David Hume (1711–76) was a best-selling historian, essayist, polymath, and enormously influential and important philosopher of the eighteenth-century Scottish Enlightenment. He was both a philosophical radical and a political moderate. Hume was intellectually skeptical, particularly about the scope and power of reason and supernatural beliefs (such as the existence of God) and averse to the airy sciences of traditional metaphysics, preferring to restrict himself to fact, experience, and observation, often with devastating effects. He had a very keen awareness of the strange infirmities of human understanding, which disposed him toward doubt and epistemological caution. Politically, he was essentially a pragmatist who eschewed strongly ideological positions.
Hume was born in Edinburgh to a respectable, moderately prosperous family whose home (Ninewells) was in the lowland Borders region of Scotland where he grew up. At a precociously young age, ten or twelve, he started studying law at the University of Edinburgh, where he bit into the apple of knowledge that left him with a powerful distaste for the law and for everything but “Philosophy and general Learning.” Unfortunately, as the younger son of a family of only moderate wealth, Hume could not afford to live the life of a gentleman (i.e., someone who did not need a job to maintain himself), so he initially returned to Ninewells after abandoning his study of the law so that he could concentrate on developing his own philosophical ideas. This, however, eventually led him to the brink of a mental and emotional collapse, after which he moved to the village of La Flèche in Anjou, France, where he lived frugally and wrote his first (and most ambitious and influential) philosophical work, A Treatise of Human Nature, which he finished at the age of just twenty-six. The first two books were published anonymously in London in 1739, with the third following in 1740. To Hume's great disappointment, the work fell dead-born from the press, failing to find a significant readership and or even to evoke a critical reaction. Two volumes of Essays, Moral and Political appeared in 1741 and 1742. On this basis, Hume applied for the Chair in Ethics and Pneumatical Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh in 1745, but was passed over primarily because of his heterodox religious views at a time when Scotland was still a predominantly devout and God-fearing nation dominated by an influential and well-placed clergy. His application for the Chair of Logic at the University of Glasgow six years later met the same fate, and for essentially the same reason. International fame had to wait until Hume published his best-selling, six-volume History of England, which he wrote while librarian of the Edinburgh Faculty of Advocates, in which role he was reprimanded for ordering obscene books, as understood in Scotland, which was still predominantly Calvinist. His History was published between 1754 and 1762 so that by the time he arrived in Paris as the private secretary to the British ambassador to France, Lord Hertford, in 1763, he was a major celebrity and the toast of the salons where he enjoyed the company of the leading French thinkers and writers of the age, including Denis Diderot, Jean le Rond d'Alembert, and the Baron d'Holbach, who affectionately called him le bon David for his affable nature and tolerant, skeptical outlook. He was as far from the severe, dour stereotype of the puritanical Scot as it was possible to be. Writing later in My Own Life ( 1980), Hume characterized himself as “a man of mild dispositions, of command of temper, of an open, social, and cheerful humour [sic], capable of attachment, but little susceptible of enmity, and of great moderation in all my passions” (Hume  1980, 615). In France, he was often gently mocked for his gaucherie, provincial manners, and heavily accented French, while he, for his part, harbored reservations about the excessive civilities of Paris. Even so, he found life there highly congenial and even considered moving to Paris permanently: “There is a real satisfaction in living in Paris,” he wrote, “from the great number of sensible, knowing, and polite company with which the city abounds above all places in the universe” (Hume  1980, 614).
After three highly successful years in the French capital, Hume retired to Britain not only independent, but opulent, eventually resettling in Edinburgh, where he enjoyed the company of other luminaries of the Scottish Enlightenment, including Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, William Robertson, and Joseph Black, all of whom were fellow members of the so-called Poker Club. He entertained frequently and enjoyed cooking, especially his specialty of sheep's head soup and beef with cabbage. He later reflected that these years might be the ones he would most like to live over again. On his deathbed, Hume read the pagan humorist Lucian, much to the annoyance of his religious opponents. He died there peacefully and with admirable equanimity in 1776. His controversial and devastating Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) was published shortly thereafter, reinforcing his reputation for philosophical acuity and religious skepticism. He had arranged for his compatriot the eminent architect Robert Adam to design his tomb, with only his name and dates on it. He was buried at Calton Hill cemetery overlooking Edinburgh. Hume's close friend the economist and moralist Smith eloquently eulogized him as being as close to perfectly wise and virtuous as a person can be.
