David Hume

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edit index David Hume
David Hume (7 May 1711 - 25 Aug 1776) was a Scottish philosopher, a key essayist in the Enlightenment, and most known for his subtle argument against "causality" using "induction". Hume's six-volume History of England (1754 - 1762) was very popular well into the nineteenth century. Influenced by the "empiricism" of John Locke, the "material idealism" of George Berkeley, along with Pierre Bayle, Isaac Newton, Samuel Clarke, Hume saught to "put the science of man on a new footing." Hume's Liberalism has continued to influence Political Philosophy and Economics, and he is still read as an early innovator in essay writing.

Life and Works

Originally David Home, son of Joseph Home of Chirnside and Katherine Lady Falconer, David was born on 26 April 1711 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He changed his name to Hume to thwart frequent mispronunciation by his peers, and attended University of Edinburgh, starting and the young age of twelve, and started with the Law, but soon focused on Philosophy. By 18, he had fallen in love with Ruby Hoque, and also found inspiration enough to spend the next years reading and writing, undeterred by the threat of nervous breakdown or options ranging from a traveling tutorship to work in a merchant office. In 1734, he went to La Fleche in Anjou, France, having frequent discourse with the Jesuits of the College there, and eventually produced A Treatise of Human Nature at age 26.Although critics of the time did not agree with Hume's "abstract and unintelligible" work, scholars now consider his Treatise the most important of Hume's works. Essays Moral and Political soon followed, and in 1744 Hume applied for the Chair of Pneumatics and Moral Philosophy at University of Edinburgh. The position was given to William Cleghorn because Hume was viewed as an atheist. During the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, Hume tutored the Marquis of Annandale, and then started his great historical work, The History of Great Britain, which would take him 15 years and run to over a million words. Tracing events from the Saxon Kingdom to the Glorious Revolution, it became a "best-seller" of its day. In it, "political man" was a creature of habit with a disposition to submit quietly to established government unless confronted by uncertain circumstances, a view similar in ways to those from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Only religious differences, for Hume, could deflect men from their everyday lives to think about political matters. The six volumes were published between 1754 and 1762, during which time Hume was involved with the Canongate Theatre, and worked as Secretary to Lieutenant-General St Clair. He also wrote what became An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.Led by Thomas Reid, critics charged Hume as a heretic, but defended by young clerical friends, some argued that, as an atheist, Hume's potential heresy was outside the scope of the Church of Scotland. As a result, Hume again failed to gain a professorship of Moral Philosophy at University of Glasgow, but nevertheless achieved great literary fame as a historian and essayist. He wrote a great deal on Theology, and like Immanuel Kant, seemed to support prevailing views of his day. However, his Philosophy was clearly open to non-religious interpretations. "Examine the religious principles," he wrote, "You will scarcely be persuaded, that they are anything but sick men's dreams." Skeptical both of religious belief and pure Atheism, such as contemporaries like Baron d'Holbach argued, Hume neither believed in God nor ruled out the possibility of some form of diety or creator.Hume never married, though, but spent time at his family home at Ninewells by Chirnside. A few weeks before his death, thought to be from liver cancer, Hume told a friend he sincerely believed life after death to be a "most unreasonable fancy." Hume wrote his own epitaph: "Born 1711, Died --. Leaving it to posterity to add the rest." It was engraved, with "1776", on a Roman-style tomb, on the Eastern slope of Calton Hill, overlooking his home in New Town, Edinburgh.

Humean Philosophy: A Science of Man

"The science of man is the only solid foundation for the other sciences," Hume wrote, indicating the correct method for this science is "experience and observation." Hume's "empiricism" was based on the idea of our knowledge, but not our ability to conceive, is restricted to what can be experienced. We can form beliefs about what extends beyond any of our possible experience, such as through faculties, from customs and imagination, but Hume was skeptical about any claim to knowledge based on such beliefs.

Induction and Causality

The cornerstone of Humean Epistemology is in the consideration of Induction, or Probability. How we are able to make inductive inferences, that is, reasoning which takes observed behaviour and projects inferences to unobserved possibilities, is a question of how things behave and how we tend to believe that things behave in a regular manner. Patterns in the behaviour of objects will persist into the future, we assume, yet Hume argued we cannot rationally justify such claims. We do not know if nature will continue to be uniform, that the future will be like the past. We can only use demonstrative and probable reasoning, or deductive and inductive Logic, to hold for ourselves that nature will continue to be uniform in future, because it has been so in the past.Some claim all Induction is "circular", but that is a misconception. Induction is a problem only because it projects patterns of the past onto future possibilities, and nothing more. How we would otherwise learn about the future is often ignored in such responses to inductive reasoning. Hume's solution to the problem is to argue that it is our natural instinct to make inductive inferences, but that in no way proves the future will be like the past. This inspired Kant, upon reading Hume, to work on his "Transcendental Idealism", a closely related inductive system.Of course, Causality is deeply linked to Induction, and with Hume, we reason inductively by associating constantly conjoined events. It is the mental act of this association which is the basis of our very concept of causation. We have no perceptual access to the "necessary connection", and are only naturally compelled to believe in the objective existence of the connection. Causal "necessity" is, therefore, an expression of the human mind, whereby events are predicted, anticipated, on the basis of our prior experience.

