Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2097
Article abstract: Hume’s philosophical writings destroyed the earlier reliance on reason as a guide for action and made major advances in the theory of perception and ethics.
David Hume was born into a middle-class family, but his father died when he was quite young; this left him, as the second son, with a patrimony of fifty pounds per year and a precarious living. He went to Edinburgh University with his older brother at the early age of twelve, and after three years of study he left without taking a degree, as was the custom at the time. Hume spent the next three years reading the Greek and Roman classics rather than the legal tomes he was supposed to master for a career in the law. Hume’s reading of the classics inclined him to a career in letters (philosophy, history, criticism), and he set about reading at various libraries to prepare himself for the essays in philosophy and morals he planned to write. By 1729, he had already set out the plan for his first work, but such intensive study had an effect upon his health, so he began to exercise and transformed, in his own words, “a tall, lean and rawbon’d” young man into the “most sturdy, robust, healthful-like Fellow you have seen.”
Hume had some difficulties in his first job as a clerk in Bristol. The work was not congenial, and he was named in a paternity suit as well. He therefore went to France in 1734, where his fifty pounds would enable him to live more comfortably and where he could read and study more widely. He spent a year at Reims and two years at Anjou, where he took advantage of the Jesuit library where René Descartes had studied. After three years of studying and writing, Hume had almost completed his first major work, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-1746), and he returned to England in expectation of “literary fame.”
Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature was published in 1739, but was, for the most part, ignored by the public; Hume said it “fell dead born from the Press.” There is still some debate among scholars about Hume’s intentions in the treatise. The most common view until the mid-twentieth century was that Hume was attempting to undermine or subvert the philosophies of John Locke and George Berkeley. Recent scholarship, however, has suggested that Hume was attempting to apply the Newtonian model developed in natural philosophy (now known as physics) to moral philosophy. The most important aspect of Hume’s program was an assault upon the primacy of reason in human affairs. As Hume said in his famous dictum, “Reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” What Hume attempted to do was banish that inaccurate reliance on reason and all formulations of “ought” in moral issues by showing how men really lived and acted; Hume’s philosophy is based on common sense, and not on deductive premises. Hume’s solution is to propose that “custom” and the “passions” lead man to act, not reason. Other aspects of A Treatise of Human Nature that deserve mention are Hume’s attempt to construct a theory of perception based on sense impressions rather than innate ideas. For Hume, ideas are “derived from simple impressions.” Nevertheless, while Hume believed in the existence of the objects of perception, he realized that he could not prove that they existed. Nicholas Capaldi has defended Hume’s theory of perception, but even he acknowledges problems and inconsistencies in it. More important for later philosophy is Hume’s theory of causation, which attempts to destroy the Aristotelian theory of “essences” (what makes an object what it is when it is interacting with something else) and replace it with a Newtonian concept that defines an object by the qualities it appears to possess.
After the failure of A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume wrote political essays which were more successful and more lucrative, but he still needed a permanent position. He was encouraged to apply for the vacant professor of ethics position at Edinburgh University. Hume was obviously highly qualified but was rejected by the “zealots” for his supposed atheism. Hume defended his position in a pamphlet and accepted a position as tutor to the mad Marquess of Annandale. During these years he rewrote A Treatise of Human Nature to clarify certain positions and to tone down others that had offended some readers. The result of these revisions was published as Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding in 1748.
Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding clarifies some sections of A Treatise of Human Nature, adding two chapters as well. The chapters that were added, however, “Of Miracles” and “Of Particular Providence and Of a Future State,” led to controversy. Hume tests all reports of miracles by the rules of evidence and logic and finds them so deficient that a person’s belief in miracles is nothing less than miraculous. Hume is not as direct in his rejection of the arguments for God’s providence; he simply sets it aside, saying: “No new fact can ever be inferred by the religious hypothesis.” There is no evidence that Hume ever denied the existence of God, but he opposed basing religion on such dubious grounds.
Hume extended his common-sense approach to morality with the publication of An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals in 1751. In his search for a viable source for morality, Hume changed the concept of “sympathy” in A Treatise of Human Nature to one of “benevolence—a common idea in the eighteenth century.” He makes this change clear in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals: “Everything which contributes to the happiness of society, recommends itself directly to our approbation and good will. Here is a principle which accounts, in great part for the origin of morality: And what need we seek for abstruse and remote systems, when there occurs one so obvious and natural.” Hume also contrasts the principle of “benevolence” to that of “self-love,” and he asserts, “I hate or despise him, who has no regard to any thing beyond his own gratifications and enjoyments.”
During this period, Hume supported himself by taking a position first as judge advocate and later as aide-de-camp to General James St. Clair. The general’s projected military expedition to Canada never became operational, but Hume did later take part in a military embassy with St. Clair to Vienna and Turin. Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals was not immediately successful, so on his return to Scotland he began to write Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (which was not published until three years after his death, in 1779) and History of England. History of England was published in six volumes from 1754 to 1762, and they did provide Hume with the literary fame for which he longed. Hume’s History of England, ironically, was far better known and respected in the eighteenth century than were his enduring philosophical works, which were ignored or denounced for atheism.
The Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion is in the form of a Socratic dialogue with four speakers: Pamphillus (the narrator), Cleanthes (a Deist), Demea (an orthodox believer), and Philo (a skeptic). The subject of the dialogue is the “science of natural religion,” which is based on scientific evidence and reasoning rather than revealed or institutional religion. Cleanthes advances the argument from design as proof of God’s existence and nature. This argument is rejected by both the orthodox Demea and the skeptical Philo. At the end of the dialogue, Pamphillus acts as a sort of referee and states: “I cannot but think that Philo’s principles are more probable than Demea’s, but those of Cleanthes approach still nearer to the truth.” This sudden shift at the end has puzzled many commentators, and as a result some have said that Philo speaks for Hume and others that Cleanthes does. Richard H. Popkin supports his view that Cleanthes speaks for Hume by comparing those views to Hume’s other writings. If this is so, then the widespread notion that Hume rejected religion altogether is inaccurate, although he did oppose institutional religion throughout his life.
From 1763 until 1767, Hume served as private secretary to the Earl of Hertford, who was appointed British ambassador to France. In France, Hume received the fame and even adulation he never found in England. The French recognized Hume as an important philosopher, and he had a receptive audience in the philosophes of Paris. He also had perhaps his closest relationship with a woman while in Paris. His friendship with the Comtesse de Boufflers soon became a more intimate relationship; they maintained a correspondence for many years, but marriage was impossible.
Hume returned to Scotland in 1767 and began revision on the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. For once, he had no financial worries; his writing and appointments gave him an income of one thousand pounds per year. He became ill in 1775 and died on August 25, 1776, in a tranquil mood despite the impertinent questions about his beliefs posed by James Boswell and others.
David Hume was a man of the eighteenth century—the Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason. It is often forgotten, however, that a major part of Hume’s work was intended to show the limits of reason. He extolled common sense and distrusted any theory that was not soundly based on man’s experience. He never lapsed, however, into empiricism but instead retained a skeptical mind about the certainty of the objects of our perceptions. Many critics have complained that Hume’s philosophy is merely negative and skeptical, but Hume specifically rejected the extreme form of skepticism called Pyrrhonism, and many of his deconstructions prepared the way for other philosophers. For example, Immanuel Kant made his debt to Hume quite clear: “I honestly confess that my recollection of David Hume’s teaching was the very thing which many years ago first interrupted my dogmatic slumber.” Hume also had a direct influence on such nineteenth century Utilitarians as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Mill’s Essay on Liberty is clearly indebted to Hume.
There are lapses and inconsistencies in Hume’s philosophy, and his psychological solutions to philosophical problems are of little value today. Nevertheless, Hume’s achievement remains significant. He may not have solved the problem of the existence of the objects of perception, but he showed that Berkeley’s idealism and Locke’s empiricism were inadequate. In addition, Hume’s rejection of metaphysics is a favorite theme for the twentieth century poststructuralists. John Passmore sums up Hume’s achievement: “He [Hume] is pre-eminently a breaker of new ground: a philosopher who opens up new lines of thought, who suggests to us an endless variety of philosophical explorations.”
Ayer, A. J. Hume. New York: Hill and Wang, 1980. This brief introduction to Hume’s life and thought is both well-written and useful. The chapter on aims and methods is especially good.
Capaldi, Nicholas. David Hume: The Newtonian Philosopher. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1975. The subtitle illustrates Capaldi’s approach. He is very good on Hume’s moral views. The book is thorough, with comparisons and contrasts to other thinkers.
Chappel, V. C., ed. Hume: A Collection of Critical Essays. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., 1966. This collection of twenty-one essays by such acknowledged authorities as Ernest Mossner and Anthony Flew is very valuable to students of Hume. There are many essays on Hume’s theories of causality and morality.
Mossner, Ernest Campbell. The Life of David Hume. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980. Even though Mossner’s style can be annoying and some of his speculations seem dubious, his life of Hume is the standard biography. It does not discuss in detail Hume’s ideas but is superb on his life and background.
Noxon, James. Hume’s Philosophical Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973. Noxon traces the changes in Hume’s methodology and epistemology with clarity and cogency.
Passmore, John. Hume’s Intentions. 3d ed. London: Duckworth, 1980. This is an invaluable discussion of what Hume said and intended; Passmore corrects earlier imprecise and biased views of Hume. Well written.
Popkin, Richard H. Introduction to Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1980. Excellent introduction and edition of one of Hume’s most interesting works.
Price, John Valdimir. The Ironic Hume. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1965. Price investigates an aspect of Hume’s practice that is ignored by others. He also suggests some important changes in interpretation that result from Hume’s use of irony.