Hume, David

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Hume, David (1711-1776): Scottish Philosopher.

One of the greatest minds of the Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume was born in Edinburgh on April 26, 1711. His father died one year after his birth, leaving the family estate to David’s older brother, John, and leaving David an annual income that guaranteed he would need to find employment later in life. He was raised a Calvinist Presbyterian, and this religion’s strictures may well have contributed to his philosophy and to his eventual rejection of both religion and of God as the primary authority in all subjects. He later wrote that he lost his faith when he began reading the works of philosophers John Locke, and Samuel Clarke.

He entered the University of Edinburgh at the age of twelve but left at fifteen, without a degree. His family encouraged him to study the law, but after three apparently unpleasant years of study, poorer in both health and spirit, he abandoned the law and left Edinburgh. Eventually landing in Bristol, he took a job in a merchant’s office. This did not suit him either, and in 1734, perhaps precipitated by Agnes Galbraith’s accusation that Hume had fathered her child, he left for France, determined to become a philosopher. He settled eventually in La Flèche, probably because of the large library at the Jesuit College there, and began working on his two-volume master work, A Treatise on Human Nature Being an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects. Published in 1739-1740, the Treatise did not sell well (Hume said that it “fell dead-born from the press”), and in 1748 he published a simplified revision entitled An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. It is possible to trace the origins of psychology as a science to Hume’s philosophy. In both the Treatise and the Enquiry, Hume tried to create an experimental science of human nature, along the lines of what Sir Isaac Newton had done for the physical sciences. He wanted to explain the source of human knowledge and the structure of the human mind itself. To that end, he first proposes that knowledge comes from experience and observation, not from the Divine (as Descartes had proposed) or from reason, and that the mind is made up entirely of perceptions. Perceptions come in two forms, impressions (sensations like vision, proprioception, audition) and ideas (weaker forms of impressions like memories, dreams, or reflections). These simple elements in the mind can be combined through imagination, or through three forms of association: resemblance (thinking about elephants tends to make us think about other animals), contiguity (thinking about elephants tends to make us think about the zoo where we last saw the elephant) and, perhaps his most controversial law of association, cause and effect (thinking about the squashed food box in the elephant habitat tends to make us think about the events that came before the box was squashed, namely the elephant sitting on the box). Hume’s conception of cause and effect relationships was quite unusual and anti-Aristotelian. Hume proposed that we see only the regular sequence of first one event (the elephant sitting on the box) and then the second event (the squashed box). The human mind adds the feeling of connection between the two events, but we never actually perceive that connection. To a philosopher who believes that all knowledge comes from observation, this means we never observe, and so do not know, cause and effect. The natural conclusion of this line of thought is that the certainty we experience in both science and religion, disciplines which require us to assume cause and effect relationships beyond what is available for us to observe immediately, is thrown into doubt.

Unable to make a living as a philosopher, Hume tried a number of other occupations. He attempted, unsuccessfully, to secure a professorship in the University of Edinburgh (1744), worked for a short time as a tutor to the (insane) Marquis of Annandale (1745), and served as secretary to General James St. Clair (1746-1747 and again in 1748). He also continued to write. In 1751 he published An Enquiry Concerning the Principle of Morals, in which he presaged the Utilitarian philosophers, saying that virtuous behavior was anything that was useful to us, and that gave us pleasure. In 1752 he took a job as librarian to the Faculty of Advocates Library in Edinburgh, which enabled him to write his successful History of England (1754-1762). In 1751 he wrote Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, where he suggested that explanation of the apparent orderly design of nature did not require God. Instead, bodies adapted to specific purposes through nature’s slow but persistent experimentation with form and function, anticipating Darwin’s theory of natural selection by more than a century. His friends convinced him to delay publication of the Dialogues until after his death, fearing the reaction of the public to his ideas.

Between 1763 and 1765 Hume served as secretary to the ambassador to Paris. He was admired by Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de and Diderot, Denis and befriended Rousseau, Jean-Jacques arranging for Rousseau to return with him to England, but they had a falling-out and parted as enemies. In 1767 Hume returned to Edinburgh, where his home became a salon for Scottish intellectuals such as Smith, Adam (economist) and Robertson, William (historian). In the spring of 1775 he fell ill and soon recognized that the end was near. On August 25, 1776 he died from complications of chronic ulcerative colitis. Although his funeral was held in a heavy downpour, thousands attended.

Further Reading:

Hergenhahn, B.R., An Introduction to the History of Psychology, 3rd Edition, Chapter 5, Empiricism, Sensationalism and Positivism, 1997.

Durant, W., and Durant, A., The Story of Civilization, Volume IX, The Age of Voltaire. Chapter IV, Religion and Philosophy, 1965.

Mossner, E.C. , The Life of David Hume, Oxford, 1980.

Barbara Blatchley

Agnes Scott College