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David Hume

David Hume
David Hume

David Hume (April 26, 1711August 25, 1776) was a Scottish philosopher and historian and, with Adam Smith and Thomas Reid among others, one of the most important figures in the Scottish Enlightenment. Many regard Hume as the third and most radical of the so-called British Empiricists, after the English John Locke and the Anglo-Irish George Berkeley; this bracketing of Hume, Locke, and Berkeley, though traditional, ignores the major influence on Hume of various Francophone writers such as Pierre Bayle, as well as various other figures on the Anglophone intellectual landscape such as Isaac Newton, Samuel Clarke, Francis Hutcheson, and Joseph Butler.

Historians most famously see Humean philosophy as a thoroughgoing form of Scepticism, but many commentators have argued that the element of Naturalism has no less importance. Hume scholarship has tended to oscillate over time between those who emphasize the sceptical side of Hume (such as Reid, Greene, and the logical positivists), and those who emphasize the naturalist side (such as Don Garrett, Norman Kemp Smith, Barry Stroud, and Galen Strawson).



Hume was born in Edinburgh and attended Edinburgh University. At first he considered a career in law, but came to have, in his words, "an insurmountable aversion to everything but the pursuits of philosophy and general learning".

He did some self-study in France, where he also completed A Treatise of Human Nature at the age of twenty-six. Although many scholars today consider the Treatise to be Hume's most important work and one of the most important books in the history of philosophy, the public in England did not at first agree. Hume himself described the (lack of) public reaction to the publication of the Treatise in 1739–40 by writing that the book "fell dead-born from the press".

After a few years of service to various political and military figures, Hume returned to his studies. After deciding that the Treatise had problems of style rather than of content, he reworked some of the material for more popular consumption in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. It did not prove extremely successful either, but more so than the Treatise.

Hume failed to gain chairs of philosophy in Edinburgh and in Glasgow, probably due to charges of atheism, and to the opposition of one of his chief critics, Thomas Reid.

However, between philosophical pursuits, Hume did achieve literary fame as an essayist and historian. Attention to his works grew after no less a philosopher than Immanuel Kant credited Hume with awakening him from "dogmatic slumber" (circa 1770).

Critics of religion during Hume's time needed to express themselves cautiously. Hume did this by placing controversial views in the mouths of characters in dialogues, and by advancing arguments of Deists against religious notions such as miracles. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion was held from publication for 22 years until after his death. Debate continues over whether Hume was actually a Deist or an atheist.


Though Hume wrote in the 18th century, his work seems still uncommonly relevant in the philosophical disputes of today compared to that of his contemporaries. A summary of some of Hume's most influential work in philosophy might include the following:

The Problem of Causation

When one event causes another, most people think that we are aware of a connection between the two that makes the second event follow from the first. Hume challenged this belief, noting that whereas we do perceive the two events, we don't perceive any necessary connection between the two. And how else but through perception could we gain knowledge of this mysterious connection? Hume denied that we could have any idea of causation other than the following: when we see that two events always occur together, we tend to form an expectation that when the first occurs, the second will soon follow. This constant conjunction and the expectation thereof is all that we can know of causation, and all that our idea of causation can amount to. Such a lean conception robs causation of all its force, and some later Humeans like Bertrand Russell have dismissed the notion of causation altogether as something akin to superstition. But this violates common sense, thereby creating the problem of causation – what justifies our belief in a causal connection and what kind of connection could we have knowledge of? – a problem which has no accepted solution. Hume seems to have held the view that we (as well as other animals) have an instinct-like belief in causality based on the development of habits in our nervous system, a belief that we cannot eliminate but which we cannot prove true by any kind of argument, deductive or inductive, just as is the case with regard to our belief in the reality of the external world.

For relevant contemporary work, see Wesley Salmon 's Hume and the Problem of Causation and Causality and Explanation.

