David Hume (26 April 1711 25 August 1776), Scottish philosopher, economist, and historian is an important figure in Western philosophy, and in the history of the Scottish Enlightenment. Together with John Locke, Berkeley, and a handful of others, Hume is one of the principal early philosophers of empiricism.
He first gained recognition and respect as a historian, but academic interest in Hume's work has in recent years centered on his philosophical writing. His History of England was the standard work on English history for many years, until Macaulay's The History of England from the Accession of James the Second.
Hume was the first philosopher of the modern era to produce a naturalistic philosophy. This philosophy partly consisted in rejection of the historically prevalent conception of human minds as being miniature versions of the divine mind. This doctrine was associated with a trust in the powers of human reason and insight into reality, which possessed God’s certification. Hume’s scepticism came in his rejection of this ‘insight ideal’, and the (usually rationalistic) confidence derived from it that the world is as we represent it. Instead, the best we can do is to apply the strongest explanatory and empirical principles available to the investigation of human mental phenomena, issuing in a quasi-Newtonian project, Hume's ‘Science of Man’.
Hume was heavily influenced by empiricists John Locke and George Berkeley, along with various French-speaking writers such as Pierre Bayle, and various figures on the English-speaking intellectual landscape such as Isaac Newton, Samuel Clarke, Francis Hutcheson, and Joseph Butler.
At the age of eighteen, Hume made a philosophical discovery that opened up to him "a new Scene of Thought," which inspired him "to throw up every other Pleasure or Business to apply entirely to it". He did not recount what this "Scene" was, and commentators have offered a variety of speculations. Due to this inspiration, Hume set out to spend a minimum of ten years reading and writing. He came on the verge of nervous breakdown, after which he decided to have a more active life to better continue his learning.
Although many scholars today consider the Treatise to be Hume's most important work and one of the most important books in western philosophy, the critics in Great Britain at the time did not agree, describing it as "abstract and unintelligible". Despite the disappointment, Hume later wrote, "Being naturally of a cheerful and sanguine temper, I soon recovered from the blow and prosecuted with great ardour my studies in the country". There, he wrote the Abstract. Without revealing his authorship, he aimed to make his larger work more intelligible by shortening it.
After the publication of Essays Moral and Political in 1744, Hume applied for the Chair of Pneumatics and Moral Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. However, the position was given to William Cleghorn, after Edinburgh ministers petitioned the town council not to appoint Hume due to his atheism.
During the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, Hume tutored the Marquise of Annandale (1720-92), who was officially described as a "lunatic". This engagement ended in disarray after about a year. But it was then that Hume started his great historical work The History of Great Britain, which would take fifteen years and run to over a million words, to be published in six volumes in the period between 1754 and 1762. During this period, he was involved with the Canongate Theatre. In this context, he associated with Lord Monboddo and other Scottish Enlightenment luminaries in Edinburgh. From 1746, Hume served for three years as Secretary to Lieutenant-General St Clair, and wrote Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding, later published as An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. The Enquiry proved little more successful than the Treatise.
Hume was charged with heresy, but he was defended by his young clerical friends, who argued that—as an atheist—he was outside the Church's jurisdiction. Despite his acquittal—and possibly due to the opposition of Thomas Reid of Aberdeen, who that year launched a Christian critique of his metaphysics—Hume failed to gain the Chair of Philosophy at the University of Glasgow.
It was after returning to Edinburgh in 1752, as he wrote in My Own Life, that "the Faculty of Advocates chose me their Librarian, an office from which I received little or no emolument, but which gave me the command of a large library. This resource enabled him to continue historical research for The History of Great Britain.
Hume achieved great literary fame as a historian. His enormous The History of Great Britain, tracing events from the Saxon kingdoms to the Glorious Revolution, was a best-seller in its day. In it, Hume presented political man as a creature of habit, with a disposition to submit quietly to established government unless confronted by uncertain circumstances. In his view, only religious difference could deflect men from their everyday lives to think about political matters.
However, Hume's volume of Political Discourses (1752) was the only work he considered successful on first publication.
Hume's early essay Of Superstition and Religion laid the foundations for nearly all subsequent secular thinking about the history of religion. Critics of religion during Hume's time had to express themselves cautiously. Less than 15 years before Hume's birth, an 18-year-old University student named Thomas Aikenhead was tried, convicted, and hanged for blasphemy for saying Christianity was nonsense. Hume followed the common practice of expressing his views obliquely, through characters in dialogues. He did not acknowledge authorship of Treatise until the year of his death, in 1776.
Hume's essays On Suicide, On the Immortality of the Soul, and Dialogues concerning Natural Religion were not published until after his death, and even then bore neither author's nor publisher's name. Hume's atheism caused him to be passed over for many positions.
