(7 May [O.S. 26 April] 1711 – 25 August 1776) was a Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist, known especially for his philosophical empiricism and skepticism. He was one of the most important figures in the history of Western and the Scottish Enlightenment. Hume is often grouped with John Locke, George Berkeley, and a handful of others as aBritish Empiricist.
Beginning with his A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), Hume strove to create a total naturalistic “science of man” that examined the psychological basis of human nature. In stark opposition to therationalists who preceded him, most notably Descartes, he concluded that desire rather than reason governed human behaviour, saying: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” A prominent figure in the skeptical philosophical tradition and a strong empiricist, he argued against the existence of innate ideas, concluding instead that humans have knowledge only of things they directly experience. Thus he divides perceptions between strong and lively “impressions” or direct sensations and fainter “ideas,” which are copied from impressions. He developed the position that mental behaviour is governed by “custom”; our use of induction, for example, is justified only by our idea of the “constant conjunction” of causes and effects. Without direct impressions of a metaphysical “self,” he concluded that humans have no actual conception of the self, only of a bundle of sensations associated with the self. Hume advocated a compatibilist theory of free will that proved extremely influential on subsequent moral philosophy. He was also a sentimentalist who held that ethics are based on feelings rather than abstract moral principles. Hume also examined the normative is–ought problem. He held notoriously ambiguous views of Christianity, but famously challenged the argument from design in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779).
Kant credited Hume with waking him up from his “dogmatic slumbers” and Hume has proved extremely influential on subsequent philosophy, especially on utilitarianism, logical positivism, William James, philosophy of science, early analytic philosophy, cognitive philosophy, and other movements and thinkers. The philosopher Jerry Fodor proclaimed Hume’s Treatise “the founding document of cognitive science.” Also famous as a prose stylist Hume pioneered the essay as a literary genre and engaged with contemporary intellectual luminaries such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau,Adam Smith (who acknowledged Hume’s influence on his economics and political philosophy), James Boswell, Joseph Butler, and Thomas Reid.
David Hume, originally David Home, son of Joseph Home of Chirnside, advocate, and Katherine Falconer, was born on 26 April 1711 (Old Style) in a tenement on the north side of the Lawnmarket in Edinburgh. He changed his name in 1734 because the English had difficulty pronouncing ‘Home’ in the Scottish manner. Throughout his life Hume, who never married, spent time occasionally at his family home at Ninewells by Chirnside, Berwickshire.
An engraving of Hume from his The History of England Vol. I (1754)
Hume attended the University of Edinburgh at the unusually early age of twelve (possibly as young as ten) at a time when fourteen was normal. At first he considered a career in law, but came to have, in his words, “an insurmountable aversion to everything but the pursuits of Philosophy and general Learning; and while [my family] fanceyed I was poring over Voet and Vinnius, Cicero and Virgilwere the Authors which I was secretly devouring.” He had little respect for the professors of his time, telling a friend in 1735, “there is nothing to be learnt from a Professor, which is not to be met with in Books.”
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 to the verge of nervous breakdown, after which he decided to have a more active life to better continue his learning.
As Hume’s options lay between a traveling tutorship and a stool in a merchant’s office, he chose the latter. In 1734, after a few months occupied with commerce in Bristol, he went to La Flèche inAnjou, France. There he had frequent discourse with the Jesuits of the College of La Flèche. As he had spent most of his savings during his four years there while writing A Treatise of Human Nature, he resolved “to make a very rigid frugality supply my deficiency of fortune, to maintain unimpaired my independency, and to regard every object as contemptible except the improvements of my talents in literature”. He completed the Treatise at the age of 26.
Hume as a young Man
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.
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 because he was seen as an atheist.
During the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, Hume tutored the Marquis 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 England, which took fifteen years and ran over a million words, to be published in six volumes in the period between 1754 and 1762, while also 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, 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 England.
Hume achieved great literary fame as a historian. His enormous The History of England, tracing events from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution of 1688, was a best-seller in its day. In it, Hume presented political person 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 people from their everyday lives to think about political matters.
