Superphysics Superphysics
Section 1

The Origin of Our Ideas

by David Hume Icon
4 minutes  • 697 words
Table of contents

All Simple Ideas Initially Come from Simple Impressions as Sensory Perceptions and Feelings

All the perceptions of the human mind resolve themselves into:

  • Impressions
  • Ideas

Their difference is the degrees of force and liveliness in which they:

  • strike the mind, and
  • enter into our consciousness.

‘Impressions’ are perceptions which enter with most force and violence.

  • This includes all our sensations and feelings as they first appear to the soul.

‘Ideas’ are the faint images of impressions in the process of thinking and reasoning. Examples are all the perceptions except:

  • those from the sight and touch, and
  • the immediate pleasure or uneasiness caused by those perceptions from sight and touch.

Everyone can perceive the difference between feeling and thinking. But sometimes, they seem like the same thing.

Our ideas may seem like our impressions when we:

  • have dreams
  • have fever
  • have madness, or
  • have very violent emotions of the soul

Sometimes, our impressions are so faint and low that we cannot distinguish them from our ideas. Despite their near resemblance, they are generally very different.

No one can make a scruple to:

  • rank them under distinct heads, and
  • assign a name to each to mark the difference*

*I use ‘impression’ and ‘idea’ in a different sense from the usual. I am restoring the word ‘idea’ to its original sense from which John Locke had perverted it. He made it stand for all our perceptions. ‘Impression’ does not mean how our lively perceptions are produced in the soul. It merely means the perceptions themselves.

Simple and Complex Perceptions

Our perceptions are also divided into:

  • simple perceptions, and
    • These are impressions and ideas that are distinct and cannot be separated.
  • complex perceptions.
    • These can be separated into parts.


This apple has a combination of a colour, taste, and smell. But it is easy to perceive that such qualities are distinguishable from each other.

There is a great resemblance between our impressions and ideas, except in their degree of force and vivacity.

The one seems to reflect the other. This makes all the perceptions of the mind:

  • become double, and
  • appear both as impressions and ideas.

When I close my eyes and think of my room, the ideas I form are exact representations of the impressions that I felt. There is nothing in the one that is not found in the other.

In running over my other perceptions, I still find the same resemblance and representation.

Ideas and impressions always appear to correspond to each other. To me, this seems remarkable.

After a more accurate survey, I find that:

  • I have been carried away too far by the first appearance.
  • I must distinguish simple and complex perceptions to limit the general opinion that all our ideas and impressions resemble.
    • Many of our complex ideas never had impressions that corresponded to them.
    • Many of our complex impressions never are exactly copied in ideas.

I can imagine a city called ‘New Jerusalem’, with gold pavements and ruby walls even if I never saw it.

I have seen Paris.

  • But I can never create an idea of Paris that has all its streets and houses in their real proportions.

As a general rule, our complex impressions and ideas resemble greatly.

  • But this rule is not universally true: they are exact copies of each other.

On the other hand, the rule on simple perceptions holds has no exception.

  • Every simple idea has a resembling simple impression.
  • Every simple impression has a correspondent idea.

Our idea of red, which we form in the dark, and the red which strikes our eyes in sunshine, differ only in degree, not in nature.

It is impossible to prove that the case is the same with all our simple impressions and ideas by enumerating them.

  • Everyone can run over as many as he pleases.

But if anyone denies this universal resemblance, I do not know how to convince him, but by asking him to show:

  • a simple impression that has no correspondent idea, or
  • a simple idea, that has no correspondent impression.

He cannot answer this.

  • We may establish our conclusion from his silence and our own observation.

Thus, we find that all simple ideas and impressions resemble each other.

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