David Hume 1711-1776
Scottish philosopher, essayist, historian, critic, and autobiographer.
The following entry presents recent criticism on Hume's works.
Considered one of the most important figures in the history of modern philosophy, Hume promoted what he called a “mitigated” form of philosophical skepticism—the doctrine that all empirical knowledge is uncertain. Hume wrote extensively on causation and perception, formulated theories of knowledge and ideas, and wrote at length on moral, political, and religious issues. In most of his works Hume attempted to shed light on the reasoning process through which knowledge of such issues was achieved, earning international praise from the philosophical community; in the words of his friend Adam Smith, Hume was a man of “the most severe application, the most extensive learning, the greatest depth of thought, and a capacity in every respect the most comprehensive.”
The son of Joseph Home, a lawyer, and Katherine Falconer Home, an ardent Calvinist, Hume was born on his family's estate at Ninewells in Berwickshire. Joseph Home died during David's infancy, after which most of Home's estate passed to David's elder brother, John. David remained at Ninewells until age twelve, when he and John went to the University of Edinburgh; after three years, they left without degrees, a common practice at the time. Although the Edinburgh curriculum probably included some philosophy, all that is known for certain about David's studies is, according to his autobiography, that he “passed through the ordinary Course of Education with Success.” Hume returned to Ninewells intending to study law but soon found in himself “an insurmountable Aversion to anything but the pursuits of Philosophy and General Learning.” Around age eighteen a “new scene of thought” opened to him, and he began the work which became his A Treatise of Human Nature.
Hume had difficulty securing a publisher for the Treatise, and, when it reached the public, critical response was largely unfavorable. Subsequently, Hume disowned the style, if not the substance, of the Treatise by writing his Essays, Moral and Political, in which Hume described himself as a “new Author.” Unlike the Treatise, Hume's Essays met with popular and critical success. On the strength of this acclaim, Hume solicited a professorship at Edinburgh but, owing to the perception among some members of the university that the Treatise was philosophically unsound, he was unsuccessful in his bid. Hume instead became tutor to the insane Marquis of Annandale, and, although he found the position extremely disagreeable, it gave him time to begin his Philosophical Essays concerning Human Understanding and (probably) to write Three Essays, Moral and Political, both of which he issued in 1748.
As his reputation as a thinker and writer grew, Hume was called to serve as a military judge-advocate, traveled as an aide-de-camp to Turin, and began a correspondence with the French political philosopher Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brede et de Montesquieu. By 1751, however, Hume settled in Edinburgh, where he was appointed librarian of the Advocates Library and where he availed himself of the books in his charge to write his History of England. The work eventually became a success in Britain and abroad; Hume found himself financially independent and was courted by London and Edinburgh society. He went to Paris in 1763 as secretary to the British ambassador, and was received with thunderous acclaim. When he left Paris for London in 1766, Hume took Jean-Jacques Rousseau with him, but Rousseau embarrassed Hume by falsely accusing him of a variety of misdeeds, and the two quarreled both publicly and in print before Rousseau's sudden departure. Returning to Edinburgh in 1769, Hume had a great house built for himself and worked on his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion until, sixteen months after having been “struck with a disorder in [his] bowels,” he died peacefully at home.
Hume's works are for the most part philosophical, historical, and religious. Hume set out his epistemology in two studies: Book I of the Treatise of Human Nature and the later, more respected, Philosophical Essays concerning Human Understanding. Like John Locke, whose philosophy he knew well, Hume maintained that beliefs are not based on reason, because reason is grounded only on the inadequate data of experience. “Rational” claims regarding, for example, the causal necessity involved in experience are inferences that can never be affirmed with certainty; although our customary association of two states of affairs provides a psychological explanation for why they are taken to be necessarily related, their constant conjunction cannot serve as an adequate premise to justify such a relation. Because no rational explanation can constitute knowledge unless it is grounded in experience, all (non-mathematical) knowledge-claims are necessarily uncertain. Nonetheless, it is natural and right, in Hume's view, to believe that such empirical claims—though uncertain—are warranted.
Hume's moral philosophy as well as his historical and religious works reflect his theoretical empiricism. In Book III of the Treatise and in the Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, Hume defines moral judgments as a certain type of approbation accorded to qualities or acts that promote utility or agreeableness, and are approved by practically everyone. In his ambitious History of England, Hume attempted to outdo his predecessors in comprehensiveness by especially emphasizing an attention to detail, impartiality, and judiciousness. However, many critics have noted that the History is marked by a strong prejudice against the Whigs and, especially in the later volumes, by an obsession with the English attitude toward Scotland. Hume practiced religious skepticism in such writings as “Of Miracles” and the expansive Dialogues concerning Natural Religion. Searching for the “origin of religion in human nature,” Hume maintained that the premises for religious argument are faulty, illogical, unauthoritative, and inconclusive.