However, Hume’s volume of Political Discourses (published by Kincaid & Donaldson, 1752) was the only work he considered successful on first publication
Hume wrote a great deal on religion. However, the question of what were Hume’s personal views on religion is a difficult one The Church of Scotland seriously considered bringing charges of infidelity against him. He never declared himself to be an atheist, but had he been hostile to religion, Hume would have been persecuted and his writings constrained[ perhaps the reason behind his ambiguity. He did not acknowledge his authorship of many of his works in this area until close to his death, and some were not even published until afterwards
In works such as On Superstition and Enthusiasm, Hume specifically seems to support the standard religious views of his time and place. This still meant that he could be very critical of the Catholic Church, referring to it with the standard Protestant epithets and descriptions of it as superstition and idolatry as well as dismissing what his compatriots saw as uncivilised beliefs He also considered extreme Protestant sects, which he called enthusiasts, to be corrupters of religion. Yet he also put forward arguments that suggested that polytheism had much to commend it in preference to monotheism.
In his works, he attacked many of the basic assumptions of religion and Christian belief, and his arguments have become the foundation of much of the succeeding secular thinking about religion In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, one of his protagonists challenged one of the intellectual arguments for belief in God or one god (especially in the Age of Enlightenment): the Argument from Design Also, in his Of Miracles, he challenged the idea that religion (specifically Christianity) is supported by revelation
It is likely that Hume was skeptical both about religious belief (at least as demanded by the religious organisations of his time) and of the complete atheism promoted by such contemporaries asBaron d’Holbach. Paul Russell suggests that perhaps Hume’s position is best characterised by the term “irreligion” O’Connor (2001, p19) writes that Hume “did not believe in the God of standard theism. … but he did not rule out all concepts of deity”. Also, “ambiguity suited his purposes, and this creates difficulty in definitively pinning down his final position on religion”.
Statues of David Hume and Adam Smith by David Watson Stevenson on the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh
From 1763 to 1765, Hume was Secretary to Lord Hertford in Paris. He met and later fell out with Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He wrote of his Paris life, “I really wish often for the plain roughness of The Poker Club of Edinburgh … to correct and qualify so much lusciousness”. For a year from 1767, Hume held the appointment of Under Secretary of State for the Northern Department. In 1768, he settled in Edinburgh; he lived from 1771 until his death in 1776 at the southwest corner of St. Andrew’s Square, in Edinburgh’s New Town, at what is now 21 Saint David Street. (A popular story, consistent with some historical evidence, suggests the street was named after Hume.)
James Boswell saw Hume a few weeks before his death (most likely of either bowel or liver cancer). 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 asked that he be interred in a “simple roman tomb”; in his will he requests that it be inscribed only with his name and the year of his birth and death, “leaving it to Posterity to add the Rest.” It stands, as he wished it, on the southwestern slope of Calton Hill, in the Old Calton Cemetery, not far from his New Town home.
Hume’s “Science of man”
In the introduction to A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume writes “‘Tis evident, that all the sciences have a relation, more or less, to human nature … Even Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, and Natural Religion, are in some measure dependent on the science of Man”. Also, “the science of man is the only solid foundation for the other sciences”, and the method for this science assumes “experience and observation” as the foundations of a logical argument. Because “Hume’s plan is to extend to philosophy in general the methodological limitations of Newtonian physics”, Hume is characterised as an empiricist.
Until 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 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 verification principle). Hume, on this view, was a proto-positivist, who, in his philosophical writings, attempted to demonstrate how ordinary propositions about objects, causal relations, the self, and so on, are semantically equivalent to propositions about one’s experiences
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 skeptical about claims to knowledge on this basis.
Few philosophers are as associated with induction as David Hume; Hume himself, however, rarely used the term and when he did, he used it to support a point he was arguing He gave no indication that he saw any problem with induction Induction became associated with Hume only in the early twentieth century; John Maynard Keynes may have been the first to draw the connection. The connection is now standard, but is based on what current scholars mean by “induction”, not how Hume used the term in his writings.
The cornerstone of Hume’s epistemology is the so-called Problem of Induction. This may be the area of Hume’s thought where his skepticism about human powers of reason is most pronounced. Understanding the problem of induction is central to grasping Hume’s 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 throughout the unobserved present. This persistence of regularities is sometimes called Uniformitarianism or the Principle of the Uniformity of Nature.
