Two Things David Hume Thinks About Our External World

David Hume was a Scottish philosopher, essayist, historian, and economist. He is considered as one of the most influential thinkers to write in English. Hume is also best known for his works in the areas of naturalism, philosophical empiricism, and skepticism.

Born in April 1711, in Edinburgh, Scotland, David Hume began his philosophical career with the publication of his masterpiece A Treatise of Human Nature. Even though this work was not well-received at the time, it has since grown to become one of the most authoritative and prominent works which chronicles the history of western philosophy. Also, his job as a librarian at the University of Edinburgh provided him with the materials to write his six-volume work The History of England which became an instant bestseller. Hume is mostly regarded as a pivotal figure in the history of philosophy.

Hume saw philosophy as an experimental and inductive science of human nature. And he built his ideologies on the epistemology of John Locke and the scientific methods of Sir Isaac Newton. He was also against rationalism and the traditional concepts of causality. Furthermore, he offered compelling criticisms against the existence of God, and believed that humanity should reject religions that are founded on miracles. His major grouse against religion was the prevalence of miraculous events which he saw as false and ridiculous. Hume also tried to sever the tie between religion and philosophy. He believed that philosophy should be able to survive on its own without any influence from religion.

Today, Hume is recognized as the source of inspiration for the development of ethical theory in modern moral philosophy. In this article, we shall take a look at what Hume thinks about our external world:

What is the external world?

Before Hume came on the scene, most thinkers believed that humans could not perceive an external world directly, neither could we access it. Instead, we could only perceive our own experiences. Hume agreed with this logic, but he went further to apply the theory of meaning to this definition.

According to Hume, the external world means two things together. Firstly, it is supposed to be something which continues existing even when no one experiences it. And secondly, it is something that is distinct and separate from our experiences. Therefore, Hume saw the external world as an object that is continuously existing and also different from our experiences.

Proof of an external world

According to Hume, existing objects have a particular constancy attached to them. For example, a man looks outside his window and notices a dog, houses, and trees. If he closes his eyes for some time and then looks outside that same window again, he will still expect to see the same dog, houses, and trees. However, this constancy is not perfect because bodies do change position i.e. dog runs away, and would hardly be recognizable after some time. What the man saw in the later perception is the same in the sense of qualitative identity. Therefore, the only task remaining is to explain how the thoughts were able to decide that the perceptions are identical. Nevertheless, in spite of these changes, the perceived bodies still maintain coherence. Thus, according to Hume, the constancy of perception and the coherence between the individual perceptions are the foundations of the common sense belief that proves the existence of an existence world.

The external world is not in a constant state

According to Hume, humans are naturally conditioned to view successive impressions or occurrences as constant. This behavior then leads us to see any interrupted perceptions as the same because we conveniently ignore the numerical differences of time and place that occurs between them. On account of this, we regard these impressions to be the same because they closely resemble one another.

However, the interruption we see is contrary to an existence that is perfect and ongoing. We also perceive that the first impression has been destroyed and that a second impression has been created to take its place. Since this concept is difficult for the human mind to understand, we solve this by assuming that these interrupted perceptions are formed as a result of a real existence. The effects of constancy can best be described in two stages which are as follows:

  • First stage: At this stage, we have illusions that our perceptions are constant. We then attach a constant identity to the fleeting images that follows our perception and refer to it in the genitive form. For instance, when trying to identify the sound that comes with opening a door, we do not give an abstract description of the sound. Instead, we refer to it as a noise that comes from a door turning upon its hinges.
  • Second stage: The external objects are assumed to occur so as to reconstruct the interrupted experience of our perceptions.

The external world operates in a state of cohesion

To explain the natural inclination of humans to believe in the existence of an external world, Hume suggested that constancy should be combined with coherence. According to him, the internal impressions that occur in humans have certain regularity in their appearances. In a bid to explain this regularity in our experiences, the mind assumes that external objects exist. Furthermore, using the basis of our partial observance of the world, the mind then makes extended assumptions. Hume used an illustration that occurs every day to explain this concept. For example, while in his study, Hume hears a squeaking sound. A little while later, a porter came in to deliver a letter to him. Based on these two facts, his mind decides that the porter opened the front door, climbed the staircase and entered his study. He automatically believes that these events are facts even though he has not really seen them. With this example, Hume claims that the perceived events will only make sense if he assumes that he has a front door, even when he does not see it.


We have just studied the way David Hume viewed the concept of an external world. To him, the external world could be explained in terms of cohesion and constancy. In summary, he believed that in spite of popular opinions, the external world is cohesive even though it is not constant.

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