Hume versus the vulgar on resistance, nisus, and the impression of power

Philosophical Studies 172 (2):305-319 (2015)
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In the first Enquiry, Hume takes the experience of exerting force against a solid body to be a key ingredient of the vulgar idea of power, so that the vulgar take that experience to provide us with an impression of power. Hume provides two arguments against the vulgar on this point: the first concerning our other applications of the idea of power and the second concerning whether that experience yields certainty about distinct events. I argue that, even if we accept Hume’s conception of the vulgar’s approach, neither of Hume’s arguments succeeds. The first argument can be resisted either by using the very arguments Hume provides concerning other causal representations or by simply rejecting Hume’s strict empiricism. The second argument can be resisted on epistemological grounds: there is no reason to think that an experience of a maximally-strong metaphysical connection would provide a maximally-strong epistemological connection. Unlike some recent neo-Anscombean responses to the second argument, my response does not require challenging Hume’s view that causal relations are strictly necessary. Though I do not attempt to translate the resilience of the vulgar view into contemporary terms, the failure of Hume’s arguments challenges one of the long-standing motivations for Humean approaches to causation.

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Colin Marshall
University of Washington


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