David Hume (originally 'Home') was born in Edinburgh in 1711 but brought up in 'Ninewells' in Berwickshire near the village of Chirnside. His father, Joseph, was an advocate but died when David was an infant. He and his elder brother and sister were brought up by their mother Katherine. We are fortunate that Hume left us with a short autobiography dated 18 April 1776, that is, shortly before he died.
He praises his mother as 'a woman of singular merit, who, though young and handsome, devoted herself to the rearing and educating of her children'. It was thought that the law was a proper profession for him but 'I found an insurmountable aversion to every thing but the pursuit of philosophy and general learning'. After a brief and unsuccessful attempt at being a merchant in Bristol, he went to France and there 'I resolved to make a very rigid frugality supply my deficiency of fortune, and to regard every object as contemptible, except the improvements of my talents in literature'.
During this period, he wrote his major work of philosophy, his Treatise of Human Nature
(published 1738). He then returned to be with his mother and brother. Unfortunately his Treatise
'fell dead born from the press
' (his italics). But he picked himself up and in 1742 published the first part of his essays which were well received 'and soon made me entirely forget my earlier disappointment'. He received an invitation to act as a secretary to General St Clair in the courts of Vienna and Turin, where he wore the uniform of an officer. (Those familiar with Allan Ramsay's portrait of Hume may speculate as to what he must have looked like in military uniform!)
In the late 1740s, he recast his Treatise
as his Enquiries
. The arguments were much the same, and were not initially any more successful. In 1752, the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh made him their librarian which gave him access to their library. It was during this period that he wrote his History of England
, and it is worth noting that during his lifetime he was better known as a historian than as a philosopher.
During the period 1765-69, he was secretary to the Embassy in Paris. Apparently he spoke French with a strong 'Scotch' accent. But he returned to Edinburgh in 1769 'very opulent, healthy, and though stricken in years, with the prospect of enjoying long my ease and of seeing the increase of my reputation'.
In 1775, Hume developed a 'disorder in my bowels' which became 'mortal and incurable'. It was during that period that he wrote his short autobiography. It worth noting his self-assessment: 'I am or rather was a man of mild dispositions, of command of temper, of an open and cheerful humour, capable of attachment, but little susceptible of enmity, and of great moderation in all my passions. Even my love of literary fame, my ruling passion, never soured my humour, notwithstanding my frequent disappointments. My company was not unacceptable to the young and careless, as well as to the studious and literary: and as I took a particular pleasure in the company of modest women, I had no reason to be displeased wth the reception I met with from them…'.
The Enlightenment is often characterised as 'the age of reason'. This is only half true. It is true in the sense that its thinkers turned away from faith and revealed religion, but it is also true that they drew attention to the limitations of reason and stressed the importance of the 'passions' and the imagination. In other words, they opened the door to the Romantic movement. Hume, influenced by Hutcheson, was central in this anti-reason movement.
One influential interpretation of Hume depicted him as a radical sceptic taking to their negative conclusions the empiricist premises of John Locke and Bishop Berkeley. I think this is the wrong way to look at Hume. From the earliest he was an admirer of Hutcheson's stress on 'the passions' as the basis of morality. Hume speaks of an insight which 'opened up [to him] a new Scene of Thought, which transported him beyond measure'. The distinguished historian of philosophy and Hume scholar – Norman Kemp Smith – argues that this insight was that Hutcheson's view of morality, as something based on feeling rather than reason, could be carried over into the theoretical sphere.
Hume himself expresses the view in his usual provocative way: 'Thus, all probable reasoning is nothing but a species of sensation. It is not solely in poetry and music we must follow our taste and sentiment, but also in philosophy' (Treatise
I, VIII). And remember that in Hume's day 'philosophy' would include what we would understand as science.
The underlying basis of this radical view is Hume's very narrow account of 'reason'. He recognises two types of reason: deductive reason, as in mathematics and technical logic, and inductive reason, based on matters of fact or causal reasoning. But, he argues, causal reasoning – the foundation of science – is just a matter of noting constant conjunctions which create expectations; we believe that the causal necessity is in nature when it is really just our own expectations.
He reaches a similar sort of view about our perceptions of the external world. When we look at something, we have what Hume calls an 'impression' of it. Suppose we look away and then look back. We have two distinct impressions, but the 'imagination' posits a continuing object there. Similarly, with our personal identity: all we have are what Hume calls 'bundles' of internal impressions, or our thoughts and feelings. We call these assorted bundles our 'self'.
It is not surprising that many of his contemporaries and successors interpreted him as a radical sceptic, but he himself thought he was introducing the methods of what we would call social science into philosophy. He writes at the beginning of his Treatise
: 'Even mathematics, natural philosophy [physics], are dependent on the science of man; since they lie under the cognisance of men, and are judged of by their powers and faculties'.
It must be stressed that Hume saw himself as a man of letters, rather than as simply a philosopher in our narrow sense. Apart from his very large History of England
, he wrote essays in politics and economics, and a very interesting essay on taste. In that essay, he notes that he is committed to saying that taste is simply a matter of the passions, so your taste must be as good as my taste. But he is also aware that some literature and art-works are much better than others. How can these positions be squared? He does not in the end reconcile the positions but suggests very plausible criteria for what makes a good critic whose judgement we can trust.
It was his views on religion which caused the most stir. There is no evidence that Hume himself was religious but obviously a strict form of Presbyterianism would be widespread in the Scotland of his day. His earliest writing on religion is his essay On Miracles
which was written at the time of his Treatise
but not published until it was included in his Enquiries
. His major work on the subject is his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion
. He worked on and revised this work over many years until 1776, the year of his death. His friends advised against publication during his lifetime and the book was finally published a few years later under the supervision of his nephew.
The book considers the arguments of 'Deism' or 'Natural Religion'. These are attempts to find arguments for the existence of God from nature rather than revelation. It is difficult to be sure which of the characters in the dialogues that Hume identifies with, but the work does not justify the charge that he was a 'monstrous atheist'. Perhaps 'agnostic' would be nearer the mark.
What is unsettling in his religious works can also be found in many of his writings – an uncertainty of tone, an underlying irony. You can never be quite sure what he really thinks, or even whether he is laughing at us. Typical is the ending of his essay On Miracles
: 'So that, upon the whole, we may conclude, that the Christian Religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its veracity: And whoever is moved by Faith to assent to it is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding'.
In a sense this is orthodox, but equally he may be laughing at the pious. They certainly did not like it.
Hume is universally considered the greatest Scottish philosopher. Many who say this automatically say so because they have never heard of other Scottish philosophers, far less read one. His stress on feeling in moral judgements is entirely derived from Hutcheson and not significantly taken forward. His suggestion that science is similarly based on feeling doesn't work. He is explicit about this, and regarded his overall system as a failure. But he was supreme as an essayist and was seen in his time as a historian. He is highly readable and comes over as a likeable dinner companion especially for those who enjoy irony and ambiguity.
He retained his Stoicism to the end of an unpleasant illness. To his surprise, he may have found that there is a place in Heaven for him.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow