
distinctionsof reason does not involve the ordinaryform of the infinite
regressargument,considerthe line of thought proposedby R. I. Aaron.
He claims that the infinite regressargument(in its orthodoxform) has
been assumed to be a fatal objection to the resemblancetheory of uni-
versals, but continueswith the assertion:
. . . I should like to question the assumption. For admitting the infinite regress,
does this make the argument invalid? What the Resemblance theory needs by
way of presuppositionis that we should be able to recognize a resemblancewhen
we see one. Now we do see that the resemblancebetween a and b resembles the
resemblancebetween x and y. And we see this without having to attempt the
impossibletask of observing an infinite series of resemblances.Supposingwe have
a case where a is true if b is true, and b is true if c is true, and c is true if d is true,
and so on, ad infinitum. Then admittedly we could not know that a was true. But
our present case is a different one. The regress is there, but we can know the re-
semblance in question without observing the infinity of resemblances. Conse-
quently the argument does not refute the Resemblance theory.13
10 In general, the resemblancetheory simply states that, contrary to both realism
and conceptualism,there are no universals, but generalizationis possible because we
are able to note resemblancesbetween objects, which may or may not be viewed as
possessing identical common qualities. See Aaron, op. cit., p. 151 ff. General words
refer, denotatively, to the resemblingobjects in the given group. Forms of this theory
were advanced by both Berkeley and Hume.
11 Aaron,op. cit., p. 153; H. H. Price, Thinkingand Experience,Cambridge,Harvard
University Press, 1953, pp. 23-26.
12 Husserl, op. cit., p. 115.
13 Aaron, op. cit., p. 153.

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I think it will have to be admitted that Aaron's suggestion counts

against the orthodox infinite regress argument as directed against the
normalformulationof the resemblancetheory of generalideas. But is does
not likewisecount against Husserl'sargumentagainst Hume's specialuse
of resemblancein his theory of the distinctiorations. The reasonfor this
can best be seen by consideringhow Husserl'sargumentdiffersfrom the
orthodoxinfinite regressobjection,which states that to argue away uni-
versalson the basis of the similarityrelationis covertly to allow at least
one universal,namely, resemblanceitself.
Husserl'sargumenttells us that if we allow that there is a resemblance
betweengreen and blue and between violet and aquamarine,then there
is at leastone distinctionwhich we are able to make with respectto quali-
ties of objects which are ex hypothesis not to be distinguished.The re-
semblance itselfis distinguishablein the presentationof the two resembling
cases. But Hume's position does not entitle one to make even this dis-
tinction, and so again the apparently distinct resemblance- the case
where the resemblanceof green and blue resemblesthe resemblanceof
violet and aquamarine- must be accountedfor by a new distinctionof
reason,and so on to infinity.Moreand moresuch pseudodistinctionsmust
followas necessaryconsequencesof Hume'sview preciselybecausewithout
them he has admitted what he does not wish to admit - that distinct
aspects of complex ideas are distinguishable.Thus Aaron'srefutationof
the orthodox infinite regress objection does not hold for Husserl's ob-
jection to Hume's view when he (Aaron)asserts that it is true that we
can know the resemblancein question; for we could only know this in
every case - in casesof simpleresemblanceas well as casesof resemblances
of resemblances- by virtue of a distinctionof reason,which is after all
artificial,since it is no real distinctionat all.
It is thus the distinctiorations itself which makes the vicious infinite
regressa consequenceof Hume's doctrine, and the really vital point is
that this doctrineis unable to explain how in a given experienceI single
out just this resemblancebetween phenomena]objects of a given kind,
ratherthan one of the many other resemblancesof which they are sus-
ceptible. In. order to begin to explain this I must admit that presented
contents have really distinct parts.

It followsfrom this line of approachthat Husserl'sform of the infinite
regressargumentas directed against Hume is not the ordinaryform of
this argument- that to allow resemblanceis covertly to allow universals
- and hence Aaron'sobjectiondoes not apply. The validity of Husserl's
argument must thereforebe judged independentlyof the demonstrated

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invalidity of the orthodox infinite regress objection to the resemblance

