Critique of Hume's Analysis of Causality
Hume's analyses of human apprehension and of causality were the most penetrating up to his time and continue to have great influence. Contemporary Spanish philosopher Xavier Zubiri (1893-1983) has examined both and identified three underlying errors: (1) the failure to recognize that there are three stages of human intellection, and especially that the first, primordial apprehension, has quite unique characteristics; (2) the attempt to place an excessive burden on the content of impressions while ignoring what Zubiri terms their 'formality of reality'; and (3) the failure to recognize that functionality, not causality, is the basis for most of our knowledge. Causal chains in general cannot be adequately known, and therefore are not and cannot be the basis of our knowledge of the external world. Only in the area of persons and morality does causality play a critical role.
Causality has been a pivotal concept in the history of philosophy since the time of the Ancient Greeks. After David Hume, however, many have questioned whether there is (or can be) any metaphysical meaning of causality, or valid inferences based upon it. Xavier Zubiri (1898-1983) has rethought and reformulated the question of causality in light of its historical roles, well-known criticisms, and relevant contemporary knowledge. In doing so, he has achieved a unique perspective on the subject which should be of great interest to those concerned with causality and any of its applications.
II. Hume's critique of causality
The figure of David Hume looms large in the philosophical tradition of English-speaking countries; and his two famous analyses, of human apprehension and of causality, were the most penetrating up to his time, and continue to have great influence. As the culmination of British empiricism, Hume's work is especially important because he realized the importance of analyzing human apprehension both as a step in the development of a comprehensive philosophy, and in connection with the problem of causality. This task Hume undertook in his Treatise of Human Nature, Book I. In Part IV, he is concerned to establish a reason or explanation for our belief in the independent and continuing existence of external things or 'bodies', for upon this all causal reasoning about such things must ultimately rest. As is well known, Hume argues that such belief must either come from the senses, reason, or what he terms 'imagination'; and he dismisses the first two, leaving only the last, where he attributes the belief to coherence and constancy of impressions. (1)
For the present study, details of Hume's argument are not as important as his basic assumptions. One of those assumptions, never explicitly stated but always lurking just beneath the surface, is that all reasoning and understanding of the external world comes from the mind working on the content of sensible impressions, be they pains, pleasures, colors,...