One of Hume's boldest and most original arguments occurs in the first book of his Treatise of Human Nature, where he argues that the common belief in natural causation is rationally groundless. The relationship between cause and effect—as when, for example, one billiard ball strikes another thereby causing the latter to move—cannot really be inferred by reason, as the philosopher René Descartes had argued it could. According to Hume, the constant conjunction of two objects typically leads us to assume that they must be causally related to each other, but this assumption is actually unwarranted by reason, according to Hume. All that we can really say about them is that their relationship is based on our past experience of them, and we have no reason to assume that the future will necessarily be like the past. Even so, he thought that we tend to develop mental habits based on such inductive, probabilistic conjunctions that cannot really be deduced by a priori reasoning. These habits of mental association are often so strong that we just assume that objects must be linked causally, a conclusion that is nothing more than a projection of our own assumptions on to the world rather than something that can be established by demonstrative reasoning.
Hume believed that our minds tend to assume many such fictions for which there is really no rational justification at all, although such beliefs may be explicable in natural terms. For example, he cast doubt on the common belief that there is such a thing as a self that persists throughout one's life. As an empiricist, Hume thought that our perceptions are based on sensory impressions. In fact, we have no single, continuous impression of our own self over time, only constantly changing impressions and sensations that we do not rationally know to be related to a single, enduring identity. Just as we habitually ascribe an identity to external objects that we may regularly observe in the world, so we tend to assume the same about our own inner self, even though, in reality, identity is not something that really belongs to these different perceptions and unites them; rather, “it is merely a quality, which we attribute to them, because of the union of their ideas in the imagination, when we reflect upon them” (Hume  1978, Book I, Part IV, sec. VI). Hume described the mind as a type of theater where “several perceptions successively make their appearance, pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations,” which typically leads us to the unwarranted belief that there is a persisting self that underlies our constantly ever-changing perceptions. In answering the question, “What does one really see when introspecting on one's mind?” Hume wrote,
For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception.(Hume  1978, Book I, Part IV, sec. VI)
On the perennial debate between free will and determinism, Hume was a classical compatibilist, like Thomas Hobbes. He defined liberty as “a power of acting or not acting, according to the determinations of the will” (Hume  1978, Book I, Part IV, sect. VI). Thus, all human actions are the consequences of causal necessity. Yet everyone is free to the extent that he is “not a prisoner and in chains.” Hume held that such causal necessity is entirely consistent with moral responsibility.
Another important and influential example of Hume's skepticism in his Treatise concerns the difficulty of deriving values from facts. On this subject, he merely observed a common tendency for people to jump from descriptive statements (e.g., he is short) to prescriptive statements (e.g., he ought to receive less) without any bridging argument explaining how to get from the one to the other. In the twentieth century, the Cambridge moral philosopher G. E. Moore labeled this intellectual leap from is to ought “the naturalistic fallacy” and developed Hume's passing observation into a systematic rejection of ethical naturalism in his book Principia Ethica (1903).
Hume denied that either God or reason could really provide a plausible basis for our ethical beliefs. He not only doubted the existence of God, but also was highly critical of what he saw as the disastrous moral and political consequences of religions in human history, particularly dogmatic monotheistic faiths such as Christianity and Islam, which he compared unfavorably to the polytheistic faiths of antiquity. He also believed that reason is the “slave of the passions” with no power to motivate human action or tell us which ends we ought to pursue. He quipped that “Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger” (Hume  1978, Book II, Part II, sec. 3), although he meant this quite literally. However, Hume shared the belief common among philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment that we have natural (and therefore universal) virtues such as gratitude, kindness, patience, due pride, and sympathy for other human beings in their suffering, virtues that only motivate us to act when they engage our passions with sufficient force to overcome contrary passions. These natural virtues have been supplemented throughout history by artificial virtues such as chastity, promise keeping, and justice, the rules of which have been devised to “best serve public utility.” Such virtues depend on conventional rules rather than arising spontaneously from our nature. Hume realistically recognized that we are also prone to be selfish, that human nature contains impulses that pull in both directions and needs to be judiciously constrained and tempered by convention and custom.
