Hume’s Understanding of the Notion of Habit
David Hume was one of the first philosophers to point out the fact that a habit or custom could successfully replace all the first principles in their role of justification of human thoughts and behavior. In the everyday life, as he believed, it is exactly the same way as what happens. In particular, the habit or custom to think or act in a certain way serves as sufficient grounds for a further action. Moreover, thinking or acting out of any habit, which is not only the first but also most conservative understanding of practice, allegedly makes it possible to operate without a need for philosophical, logical, moral or other reasons. Nevertheless, the notion of custom described by Hume is an essential principle of human mind, which has contributed to the following development of philosophical ideas.
Hume has showed that, in terms of pure logic, any number of precedents could not be considered a sufficient ground for the conclusion implying as follows. The same sequence of events must be repeated. In fact, one cannot even infer that a probability of such an assumption increases with the number of repetitions. With respect to this logical thesis, Hume has posed a psychological question. It was related to the fact how it was possible that every intelligent person could be confident to expect that the sun would rise again the next day, the dropped stone would fall on the ground, and, in general, everything in the world would continue to happen in the same way as usual. The famous empiricist has answered this question by saying that it was a consequence of habit or a custom of habit. In other words, it is possible because repetitions activate the certain mechanism of association of ideas, without which, according to this researcher, people would be incapable of living.
The philosopher has defined habit as everything that “proceeds from a past repetition, without any new reasoning or conclusion”. Taking its shape on the basis of repeated recurrence of certain memories and acting unconsciously, the habit lends stability to the unstable and mutable content of experience of individuals. Moreover, thinking and acting out of habit, according to Hume, is a substitute for any form of causal explanation. To this end, representing, in the first place, a theory of knowledge, Hume’s philosophy is based on the primacy of feelings over reflection. Furthermore, one of the main awards of the Scottish thinker is the formulation and solution of the question about the origin of such basic concepts of scientific knowledge as substance and causality. Hume believed that human nature was inherent in the principle of association, the essence of which had been seen as transcendental. Besides that, when highlighting the three types of associations, including those by similarity, contiguity, and causality, Hume has regarded the habit to compare ideas as the base of the formation of the said basic concepts. According to the author, the assumption that the future is similar to the past is not based on any specific argument. However, it derives only from a habit, which is what makes a person anticipate the same sequence of objects or phenomena in the future to which the individual is accustomed. Not reflecting an actual situation, substance and causality are the concepts generated from processing of memories in people’s minds. While the notion of substance indicates that the subject, despite the change in its parameters, remains virtually the same one, and the hallmark of this concept is simultaneity, the idea of causality is associated with a sequence of memories.
Hume has described the genesis of the concept of a cause in the following way. The fixation of the fact of cyclic phenomena serves as a basis for the development of psychic association. According to the latter one, inside the human mind, the perception of the paradox A is followed by the emergence of the idea B. The facts confirming the repeated activity of this association lead to the formation of stable tendency or habit to expect the occurrence of A after B. Moreover, the habit transforms into the firm confidence that B will follow after A. As a result, people fall into the error of post hoc, ergo propter hoc, i.e. after this, therefore because of this. Furthermore, the habit and the elicited imagination grow into the belief as the tendency to believe that the repeated occurrence of A after B represents a causal relationship. In reality, there is no connection between the objects available to one’s observation. It is only by a means of the impact of habit on imagination rather than any other principle that one can deduce, based on the occurrence of a certain phenomenon and the conclusion about the existence of another. Therefore, Hume has argued that there could be no conclusive logical arguments as to whether the new cases would necessarily be identical to those that have repeatedly occurred to this day. Thus, the habit is the foundation of belief. Together, they are the important mechanisms of the formation of the idea of causality. In other words, they contribute to the adoption of an unaccountable rule stating that the same objects put in monotonous conditions will always create a similar effect.
Hume has believed that it was sufficient to expose the errors in the mechanism of a psychic activity of individuals, which usually led to the opposite opinion, in order to prove that there was no necessary repletion. The British agnostic did not particularly care about substantiating the guilt of the accused. He preferred to find weaknesses in the acquittal. It is safe to say that he did not follow the principle of presumption of innocence in his gnoseological arguments. Alternatively, Hume developed the same analysis of the structure of causality concept into his psychological study of the concept genesis of necessity. Moreover, he did not imply any methodological differences between psychological and gnoseological aspects of the research, since he considered it appropriate to develop the very theory of knowledge in purely psychological terms.
