The Passions

Class notes for 8 February

Main points

Book 1 is about thoughts about how things are: belief, in a word. Books 2 and 3 are about thoughts about how we want the world to be: these are the passions. Today’s class was a brief overview of Hume’s theory of the passions.

Hume distinguishes between the direct and indirect passions. His discussion of the former is quite brief and I should have put it on the syllabus: it is in

The indirect passions involve principles of association in a way that the direct passions do not. Parts 1 and 2 of Book 2 argue that there is one explanatory model that fits them all: the double relationship between impressions and ideas.

Specifically, Part 1 is about the self-directed passions of pride and humility and Part 2 is about the other-directed passions of love and hate. Pride and love are positive feelings, humility and hate are negative.

Humility might be a little difficult for us to understand since I think we tend to regard it as a good thing but that is clearly not what Hume meant. Think “humiliation” rather than the virtue of “Christian humility.” Actually, come to think of it, Hume might have had both in mind. Hmm, must look at 2.1.7.

In any event, here are the indirect passions.

The Indirect Passions
self others
Impression pleasant pride love
painful humility hatred

The objects of the indirect passions (self, others) are different from their causes (good character, nice clothes, swell relatives, etc.). So explaining why we have them has to involve the psychological association of the causes and the object.

Hume claims that there are two associations: one between the cause and the object of the passion and the other between the positive or negative impression of the cause and the positive or negative passion.

This “double association of impressions and ideas” is said to characterize all of the indirect passions. Parts 1 and 2 of Book 2 are devoted to showing that this is so.

Causes vs. objects

Most of our discussion concerned Hume’s distinction between the cause of a passion and its object. Hume claimed that one cannot have both a positive (pride, love) and a negative (humility, hatred) passion towards one object at the same time. Megan challenged him on this point, noting that you can love and hate the same thing.

I said that I thought that Megan’s observation is compatible with Hume’s main point, that the causes of the respective passions have to be different. For the general point about causation, see 1.3.15 paragraphs 3-4, 6.

However, Hume’s own way of making the point went in the other direction. He said that since two different passions have the same object (self or others), it follows that the object cannot be the cause. His reasoning involves the point that you can’t have contrary passions at the same time, but Megan’s observation seems to show that he’s just wrong about that.

Maybe he would try to get out of it with some trickery about how the two passions alternate with one another. Megan’s description of the way things are seems more accurate to me, though. So, for my money, we did a better job of illustrating his position than he did. Look at and judge for yourself.

… and the distinction between direct and indirect passions

It only occurred to me during class that the distinction between the direct and indirect passions might be that the objects of the direct passions are their causes while for the indirect passions the objects and causes are different. Having looked briefly at the text, I was a bit more than half right. Which is a bit less than half of a relief. But not by much.

It seems to me that Hume had a way of distinguishing between the direct and indirect passions that did not correspond perfectly with what he said. The official story is that all passions are derived from the sensory, original impressions, particularly those of pain and pleasure (

For the direct passions that fit this official description, the responsive passions, what I said about the difference between cause and object is correct. Here is a passage that illustrates the point.

a suit of fine cloaths produces pleasure from their beauty; and this pleasure produces the direct passions, or the impressions of volition and desire. Again, when these cloaths are considered as belonging to ourself, the double relation conveys to us the sentiment of pride, which is an indirect passion; and the pleasure which attends that passion returns back to the direct affections, and gives new force to our desire or volition, joy or hope. (

As I read this passage, a fine suit produces the direct passion of desire, meaning that I want the suit. The suit is both the cause of my desire and its object, meaning it is what my desire is directed towards.

If I own the suit, I will also have the indirect passion of pride. I will take pleasure in how fine the suit is and, because the idea of the suit is associated with my idea of myself (by virtue of belonging to me, a relation that, for Hume, involves causation, one of the three natural relations), I have the pleasant feeling about myself that is pride.

However, some of the direct passions do not fit the official story. Hume noticed that there are some passions that are not derived from sensory, original impressions. These are what I called the productive passions. They include the impulses that make us feel the pain of hunger and the pleasure of eating. Among other things. See

There are three things to say about the productive passions.

First, they weren’t in the reading on the syllabus. So if you’re wondering where they came up in the reading, you’re right. Read and all will be well.

Second, the causes of these passions are different from their objects. What I have a passion for is food. But the cause of that passion is the impulse or instinct whose explanation lies beyond the scope of the science of man. The science of man is restricted to explaining the relations among perceptions (impressions and ideas) and impulses or instincts are not themselves perceptions, though they can cause perceptions.

Third, Katie scored a point on Hume that is worth noting. She said that some of the passions on the list of direct passions can be caused by ideas of their objects. Thinking about an amorous encounter can cause me to have a passion for an amorous encounter. True! The most that Hume can get is that the passions on his list of productive passions are sometimes caused by something other than their objects. Still, that may be enough to distinguish them from the other direct passions.

Character and the idea of the self

Pride and humility involve an idea of the self. That appears to be in tension with what we learned from 1.4.6. Compare with 1.4.6 paragraphs 4-5 and 15-16.

Well, maybe not. Maybe pride really does involve a pleasant feeling about a heap of perceptions. He gamely tries to say that in 2.1.2. Or maybe he had some other distinction in mind: he had told us that “we must distinguish betwixt personal identity, as it regards our thought or imagination, and as it regards our passions or the concern we take in ourselves” (, though it would have been awfully nice if he had explained what he was thinking.

Anyway, there is a mini-industry in the secondary literature of attempts to explain all of this. I’m not sure there is an answer. Even great philosophers sometimes fail to fit everything together, after all. But I don’t want to pursue the point.

However, I do have a question. Why do we need to associate the thought of our good or bad character with our idea of the self? Wouldn’t my character be part of whatever I think my self is? If so, why would I have to associate the two? That is, why would I think that there are two things such that they would have to be associated with one another in my mind? Why isn’t the one the idea of part of the other?

Hume was impressed by his ability to explain all of the causes of pride with his double association story (see for the list). So he probably thought that thinking I have a good character ought to work like the other causes of pride and the other indirect passions.

But character looks different to me. What is more, Hume himself will give it a special place in his account of human freedom. See,

Passions and feeling

One interesting thing about the passions is that Hume did not resort to identifying them in terms of their distinctive feelings.

On the contrary, he identified pride as a feeling about a particular kind of object (myself) with a particular kind of cause (something that I think is good and that I associate with my idea of my self).

… by pride I understand that agreeable impression, which arises in the mind, when the view either of our virtue, beauty, riches, or power, makes us satisfied with ourselves … (

Contrast the way he identified belief and memory in terms of a distinctive feeling.