- Hume, David
- (1711–1776)Scottish philosopher, historian, and essayist. Hume is the most influential thoroughgoing naturalist in modern philosophy, and a pivotal figure of the Enlightenment . Born the second son of a minor Scottish landowner, Hume attended Edinburgh university. In 1734 he removed to the little town of La Flèche in Anjou to write and study (it is possible that the presence of the Jesuit College at which Descartes and Mersenne had been educated, influenced this decision). In 1739 he returned to oversee the printing of the Treatise of Human Nature, his first and greatest philosophical work. Hume settled down to a life of literary work, mainly residing in Edinburgh, although he was a rather improbable aide to General James St Clair, a distant relation, for a time between 1746 and 1748. Earlier he had produced the Essays Moral and Political (1742). These range from light-hearted exercises in the manner of Joseph Addison to weighty and important treatments of the foundations of ethics, politics, and economics. They were followed by An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751). These works are usually regarded as attempts to lay out the philosophy of the Treatise in a more accessible manner, although particularly the second Enquiry contains distinct differences at least of emphasis. In the following decade Hume began publication of the work by which he was best known in his own time, the History of England (in six volumes, 1754–62; the work was subsequently extended by Smollett). During this period his reputation slowly grew until he became acknowledged as one of Britain's principal men of letters. In 1763 he was appointed Secretary to the Embassy and later chargé d’affaires in Paris, and during this period enjoyed unprecedented fame and adulation as one of the principal architects of the Enlightenment. He failed, however, to win the hand of the mistress of Louis-François de Bourbon, Prince de Conti, the Comtesse de Boufflers, to whom he formed a deep romantic attachment. Perhaps this was because at this time he began to resemble, in Diderot's words, ‘un gros Bernardin bien nourri’ (a fat well-fed Bernardine monk). In 1766 Hume accompanied Rousseau to England, but the trip ended with paranoid complaints of persecution by Rousseau, against which Hume defended himself with dignity. Out of his ‘abundant caution’ he delayed the publication of his last sceptical philosophical work, The Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, until after his death, when they were published by his nephew. Adam Smith wrote of Hume that ‘upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his life-time and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will admit.’The avowed aim of the Treatise was to bring the experimental method into the study of the human mind. Hume believed that the success of natural science, culminating in Newtonian mechanics, lay in finding the few simple principles that would enable one to discern order in the apparent chaos of natural systems. Events in nature are in themselves ‘loose and separate’, and the art of the scientist is to detect the patterns in which they fall. Similarly separate events in the mind, such as the onset of ideas, impressions, and passions, should be seen as natural events, ordered by principles that are open to empirical discovery. The first components of the mind are individual ‘perceptions’ or impressions and ideas. Ideas for Hume, as for earlier empiricists such as Berkeley, are faint or less forceful versions of impressions. They are the components of thought, and Hume was the first modern philosopher seriously to explore the difficulty of explaining how, on the basis of this private kaleidoscope, we attain a conception of ourselves as inhabiting a public world of independent objects extended in space and ordered by causal laws. Hume's resolute naturalism rejects any model in which sense experience enables us to reason our way to such a conception; instead it arises purely as the result of ‘custom and habit’, and reason can neither assist nor oppose the process. Similarly the passions, under which Hume includes any pressure on practical choice, including ethical pressure, are outside the sway of reason but themselves rise and fall in naturally detectable patterns.Hume was the first modern empiricist to refuse any aid either from a priori principles of reasoning, or from any other ideology that ensures a harmony between our perceptions and the world. His genius lay in the rigour with which he reconstructs the scaffolding of everyday thought on this slender basis. Thus the causal connection between events is something of which we have no impression, hence no idea, so a Humean theory of causation instead sees us as projecting onto events our own tendency to infer one from another (see projectivism ). The mind that is the owner of my perceptions is something that itself is never given to me in perception, so a Humean theory of the self regards it as a fiction arising from imagination (see bundle theory of the mind or self, personal identity ). A Humean theory of ethics sees moral thought as the expression of sentiments that evolve because we must co-operate in societies if we are to meet our natural needs. Although Hume is often called a sceptic in these and other areas, it is only the power of reason about which he is sceptical, not the propriety of natural processes of belief-formation, against which, in any event, it is futile to argue.In the Enquiries, Hume downplays the original foundations of his philosophy, in favour of a more accessible presentation of the way he would have us think about theoretical belief-formation, and practical reasoning. His scepticism about reason did not leave him lacking any distinction between proper and improper processes of arriving at belief, although his right to such a distinction has been challenged. In section x, on Miracles, in the first Enquiry, he gleefully shows that it makes no sense to credit human reports of miracles : the falsity of such a testimony through ‘folly or knavery’ would be a natural event, less miraculous and more probable than that which it relates. His sceptical attitude both to revealed and natural theology culminated in the sustained attack on the argument to design in the posthumous Dialogues .
Philosophy dictionary. Academic. 2011.