Hume’s argument is 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 problem is to argue that, rather than reason, natural instinct explains the human ability to make inductive inferences. He asserts that “Nature, by an absolute and uncontronlable 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 notably concurred with it, seeing his analysis of our epistemic predicament as a major contribution to the theory of knowledge. For example, the Oxford Professor John D. Kenyon writes:
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 skepticism, and the sheer agreeableness of animal faith will protect us from excessive caution and sterile suspension of belief.
A statue of Hume by Alexander Stoddart on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh
The notion of causation is closely linked to the problem of induction. According to Hume, we reason inductively by associating constantly conjoined events, and it is the mental act of association that is the basis of our concept of causation. There are three main interpretations of Hume’s theory of causation represented in the literature: (1) the logical positivist; (2) the skeptical realist; and (3) the quasi-realist.
The logical positivist interpretation is that Hume analyses causal propositions, such as “A caused B”, in terms of regularities in perception: “A caused B” is equivalent to “Whenever A-type events happen, B-type ones follow”, where “whenever” refers to all possible perceptions
power and necessity… are… qualities of perceptions, not of objects… felt by the soul and not perceived externally in bodies[
This view is rejected by skeptical realists, who argue that Hume thought that causation amounts to more than just the regular succession of events When two events are causally conjoined, a necessary connection underpins the conjunction:
Shall we rest contented with these two relations of contiguity and succession, as affording a complete idea of causation? By no means … there is a necessary connexion to be taken into consideration.
Hume held that we have no perceptual access to the necessary connection, hence skepticism, but we are naturally compelled to believe in its objective existence, ergo realism. He thus concluded that there are no necessary connections, only constant conjunctions
Referring to the Law of Causality, Hume wrote, “I never asserted so absurd a proposition as that something could arise without a cause.”
It has been argued that, whilst Hume did not think causation is reducible to pure regularity, he was not a fully fledged realist either: Simon Blackburn calls this a quasi-realist reading. On this view, talk about causal necessity is an expression of a functional change in the human mind, whereby certain events are predicted or anticipated on the basis of prior experience. The expression of causal necessity is a “projection” of the 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.
According to the standard interpretation of Hume on personal identity, he was a Bundle Theorist, who held that the self is nothing but a bundle of interconnected perceptions linked by the property of constancy and coherence; or, more accurately, that our idea of the self is just the idea of 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”. A modern-day version of the bundle theory of the mind has been advanced by Derek Parfit in his Reasons and Persons (1986).
However, some philosophers have criticised the bundle-theory interpretation of Hume on personal identity. They argue that distinct selves can have perceptions that stand in relations of similarity and causality with one another. Thus perceptions must already come parceled into distinct “bundles” before they can be associated according to the relations of similarity and causality: in other words, the mind must already possess a unity that cannot be generated, or constituted, 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”. Instead, it is suggested, Hume might have been answering an epistemological question, about the causal origin of our concept of the self.
Another interpretation of Hume’s view of the self has been argued for by James Giles. According to this view, Hume is not arguing for a bundle theory, which is a form of reductionism, but rather for an eliminative view of the self. That is, rather than reducing the self to a bundle of perceptions, Hume is rejecting the idea of the self altogether. On this interpretation Hume is proposing a ‘No-Self Theory’ and thus has much in common with Buddhist thought.
Hume’s anti-rationalism informed much of his theory of belief and knowledge, in his treatment of the notions of induction, causation, and the external world. But it was not confined to this sphere, and permeated just as strongly his theories of motivation, action, and morality. In a famous sentence in the Treatise, Hume circumscribes reason’s role in the production of action:
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.
It has been suggested that this position can be lucidly brought out through the metaphor of “direction of fit”: beliefs—the paradigmatic products of reason—are propositional attitudes that aim to have their content fit the world; conversely, desires—or what Hume calls passions, or sentiments—are states that aim to fit the world to their contents. Though a metaphor, it has been argued that this intuitive way of understanding Hume’s theory that desires are necessary for motivation “captures something quite deep in our thought about their nature”.
