Hume’s “projectivism” explained


Hume appeals to a mysterious mental process to explain how to world appears to possess features that are not present in sense perceptions, namely causal, moral, and aesthetic properties. He famously writes that the mind spreads itself onto the external world, and that we stain or gild natural objects with our sentiments. Projectivism is founded on these texts but it assumes a reading of Hume’s language as merely metaphorical. This assumption, however, conflicts sharply with the important explanatory role that “spreading” and “staining” are supposed to play, which, ironically, is the very appeal of Hume’s texts to projectivists. In this paper, I first consider the difficulties readers of Hume have encountered in their attempts to ascertain nature of the key psychological process. I then identify in Hume’s texts novel theoretical resources that allow Hume to produce a satisfying answer to the question of process, that is, an account of the precise nature of the key process. I offer this explanation assuming what I take to be Hume’s austere conception of the elements involved in the process: sense impressions and “internal impressions” lacking intrinsic intentionality. On my reading, the spreading process explains the gap between the meager input and the rich, novel output: causal, moral and aesthetic judgments.

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  1. 1.

    References to the Treatise are to Hume (2011), hereafter cited as "T" followed by Book, part, section, and paragraph numbers. References to the second Enquiry are to Hume (1998), hereafter cited as “EPM” followed by section and paragraph numbers.

  2. 2.

    References to the first Enquiry are to Hume (2006), hereafter cited as “EHU” followed by section and paragraph numbers.

  3. 3.

    In this paper I shall treat "spreading", "staining", "applying" and other such terms as referring to one and the same process. Not everyone accepts this approach. R. N. Sainsbury, for instance, defends the view that the process of spreading is different from the process of staining because the former produces mistaken beliefs while the latter does not. I disagree with this reading. First, I don't think that mental processes, in general, should be distinguished solely based on the fact that their products have different truth-values. But second, I reject Sainsbury's claim that one process leads to error while the other does not. Sainsbury (1998).

  4. 4.

    Joyce adds this footnote: “Simon Blackburn is also no doubt aware of the metaphorical status of references to “projection,” yet (in my opinion) he has done little to replace the metaphor with a precise literal hypothesis. On at least one occasion he confesses that “projectivism” is not an entirely happy term for the position he has so frequently advocated (Blackburn 1993, p. 36; Joyce 2009).”

  5. 5.

    For instance, Jonas Olson, referring in particular to “moral phenomenology” writes: “To say that we experience moral properties as objective features of the world, I shall assume, is to say that we experience them as mind-independent.” Olson (2011), p. 22.

  6. 6.

    McDowell (1998), p. 151.

  7. 7.

    Joyce (2009), p. 64.

  8. 8.

    Joyce (2009), p. 55.

  9. 9.

    Kail (2007), p. 4.

  10. 10.

    Kail (2007), pp. 27–28.

  11. 11.

    Kail (2007), p. 4.

  12. 12.

    McDowell (1998), p. 154. He argues that “the response that […] is projected onto the world can be characterized, without phenomenological falsification, otherwise than in terms of seeming to find the supposed product of projection already there.” McDowell (1998), p. 185 and 143. In an earlier paper, McDowell (1985), he outlines some criteria for an explanation to count as projectivist.

  13. 13.

    Kail attempts to answer this question by identifying different uses of the metaphor of projection, for instance, Freudian projection, passage of time as changes in beliefs, Feuerbach’s account of the projection of the Christian God. Kail considers these to be “different modes” of projection. Kail (2007), p. 27. But he defends a view of projection as commitment outlining criteria to determine when a commitment counts as a case of projection. Kail (2007), p. 49. Kail does not account for our realist or objectivist phenomenology.

  14. 14.

    Stroud (1993).

  15. 15.

    This is because the psychological explanation of appearances and beliefs and suppositions in general, but especially those central to the other sciences, is essentially what Hume’s science of the mind aims to achieve, and does achieve, in many cases. For discussion of such successful cases see Boehm (2012).

  16. 16.

    Stroud (1993), p. 258.

  17. 17.

