Tiled dragon on roof top.


All the perceptions of the human mind resolve themselves into two distinct kinds, which I shall call Impressions and Ideas. The difference betwixt these consists in the degrees of force and liveliness with which they strike upon the mind, and make their way into our thought or consciousness.

David Hume (1739)

Dragons abound in the Far East where they are symbols of the supernatural; forces from outwith our common round. As this symbolism is foreign to most of us, we might allow dragons to be examples of Hume’s notion of an idea (thought), which stands in contradistinction to an impression (sensation). We conjure them within ourselves, within thought, not fearing ignition from their breath. For Hume, there were on the one hand the dragons of thought, and on the other, the wild creatures we may encounter. One belongs to our imaginations and creativity; the other to that which we come across, that which would be there even if we were not. From this latter realm come our impressions. The importance of this distinction cannot be overstated, any more than can the difficulty of delineating it.


The opening two sentences of Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature set him off on the path which leads to so much of contemporary philosophy. The 1739/1888/1962 edition published by the Oxford/Clarendon Press still keeps the original typeface. The dragon pictured is one of a multitude of the beasts which inhabit the Linh Phước Pagoda in Đà Lạt, southern Vietnam.


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