DAVID HUME
(1711-1776)

 

 


HUME, David (1711–76), Scottish philosopher and historian. He was a native of Edinburgh, where he was educated, and at an early age resolved to become a philosopher. From 1734 to 1737 he lived in France, where he elaborated his sceptical principles and wrote the Treatise of Human Nature (3 vols., 1739–40), the success of which fell far short of his expectations. In 1741–2 appeared Essays Moral and Political (2 vols.), which was favourably received and much appreciated by Bp. J. Butler. During the following years he held several secretarial and administrative posts in England and abroad. In 1748 he published Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding which contained his famous ‘Essay upon Miracles’, followed, in 1751, by An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. By this time he had also completed his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, which was published only posthumously (1779). During the latter part of his life his interests turned to history; in 1752 he published his Political Discourses, the first of his works to attract general attention, and from 1754 to 1761 his famous History of England (6 vols.), written from the Tory standpoint, which long remained a standard work. In 1763 he accompanied Lord Hertford to France, where he was much admired and became the friend of J. Le R. D’Alembert and A. R. J. Turgot. In 1766 he found for J.-J. Rousseau a refuge in England. In his last years he almost ceased to write.

Hume’s philosophy is based on the experimental method of J. Locke and G. Berkeley. By reducing reason to a product of experience he destroyed its claim to sole validity, which had been put forward by the thinkers of the Enlightenment. All perceptions of the human mind are either impressions of experience or ideas, i.e. faded copies of these impressions. But whereas the relations between ideas can be known with certainty, the facts of reality cannot be established beyond an appearance of probability. Causality is not a concept of logic, but a result of habit and association, impressed on our imagination, and the human soul itself is but a sum of perceptions connected by association. Hence there is no such science as metaphysics; and belief in the existence of God and of the physical world, though a practical necessity, cannot be proved by reason. Theism is neither the original nor the highest form of religion. The immortality of the soul is doubtful, and suicide is permissible. Our moral life is dominated by the passions, which determine our will and our actions.

Hume was aware that, by reducing all cognition to single perceptions and by ruling out any purely intellectual faculty for recording and sifting them, he destroyed all real knowledge and taught pure scepticism. This scepticism is particularly evident in his ‘Essay on Miracles’, in which he argues that reports of miracles should always be doubted, since miracles are, by definition, highly unlikely. ‘A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.’

Hume’s influence has been widespread. Among the thinkers indebted to him are I. Kant, J. Bentham, and A. Comte; and he has received attention from modern philosophical empiricists.

Hume’s autobiography appeared in 1777. His Life and Correspondence were ed. J. H. Burton in 1846. Modern edn. of his Letters, by J. Y. T. Greig (2 vols., Oxford, 1932); New Letters, ed. R. Klibansky and E. C. Mossner (ibid., 1954). J. Y. T. Greig, David Hume (London, 1931); E. C. Mossner, The Life of David Hume (1954; 2nd edn., 1980); A. [G. N.] Flew, Hume’s Philosophy of Belief: A Study of his first Inquiry (1961); id., David Hume, Philosopher of Moral Science (Oxford, 1986); J. B. Stewart, The Moral and Political Philosophy of David Hume (New York and London, 1963); D. Forbes, Hume’s Philosophical Politics (Cambridge, 1975); B. [G.] Stroud, Hume (London, 1977); J. C. A. Gaskin, Hume’s Philosophy of Religion (1978; 2nd edn., 1988); J. L. Mackie, Hume’s Moral Theory (1980); J. Harrison, Hume’s Theory of Justice (Oxford, 1981). G. Strawson, The Secret Connexion: Causation, Realism and David Hume (ibid., 1989); D. Pears, Hume’s System: An Examination of the First Book of his Treatise (ibid., 1990); K. E. Yandell, Hume’s ‘Inexplicable Mystery’: His Views on Religion (Philadelphia, 1990); R. [J.] Read and K. A. Richman (eds.), The New Hume Debate (2000). R. Hill, Fifty Years of Hume Scholarship: A Bibliographical Guide (Edinburgh [1978]).


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