HUME’S FORK I
COPPER DRYPOINT print & ACCOMPANYING ESSAY
BY AMY HILEY
The term ‘Hume's Fork’ refers to David Hume’s epistemological theory that all concepts are divisible into two distinct categories: ‘relations of ideas’ and ‘matters of fact’, and that genuine knowledge may only be derived from the those concepts identified as the latter.
Hume defines ‘relations of ideas’ as purely analytic concepts, knowable only a priori. They are ideas relating to ideas alone. No original “sense-impression” serves to anchor these concepts to an empirical world, or to any kind of certainty beyond the intuitive or demonstrative kind. Instead, an endless internal cycle, that is not influenced or directed by any dealings with external “reality”, is formed. Only necessary, self-evident truths can be uncovered in this way, and while these may appear to the thinker to reveal the path to the stable and indubitable elements of true knowledge, they are nonetheless framed as the “meaningless” prong of the fork on account of their failure to provide anything other than empirically unverifiable - or irrelevant - claims.
By contrast, ‘matters of fact’ are rooted in experience and the senses. They are acquired directly, and so avoid entering the beginningless chain of analytic, a priori reasoning, providing instead the concepts from which synthetic, a posteriori knowledge claims can be built. The truth of these claims is contingent upon the way the ‘real world’ is and cannot be established by demonstration. They are therefore never self-evident, making them relevant - or meaningful - in empirical terms, irrespective of their truth value.
In the artwork, Hume’s ‘fork’ is given the literal form of a tuning fork, whose narrow, almost identical prongs pinpoint the two ‘worlds’ of ideas which represent the two categories of concepts. Meanwhile, an authoritative, disembodied hand attempts to elucidate the truly direct, idealised way to reality - empirical reality. But this route, though seemingly avoiding futility and the abstract knot of relations of ideas, is no less indirect, again mirrored literally in the pointer’s angular guidelines. The central mass of figures with their imperfect, human qualities and intertwined togetherness, is contrasted with the precise, mechanical nature of this spiritless alternative.
The empirically untethered chain of ‘relations of ideas’ is represented by the endless, futile peering of ideas into other ideas, or minds into other minds. These minds, in figurative form, are depicted as searching for certainty in the minds of their neighbours, seeking meaning and knowledge mistakenly in those other mental worlds that are made up merely of further ‘relations of ideas’ just as reflexive as their own. This ‘world’ that they are interpreting as real and true is nothing more than the conceptual world inside their neighbour’s head; the world of the next step in a sequence of a priori reasoning. For empiricists, this is too far removed from the objectively existing, sensible world to be considered a source of meaning, and since innate truths are considered non-existent, there is no ground at all to which the analytic sequence can anchor itself.
The second category of concepts is represented by the one who looks outside. A single enquiring mind breaks the chaotic, cyclical mass of ‘relations’, directing the search for certainty - or barrel of the telescope - outwards into that space which, somewhere, contains the one ‘real world’ from which all knowledge can be derived. In this world, matters of fact lie ready to be uncovered through experience of ‘impressions’ received directly by the senses. But this singular outward-looking mind, however radical within its contextual confines, is not in a position to bring that one ‘real’ world into view and looks towards it only indirectly. In the imagery, the redirected radiating lines of perception represent the necessary indirectness of this route literally.
It is the world inside this singular truth-seeker’s head, as opposed to the supposedly objectively existing empirical world itself, which is labelled by the other prong of Hume’s fork, underlining the fact that no matter how factual or empirically accurate a concept may be or seem, it ultimately remains a mind-dependent phenomena; Whether ascribed the label ‘matter of fact’ or ‘relation of ideas’, it is the ultimately inescapable nature of the supervenience of any concept upon the mental world in which it is contained, that is brought into question.