Hume told his friend, Mure of Caldwell, of an incident that occasioned his conversion to Christianity. Passing across the recently drained Nor’ Loch to the New Town of Edinburgh to supervise the masons building his new house, soon to become No. 1 St. David Street, he slipped and fell into the mire. Hume, being then of great bulk, could not regain his feet. Some passing Newhaven fishwives saw his plight but recognised him as the well-known atheist, and refused to rescue him unless he became a Christian and recited The Lord’s Prayer and the Creed. This he did, and was rewarded by being set again on his feet by these brawny women. Hume asserted thereafter that Edinburgh fishwives were the "most acute theologians he had ever met".
James Boswell visited Hume a few weeks before his death. Hume told him he sincerely believed it a "most unreasonable fancy" that there might be life after death. This meeting was dramatized in semi-fictional form for the BBC by Michael Ignatieff as Dialogue in the Dark. Hume wrote his own epitaph: "Born 1711, Died [----]. Leaving it to posterity to add the rest." It is engraved with the year of his death 1776 on the "simple Roman tomb" he prescribed, and which stands, as he wished it, on the Eastern slope of the Calton Hill overlooking his home in the New Town of Edinburgh at No. 1 St. David Street.
This section will explore some of Hume’s main philosophical ideas. In the introduction to A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume writes “the science of man is the only solid foundation for the other sciences,” and that the correct method for this science is “experience and observation”; i.e. the empirical method. Because of this, Hume is broadly characterised as a champion of empiricism. But the form Hume’s empiricism takes is contested amongst scholars.
Until quite recently, Hume was seen as a forerunner of the logical positivist movement; a form of anti-metaphysical empiricism. According to the logical positivists, unless a statement could be verified or falsified by experience, or else was true or false by definition (i.e. either tautological or contradictory), then it was meaningless (this is a summary statement of their infamous verification principle). Hume, on this view, was a proto-positivist, who, in his philosophical writings, took to showing how ordinary propositions about objects, causal relations, the self, and so on, were semantically equivalent to propositions about one’s experiences.
However, many commentators have since rejected this understanding of Humean empiricism, stressing an epistemological, rather than a semantic reading of his project. According to this view, Hume’s empiricism consisted in the idea that it is our knowledge, and not our ability to conceive, that is restricted to what can be experienced. To be sure, Hume thought that we can form beliefs about that which extends beyond any possible experience, through the operation of faculties such as custom and the imagination, but he was sceptical about claims to knowledge on this basis.
The cornerstone of Hume’s epistemology is the so-called Problem of Induction: it has been argued that it is in this area of Hume’s thought that his scepticism about human powers of reason is the most pronounced. Understanding the problem of induction, then, is central to grasping Hume’s general philosophical system.
The problem concerns the explanation of how we are able to make inductive inferences. Inductive inference is reasoning from the observed behaviour of objects to their behaviour when unobserved; as Hume says, it is a question of how things behave when they go “beyond the present testimony of the senses, and the records of our memory”. Hume notices that we tend to believe that things behave in a regular manner; i.e. that patterns in the behaviour of objects will persist into the future, and the unobserved present (this persistence of regularities is sometimes called the Principle of the Uniformity of Nature).
Hume’s argument is now that we cannot rationally justify the claim that nature will continue to be uniform, as justification comes in only two varieties, and both of these are inadequate. The two sorts are: (1) demonstrative reasoning, and (2) probable reasoning. With regard to (1), Hume argues that the uniformity principle cannot be demonstrated, as it is “consistent and conceivable” that nature might stop being regular. Turning to (2), Hume argues that we cannot hold that nature will continue to be uniform because it has been in the past, as this is using the very sort of reasoning (induction) that is under question: it would be circular reasoning. Thus no form of justification will rationally warrant our inductive inferences.
Hume’s solution to this sceptical problem is to argue that, rather than reason, it is natural instinct that explains our ability to make inductive inferences. He asserts that “Nature, by an absolute and uncountroulable necessity has determin'd us to judge as well as to breathe and feel”. Although many modern commentators have demurred from Hume’s solution, some have concurred with it, seeing his analysis of our epistemic predicament as a major contribution to the theory of knowledge: here, for example, is the Oxford Professor John D. Kenyon: “Reason might manage to raise a doubt about the truth of a conclusion of natural inductive inference just for a moment in the study, but the forces of nature will soon overcome that artificial scepticism, and the sheer agreeableness of animal faith will protect us from excessive caution and sterile suspension of belief.”
