David Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature is his earliest philosophical work and the one that contains the most complete exposition of his views. Apparently it was planned when he was in his early twenties, when he claimed to have discovered a “new scene of thought.” The work was composed during a sojourn in France from 1734 to 1737 and was revised shortly thereafter in an unsuccessful attempt to gain the approbation of Bishop Joseph Butler. The first book of A Treatise of Human Nature was published in 1739, and the other two the next year. Hume had hoped that his views would attract a great deal of attention; instead, the work “fell dead-born from the Press.” His novel theories did not attract attention until after he had published a more popular version in Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding (1748; best known as An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 1758). A Treatise of Human Nature was subjected to a full-scale attack by Thomas Reid in 1764. By this time, Hume was so successful as an author, especially on the basis of his essays and The History of England (1754-1762), that he refused to defend his first book and called it a juvenile work. Over the years, it has become increasingly important as the fullest and deepest statement of Hume’s philosophical views; book 1 of A Treatise of Human Nature has come to be regarded as one of the finest achievements of English philosophy.
A Treatise of Human Nature Summary
On the title page of book 1, Hume announces that A Treatise of Human Nature is “an attempt to introduce the experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects.” In the preface, he explains that he intends to develop a “science of man” by applying Sir Isaac Newton’s experimental method to human mental behavior. Following in the footsteps of various English and Scottish moral philosophers, and of the French skeptic Pierre Bayle, he hoped to discover the limits of human knowledge in such areas as mathematics, physics, and the social sciences (the moral subjects). By scrupulously observing human life, Hume thought he could discover certain general laws about human thinking and behavior. He admitted at the outset that it was probably not possible to uncover “the ultimate qualities of human nature,” but he thought it should be possible to learn something about the origin and nature of what we think we know.
All of our information, Hume writes, is composed of impressions and ideas. The only difference between these is that the former strike us more forcefully and with greater vivacity than do the latter. Ideas and impressions can be simple or complex, the simple ones being those that cannot be divided into parts or aspects, while the complex ones are composed of simple ones. There is a great deal of resemblance between the impressions and the ideas. The simple ideas, in fact, exactly resemble simple impressions in all respects except with regard to their force and vivacity. Further, in terms of their appearance in the mind, the simple impressions always precede the simple ideas (except for one unusual case that Hume brings up). The complex ideas are composed of simple parts that are exactly like the simple ingredients of impressions that we have already experienced, though the complex idea itself may not actually be a copy of any complex impression. These discoveries about impressions and ideas indicate, Hume says, that all of our ideas are derived from experience (the world of impressions) and that we have no innate ideas in our minds—that is, ideas that are not based on what we perceive.
In the first part of A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume proceeds to explore the bases of our knowledge. We possess two faculties, memory and imagination, for dealing with the ideas that we receive. The memory preserves the ideas in the exact order in which they entered the mind. The imagination, on the other hand, is free to arrange the ideas in any manner that is desired. However, contrary to what might be expected, our imaginations do not function at random. Instead, we imagine ideas in ordered sequences, so that whenever a particular idea comes to mind, related ideas automatically follow it, according to certain principles of the association of ideas that Hume calls “a kind of ATTRACTION, which in the mental world will be found to have as extraordinary effects as in the natural.” Ideas tend naturally to be associated when they are similar or when they are contiguous in time or space or when they stand in the relation of cause and effect. The importance of association is brought out when Hume comes to discuss causality in part 3.
Before applying these “discoveries” about the way we think, Hume takes up a few other questions. He argues first for a point the philosopher George Berkeley had previously made, that we possess no abstract general ideas but only ideas of particular things. General terms, such as “man” or “triangle,” designate the collections of similar particular ideas that we have acquired from experience.
Hume then tries to explain mathematics as being about particular experiences. He knew relatively little about mathematics and based many of his views on comments in philospher Pierre Bayle’s The Historical and Critical Dictionary (1695-1697). Hume’s empirical mathematical theory has generally been regarded as, perhaps, the weakest part of his book, though he was always proud of having shown that mathematics is “big with absurdity and contradiction.” Hume conceived of arithmetic as being a demonstrable science dealing with relations of quantity, whereas geometry was thought of as an empirical science dealing with observable points. Because of the limitation of our ability to see and count the points, the theorems in geometry are always to some degree uncertain.
The most famous part of A Treatise of Human Nature is the third part of book 1, which treats “Of Knowledge and Probability.” Genuine knowledge is gained by an intuitive inspection of two or more ideas to see if they stand in a particular relationship to each other. We can be completely certain by intuition that two ideas do or do not resemble each other, or that they differ from each other, or that one has more or less of a given quality than another—for instance, that one is darker than another. Such knowledge is certain in that it depends solely on what one “sees” when two or more ideas are brought together by the imagination, but it gives us relatively little information. By connecting a series of intuitions, we gain the sort of demonstrative knowledge that occurs in arithmetic and algebra. Intuition and demonstration are the sole sources of complete certainty and knowledge.