Therefore, according to Hume, to recognize causality means to believe in following the fact. Certain events A are repeatedly followed by the other B. However, the philosopher did not invest much hope in such a belief. Even if it reaches a degree of the firm conviction, such as when people see the smoke over the roof of a wooden house and are convinced in the following appearance of the flame, it is as follows. According to Hume, it is a type of the habitual setting of consciousness. Sometimes, it coincides with scientific beliefs. For example, after studying geography, i.e. going through the theoretical generalizations of the previous geographical experience, people believe that there are the mountains in South America. However, in its essence, such a setting is not related to scientific knowledge.
One can claim that Hume’s critique of causality is inconsistent with both logical, proper epistemological, and ontological points of view. A number of aspects in the logical arguments of the author of A Treatise of Human Nature lead to a vicious circle. It appears several times. When analyzing the genesis of the causality concept, Hume derived from the assumptions that the impression of A was the cause of the idea of A, as well as the impression of A and the idea of A were the causes leading the memory to the idea of B. In addition, the researcher came from the fact that the multiple repetitions of this association, as well as the overall laws of associations were the cause of formation for the corresponding habit. In the first part of his treatise, the philosopher examined the question about the reasons that had led people to believe in the existence of external bodies. However, the belief itself, as well as the associated habit and expectation, also play a role of causes. The concept of habit is pronounced as a kind of law of causality. In other words, habit, in the understanding of Hume, has precisely such features which he admitted as those that people usually ascribed to causes. In particular, the former one is the active force and the activity of imagination, attracting B to A in one’s mind. Consequently, people establish the signs of causality based on the properties of consciousness. Hence the way is how Kant understands of causality. On the other hand, a habit, as frequently reminded by Hume, always appears amazingly on time, as if it was thrown from above as some kinds of salvation anchor. It is the path to the revival of the idea of Leibniz’ pre-established harmony. It could be referred to, in this case, as the cause of appearance of habit.
In addition, Hume was forced to acknowledge the existence of causality in the main point of its criticism. It is related namely to the question of the gnoseological function of belief and habit. The former one makes the one assume that A is a cause of B and is, therefore, itself a cause. Hume has mentioned that habit determined the spirit to form the idea of the cause. He also has accepted as inevitable the premise about the causal conditionality of ideas, including the notion of causality, driven by experiences and habits. The same one goes for desires and aspirations that were seen as caused by emotions. It was regarded by Hume as a generally established fact of consciousness. The combination of these two provisions determines the philosopher’s approach to causality in ethics, civic history, and the history of religion. For instance, an individual’s ability to give pleasure is believed to be the true reason to love this person. The beauty and ugliness are seen as the causes of pleasure or disgust. The rewards and punishments encourage the appropriate actions. The property elicits the doings in respect of things included into it. Generally, Hume dreamed of ethics, history, politics, and political economy as of true science. However, it is impossible without the category of causality.
Nonetheless, one can argue that all of the above does not mean that the researcher’s criticism of the causality concept was entirely negative and provided nothing useful for the further development of philosophical thought. Indeed, it is not the case. In fact, the conducted analysis of the transition difficulties from the instinctive patterns of behavior and habits to the theoretical formulations of the laws of nature, in particular, the law of causality, is an undoubted merit of Hume’s theory. In addition, to a certain extent, it was, at the same time, an analysis of the transition difficulties from the observed sequence of events to the knowledge of relations in their essence. Hume has revealed the weaknesses in the metaphysical materialism interpretation of causality, and, unwittingly, the contradictions of phenomenalism being inevitably inherent in the attempts to solve this problem.
In conclusion, one should say that Hume has suggested the following approach to the genesis of the concept of causal necessity in the human mind. At first, one notes down the evidence of re-emergence of the phenomenon B after A. It serves as a basis of psychological association, namely, the perception of A, or its recollection in memory, is followed, in mind, by the emergence of B. The evidence of the repeated activity of this association leads to the formation of relatively stable tendency. It means the habit of thinking that, in the cases involving A, the subsequent appearance of B is to be taken for granted. This custom is transformed into the returning expectation or imagination implying that B will necessarily follow A in the future. The imagination turns into the belief, that is, a stable tendency to assume that the repeated occurrence of B after A is a causal link. Based on a theory of the existence of particular causal relationships, people start to believe in the truth of the general law of causality. Therefore, Hume’s concept of habit is not without controversy within his own theory and, in particular, in the very point of the alleged refutation of the causality law. However, the philosopher has discovered and assessed a rather important principle of human mind playing a productive role in the further development of philosophical thought.