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.
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...
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