Article abstract: Hume’s philosophical writings undermined 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, leaving 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 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 on 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, and he returned to England in expectation of “literary fame.”
Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature saw publication 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. Later scholarship, however, 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 on 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 people 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,” not reason, lead people to act.
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. The scholar Nicholas Capaldi defended Hume’s theory of perception, but he acknowledged 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 that were more successful and more lucrative, but he still needed a permanent position. He was encouraged to apply for the vacant professorship of ethics 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 An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.
An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding clarifies some sections of A Treatise of Human Nature, adding two chapters as well. However, the chapters that were added, “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 he finds a person’s belief in miracles to be 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 commonsense 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...
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