The notion of causation is closely linked, in Hume, to the problem of induction. Hume saw induction as reasoning on the basis of patterns in the observed behaviour of objects, and these patterns were essentially causal. However, Hume’s views on the concept of causation are much disputed. There are (at least) three interpretations in the literature, viz.: (1) the logical positivist interpretation; (2) the sceptical realist interpretation; and (3) the quasi-realist interpretation.
According to the positivist view, Hume is offering an analysis of causal propositions such as “A caused B”, or “B happened because of A”. This analysis is said to be in terms of the regular succession of certain of our experiences: on this interpretation, Hume is saying that propositions such as “A caused B” are equivalent to propositions such as “Whenever A occurs, then B does”, where “whenever” refers to all possible observations of A and B.
This view has been rejected, however, by sceptical realists, who argue that Hume was not discussing the meaning of causal terms, but rather the source of our belief in the existence of causal connections in our experience. The major disagreement with the positivists focuses on the notion of necessary connection. According to the positivists, as we have seen, causation consists solely in regular succession; but sceptical realists point out that Hume also thought our concept of causation was of that of a necessary relation. As he says in the Treatise:
“Shall we rest contented with these two relations of contiguity and succession? By no means… there is a NECESSARY CONNECTION to be taken into consideration”
The reason Hume is called a sceptical realist on this take is that he did not think we could have perceptual access to the necessary connection, and thus we have no rational justification for believing in it (hence scepticism); but at the same time we are compelled by natural instinct to believe there to be a necessary connection when we observe a regularity or constancy in our perceptions, and this natural belief is of an objective causal necessity (hence realism).
A reading challenging whether Hume was straightforwardly realist about causation is that of Professor Simon Blackburn, who entitles his view quasi-realism. According to this view, Hume did not think that causal necessity was completely independent of human consciousness, and therefore was not a fully-fledged “realist” (as the sceptical realists have held). Instead, talk about causal necessity is an expression of a functional change in the human mind brought about by experience of observed conjunctions of events, that guides us inescapably to anticipate and predict unobserved events to carry on in the same way. When we talk of there being a causal necessity we are “projecting” this functional change onto the objects involved in the causal connection: in Hume’s words, “nothing is more usual than to apply to external bodies every internal sensation which they occasion”.
There are at least two broadly different ways of interpreting Hume's views on personal identity. According to the first view, Hume was a Bundle Theorist, who held that the self is nothing but a bundle of interconnected perceptions linked by relations of similarity and causality; or, more accurately, that our idea of the self is as nothing but such a bundle. This view is forwarded by, for example, positivist interpreters, who saw Hume as suggesting that terms such as “self”, “person”, or "mind" referred to collections of “sense-contents”. This account draws on Hume's remarks that a person is "a bundle or collection of different perceptions". A modern-day version of the bundle theory of the mind has been advanced by Derek Parfit in his Reasons and Persons. However, some philosophers have criticised the bundle-theory interpretation of Hume on personal identity. It is argued that distinct selves can have perceptions which stand in relations of similarity and causality with one another, and that, therefore, perceptions must already come parcelled into distinct "bundles" before they can be associated according to the relations of similarity and causality. The mind must already possess a unity that cannot be generated by these relations alone. Since the bundle-theory interpretation attributes Hume with answering an ontological or conceptual question, philosophers who see Hume as not very concerned with such questions have queried whether the view is really Hume's, or "only a decoy".
An alternative theory is that Hume is answering an epistemological question about the cause of people forming judgements or beliefs about the existence of a constant self. In support of this interpretation we can point to passages that use causal terminology: “What then gives us so great a propension to ascribe an identity to these successive perceptions, and to suppose ourselves possest of an invariable and uninterrupted existence thro' the whole course of our lives?” This genetic or causal question is distinct from the ontological or conceptual question that Bundle Theory interpreters of Hume have taken him to be answering.
This reading of Hume sets out the problem that, although experience is interrupted and ever-changing, we somehow form a concept of a constant self that is the subject of these experiences. Hume’s answer on this account is that it is the same interconnections and relations between perceptions that force the imagination to believe in the existence of mind-independent objects. Hume argues that our idea of the mind develops in parallel with our belief in the existence of external objects. Hume connects these notions when he says that the human mind is conceived of as a field of experience, into which various different objects appear and then disappear: "the true idea of the human mind, is to consider it as a system of different perceptions or different existences, which are link'd together by the relation of cause and effect, and mutually produce, destroy, influence, and modify each other.
