David Hume Introduction - Essay


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.”

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.