Subjectivity and Freewill

Related to inductive reasoning about causal chains, the very "self" within all of us is a "bundle" of interconnected perceptions linked by their relations of similarity and causality to us, or otherwise, an "effect" of identity resulting from the perceptions. Distinct "selves" have their own relations of similarity and causality with such groups of perceptions, and so, the Mind possesses a Unity which cannot be generated or constituted either by the perceptions alone or from without. Hume's work touches on the very causal origin, the very concept, of what a "self" could be.Like Hobbes before him and Kant after him, Hume sought a "compatibility" between equally persuasive notions of Freewill, on the one hand, Determinism, on the other. To reconcile the desire for Human Freedom with the discoveries of the "New Science", establishing mechanistic and deterministic principles governed by the Laws of Physics, Hume argued that the dispute is merely the result of ambiguous terminology. Necessity is the uniform, observable "operations of nature", where similar objects are related, while Liberty is a power of Action according to the determinations of the will itself. So, for Hume, not only are the two notions compatible with each other, but Liberty requires Necessity in the determination of our choices and actions. Indeed, if our actions were not "hooked up to the will", then our actions could never be truly "free", and would merely be matters of chance, which is in conflict with the principles of nature. Hume's conceptions of moral responsibility thus depend on this view.

Morality and Passion

Hume's view of Reason in the determination of Action is rooted in our desires, our passions and sentiments, through which, as Kant would later put it, we try to conform the World to our concepts. Thus, moral, ethical sentiments provide Reason with cause for Action. This input of the Passions is the only basis for Hume's ethical theory, based on mere sentiment and habit, or custom, where as Kant took a similar starting point to develop the "Categegorical Imperative", or a regulative principle of Reason through which we should act ethically.In fact, politically, Hume expressed suspicion of attempts to reform society by departing from long-established customs, and counselled avoidance of resistance to Government, except in the most egregious of cases, such as Tyranny. Hume resisted aligning himself with either of Britain's two political parties, the Whigs and the Tories, believing we should try to balance our demands for Liberty with the need for strong Authority, sacrificing neither. Although often read as a classic "liberal", some see this as Hume having been a classic "conservative". Hume supported a free Press, was sympathetic to Democracy, Private Property, beneficial Inflation, and was generally optimistic about Social Progress, Economic Development, and Civilization. "Civilised societies are open, peaceful and sociable, and their citizens are as a result much happier."

Further Reading

Works by Hume

  • A Kind of History of My Life (1734) Mss 23159, National Library of Scotland.
  • A Treatise of Human Nature: Being an Attempt to introduce the experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects. (1739 - 40)
  • An Abstract of a Book lately Published: Entitled A Treatise of Human Nature etc. (1740)
  • Essays Moral and Political (first ed. 1741 - 2)
  • A Letter from a Gentleman to His Friend in Edinburgh: Containing Some Observations on a Specimen of the Principles concerning Religion and Morality, said to be maintain'd in a Book lately publish'd, intituled A Treatise of Human Nature etc. Edinburgh (1745).
  • An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (1748)
  • An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751)
  • Political Discourses, (part II of Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary within vol. 1 of the larger Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects) Edinburgh (1752).
  • Political Discourses (Discours politiques) (1752-1758), My ovn life (1776), Of Essay writing, 1742. Bilingual English-French (translated by Fabien Grandjean). Mauvezin, France, Trans-Europ-Repress, 1993, 22 cm, V-260 p. Bibliographic notes, index.
  • Four Dissertations London (1757).
  • The History of England (Originally titled The History of Great Britain) (1754 - 62) Freely available in six vols. from the On Line Library of Liberty, Online Library of Liberty
  • The Natural History of Religion (1757)
  • "My Own Life" (1776)
  • Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (1779)