As he did with much of the rest of his Treatise, Hume later revised that part of the work that dealt with morality and republished it in 1751 as an Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. Although he viewed this work as clearly the best of all his writings, he was disappointed that it too received little attention. He had earlier revised and published the first book of the Treatise as a separate Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), and he later shortened the second book, which appeared as a revised essay “Of the Passions” in Hume's Four Dissertations (1757). All of these extensive recastings of his troubled intellectual offspring reflect Hume's verdict that he had been “guilty of a very usual indiscretion in going to press too early” (Hume  1980, 612) when he first published the Treatise in his late twenties. He eventually recommended against reading the original Treatise, advice that, fortunately, few philosophers have followed.
Hume's politics were almost as complicated as his philosophical views and defy easy classification. He complained that, with the publication of his History of England, he was “assailed by one cry of reproach, disapprobation and even detestation: English, Scotch, and Irish, Whig and Tory, churchman and sectary, freethinker and religionist, united in their rage” against him for one reason or another (Hume  1980, 614). Of his political outlook in general, he said in a 1756 letter to John Clephane, “My view of things are more conformable to Whig principles; my representations of persons to Tory prejudices.” Hume had a realistic appreciation of the imperfection of societies and the limitations of human reason, which inclined him to favor moderate, pragmatic reforms and gradual, piecemeal change over political idealism and violent revolution, both of which he found temperamentally and philosophically uncongenial. He thought that rebellion was advisable only in cases of extreme tyranny or prolonged abuse. As long as customs and rulers kept the peace and did not unduly oppress or exploit their subjects, they ought to be obeyed. Such conservatism led Thomas Jefferson to brand Hume as a Tory and ban his History of England from the University of Virginia (which he had founded). However, Hume was broadly supportive of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 to 1690 (and therefore no straightforward Tory) and expressed some sympathy for the American colonists in their dispute with the British Crown. He was also in favor of freedom of the press, religious toleration, and private commerce and spoke out on behalf of an extended franchise, separate and decentralized political power, and free government. Although he did not regard private property as a natural right, he defended free trade, welcomed the civilizing effects of doux commerce and the trade in luxury goods. His account of the “polite” culture attendant upon the progress of commercial society anticipated the central arguments of Smith's The Wealth of Nations, which he praised in turn. Nonetheless Samuel Johnson hoarily dismissed Hume as a mere “Tory by chance” who “has no principle.”
Hume was a religious skeptic (a term he often applied to himself), and concluded that it was not rationally possible either to affirm or deny the existence of God with any certainty. This belief set him apart from both the deist mainstream of the Enlightenment and the more orthodox religious establishment that still dominated eighteenth-century Scotland. The Church of Scotland seriously considered bringing charges of infidelity against Hume for his heterodox religious views, costing him the academic career that he had coveted. Even so, both Hume's atheistic sympathizers and his zealous religious opponents are wrong to have attributed atheism to him. When asked if he was an atheist, he would say that he did not have enough faith to believe that there was no God. Hume was not certain that there was no God; he just did not see a good enough reason to suppose that there was. Among the least convincing reasons for believing in God, he thought, was the so-called argument from design, which he subjected to relentless criticism in his posthumously published Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, which are partially based on Cicero's De Natura Deorum. He was similarly harsh in his attitude to the existence of miracles on the grounds that a miracle implies “a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity,” something that is a clear violation of all prior experience and therefore far less probable than alternative explanations, such as that people lie or are deluded in their perceptions (Hume  1972, 116). Hume also denied the existence of original sin, defended the legitimacy of suicide, and argued against immortality of the soul—all positions that did little to endear him to the religiously orthodox.
Although Hume was much better known in his own lifetime for his best-selling historical writings than for his largely overlooked philosophy, the reverse is true now. Today, his History of England is much less read than his philosophical works, particularly his precocious masterpiece The Treatise of Human Nature. He is now commonly seen as one of the most important and influential philosophers of the eighteenth century who famously woke Immanuel Kant from his dogmatic slumbers and provoked him to instigate a “Copernican revolution” in philosophy. The list of thinkers influenced by Hume's skeptical ideas (Adam Smith, Arthur Schopenhauer, Charles Darwin, Jeremy Bentham, Alfred Ayer, Albert Einstein, and Karl Popper, to name a few) is impressive and attests to his importance in the history Western thought.
See also Capitalism; Conservatism; Eighteenth-Century Political Thought; English Enlightenment; French Enlightenment; Liberalism; Liberty, Theories of; Political Philosophy and Political Thought; Religion and Western Political Thought; Scottish Enlightenment; Smith, Adam
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The foremost philosopher of the 18th-c. Scottish Enlightenment, Hume is also celebrated as an historian, economist, and...
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