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Hume engaged in an ambitious philosophical and scientific quest to understand the world in entirely naturalistic terms. Did he succeed? Anderson introduces and critiques his thought from a Reformed perspective.
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HUME’S LIFE AND WORKS
David Hume was born in Edinburgh on April 26, 1711, the second of two sons of Joseph Home. (As an aspiring author, Hume later modified the spelling of his surname to make its pronunciation more self-evident.) Hume’s father died shortly after his son’s second birthday, and the boy was raised single-handedly by his mother, whom he described fondly as “a woman of singular merit.” His early childhood was spent at the family home in Ninewells, located in the Scottish Borders some fifty miles from Edinburgh. Hume’s mother found him to be an unusually gifted child, so when his brother John left home for university studies in Edinburgh at fourteen (the usual age at that time), David accompanied him, despite being several years younger.
At the university, Hume received a well-rounded education that included competence in the classical languages, history, literature, metaphysics, ethics, logic, mathematics, and elements of the natural sciences. After leaving Edinburgh, he embarked on a career in law, as his family had encouraged him to do, but Hume had scant enthusiasm for it and found himself far more energized by reading works of classical literature and philosophy. As he later recounted, “I found an insurmountable aversion to everything but the pursuits of philosophy and general learning; and while they fancied that I was reading Voet and Vinnius, Cicero and Virgil were the authors I was secretly devouring.” From an early age, Hume aspired to the life of “a man of letters,” reading widely and addressing himself in manifold writings to the pressing topics of the day.
At some point during this period of personal studies at the family home in Ninewells, Hume apparently experienced a light-bulb moment, as a result of which he resolved to devote all his powers of examination to what he cryptically described as “a new Scene of Thought.” This intense intellectual project apparently took a toll on his health, both physical and mental, requiring a physician’s prescription of medication and exercise. Hume’s family was not wealthy, and he realized that he would need to find gainful employment, so he took a position in a merchant’s business in Bristol with the hope that it would improve his condition with a “more active Scene of Life.” But the venture was short-lived. In 1734, Hume decided to relocate to rural France, where he could live more economically while devoting himself wholeheartedly to his philosophical interests.
Thus it was in France that Hume, at the young age of 23, embarked upon his first and most ambitious philosophical work, A Treatise of Human Nature. The central goal of this three-volume treatise was to develop a “science of human nature.” Put simply, Hume aspired to do for human nature what he believed Isaac Newton and other “natural philosophers” had done for the realm outside of human affairs: to develop a rigorously naturalistic account of human thought and action, particularly our moral and aesthetic judgments, which would rely exclusively upon empirical investigation. One major feature of this work would be its examination of our intellectual faculties and an exploration of the capacity—and, in some important respects, the incapacity—of human reason to deliver genuine knowledge of ourselves and the world we inhabit.
Hume returned to England in 1737 to prepare the work for publication. Books 1 and 2 (“Of the Understanding” and “Of the Passions”) were published anonymously in 1739.1 Book 3, “Of Morals,” which built on the foundational principles laid down in the first two volumes, appeared the following year, together with an “Abstract” that summarized his major theses and addressed some misunderstandings and objections raised by early reviewers.
In a reflection on his intellectual career, written toward the end of his life, Hume famously remarked that the Treatise “fell deadborn from the press.” This was an exaggeration. The work did not establish Hume’s reputation, as he had hoped, but it garnered plenty of attention, much of it highly critical, even though he had opted at the eleventh hour to remove some material that would have been viewed as a direct assault on religion. Nevertheless, the Treatise offered more than enough to fuel concerns that its author was an infidel propounding a dangerous skepticism that would tend to undermine public morals. As a consequence, Hume never held an academic position in his life, despite being nominated for one at Edinburgh and another at Glasgow. The critics who campaigned against his appointments prevailed over his supporters.
The year 1741 saw the publication of the first volume of Hume’s Essays, Moral and Political, in which he addressed himself to various philosophical and historical debates of the time. His critical musings gained him further admirers, and a second volume appeared the following year.
