, Volume 29, Issue 5, pp 541–559 | Cite as

Hume’s Conceivability Arguments Reconsidered

  • Bo ChenEmail author
  • Jingxian Liu
Original Paper


This paper examines Hume’s formulations and uses of the conceivability principle (abbreviated as CP: Whatever is conceivable is possible) and the inconceivability principle (abbreviated as ICP: Whatever is inconceivable is impossible). In Hume’s works, we identify different versions of CP and ICP, including proper CP, proper ICP, the weak versions of CP and ICP, the epistemic versions of CP and ICP, and show that Hume not only expresses ICP, but also really maintains it. Assuming an axiomatic characterization of modalities, we argue that if there is a sharp distinction between levels of modalities, then Hume’s conceivability arguments do not hold. But, in a rather different way, we also argue that if Hume’s conceivability arguments hold, then there should be no distinction between levels of modalities. Finally, we argue that after Hume, there are lots of endeavors in logic and philosophy to distinguish different levels of modalities, and to accept new concepts of necessity other than logical necessity.


The conceivability principle The conceivability argument Causality The uniformity of nature Inductive inference Skeptical argument 



Funding was provided by the National Social Science Fund (China) (Grant No. 17ZDA024).


  1. Casullo A (1979) Reid and Mill on Hume’s maxim of conceivability. Analysis 39(4):212–219CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Chen Bo (2005) Philosophy of Logic [in Chinese]. Peking University Press, Beijing.Google Scholar
  3. Dohrn D (2010) Hume on knowledge of metaphysical modalities. In: Meixner U, Newen A (eds) Logical analysis and history of philosophy, Volume 13, David Hume: epistemology and metaphysics. Mentis, Paderborn, pp 39–59Google Scholar
  4. Garrett D (2008) Hume’s theory of ideas. In: Radcliffe ES (ed) A companion to Hume. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, pp 41–57Google Scholar
  5. Gendler TS, Hawthorne J (eds) (2002) Conceivability and possibility. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  6. Hartmann N (1938, 2013) Possibility and actuality. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin, 2013 (Translation by Alex Scott and Stephanie Adair of Möglichkeit und Wirklichkeit, 1938)Google Scholar
  7. Hetherington SC (1991) Conceivability and modal knowledge. In: Horowitz T (ed) Thought experiments in science and philosophy. Rowman & Littlefield, LanhamGoogle Scholar
  8. Hume D (1935) Dialogues concerning natural religion. Clarendon Press, Oxford. For example, citation DNR 2.12 appears in the Dialogue, part two, paragraph twelveGoogle Scholar
  9. Hume D (1938) An abstract of a treatise of human nature 1740: a pamphlet hitherto unknown. At the University Press, Cambridge. For example, citation A 27 appears in the Abstract, Paragraph twenty-sevenGoogle Scholar
  10. Hume D (1975) A treatise of human nature. edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge, 2nd edn. revised by P. H. Nidditch, Clarendon Press, Oxford. For example, citation T appears in the Treatise, book one, part three, section fourteen, paragraph thirty-oneGoogle Scholar
  11. Hume D (2000) An enquiry concerning human understanding. edited by Tom L. Beauchamp, Clarendon Press, Oxford. For example, citation EHU 7.29 appears in the Enquiry, part seven, paragraph twenty-nineGoogle Scholar
  12. Kail P (2003) Conceivability and modality in Hume: a lemma in an argument in defense of skeptical realism. Hume Stud 26(1):43–61CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Lightner DT (1997) Hume on conceivability and inconceivability. Hume Stud 23:113–132CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Powell L (2013) How to Avoid Misreading Hume’s Maxim of Conceivability. Philos Q 63(250):105–119CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Putnam H (1992) Realism with a human face. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  16. Read R, Richman KA (eds) (2000) The New Hume Debate. Routledge, LondonGoogle Scholar
  17. Woudenberg RV (2006) Conceivability and modal knowledge. Metaphilosophy 37(2):210–221CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyPeking UniversityBeijingChina
  2. 2.College of Philosophy and Public AdministrationLiaoning UniversityShenyangChina

Personalised recommendations