Our information about the causal relation of ideas does not arise from an intuitive examination of our ideas, and almost all of our information about what is happening beyond our immediate experience is based upon causal reasoning. How do we decide which ideas are causally related? When we examine two ideas, or two impressions that we think are so related, we find that we do not perceive any necessary or causal connection between them. We perceive only that the ideas are contiguous and successive. We do not, however, perceive that they are necessarily connected in any way, although we do feel that there must be more to the sequence than merely one idea following after another. We believe that one of the ideas must make the other occur. However, Hume asks, what evidence do we have for such a belief, and where do we acquire the belief? If we admit that we do not perceive any necessary connection between events, then Hume suggests that we ought to ask ourselves why we believe that every event must have a cause and why we believe that particular causes necessarily must have certain effects.
When the first problem is examined, we discover something that is surprising. Even though we all believe that every event must have a cause, this proposition is not intuitively obvious, nor can it be demonstrated. When we conceive of events, we neither see them as caused nor necessarily think of them in terms of their causes. Because of the freedom of our imagination, each event can be thought of separately and independently. If events can be thought of as uncaused, it is also possible that they occur uncaused. If that is a genuine possibility, then there can be no valid demonstration proving the impossibility of uncaused events. The demonstrations that had been offered by previous philosophers, Hume believed, are all unsatisfactory. They beg the question in that they assume what they are attempting to prove: namely, that every event has a cause. Apparently the causal principle, which is neither self-evident nor demonstrable, is so basic that we all accept it for reasons that seem to be unknown.
To explore the matter further, Hume turns to the other problem: What is the basis for our belief that particular causes have particular effects, and how do we infer one from the other? The actual constituents of our causal reasoning, he asserts, are a present impression of sense or memory, an imagined idea of a related event, and an unknown connection between them. When we hear a certain sound, we think of somebody ringing the doorbell. Why and how do we infer from the impression to its supposed cause? Many other ideas might have come to mind. When we hear the sound, we do not, at the same time, experience its cause, yet we implicitly believe that said cause must also be occurring to produce the perceived effect. This reasoning...
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Hume next questions whether we possess any evidence that this principle is true, or that it has to be true. Since we can readily imagine that the world might change in many respects in the future, it is not possible to demonstrate that nature must be uniform. Our experience up to the present moment does not constitute evidence as to what the future course of nature will be, or must be. Just because the sun has risen every day up to now does not prove that it has to rise tomorrow. We can judge the future only if we know that nature is uniform. However, our information up to this point is only that, so far, nature has always been uniform. Experience can provide us with no clue about what has to be the case in the future. Hence, we...
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Hume uses his discovery of the psychological origins of our belief in the uniformity of nature to explain the basis for our conviction that there is a necessary connection between events. The necessary connection is never perceived, no matter how often the same sequence is observed. However, after a constant conjunction of events has been perceived many times, we then feel that one of the conjuncts causes or produces the other. It is not any discoverable fact about the events that makes us believe this, but rather our psychological attitude toward the events. We possess a fundamental propensity or determination of the mind to think of a conjoined idea after experiencing the conjunct or thinking of it, once we have perceived the...
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In Hume’s explanation of causality, he joins Nicolas de Malebranche’s contention that there is no necessary connection between events with his own psychological account of how we react to the uniformities in experience. Because of our habits, we expect the future to resemble the past, and we feel that when we observe certain events, their constant conjuncts must also be taking place, even if we cannot observe them. We have no actual knowledge of what is taking place, but only beliefs. Because we can never be completely sure that our beliefs correspond to the actual state of affairs, our causal information is always, at best, only probable.
Hume sees the task of the sciences as that of carefully establishing bases...
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After presenting his explanation of the source of our information, the nature of our beliefs about the world, and the character of scientific “knowledge,” Hume turns in part 4 of A Treatise of Human Nature to the full statement of his skeptical views. He first presents a series of reasons to show why we should be doubtful of the conclusions that we come to because of our reasoning and those that we come to because of our sense experience and our attitudes toward it. Then Hume contends that though there are basic difficulties with regard to both our reason and our senses, we still have to believe many things because of our psychological structure. Unfortunately, what we believe is often either indefensible or...
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However, nature prevents us from carrying out this skeptical attitude to its final destructive conclusion. Regardless of the difficulties, in practice we find that we have to believe all sorts of things, even incompatible things. When we go out in the world, the skeptical doubts lose their force; we are overwhelmed by our natural feelings and beliefs, and we act and live in the same way anyone else does. Hume’s final advice is that one should be skeptical when one has to be, and be a natural believer when one must, while realizing that neither of these attitudes has any final justification. In periods when doubts are not being taken seriously, one can go on to examine other aspects of the human world, as Hume does in books 2 and...
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Ayer, A. J. Hume. New York: Hill and Wang, 1980. This brief introduction to Hume’s life is both well written and useful. The chapter on aims and methods is especially good.
Chappell, V. C., ed. Hume: A Collection of Critical Essays. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966. This collection of twenty-one essays by such acknowledged authorities as Ernest Mossner and Anthony Flew is valuable to students of Hume.
Hanson, Delbert J. Fideism and Hume’s Philosophy: Knowledge, Religion, and Metaphysics. New York: Peter Lang, 1993. Fideism holds that belief in some...
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