Reply to Flage's On Friedman's Look

Hume Studies 19 (1):199-202 (1993)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Reply to Flage Lesley Friedman "The chiefexercise of the memory," Hume tells us, "is not to preserve the simple ideas, but their order and position."1 On Daniel Flage's interpretation ofHume, however, it is the only exercise ofthe memory (1985a, 1985b, 1990). Flage's account can accommodate onlymemories of complex ideas; he disallows the possibility of 'preserving* a simple idea in its simplicity. Yet there is an example of a purely simple impression in the Treatise; and since for every impression there is in principle a corresponding idea which we can later recall, this example establishes the existence of a purely simple memory-idea. In what follows I will provide support for this claim, Flage's counterarguments (this volume) notwithstanding. Flage argues that given any perceived object, say a coloured dot, there is a visual field in which we perceive it. This field and the impression we receive from it, "must be a complex impression, that is, an impression that is composed of indefinitely many colour points. In this respect it is analogous to a pointillist painting or, to use a more contemporary example, a computer array composed of pixels" (1993, 190). Flage is probably right about this; from our point of view, it is implausible to suggest that there is any purely simple background, or worse, that there is no impression ofa background at all. Nonetheless, my concern is with what Hume thought and not with what is plausible orimplausible; and Hume does give an example ofa "background" that is notcomplex, namely, the scenarioinwhichwe perceive points oflight in darkness. We may observe, that when two bodies present themselves, where there wasformerly an entire darkness, the onlychange, that is discoverable, is in the appearance ofthese two objects, and that all the rest continues to be as before, a perfect negation oflight, and of every colour'd or visible object. This is not only true of what may be said to be remote from these bodies, but also of the very distance; which is interpos'd betwixt them; that being nothing but darkness, or the negation of light; without parts, without composition, invariable and indivisible. (T 57, bold italics added) I originally considered the ink spot experiment and theidea ofred in the dark as examples ofpurely simple impressions. Let me try this Volume XLX Number 1 199 LESLEYFRIEDMAN again, elaborating a bit more on the latter (what I take to be Hume's example of a version of the ink spot experiment). Early on in the Treatise Hume speaks of"that idea ofred which we form in the dark" (T 3). Let us then consider a red spot in complete darkness. Flage and I agree that this spot is qualitatively simple. Our disagreement is rooted in the nature ofthe "background," in this case the darkness. Flage claims that "the sighted-person sitting in the dark has an impression or impressions, namely, an impression of darkness" (1993, 190); and therefore the impression we have of the spot of red in darkness is not purely simple. In support of this claim he cites the followingevidence: Hume's remarks that (1) "the sighted-person sitting in the dark "receives no other perception... than what is common to him with one born blind' " (ibid., 189; T 55-56), and (2) "the idea of utter darkness can never be the same with that of vacuum" (T 56). Let me take each ofthese in turn. Presumably, the first quote is cited in order to estabUsh that the blind person does indeed have a perception (impression) of darkness. This cannot be right; ifsuch a person had an impression ofdarkness, he would also have an idea of darkness, and if we look to the part of the sentence which Flage leaves out of his quotation, we find the following: "and 'tis certain such-a-one [that is, a blind person] has no idea either of light or darkness" (T 56). Hume's point is simple: the reason that the blind person has no idea ofdarkness is because he has no impression of darkness; and we are in the same position as him when we are sitting in the dark. Nor does the second quote provide evidence for the...

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