After a brief, unhappy spell as a private tutor, followed by a more satisfying secretarial role on a European diplomatic mission, Hume published An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (1748). This was essentially a more streamlined reworking of book 1 of the Treatise, along with some material from book 2. Of particular note was the addition of Hume’s provocative argument against miracles, which he had decided to excise from the Treatise. This first Enquiry was followed three years later by a “recasting” of book 3 of the Treatise under the title An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals. “Of all my writings,” Hume would later declare, the second Enquiry was “incomparably the best.”
The relationship between the Treatise and the two Enquiries, and the extent to which Hume changed his views, are matters of ongoing debate among Hume scholars. Some of his earlier arguments were refined, others were dropped altogether, and a number of new arguments were introduced. Overall the differences are more matters of style and rhetorical strategy than matters of substance. How Hume himself viewed the Enquiries is open to interpretation. He referred later to the Treatise as a “juvenile work” that he had sent to press “too early.” He invited his readers to treat the Enquiries as the definitive, mature statement of his views, containing answers to his earlier critics. While the aim of the Enquiries was to “cast the whole anew,” he insisted that the “philosophical principles are the same” as in the Treatise. Hume averred that the main shortcomings of the latter lay in the presentation, not the substance. For this reason, scholars typically draw from both sets of works when expounding and evaluating Hume’s philosophy (a policy to be followed in this book).
In the 1750s, Hume produced further collections of essays on a wide range of topics, including literature, history, ethics, and politics. His appointment as the librarian of the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh afforded him both time and opportunity to work on his magisterial six-volume History of England (1754–62). Although it was far from apolitical—Hume’s opinions are never hidden from the reader and are often pithily expressed—Hume prided himself on having adopted the stance of a more objective historian, relative to his predecessors, at least. On some points, Hume appeared to side with the Tory reading of events, on others with the Whigs. Hume’s political inclinations were mainly conservative and royalist; the History presented a more sympathetic view of the Stuart monarchs and was correspondingly scathing about the Cromwellian interregnum. Whatever the virtues and vices of Hume’s historical works, they enjoyed great commercial success, being reprinted several times with extensive revisions by Hume in response to critical reviews. Royalties from the series provided Hume with financial stability and modest comfort for the rest of his life.
During the same period, Hume published four major dissertations, the first of which, “The Natural History of Religion,” presented a nonsupernaturalist account of the development of religion. He attempted to explain the origins of religion on the basis of his account of human nature, coupled with an evolutionary psychology in which the passions of hope and especially fear serve as driving forces. According to Hume, the earliest form of religion was a crude polytheism, which was later refined into monotheism, although the latter inevitably tends to relapse into polytheistic elements. In this work, Hume deliberately sidestepped the question of whether religious beliefs could claim any rational or empirical support. The essay was pitched as a genealogical reconstruction, rather than an epistemological critique.
Hume spent the years 1763–65 serving at the British Embassy in Paris. It was during this second sojourn in France that the Scotsman encountered the controversial writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78). Despite the significant differences between their political philosophies, they formed a bond of friendship, and later on Hume provided a safe haven in London when Rousseau’s position in Switzerland became precarious. Within a year, however, the friendship degenerated, largely due to Rousseau’s erratic and paranoid behavior, and it eventually collapsed into a bitter breach with recriminations on both sides.
After some further years of political service, Hume retired to Edinburgh in 1769, where he lived out his remaining years in the company of friends and spent his time mainly on revising his earlier works and composing responses to his critics. One of the reworked pieces was his now-famous Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, in which three fictional characters debate whether natural theology—in particular, the argument from design—can furnish any reliable knowledge of the divine attributes. Although the original draft had been penned many years earlier, even after revision Hume judged it too incendiary to be published in his lifetime.
By 1772, Hume’s health had begun to fail, and three years later he was diagnosed with intestinal cancer. Given his notoriously irreligious views, his critics wondered whether the prospect of imminent death would elicit something of a recantation. They were to be disappointed. His close friends, such as the economist Adam Smith, testified that Hume approached his end with serenity, magnanimity, and irreverent humor, finding satisfaction in his accomplishments and confidence in the fact (as he saw it) that while there was no evidence for a heavenly afterlife, neither was there any reason to fear a hellish one. A skeptic to the last, Hume died on August 25, 1776, leaving directions that he should be buried at his own expense under a monument on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill, overlooking the city he considered his home. Among his other instructions was the request that his nephew arrange for the publication of his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, which duly hit the presses in 1779 and sealed Hume’s reputation as one of the most formidable critics of religion in Christendom.
