Hume and cognitive science: The current status of the controversy over abstract ideas

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In Book I, Part I, Section VII of the Treatise, Hume sets out to settle, once and for all, the early modern controversy over abstract ideas. In order to do so, he tries to accomplish two tasks: (1) he attempts to defend an exemplar-based theory of general language and thought, and (2) he sets out to refute the rival abstraction-based account. This paper examines the successes and failures of these two projects. I argue that Hume manages to articulate a plausible theory of general ideas; indeed, a version of his account has defenders in contemporary cognitive science. But Hume fails to refute the abstraction-based account, and as a result, the early modern controversy ends in a stalemate, with both sides able to explain how we manage to speak and think in general terms. Although Hume fails to settle the controversy, he nevertheless advances it to a point from which we have yet to progress: the contemporary debate over abstract ideas in cognitive science has stalled on precisely this point.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)197-207
Number of pages11
JournalPhenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 2005
Externally publishedYes


  • Abstract ideas
  • Categorization
  • Cognitive science
  • Hume
  • Memory


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