Hume's most famous sentence occurs at Treatise, II, III, iii, Of the influencing motives of the will: "Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." Hume here extends his anti-rationalism from the epistemological sphere into that of the theory of action, and demonstrates that the faculty of reason cannot, of itself, move the will. He starts the section by going over the by now familiar distinction between demonstrative and probable reasoning (roughly, deductive and inductive reasoning). He then argues that neither can influence the will, as both simply provide information deductive reasoning about correct mathematical or logical inference and inductive reasoning about causal connections and it is always open to us as to how to act on this information. Hume then argues that to be moved to act on the information provided us by reason, passions, desires and inclinations must play a role. To take a simple example: using causal reasoning I can discern that if I drink a lot of wine, I will get drunk, but the truth of this conditional will not motivate me to do anything unless I have some desire, in this case the desire to be drunk. As such, Hume forwards the basic folk psychological action-theory that a motive to action requires both a belief (ascertained by the understanding) and a desire (provided by the passions). This theory is still hotly contested, with Humean philosophers such as Simon Blackburn and Michael Smith on one side, and moral cognitivists, like John McDowell, and Kantians, like Christine Korsgaard, on the other.
Nonetheless, Hume is no utilitarian. In line with his debunking of religion, and of knowledge itself, he has no time for theories attempting to put ethics on a pedestal. But nor is he entirely contemptuous of public morality. Unlike Thomas Hobbes, Hume considers the ethical impulse a worthy one, based on more than self-interest. This is because, in addition to considerations of self-interest, Hume maintains that we can be moved by our 'sympathy' for others, fundamental human impulses that provide a person with thoroughly non-selfish concerns and motivations—sometimes referred to by contemporary theorists as altruistic concern.
Here, Hume follows his close friend and (at the time) much more highly respected contemporary, Adam Smith whose book entitled 'The Theory of the Moral Sentiments' (1759) starts with a chapter entitled 'Of Sympathy'. Smith's theory was intended to explain the operations of human society in much the same way as his (better-remembered) economic works on the nature of money. The theory assumes that there are, in fact, "no differences between right and wrong, just different emotional responses to acts as Martin Cohen has put it. This is why Hume says: "It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger Instead, Hume defends his sympathy-based, moral sentimentalism by claiming that we could never make moral judgments based on reason alone. Our reason deals with facts and draws conclusions from them, but, Ceteris paribus, it could not lead us to choose one option over the other; only our sentiments can do this. Also, our sympathy-based sentiments can motivate us towards the pursuit of non-selfish ends, like the utility of others. For Hume, and for fellow sympathy-theorist Adam Smith, the term "sympathy" is meant to capture much more than concern for the suffering of others. Sympathy, for Hume, is a principle for the communication and sharing of sentiments, both positive and negative. In this sense, it is akin to what contemporary psychologists and philosophers call empathy. In developing this sympathy-based moral sentimentalism, Hume surpasses the divinely implanted moral sense theory of his predecessor, Francis Hutcheson, by elaborating a naturalistic, moral psychological basis for the moral sense, in terms of the operation of sympathy. Hume's arguments against founding morality on reason are often now included in the arsenal of moral anti-realist arguments. As Humean-inspired philosopher John Mackie suggests, for there to exist moral facts about the world, recognizable by reason and intrinsically motivating, they would have to be very queer facts. Still, there is considerable debate among scholars as to Hume's status as a realist versus anti-realist.
In opposition to Christian thinkers (e.g., Samuel Clarke) who argued that for a person to be morally responsible, his actions must not be determined by any physical cause, Hume wrote that moral responsibility requires determinism: Hume argued that if effects are not determined by their causes then they're random, and similarly if actions aren't caused by the character then they're random and not the responsibility of the person who committed them.
Beyond saying that a person is only responsible when they enjoy free will, and that free will is when one gets to act according to one's character, Hume also offers a psychological evaluation of why we judge people. Hume says that we hold people to blame or approbation when we judge their character as being respectively harmful or beneficial to society. Following from Hume's ideas on experience and causation, this means that when, for example, we experience a person's character (the cause) as resulting in a bad action (the effect), we apply the principle that similar causes result in similar effects, judge that the character will result in future bad actions, and decide that it is important to blame that person for the good of the society.
Murray N. Rothbard argued that Hume's argument that values cannot be derived from facts is unpersuasive. Some allege that nothing can be in the conclusion of an argument that was not in one of the premises; and that therefore, an "ought" conclusion cannot follow from descriptive premises. But a conclusion follows from both premises taken together; the "ought" need not be present in either one of the premises so long as it has been validly deduced. Rothbard concluded that to say that it cannot be so deduced simply begs the question.