The Problem of Induction

We all think that the past acts as a reliable guide to the future. For example, physicists' laws of planetary orbits work for describing past planetary behavior, so we presume that they'll work for describing future planetary behavior as well. But how can we justify this presumption – the principle of induction? Hume suggested two possible justifications and rejected them both:

  1. The first justification states that, as a matter of logical necessity, the future must resemble the past. But, Hume pointed out, we can conceive of a chaotic, erratic world where the future has nothing to do with the past – or, more tamely, a world just like ours right up until the present, at which point things change completely. So nothing makes the principle of induction logically necessary.
  2. The second justification, more modestly, appeals only to the past reliability of induction – it's always worked before, so it will probably continue to work. But, Hume pointed out, this justification uses circular reasoning, justifying induction by an appeal that requires induction to gain any force.

The problem of justifying induction remains with us. Hume seems to hold the view that we (as well as other animals) have an instinct-like belief that the future will resemble the past based on the development of habits in our nervous system, a belief that we cannot eliminate but which we cannot prove true by any kind of argument, deductive or inductive, just as is the case with regard to our belief in the reality of the external world.

For relevant contemporary work, see Richard Swinburne's compilation The Justification of Induction.

The Bundle theory of the self

We tend to think that we are the same person we were five years ago. Though we've changed in many respects, the same person appears present as was present then. We might start thinking about which features can be changed without changing the underlying self. Hume, however, denies that there is a distinction between the various features of a person and the mysterious self that supposedly bears those features. After all, Hume pointed out, when you start introspecting, you notice a bunch of thoughts and feelings and perceptions and such, but you never perceive any substance you could call "the self". So as far as we can tell, Hume concludes, there is nothing to the self over and above a big, fleeting bundle of perceptions. Note in particular that, on Hume's view, these perceptions do not belong to anything. Rather, Hume compares the soul to a commonwealth, which retains its identity not by virtue of some enduring core substance, but by being composed of many different, related, and yet constantly changing elements. The question of personal identity then becomes a matter of characterizing the loose cohesion of one's personal experience. (Note that in the Appendix to the Treatise, Hume said mysteriously that he was dissatisfied with his account of the self, and yet he never returned to the issue!)

For relevant contemporary work, see Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons.

Practical Reason: Instrumentalism and Nihilism

Most of us find some behaviors more reasonable than others. Eating aluminum foil, for example, seems to have something unreasonable about it. But Hume denied that reason has any important role in motivating or discouraging behavior. After all, reason is just a sort of calculator of concepts and experience. What ultimately matters, Hume said, is how we feel about the behavior. His work begat the doctrine of instrumentalism, which states that an action is reasonable if and only if it serves the agent's goals and desires, whatever they be. Reason can enter the picture only as a lackey, informing the agent of useful facts concerning which actions will serve his goals and desires, but never deigning to tell the agent which goals and desires he should have. So, if you want to eat aluminum foil, reason will tell you where to find the stuff, and there's nothing unreasonable about eating it or even wanting to do so.

Instrumentalism went on to become the orthodox view of practical reason in economics, rational choice theory, and some other social sciences. But, some commentators argue, Hume actually went a step further to nihilism and said there's nothing unreasonable about deliberately frustrating your own goals and desires ("I want to eat aluminum foil, so let me wire my mouth shut"). Such behavior would surely be highly irregular, granting reason no role at all, but it would not be contrary to reason, which is impotent to make judgments in this domain.

For relevant contemporary work, see Jean Hampton 's The Authority of Reason and David Schmidtz 's Rational Choice and Moral Agency.

Moral Anti-realism and Motivation

Drawing on his attack on reason's role in judging behavior, Hume argues that immoral behavior is not immoral by being against reason. He first claims that moral beliefs are intrinsically motivating – if you believe killing is wrong, you will be ipso facto motivated not to kill and to criticize killing and so on (moral internalism). He then reminds us that reason alone can motivate nothing – reason discovers matters of fact and logic, and it depends on our desires and preferences whether apprehension of those truths will motivate us. Consequently, reason alone cannot yield moral beliefs. Hume proposed that morality ultimately rests upon sentiment, with reason only paving the way for our sensitive judgments by analysis of the moral matter in question. This argument against founding morality on reason is now one in the stable of moral anti-realist arguments; Humean philosopher John Mackie argued that, for moral facts to be real facts about the world and, at the same time, intrinsically motivating, they would have to be very weird facts. So we have every reason to disbelieve in them.