Hume’s anti-rationalism has been very influential, and defended in contemporary philosophy of action by neo-Humeans such as Michael Smith and Simon Blackburn. The major opponents of the Humean view are cognitivists about what it is to act for a reason, such as John McDowell and Kantians, such as Christine Korsgaard.
Hume’s views on human motivation and action formed the cornerstone of his ethical theory: he conceived moral or ethical sentiments to be intrinsically motivating, or the providers of reasons for action. Given that one cannot be motivated by reason alone, requiring the input of the passions, Hume argued that reason cannot be behind morality.
Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Reason itself is utterly impotent in this particular. The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of our reason.
Hume’s sentimentalism about morality was shared by his close friend Adam Smith, and Hume and Smith were mutually influenced by the moral reflections of Francis Hutcheson.
Hume’s theory of ethics has been influential in modern day ethical theory, helping to inspire various forms of emotivism, error theory and ethical expressivism and non-cognitivism and Alan Gibbard.
Free will, determinism, and responsibility
Hume, along with Thomas Hobbes, is cited as a classical compatibilist about the notions of freedom and determinism. The thesis of compatibilism seeks to reconcile human freedom with the mechanist belief that human beings are part of a deterministic universe, whose happenings are governed by the laws of physics.
Hume argued that the dispute about the compatibility of freedom and determinism has been kept afloat by ambiguous terminology:
From this circumstance alone, that a controversy has been long kept on foot… we may presume, that there is some ambiguity in the expression.
Hume defines the concepts of “necessity” and “liberty” as follows:
Necessity: “the uniformity, observable in the operations of nature; where similar objects are constantly conjoined together.”
Liberty: “a power of acting or not acting, according to the determinations of the will.”.
Hume then argues that, according to these definitions, not only are the two compatible, but Liberty requires Necessity. For if our actions were not necessitated in the above sense, they would “…have so little in connection with motives, inclinations and circumstances, that one does not follow with a certain degree of uniformity from the other.” But if our actions are not thus hooked up to the will, then our actions can never be free: they would be matters of “chance; which is universally allowed not to exist”.
Moreover, Hume goes on to argue that in order to be held morally responsible, it is required that our behaviour be caused, i.e. necessitated, for
Actions are, by their very nature, temporary and perishing; and where they proceed not from some cause in the character and disposition of the person who performed them, they can neither redound to his honour, if good; nor infamy, if evil
This argument has inspired modern day commentators. However, it has been argued that the issue of whether or not we hold one another morally responsible does not ultimately depend on the truth or falsity of a metaphysical thesis such as determinism, for our so holding one another is a non-rational human sentiment that is not predicated on such theses. For this influential argument, which is still made in a Humean vein
Problem of miracles
In his discussion of miracles in An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (Section 10) Hume defines a miracle as “a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent”. Given that Hume argues that it is impossible to deduce the existence of a Deity from the existence of the world (for he says that causes cannot be determined from effects), miracles (including prophecy) are the only possible support he would conceivably allow for theistic religions.
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 miraculous 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
People often lie, and they have good reasons to lie about miracles occurring either because they believe they are doing so for the benefit of their religion or because of the fame that results.
People by nature enjoy relating miracles they have heard without caring for their veracity and thus miracles are easily transmitted even where false.
Hume notes that miracles seem to occur mostly in “ignorant” and “barbarous” nations and times, and the reason they don’t occur in the “civilized” societies is such societies aren’t awed by what they know to be natural events.
The miracles of each religion argue against all other religions and their miracles, and so even if a proportion of all reported miracles across the world fit Hume’s requirement for belief, the miracles of each religion make the other less likely.
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.
