Skip to main content

Meaning(fullness) Without Metaphysics: Another Look at Hume’s “Meaning Empiricism”


Although Hume has no developed semantic theory, in the heyday of analytic philosophy he was criticized for his “meaning empiricism,” which supposedly committed him to a private world of ideas, led him to champion a genetic account of meaning instead of an analytic one, and confused “impressions” with “perceptions of an objective realm.” But another look at Hume’s “meaning empiricism” reveals that his criterion for cognitive content, the cornerstone both of his resolutely anti-metaphysical stance and his naturalistic “science of human nature,” provides the basis for a successful response to his critics. Central to his program for reforming philosophy, Hume’s use of the criterion has two distinct aspects: a critical or negative aspect, which assesses the content of the central notions of metaphysical theories to demonstrate their unintelligibility; and a constructive or positive aspect, which accurately determines the cognitive content of terms and ideas.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  • Ardal, P. (1977). Convention and value. In G. P. Morice (Ed.), David Hume: bicentenary papers (pp. 51–68). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bennett, J. (2000). Learning from six philosophers. Oxford: Clarendon.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bennett, J. (2001). Empiricism about meanings. In P. Millican (Ed.), Reading Hume on human understanding (pp. 97–106). Oxford: Clarendon.

    Google Scholar 

  • Broughton, J. (1992). What does the scientist of man observe. Human Studies, 18(2), 155–168.

    Google Scholar 

  • Greig, J. Y. T. (Ed.) (1932). The letters of David Hume. Oxford: Clarendon.

  • Hume, D. (1975). An enquiry concerning human understanding. Edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge and P. Nidditch. Oxford: Clarendon.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hume, D. (1978). A treatise of human nature. Edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge and P. Nidditch. Oxford: Clarendon.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mackie, J. L. (1980). Hume’s moral theory. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to William Edward Morris.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Morris, W.E. Meaning(fullness) Without Metaphysics: Another Look at Hume’s “Meaning Empiricism”. Philosophia 37, 441–454 (2009).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Hume
  • Meaning empiricism
  • Bennett
  • Cognitive content
  • Abstract ideas
  • Intelligibility