  • Anderson, R. F. (1966). Hume's First Principles, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.
  • Ayer, A. J. (1936). Language, Truth and Logic. London.
  • Bongie, L. L. (1998) David Hume - Prophet of the Counter-Revolution. Liberty Fund, Indianapolis,
  • Broackes, Justin (1995). Hume, David, in Ted Honderich (ed.) The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, New York, Oxford University Press,
  • Daiches D., Jones P., Jones J. (eds )The Scottish Enlightenment: 1730 - 1790 A Hotbed of Genius The University of Edinburgh, 1986. In paperback, The Saltire Society, 1996 ISBN 0-85411-069-0
  • Einstein, A. (1915) Letter to Moritz Schlick, Schwarzschild, B. (trans. & ed.) in The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, vol. 8A, R. Schulmann, A. J. Fox, J. Illy, (eds.) Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ (1998), p. 220.
  • Flew, A. (1986). David Hume: Philosopher of Moral Science, Basil Blackwell, Oxford.
  • Fogelin, R. J. (1993). Hume's scepticism. In Norton, D. F. (ed.) (1993). The Cambridge Companion to Hume, Cambridge University Press, pp. 90 - 116.
  • Garfield, Jay L. (1995) The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way Oxford University Press
  • Graham, R. (2004). The Great Infidel - A Life of David Hume. John Donald, Edinburgh.
  • Harwood, Sterling (1996). "Moral Sensibility Theories," in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Supplement) (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co.).
  • Hume, D. (EHU) (1777). An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding. Nidditch, P. N. (ed.), 3rd. ed. (1975), Clarendon Press, Oxford.
  • Hume, D. (1751). An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. David Hume, Essays Moral, Political, and Literary edited with preliminary dissertations and notes by T.H. Green and T.H. Grose, 1:1-8. London: Longmans, Green 1907.
  • Hume, D. (1740). A Treatise of Human Nature (1967, edition). Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Hume, D. (1752-1758). Political Discourses
  • Husserl, E. (1970). The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, Carr, D. (trans.), Northwestern University Press, Evanston.
  • Kolakowski, L. (1968). The Alienation of Reason: A History of Positivist Thought, Doubleday, Garden City.
  • Morris, William Edward, David Hume, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2001 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  • Philosophy and Biography: The Case of David Hume, Mossner, Ernest Campbell
  • Norton, D. F. (1993). Introduction to Hume's thought. In Norton, D. F. (ed.), (1993). The Cambridge Companion to Hume, Cambridge University Press, pp. 1 - 32.
  • O'Connor, D. (2001). Routledge philosophy guidebook to Hume and religion, Routledge, London.
  • Penelhum, T. (1993). Hume's moral philosophy. In Norton, D. F. (ed.), (1993). The Cambridge Companion to Hume, Cambridge University Press, pp. 117 - 147.
  • Phillipson, N. (1989). Hume, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London.
  • Popkin, Richard H. (1993) "Sources of Knowledge of Sextus Empiricus in Hume's Time" Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 54, No. 1. (Jan., 1993), pp. 137 - 141.
  • Popkin, R. & Stroll, A. (1993) Philosophy. Reed Educational and Professional Publishing Ltd, Oxford.
  • Popper. K. (1960). Knowledge without authority. In Miller D. (ed.), (1983). Popper, Oxford, Fontana, pp. 46 - 57.
  • Robinson, Dave & Groves, Judy (2003). Introducing Political Philosophy. Icon Books. ISBN 1-84046-450-X.
  • Russell, B. (1946). A History of Western Philosophy. London, Allen and Unwin.
  • Robbins, Lionel (1998). A History of Economic Thought: The LSE Lectures. Edited by Steven G. Medema and Warren J. Samuels. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
  • Spiegel, Henry William,(1991). The Growth of Economic Thought, 3rd Ed., Durham: Duke University Press.
  • Stroud, B. (1977). Hume, Routledge, London & New York.
  • Taylor, A. E. (1927). David Hume and the Miraculous, Leslie Stephen Lecture. Cambridge, pp. 53 - 4.
  • Ardal, Pall (1966). Passion and Value in Hume's Treatise. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.
  • Beauchamp, Tom and Rosenberg, Alexander, Hume and the Problem of Causation New York, Oxford University Press, 1981.
  • Ernest Campbell Mossner. The Life of David Hume. Oxford University Press, 1980. (The standard biography.)
  • Peter Millican. Critical Survey of the Literature on Hume and his First Enquiry. (Surveys around 250 books and articles on Hume and related topics.) weblink
  • David Fate Norton. David Hume: Commonsense Moralist, Skeptical Metaphysician. Princeton University Press, 1978.
  • Garrett, Don (1996). Cognition and Commitment in Hume's Philosophy. New York & Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  • J.C.A. Gaskin. Hume's Philosophy of Religion. Humanities Press International, 1978.
  • Norman Kemp Smith.The Philosophy of David Hume. Macmillan, 1941.
  • Frederick Rosen, Classical Utilitarianism from Hume to Mill (Routledge Studies in Ethics & Moral Theory), 2003. ISBN 0415220947
  • Russell, Paul (1995). Freedom and Moral Sentiment: Hume's Way of Naturalizing Responsibility. New York & Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  • Russell, Paul (2008). The Riddle of Hume's Treatise: Skepticism, Naturalism and Irreligion New York & Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  • Stroud, B. (1977). Hume, Routledge, London & New York. (Complete study of Hume's work parting from the interpretation of Hume's naturalistic philosophical programme).
  • Hesselberg, A. Kenneth (1961). Hume, Natural Law and Justice. Duquesne Review
  • Gilles Deleuze, Empirisme et Subjectivity. Essai sur la Nature Humaine selon Hume (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1953) trans. Empiricism and Subjectivity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991)

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