1. The anonymity was due partly to the controversial content of some portions of the Treatise, although it was not uncommon at that time for new authors to publish anonymously.
HUME’S PHILOSOPHICAL PROJECT
Hume’s central focus and aim in his philosophical writings are not hard to discern. His subject matter, as the title of his Treatise indicates, is “human nature”—specifically, our intellectual, moral, and aesthetic faculties—and the subtitle reveals what he seeks to accomplish: “an attempt to introduce the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects.” By “moral subjects,” Hume means not merely what we would normally describe as ethics (although that is a central concern), but the entire realm of human experience, judgment, and action. This he proposes to investigate by “the experimental method of reasoning,” relying solely upon empirical observations and what can be reliably inferred from them.
Why did Hume devote himself to this project? Like many in his day, Hume was impressed with developments in the natural sciences pioneered by such thinkers as Isaac Newton (1642–1727). Besides advancements in mathematics, great progress had been made in identifying laws of nature that enabled reliable predictions to be made about events in the natural world, such as the future locations of planets and other heavenly bodies. The discipline of philosophy was in disarray, scandalized by seemingly irresolvable disagreements about the nature of God, the nature of the soul, the basic constitution of the universe, and the foundations of ethics. In stark contrast, so it seemed, the discipline of science was delivering genuine progress. Hume attributed this success to a strict use of the “experimental method,” setting aside speculations and hypotheses based on abstract reasonings that were not anchored in observable facts.
Hume recognized, however, that the natural sciences are human endeavors. They are the product of human observations and inferences, and thus “all the sciences have a relation, greater or less, to human nature” and are “in some measure dependent on the science of MAN” (THN Intro.4). Since no building can be more stable than its foundations, it was imperative for him to develop a science of human nature that is investigated and expounded no less rigorously than the sciences that are dependent upon it. Just as there are laws governing the motions of physical objects, so must there be laws governing human thoughts and actions, but in Hume’s view the latter had not received nearly enough attention and critical scrutiny. Indeed, Hume was concerned that the powers of the human intellectual faculties had been in some respects wildly overestimated. An audit was long overdue.
Hume therefore set himself the task of explaining “the principles of human nature” and thereby opening the door to “a complete system of the sciences, built on a foundation almost entirely new, and the only one upon which they can stand with any security” (THN Intro.6). In short, Hume aspired to apply the scientific method to human nature, just as Newton had applied it to the rest of nature, and in so doing to develop an integrated scientific worldview encompassing everything from the hydrological cycle to the casting of ballots in voting booths.
Three Distinctives of the Project
The distinctives of Hume’s philosophical project can be summarized in three words: empiricism, naturalism, and skepticism.
Empiricism. Hume vows in his introduction to the Treatise that the science of human nature must rigorously apply the “experimental method” in the same manner as the natural sciences, by which he means reliance on empirical observations alone:
As the science of man is the only solid foundation for the other sciences, so the only solid foundation we can give to this science itself must be laid on experience and observation. (THN Intro.7, emphasis added)
For to me it seems evident, that the essence of the mind being equally unknown to us with that of external bodies, it must be equally impossible to form any notion of its powers and qualities otherwise than from careful and exact experiments, and the observation of those particular effects, which result from its different circumstances and situations. And tho’ we must endeavour to render all our principles as universal as possible, by tracing up our experiments to the utmost, and explaining all effects from the simplest and fewest causes, ’tis still certain we cannot go beyond experience; and any hypothesis, that pretends to discover the ultimate original qualities of human nature, ought at first to be rejected as presumptuous and chimerical. (THN Intro.8, emphasis added)
None of [the sciences] can go beyond experience, or establish any principles which are not founded on that authority. (THN Intro.10)
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APA 6 Citation
Anderson, J. (2019). David Hume ([edition unavailable]). P Publishing. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/2508624/david-hume-pdf (Original work published 2019)
Anderson, James. (2019) 2019. David Hume. [Edition unavailable]. P Publishing. https://www.perlego.com/book/2508624/david-hume-pdf.
Anderson, J. (2019) David Hume. [edition unavailable]. P Publishing. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/2508624/david-hume-pdf (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Anderson, James. David Hume. [edition unavailable]. P Publishing, 2019. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.