For relevant contemporary work, see J. L. Mackie's Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, Mackie's Hume's Moral Theory, David Brink 's Moral Realism and the Foundation of Ethics, and Michael Smith's The Moral Problem.

Free Will versus Indeterminism

Just about everyone has noticed the apparent conflict between free will and determinism – if your actions were determined to happen billions of years ago, then how can they be up to you? But Hume noted another conflict, one that turned the problem of free will into a full-fledged dilemma: free will is incompatible with indeterminism. Imagine that your actions are not determined by what events came before. Then your actions are, it seems, completely random. Moreover, and most importantly for Hume, they are not determined by your character – your desires, your preferences, your values, etc. How can we hold someone responsible for an action that did not result from his character? How can we hold someone responsible for an action that randomly occurred? Free will seems to require determinism, because otherwise, the agent and the action wouldn't be connected in the way required of freely chosen actions. So now, nearly everyone believes in free will, free will seems inconsistent with determinism, and free will seems to require determinism. Hume's view is that human behavior, like everything else, is caused, and therefore holding people responsible for their actions should focus on rewarding them or punishing them in such a way that they will try to do what is morally desirable and will try to avoid doing what is morally reprehensible. (See also Compatibilism.)

For a relevant contemporary work, see Daniel C. Dennett's Freedom Evolves.

The is-ought problem

Hume noted that many writers talk about what ought to be on the basis of statements about what is (is-ought problem). But there seems to be a big difference between descriptive statements (what is) and prescriptive statements (what ought to be). Hume calls for writers to be on their guard against changing the subject like that, not without giving an explanation of how the ought-statements are supposed to follow from the is-statements. But how exactly can you derive an 'ought' from an 'is'? That question, prompted by Hume's small paragraph, has become one of the central questions of ethical theory, and Hume is usually assigned the position that such a derivation is impossible. (Others interpret Hume as saying not that one cannot go from a factual statement to an ethical statement, but that one cannot do so without going through human nature, that is, without paying attention to human sentiments.) G. E. Moore defended a similar position with his "open question argument", intended to refute any identification of moral properties with natural properties—the so-called "naturalistic fallacy".


It was probably Hume who, along with his fellow members of the Scottish Enlightenment, first advanced the idea that the explanation of moral principles is to be sought in the utility they tend to promote. Hume's role is not to be overstated, of course; it was his countryman Francis Hutcheson who coined the utilitarian slogan "greatest happiness for the greatest numbers". But it was from reading Hume's Treatise that Jeremy Bentham first felt the force of a utilitarian system: he "felt as if scales had fallen from [his] eyes". Nevertheless, Hume's proto-utilitarianism is a peculiar one from our perspective. He doesn't think that the aggregation of cardinal units of utility provides a formula for arriving at moral truth. On the contrary, Hume was a moral sentimentalist and, as such, thought that moral principles could not be intellectually justified. Some principles simply appeal to us and others don't; and the reason why utilitarian moral principles do appeal to us is that they promote our interests and those of our fellows, with whom we sympathize. Humans are hard-wired to approve of things that help society – public utility. Hume used this insight to explain how we evaluate a wide array of phenomena, ranging from social institutions and government policies to character traits and talents.

The Problem of Miracles

One way to support a religion is by appeal to miracles. But Hume argued that, at minimum, miracles could never give religion much support. There are several arguments suggested by Hume's essay, all of which turn on his conception of a miracle: namely, a violation of the laws of nature by God. One argument claims that it's impossible to violate the laws of nature. Another claims that human testimony could never be reliable enough to countermand the evidence we have for the laws of nature. The weakest and most defensible claims that, due to the strong evidence we have for the laws of nature, any miracle claim is in trouble from the get-go, and needs strong supporting evidence to defeat our initial presumptions. In a slogan, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. This point has been most applied to the question of the resurrection of Jesus, where Hume would no doubt ask, "Which is more likely – that a man rose from the dead or that this testimony is mistaken in some way?" Or, more blandly, "Which is more likely – that Uri Geller can really bend spoons with his mind or that there is some trick going on?" This argument is the backbone of the sceptic's movement and a live issue for historians of religion. For a critical and technical (Bayesian) analysis of Hume, see John Earman's Hume's Abject Failure – the title of which gives you an idea of his assessment. For a rebuttal of Earman's interpretation of Hume, see Robert Fogelin 's A Defense of Hume on Miracles.