Husserl'sreally substantial point is that Hume's explanationof ab-
stractionby meansof the distinctiorations is an inadequateexplanation,
becauseit goes on to infinity. Now I think this is surely a valid point,
especially if we strip the situation of all extraneousreferencesto uni-
versals.ThusHumeis readas offeringthe distinctiorations as an explana-
tory hypothesisand all that needs asking is the question of whether it
really does explain. If the distinctiorations hypothesis is to count as a
correct explanatoryhypothesis, we must be able to say what kind of
evidencewould count against it. We know what this evidencewould be,
of course;any discoveryof a genuinepartialcontent, any partaside from
a "concrete"part, a "simple,"would count against the hypothesis.But
clearlysuch a discoverywill neverarisein Hume'sattemptedexplanation,
sinceif we claimthat in his explanationa real part is allowed,namely,the
resemblanceitself, he will push back his explanationone step furtherby
means of a new distinctionof reasondependingupon a new resemblance
of higher order. Thus although we know what kind of evidence would
invalidatehis view, Hume is really telling us that we shall never find any
evidenceof this sort, and his proposedexplanationcan be patchedup at
each stage of the game by the introductionof a new artificialdistinction.
It is in this sense that Hume'sproposedexplanationleads to infinity, and
it is in this sense that his explanationis no explanationat all. In orderto
save the theory and thus not to make any real distinctionsbetweenparts
andtheirsupposedwholes,Humeis forcedinto the uncomfortableposition
of having to say, and surely there is no evidence for saying it, that no
evidencewill ever be foundthat will invalidatehis closedhypothesis.And
this is exactly why his explanationis, as Husserlargues,inadequate,and
hence does not validly extend his resemblancetheory of generalideas.


Husserl'sargument,then, if my reading of it is correct, throws light

both on Hume's reasons for includingthe often overlookedand seldom
understoodpages on distinctionsof reasonand on the generalcharacterof
his theory of generalideas. It appears,first, that Hume needed the dis-
tinctionsof reasonin orderto have his theoryinsurethe fact that different
groupsof resemblanceswhich objects under considerationshare are not
confusedin thinking. If his theory of generalideas had led to the view
that resemblancescannotsomehowbe disentangledfromthe many groups
into which they fall, the theory would very clearly have violated an
empiricalfact which Locke noticed, and Hume endorsed,namely, the

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employment of general ideas leads to greater economy in thinking.14

Thinkingwould not be done economically,if resemblancegroups were
confusedin it; in fact, it wouldnot be thinkingat all, but the kind of lack
of thinkingwhich characterizesthe mental activities of those who find it
impossibleto generalizeat all, or who generalizehaphazardlyand often
incorrectly- for example,primitivepeoples,very youngchildrenand those
sufferingfrom various kinds of brain injury, particularlythose causing
Husserl'sargument,therefore,and this leads to the second majorcon-
clusionof this paper,refutesmorethan he thought that it did. For it not
only refutes Hume's doctrineof the distinctiorations, it also refutes the
representativetheory of general meaning which Hume thought needed
reinforcementby means of the distinctio rations addition. Husserl's
reading of Hume's theory of general ideas indicates very clearly that
whetherHume knewit or not, his theorywas in fact an empiricalhypothe-
sis of the psychologicalsort. In full, the hypothesisis as follows: general
wordshave the dispositionto stimulatethe imaginationto recall particu-
lars which resemblethat one particularwhich is associated(as an image)
with the generalword; and the differentkinds of resemblanceclassesinto
which objects are groupedare kept separatein the mind by means of an
"insensiblereflection"which Hume calls a distinctionof reason.Husserl's
argument shows that, as an empirical psychological hypothesis, the
secondpart of Hume'sfull hypothesisis closed,i.e., there is no possibility
of findingevidencewhich would refute it. But since, as I have indicated,
Hume'shypothesisneedsconfirmationof both conjunctsin orderto satisfy
the empiricalfact that generalideas simplifyand thus rendereconomical
our thinking, the full hypothesis of Hume is refuted by Husserl'sargu-
ment, though I do not think that Husserlhimselfwas awareof this more
generalimplicationof his argument,though he was awarethat there are
other argumentswhich count against the first conjunct of Hume's hy-
The weaknessesof Hume'stheory of generalmeaningwhich the impli-
cations of Husserl'sargumentdetect are, it seems fair to remark,simply
furthersigns of the generalunsatisfactorinessof psychologism,the major
defects of which were pointed out by Husserl, Bradley and Frege. In
Hume's case, his desire was to reduce all sciences to the science of the
facts (the psychologicalfacts) of human nature. In this sense for Hume
all science was psychology (in his peculiar sense of psychology as the
scienceof humannature).And once we realizethat his attempt to charac-

14 John Locke, An Essay ConcerningHuman Understanding,edited by A. S. Pringle-

Pattison, Oxford, The ClarendonPress, 1934, Bk. III, Ch. 3, Sect. 20, p. 237; and
Hume, op. cit., p. 20.

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terize general meaning was not an attempt at logical or philosophical

analysis, but rather an attempt at armchair psychology, Husserl's argu-
ment establishes the invalidity on logical grounds of the hypothesis which
Hume apparently thought proved on the basis of experience.


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