    I do so in Boehm (2018).

  18. 18.

    There is a vast literature on the fascinating question of the intentionality of these internal impressions and passions in general for Hume. In a famous passage, Hume describes the passions are lacking representative character and as being “original existences” (T I present the full passage later in the body of the paper. A natural reading of this passage suggests that for Hume passions lack intentionality. A more sophisticated school of thought argues that for Hume passions only lack intrinsic intentionality, but they are extrinsically intentional. Ardal (1989), Cohon (1994), Cohon and Owen (1997), Garrett (2006), Schmitter (2008). Against this influential position, Hsueh Qu defends an intrinsic account of intentionality, which he attempts to cohere with the simplicity of the passions. Qu (2012). Jason Fisette argued that passions are compounds with only certain parts lacking intentionality, namely emotions. Fisette (2017). Amyas Merivale offers a very helpful and exceptionally clear discussion of the difference between representative power and intentionality, and intrinsic and extrinsic intentionality. Merivale (2019), pp. 128–144. Also consider reading his (2009).

  19. 19.

    Stroud (1993), p. 260.

  20. 20.

    Stroud elaborates on the problem further: “The same would be true of the disgust or displeasure we might experience when observing an act of willful murder, or the pleasure we might get from seeing a great painting, if they too are on Hume’s view just impressions or feelings of certain distinctive kinds. To try to predicate them of the objects that cause them would be to ascribe a feeling or impression to an act of murder or to a painting. And that is absurd. The impression or feeling that Hume says comes into the mind when we see objects of one kind constantly followed by objects of another kind would also on that view be yet another distinctive impression. Like a pain, it would be simply an impression or feeling of a cer-tain kind which differs in directly perceivable ways from impressions of other kinds. What distinguishes them in each case would be perceivable or felt qualities of the impressions themselves. Those same qualities which serve to distinguish one kind of impression or feeling from another therefore could not also be thought to be qualities of external objects, any more than the pain we feel or the painfulness of a painful sensation is something that could be a quality of an external object. If impressions of something are understood in that way-as we speak of a “sensation of pain’’ then what they are impres-sions of is not something that could also be thought to be quality of an object.” Stroud (1993), p. 262.

  21. 21.

    Stroud (1993), p. 262.

  22. 22.

    Joyce (2009), p. 58.

  23. 23.

    References to the Natural History of Religion are to Hume (2007), hereafter cited as "NHR" followed by Section and paragraph numbers.

  24. 24.

    I am grateful to one of my reviewers for inviting me to consider this passage in Natural Religion.

  25. 25.

    Craig (2000), p. 114.

  26. 26.

    Marusic (2014). Harold Noonan illuminates the incoherence that results from such reading with a vivid illustration of his own. Suppose, he says, that a song causes one to feel sad. The spreading of the sadness onto the song would amount to judging that the song itself feels sad. Noonan (1999).

  27. 27.

    The same passage I quoted above from Natural Religion, includes the following: “Hence the frequency and beauty of the prosopopœia in poetry; where trees, mountains and streams are personified, and the inanimate parts of nature acquire sentiment and passion. And though these poetical figures and expressions gain not on the belief, they may serve, at least, to prove a certain tendency in the imagination, without which they could neither be beautiful nor natural” (NHR 3.2). Hume points out that poems sometimes personify nature for artistic effect, to produce or enhance their beauty. The personification of nature in this case, as Hume remarks, does not produce belief: neither the poet nor the reader or the listener believe that trees and mountains feel any emotion. This passage, however, might raise another question: Does the personification of nature process underwrite the perception of beauty? I don’t think so. What Hume is saying here is that a poem sometimes gains its beauty because it personifies nature. The object of beauty is a poem and its personification of nature. But Hume is not claiming that our perception of beauty is itself a case of personification of nature. I am thankful to one of my reviewers for bringing up this passage.

  28. 28.

    One of my reviewers has invited me to comment on this suggestion.

  29. 29.

    I am again responding to a reviewer.

  30. 30.