Hume elicited a wide variety of responses to his works. Once in the public eye, Hume quickly acquired a coterie of admirers and disciples, including Adam Smith and the historian Edward Gibbon. Immanuel Kant and Rousseau extolled Hume and his writings extravagantly; the former credited Hume with being the only philosopher to take skepticism to its logical conclusion, while the latter declared: “Mr. Hume is the truest philosopher that I know and the only historian that has ever written with impartiality … He has measured and calculated the errors of men while remaining above their weaknesses.” James Beattie and Joseph Priestley, however, wrote full-length attacks on Hume's logic, reasoning, and philosophical principles, and Thomas Gray said about Hume's philosophical works: “I have always thought David Hume a pernicious writer, and believe he has done as much mischief here [in England] as he has in his own country.”
Nineteenth- and twentieth-century critical views of Hume's works generally reflect the disagreements of the eighteenth century, but with the addition of more penetrating analyses of Hume's historical and philosophical methods. Thomas Jefferson declared that “Hume's [History of England], were it faithful, would be the finest piece of history which has ever been written by man,” adding the serious charge that Hume “suppressed truths, advanced falsehoods, forged authorities, and falsified records.” And, while Friedrich von Schlegel found more to praise than to reprove in Hume's words, he also located Hume's partisan imposition of his own “narrow principles and views of things not perfectly just.” Still, Hume's works—historical and philosophical alike—had their champion in Hume's first important biographer, John Hill Burton. Thomas H. Huxley also honored Hume with a careful, largely commendatory exposition of his philosophy. The consensus among historians of philosophy holds that Hume was an influential and profound skeptic, a pioneer in the field of human cognition, and a historian who recognized how broadly his field could be defined. Isaiah Berlin claimed that “No man has influenced the history of philosophical thought to a deeper and more disturbing degree”; while this may be a bit of an overstatement, it is undoubtedly the case that Hume has indelibly shaped modern philosophy.
*A Treatise of Human Nature: Being an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects. 3 vols. (essay) 1739-40
†An Abstract of a Book Lately Published, Entitled, “A Treatise of Human Nature,” wherein the Chief Argument of That Book Is Farther Illustrated and Explained (essay) 1740
Essays, Moral and Political. 2 vols. (essays) 1741-42
A Letter from a Gentleman to His Friend in Edinburgh (essay) 1745
‡Philosophical Essays concerning Human Understanding (essays) 1748
Three Essays, Moral and Political, Never before Published (essays) 1748
A True Account of the Behaviour and Conduct of Archibald Stewart, Esq. (essay) 1748
An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals (essay) 1751
The Petition of the Grave and Venerable Bellmen (or Sextons) of the Church of Scotland, to the Hon. House of Commons (essay) 1751
Political Discourses (essays) 1752
§Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects. 4 vols. (essays) 1753-56
∥The History of Great Britain, Vol. I: Containing the Reigns of James I. and Charles I. (history) 1754; also published as The History of Great Britain, under the House of Stuart, 1759
Four Dissertations (essays)...
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SOURCE: “Pen in Hand,” in Practicing Enlightenment: Hume and the Formation of a Literary Career, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1987, pp. 45-65.
[In the following essay, Christensen discusses how Hume characterizes his writing in the autobiographical “My Own Life,” focusing on Hume's use of illness metaphors to explore the writing process.]
But where is the reward of virtue? And what recompense has Nature provided for such important sacrifices as those of life and fortune, which we must often make?
While I, miserable Wretch that I am, have put my chief Confidence in thee; & relinquishing the Sword, the Gown, the Cassock, & the Toilette, have trusted to thee alone for my Fortune & my Fame.
Chronologically, “My Own Life” is Hume's last essay. It is also, in a more general sense, his final composition, the one that pulls everything together, both narratively and practically: Hume's various employments are induced across a whole life, which is written in order that it can prefix the collected works. The risk in such a maneuver is admitted straight off: “It is difficult for a man to speak long of himself without vanity; therefore, I shall be short. It may be thought an instance...
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SOURCE: “The Treatise” and “The Essays, Moral and Political,” in The Suasive Art of David Hume, Princeton University Press, 1990, pp. 53-162.