Hume discusses everyday belief as often resulted from probability, where we believe an event that has occurred most often as being most likely, but that we also subtract the weighting of the less common event from that of the more common event. In the context of miracles, this means that a miraculous event should be labelled a miracle only where it would be even more unbelievable (by principles of probability) for it not to be. Hume mostly discusses miracles as testimony, of which he writes that when a person reports a marvellous event we (need to) balance our belief in their veracity against our belief that such events do not occur. Following this rule, only where it is considered, as a result of experience, less likely that the testimony is false than that a miracle occur should we believe in miracles.
Although Hume leaves open the possibility for miracles to occur and be reported, he offers various arguments against this ever having happened in history:
Despite all this Hume observes that belief in miracles is popular, and that "The gazing populace receive greedily, without examination, whatever soothes superstition and promotes wonder."
Critics have argued that Hume's position assumes the character of miracles and natural laws prior to any specific examination of miracle claims, and thus it amounts to a subtle form of begging the question. They have also noted that it requires an appeal to inductive inference, as none have observed every part of nature or examined every possible miracle claim (e.g., those yet future to the observer), which in Hume's philosophy was especially problematic (see above).
Hume expressed suspicion of attempts to reform society in ways that departed from long-established custom, and he counselled people not to resist their governments except in cases of the most egregious tyranny. However, he resisted aligning himself with either of Britain's two political parties, the Whigs and the Tories, and he believed that we should try to balance our demands for liberty with the need for strong authority, without sacrificing either. He supported liberty of the press, and was sympathetic to democracy, when suitably constrained. It has been argued that he was a major inspiration for James Madison's writings, and the Federalist No. 10 in particular. He was also, in general, an optimist about social progress, believing that, thanks to the economic development that comes with the expansion of trade, societies progress from a state of "barbarism" to one of "civilisation". Civilised societies are open, peaceful and sociable, and their citizens are as a result much happier. It is therefore not fair to characterise him, as Leslie Stephen did, as favouring "that stagnation which is the natural ideal of a skeptic". (Leslie Stephen, History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, 2 vols. (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1876), vol. 2, 185.)
Though it has been suggested Hume had no positive vision of the best society, he in fact produced an essay titled Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth, which lays out what he thought was the best form of government. His pragmatism shone through, however, in his caveat that we should only seek to implement such a system should an opportunity present itself, which would not upset established structures. He defended a strict separation of powers, decentralisation, extending the franchise to anyone who held property of value and limiting the power of the clergy. The Swiss militia system was proposed as the best form of protection. Elections were to take place on an annual basis and representatives were to be unpaid.
Hume does not believe, as Locke does, that private property is a natural right, but he argues that it is justified since resources are limited. If all goods were unlimited and available freely, then private property would not be justified, but instead becomes an "idle ceremonial". Hume also believed in unequal distribution of property, since perfect equality would destroy the ideas of thrift and industry, which leads to impoverishment.
Hume did not believe that foreign trade produced specie, but considered trade a stimulus for a country’s economic growth. He did not consider the volume of world trade as fixed because countries can feed off their neighbors' wealth, being part of a "prosperous community". The fall in foreign demand is not that fatal, because in the long run, a country cannot preserve a leading trading position.
Hume was among the first to develop automatic price-specie flow, an idea that contrasts with the mercantile system. Simply put, when a country increases its in-flow of gold, this in-flow of gold will result in price inflation, and then price inflation will force out countries from trading that would have traded before the inflation. This results in a decrease of the in-flow of gold in the long run.
Hume also proposed a theory of beneficial inflation. He believed that increasing the money supply would raise production in the short run. This phenomenon would be caused by a gap between the increase in the money supply and that of the price level. The result is that prices will not rise at first and may not rise at all. This theory was later developed by John Maynard Keynes.
Between Hume's death and 1894, there were at least 50 editions of his 6-volume History of England, a work of immense sweep. The subtitle tells us as much, "From the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution in 1688."
There was also an often-reprinted abridgement, The Student’s Hume (1859).
Hume's history was that of a Tory, in sharp contrast to the Whiggish works then prevailing.
Another remarkable feature of the series was that it widened the focus of history, away from merely Kings, Parliaments, and armies, including literature and science as well.
A. J. Ayer (1936), introducing his classic exposition of logical positivism, claimed: "the views which are put forward in this treatise derive from the logical outcome of the empiricism of Berkeley and Hume". Albert Einstein (1915) wrote that he was inspired by Hume's positivism when formulating his Special Theory of Relativity. Hume was called "the prophet of the Wittgensteinian revolution" by N. Phillipson, referring to his view that mathematics and logic are closed systems, disguised tautologies, and have no relation to the world of experience. David Fate Norton (1993) asserted that Hume was "the first post-sceptical philosopher of the early modern period".