Hume’s main argument concerning miracles is the following. Miracles by definition are singular events that differ from the established Laws of Nature. The Laws of Nature are codified as a result of past experiences. Therefore a miracle is a violation of all prior experience. However the probability that something has occurred in contradiction of all past experience should always be judged to be less than the probability that either my senses have deceived me or the person recounting the miraculous occurrence is lying or mistaken, all of which I have past experience of. For Hume, this refusal to grant credence does not guarantee correctness – he offers the example of an Indian Prince, who having grown up in a hot country refuses to believe that water has frozen. By Hume’s lights this refusal is not wrong and the Prince is thinking correctly; it is presumably only when he has had extensive experience of the freezing of water that he has warrant to believe that the event could occur. So for Hume, either the miraculous event will become a recurrent event or else it will never be rational to believe it occurred. The connection to religious belief is left inexplicit throughout, save for the close of his discussion wherein Hume notes the reliance of Christianity upon testimony of miraculous occurrences and makes an ironic remark that anyone who “is moved by faith to assent” to revealed testimony “is aware of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.”
One of the oldest and most popular arguments for the existence of God is the design argument: that order and “purpose” in the world bespeaks a divine origin. Hume gave the classic criticism of the design argument in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion[ and An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding Hume argued that for the design argument to be feasible, it must be true that order and purpose are observed only when they result from design. But order is often observed to result from presumably mindless processes like the generation of snowflakes and crystals. Design can account for only a tiny part of our experience of order.
It is difficult to categorize Hume’s political affiliations. His thought contains elements that are, in modern terms, both conservative and liberal, as well as ones that are both contractarian and utilitarian, though these terms are all anachronistic. Thomas Jefferson banned Hume’s History from the University of Virginia, fearing that it “has spread universal toryism over the land”. Yet, Samuel Johnsonthought Hume “a Tory by chance… for he has no principle. If he is anything, he is a Hobbist”. His central concern is to show the importance of the rule of law, and stresses throughout his politicalEssays the importance of moderation in politics. This outlook needs to be seen within the historical context of eighteenth century Scotland, where the legacy of religious civil war, combined with the relatively recent memory of the 1715 and 1745 Jacobite risings, fostered in a historian such as Hume a distaste for enthusiasm and factionalism that appeared to threaten the fragile and nascent political and social stability of a country that was deeply politically and religiously divided. He thinks that society is best governed by a general and impartial system of laws, based principally on the “artifice” of contract; he is less concerned about the form of government that administers these laws, so long as it does so fairly (though he thought that republics were more likely to do so than monarchies).
Hume expressed suspicion of attempts to reform society in ways that departed from long-established custom, and he counselled peoples 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. Hume writes
My views of things are more conformable to Whig principles; my representations of persons to Tory prejudices.
McArthur says that Hume believed that we should try to balance our demands for liberty with the need for strong authority, without sacrificing either. McArthur characterizes Hume as a ‘precautionary conservative’: whose actions would have been “determined by prudential concerns about the consequences of change, which often demand we ignore our own principles about what is ideal or even legitimate”, He supported liberty of the press, and was sympathetic to democracy, when suitably constrained. Douglass Adair has argued that Hume was a major inspiration for James Madison’s writings, and the Federalist No. 10 in particular Hume 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.”
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. It is also important to note that the ideal commonwealth laid out by Hume was held to be ideal only for the British Isles in the 18th century. According to Hume “good constitutions… will ensure that the private interest of men, even of bad men, will controlled and directed as to serve and produce the public good. Such is the aim of free government, which Hume calls the “happiest” society… Liberty in the sense of free government is, Hume says, “the perfection of civil society”… The wise statemen… in attempting to improve a constitution will adapt his innovations to the “ancient fabric”, so as not to disturb society. His caution may be reiforced by reflections on the limits of human foresight”.
Contributions to economic thought
Through his discussions on politics, Hume developed many ideas that are prevalent in the field of economics. This includes ideas on private property, inflation, and foreign trade.
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, because perfect equality would destroy the ideas of thrift and industry. Perfect equality would thus lead to impoverishment
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.
As historian of England
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).
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 Kind of History of My Life (1734) Mss 23159 National Library of Scotland. A letter to an unnamed physician, asking for advice about “the Disease of the Learned” that then afflicted him. Here he reports that at the age of eighteen “there seem’d to be open’d up to me a new Scene of Thought…” that made him “throw up every other Pleasure or Business” and turned him to scholarship
A Treatise of Human Nature: Being an Attempt to introduce the experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects. (1739–40) Hume intended to see whether the Treatise of Human Nature met with success, and if so to complete it with books devoted to Politics and Criticism. However, it did not meet with success. As Hume himself said, “It fell dead-born from the press, without reaching such distinction as even to excite a murmur among the zealots” and so was not completed.
An Abstract of a Book lately Published: Entitled A Treatise of Human Nature etc. (1740) Anonymously published, but almost certainly written by Hume in an attempt to popularise his Treatise. Of considerable philosophical interest, because it spells out what he considered “The Chief Argument” of the Treatise, in a way that seems to anticipate the structure of the Enquiry concerning Human Understanding.
Essays Moral and Political (first ed. 1741–2) A collection of pieces written and published over many years, though most were collected together in 1753–4. Many of the essays are focused on topics in politics and economics, though they also range over questions of aesthetic judgement, love, marriage and polygamy, and the demographics of ancient Greece and Rome, to name just a few of the topics considered. The Essays show some influence from Addison’s Tatler andThe Spectator, which Hume read avidly in his youth.
A Letter from a Gentleman to His Friend in Edinburgh: Containing Some Observations on a Specimen of the Principles concerning Religion and Morality, said to be maintain’d in a Book lately publish’d, intituled A Treatise of Human Nature etc. Edinburgh (1745). Contains a letter written by Hume to defend himself against charges of atheism and scepticism, while applying for a Chair at Edinburgh University.
An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) Contains reworking of the main points of the Treatise, Book 1, with the addition of material on free will (adapted from Book 2), miracles, the Design Argument, and mitigated scepticism.Of Miracles, section X of the Enquiry, was often published separately,
An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751) A reworking of material from Book 3 of the Treatise, on morality, but with a significantly different emphasis. Hume regarded this as the best of all his philosophical works both in its philosophical ideas and in its literary style.
Political Discourses, (part II of Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary within vol. 1 of the larger Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects) Edinburgh (1752). Included in Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects (1753–6) reprinted 1758–77.
Political Discourses/Discours politiques (1752–1758), My ovn life (1776), Of Essay writing, 1742. Bilingual English-French (translated by Fabien Grandjean). Mauvezin, France, Trans-Europ-Repress, 1993, 22 cm, V-260 p. Bibliographic notes, index.
Four Dissertations London (1757). Included in reprints of Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects (above).
The History of England (Sometimes referred to as The History of Great Britain) (1754–62) More a category of books than a single work, Hume’s history spanned “from the invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution of 1688” and went through over 100 editions. Many considered it the standard history of England until Thomas Macaulay’s History of England.
The Natural History of Religion (1757)
“My Own Life” (1776) Penned in April, shortly before his death, this autobiography was intended for inclusion in a new edition of “Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects”. It was first published by Adam Smith who claimed that by doing so he had incurred “ten times more abuse than the very violent attack I had made upon the whole commercial system of Great Britain”. (Ernest Campbell Mossner, The Life of David Hume)
Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) Published posthumously by his nephew, David Hume the Younger. Being a discussion among three fictional characters concerning the nature of God, and is an important portrayal of the argument from design. Despite some controversy, most scholars agree that the view of Philo, the most sceptical of the three, comes closest to Hume’s own.
Attention to Hume’s philosophical works grew after the German philosopher Immanuel Kant credited Hume with awakening him from “dogmatic slumbers” (circa 1770)
According to Schopenhauer, “there is more to be learned from each page of David Hume than from the collected philosophical works of Hegel, Herbart and Schleiermacher taken together”
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”
Hume’s Problem of Induction was also of fundamental importance to the philosophy of Karl Popper. In his autobiography, Unended Quest, he wrote: “‘Knowledge’ … is objective; and it is hypothetical or conjectural. This way of looking at the problem made it possible for me to reformulate Hume’s problem of induction”. This insight resulted in Popper’s major work The Logic of Scientific Discovery In his Conjectures and Refutations, p 55, he writes:
“I approached the problem of induction through Hume. Hume, I felt, was perfectly right in pointing out that induction cannot be logically justified”.
Tomb of David Hume in Edinburgh