[In the following two chapters from The Suasive Art of David Hume, Box describes Hume's stylistic development from the Treatise to the Essays. According to Box, the “journalistic character” of the latter work represents a marked improvement over the tendency of the former toward “formal treatise.”]
CHAPTER TWO: THE TREATISE
I borrowed today out of the Advocates' Library, David Hume's Treatise of Human Nature, but found it so abstruse, so contrary to sound sense and reason, and so dreary in its effects on the mind, if it had any, that I resolved to return it without reading it.
—Boswell, Laird of Auchinleck
Il est quelquefois malheureux d’avoir trop d’esprit & de pénétration.
—Anon. rev. of the Treatise, art. 8, Bibliothèque raisonnée des ouvrages des savans de l’Europe 26, pt. 2 (April-May-June 1741): 412-13
PROMULGATING THE SCIENCE OF MAN
We have seen that Hume regarded philosophy as an entertainment, a noble and salutary one, but an entertainment nonetheless. He did...
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SOURCE: “Philosophy as Literature: The Case of Hume's Dialogues,” in Compendious Conversations: The Method of Dialogue in the Early Enlightenment, edited by Kevin L. Cope, Peter Lang, 1992, pp. 34-53.
[In this essay, Wadia attempts to correct traditional criticisms of the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religionby viewing its theological doctrines against the backdrop of its dialogue form.]
In a well-known passage toward the close of Book I of his A Treatise of Human Nature,1 David Hume tells us how, when he reflects on “the condition of the learned world, which lies under such a deplorable ignorance” of the fundamental principles of philosophical learning, “I feel an ambition to arise in me of contributing to the instruction of mankind, and the acquiring a name by my inventions and discoveries.”2 The cultivation of a proper style in which to communicate his “inventions and discoveries” was one of Hume's life-long preoccupations but, unfair though it seems to fault any man for such a concern, his public acknowledgement of it seems to have brought him little else than notoriety well into our present century. Ever since the publication of the Treatise over two hundred years ago, Hume's reputation has been beset by critics (not all of them unfriendly to his ideas, by any means) who have questioned the seriousness of his purpose in writing...
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SOURCE: “Women, Religion, and Zeal: Hume's Rhetoric in the History of England,” in Compendious Conversations: The Method of Dialogue in the Early Enlightenment, edited by Kevin L. Cope, Peter Lang, 1992, pp. 279-89.
[In the essay that follows, Kennelly criticizes Hume's History of England, which she believes is “sadly lacking in gender sensitivity and respect for religion and zealous believers (in any cause).”]
It has been said that David Hume's History of England (1754-1762) represented a “last ditch attempt to make himself heard.”1 If so, it seems to have been a successful attempt. While the sales of Essays, Moral and Political (in the 1740s) did not enable him to live as a man of letters, the sales of his History and the reputation it brought him, did. What Hume seems most to have wanted his readers to “hear” was an impartial account of the religious/political situation surrounding the English Civil War. Initially, at least, few believed him impartial. As he gently complains in his autobiography, “I thought that I was the only historian, that had at once neglected present power, interest, and authority, and the cry of popular prejudices; and as the subject was suited to every capacity, I expected proportional applause” (I: xxx). Today Hume is generally judged to have, indeed, presented an impartial account of the failings of both Whigs...
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SOURCE: “Philosophy and Christendom” and “English Barbarism: ‘The Poor Infatuated Americans,’” in Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium: Hume's Pathology of Philosophy, The University of Chicago Press, 1992, pp. 102-18 and 290-313.
[In the first chapter below, Livingston explores Hume's attitudes toward religion and philosophy. In the second, he examines Hume's support of the American Revolution and his criticism of British imperial policy.]
CHAPTER 5: PHILOSOPHY AND CHRISTENDOM
THE UNION OF PHILOSOPHY AND CHRISTIANITY
Hume taught that philosophy was a novelty in the ancient world. The principles of ultimacy, autonomy, and dominion introduced a new and demanding guide to life unlike anything the polytheists had known. Philosophy in the name of reason claimed total dominion over the life of the thinker, the sect, and in principle over all men. Polytheistic culture eventually came to admire its philosopher; and philosophy, with its title to dominion, became “the sole principle, by which a man could elevate himself above his fellows,” and so it “acquired a mighty ascendant over many, and produced great singularities of maxims and conduct” (EM, 341). It was in this setting that Christianity appeared.
Christianity also claimed total dominion over its members but for reasons different from those of philosophy....