    The following text seems indicative of Hume’s views about sensible qualities “It is universally allowed by modern enquirers, that all the sensible qualities of objects, such as hard, soft, hot, cold, white, black, &c. are merely secondary, and exist not in the objects themselves, but are perceptions of the mind, without any external archetype or model, which they represent” (EHU 12.15).

  31. 31.

    Stroud (1993), p. 261. Kenneth Winkler has recently cast doubt on the view that Hume endorses the implications of the modern philosophical view of sensory qualities. Winkler (2011).

  32. 32.

    Blackburn (1993), p. 279.

  33. 33.

    Stroud (1993), p. 260.

  34. 34.

    Other places where Hume endorses this principle are T, T, Abs. 11.

  35. 35.

    Blackburn (1993), p. 279.

  36. 36.

    Blackburn (1993), p. 287.

  37. 37.

    Demeter (2016).

  38. 38.

    References to Hume’s Essays are to Miller (1985), hereafter cited as EMPL followed by page number.

  39. 39.

    I don't think this is controversial in Hume scholarship. After all, for Hume the judgement “God is,” to use his own example to make precisely this very point is a matter of having an idea before the mind (T

  40. 40.

    Hume identifies belief as inherent in sense impressions: “Thus it appears, that the belief or assent, which always attends the memory and senses, is nothing but the vivacity of those perceptions they present; and that this alone distinguishes them from the imagination. To believe is in this case to feel an immediate impression of the senses, or a repetition of that impression in the memory. 'Tis merely the force and liveliness of the perception, which constitutes the first act of the judgment…” (T

  41. 41.

    For Hume, judgements are “nothing but particular ways of conceiving our objects. Whether we consider a single object, or several; whether we dwell on these objects, or run from them to others; and in whatever form or order we survey them, the act of the mind exceeds not a simple conception; and the only remarkable difference, which occurs on this occasion, is, when we join belief to the conception, and are perswaded of the truth of what we conceive” (T

  42. 42.

    Numerous passages support such a thesis. For instance: "no object can appear to the senses; or in other words, that no impression can become present to the mind, without being determin'd in its degrees both of quantity and quality” (T I discuss other cases and the question of the relation between perceptions and objects in Boehm (2013).

  43. 43.

    The passage above was almost randomly chosen; there are countless such passages.

  44. 44.

    Cohon (2012), pp. 122–123.

  45. 45.

    I can't say more because this is work in progress. I will clarify, however, that I do take Hume to consider the philosophical position, according to which causal, aesthetic, and moral properties are original to a mind-independent world to be fundamentally mistaken. One reviewer has asked me to comment on Hume's assertion that we approve of virtues because of their utility. This seems to be a good place to comment on this. I take the account I have offered here to explain only our perception of CAM properties as objective properties. The approval of what one perceives to be virtuous, or other qualities, would involve a second-order or meta-level approach. I might perceive x to be virtuous, but on reflection disapprove of it. I might perceive the painting as beautiful but revise my judgement upon learning about the content of the painting. Additionally, a more elaborate account is required to distinguish the uneducated perception of the painting as beautiful from the expert’s perception, and this in turn with the attribution of beauty to the painting by agreement of experts.

  46. 46.

    I am much obliged to Tamas Demeter for revealing to me the influence of chemistry on Hume’s thinking and its significance. I am indebted to Bill Bristow for reading too many versions and drafts of this paper. I thank Don Garrett for very thorough comments on a previous, much muddier version of this paper, Hsueh Qu for useful comments, and Jonathan Cottrell for lively discussion on the subjects of this paper. I am also grateful to my graduate student Selim Utku Ogut, for pointed and helpful questions. And finally, I thank the two excellent reviewers at Synthese and its editors.


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Boehm, M. Hume’s “projectivism” explained. Synthese (2020).

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  • Hume
  • Projectivism
  • Spreading the mind
  • Gilding and staining
  • Phenomenology
  • Objectivity
  • Chemistry
  • Moral judgments
  • Aesthetic judgements
  • Causal judgments
  • Passions
  • Original existence
  • Stroud
  • Blackburn
  • Joyce