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SOURCE: “Religious Eloquence: Hume on the Passions That Unite Us,” in The Fate of Eloquence in the Age of Hume, Cornell University Press, 1994, pp. 159-88.
[In this essay, Potkay explores Hume's ambivalence toward rhetoric and evaluates his attempt “to preserve the coalescent power of eloquence in the very act of dissolving the bonds of religion.”]
James Boswell writes: “On Sunday forenoon the 7 of July 1776, being too late for church, I went to see Mr. David Hume, who was returned [to Edinburgh] from London and Bath, just a dying. I found him alone, in a reclining posture in his drawing room. He was lean, ghastly, and quite of an earthy appearance.” In his last interview with Hume, Boswell attempts to make the “great Infidel” admit to a belief in a future state, or at least to some uneasiness concerning the prospect of annihilation. To Boswell's mortification, however, Hume “seemed to be placid and even cheerful” throughout their conversation. And in the place of any literature of Christian consolation, “He had before him Dr. Campbell's Philosophy of Rhetorick” (Private Papers 12:227-32).
Perusing a study of rhetoric may well seem a defiantly humanistic inquiry for one in extremis. Although Boswell does not comment on Hume's choice of deathbed reading, it does prompt him to introduce the subject of religion. Bringing to mind his “excellent...
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SOURCE: “Religion and ‘Natural Belief’ in Hume's Dialogues,” in Hume's Religious Naturalism, University Press of America, 1998, pp. 1-28.
[In the following essay, Reich evaluates previous critical approaches to the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religionin an effort to decipher Hume's philosophical position on the ontological arguments in the book. Specifically, Reich focuses on whether Hume considers belief in a supreme being to be a “natural belief,” and discusses how this affects the claims of the Dialogues.]
Nothing in Hume's other works quite prepares the reader of his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion for the apparent shift of position that one of its characters (Philo) makes at its end. For it appears that Philo, who has substantially undermined the argument for God's existence from the “design” of the universe, has made certain concessions to religion at the end of the Dialogues (Part XII) that ill accord with the whole tenor of his position throughout the preceding parts of the work.
Throughout the preceding parts of the Dialogues Philo had been arguing, against Cleanthes, a philosophical theologian, that the existence of an “intelligent designer” of the universe cannot be demonstrated. Cleanthes had put forth the argument that (roughly) there is a design or an order in the “works of nature,” and that this...
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SOURCE: “The Treatise of Human Nature and Hume's Philosophy as a Whole,” in A Humean Critique of David Hume's Theory of Knowledge, edited by John A. Gueguen, University Press of America, 1998, pp. 21-32.
[In this essay, White outlines the structure and purpose of the Treatise, claiming that the work contains the philosophical approach and positions that characterize Hume's entire oeuvre.]
Since Hume's initial inspiration finds its fullest expression in A Treatise of Human Nature, and most of his subsequent philosophical works are but a development or refinement of the program he set for himself at the start of the Treatise, a look at that work, especially at the Introduction, is indispensable. It can at the same time serve to locate Hume in his historical context.1
The Treatise is divided into three books: 1. Of the Understanding; 2. Of the Passions; 3. Of Morals. The work as a whole is sub-titled, “Being an attempt to introduce the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects.” In the Introduction, Hume explains why the theme of human nature is not only of importance for all branches of philosophy but literally of the first importance, the equivalent, one might say (though Hume himself did not say this), of Aristotle's Philosophia Prima. The existing state of philosophy is a parlous one: “there is nothing which is not...
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Hall, Roland. Fifty Years of Hume Scholarship: A Bibliographical Guide. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1978, 150 p.
Detailed bibliography of Hume scholarship from 1925 to 1976, with a brief survey of the main writings on Hume from 1900 to 1924.
Jessop, T. E. A Bibliography of David Hume and of Scottish Philosophy, from Francis Hutcheson to Lord Balfour. London: A. Brown & Sons, 1938, 201 p.
Primary and secondary Hume bibliography, especially useful for critical studies written before 1900.
Ayer, A. J. Hume. New York: Hill and Wang, 1980, 102 p.
Short introduction to Hume's life and works.
Mossner, Ernest Campbell. The Forgotten Hume: Le bon David. New York: Columbia University Press, 1943, 251 p.
Intimate biography of Hume, observing him “as friend and as foe, as critic and as patron, as man and as Scot.”
———. The Life of David Hume. Second ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980, 709 p.
Biography of Hume containing a number of anecdotes and augmented by the liberal use of quotation.
Anscombe, G. E. M. “Times, Beginnings and Causes.” Proceedings of the British Academy LX...
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