The Design Argument

One of the oldest and most popular arguments for the existence of God is the the design argument – that all the order and 'purpose' in the world bespeaks a divine origin. Hume gave the classic criticism of the design argument in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and though the issue is far from dead, many are convinced that Hume killed the argument for good. Here are some of his points:

  1. For the design argument to work, it needs to be true that about the only time we see order and perceived purpose is when it results from design. But we see order all the time, resulting from presumably mindless processes like generation and vegetation. Design accounts for only a tiny part of our experience with order and "purpose".
  2. Supposing the design argument worked, it could not (in and of itself) establish a robust theism; one could easily reach the conclusion that the universe's configuration is the result of some morally ambiguous, possibly unintelligent agent or agents whose method bears only a remote similarity to human design.
  3. For the design argument to reach its logical conclusion, God's mental order and functioning needs explanation, as we could otherwise leave the universe's order, etc unexplained.
  4. Often, what appears to be purpose, where it looks like object X has feature F in order to secure some outcome O, is better explained by a filtering process: that is, object X wouldn't be around did it not possess feature F, and outcome O is only interesting to us, a human projection of goals onto nature. This mechanical explanation of teleology anticipated natural selection.

For relevant contemporary work, see J. C. A. Gaskin 's Hume's Philosophy of Religion, and Richard Swinburne's The Existence of God; for a view from a philosopher of biology, see Elliott Sober 's Philosophy of Biology, ch. 2.

Conservatism and Political Theory

Many regard David Hume as a political conservative, sometimes calling him the first conservative philosopher. He expressed suspicion of attempts to reform society in ways that departed from long-established custom, and he counselled people not to resist their governments except in cases of the most egregious tyranny. However, he resisted aligning himself with either of Britain's two political parties, the Whigs and the Tories, and he believes that we should try to balance our demands for liberty with the need for strong authority, without sacrificing either. He supported liberty of the press, and was sympathetic to democracy, when suitably constrained. It has been argued that he was a major inspiration for James Madison's writings, and the Tenth Federalist in particular. He was also, in general, an optimist about social progress, believing that, thanks to the economic development that comes with the expansion of trade, societies progress from a state of "barbarism" to one of "civilization". Civilized societies are open, peaceful and sociable, and their citizens are as a result much happier. It is therefore not fair to characterise him, as Leslie Stephen did, as favouring "that stagnation which is the natural ideal of a sceptic". (Leslie Stephen, History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, 2 vols. (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1876), vol. 2, 185.)

Although strongly pragmatic, Hume produced an essay titled "Towards a Perfect Commonwealth", where he detailed what any reforms should seek to achieve. Strong features for the time included a strict separation of powers, decentralisation, extending the franchise to anyone who held property of value and limiting the power of the clergy. The Swiss militia system was proposed as the best form of protection. Elections were to take place on an annual basis and representatives were to be unpaid, which was aimed at keeping the interests of constituents in the minds of politicians.

It should be noted that Hume is only "conservative" in the sense that Edmund Burke was a conservative and his political theory is directly opposed to what is usually termed "conservatism" in the United States.

For more, see Douglas Adair's "That Politics May Be Reduced to a Science: David Hume, James Madison and the Tenth Federalist" in Fame and the Founding Fathers; Donald W Livingston, Hume's Philosophy of Common Life; John B Stewart, Opinion and Reform in Hume's Political Philosophy.


  • A Treatise of Human Nature: Being an Attempt to introduce the experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects. (1739–40)
    • Book 1: "Of the Understanding" His treatment of everything from the origin of our ideas to how they are to be divided. Important statements of Scepticism.
    • Book 2: "Of the Passions" Treatment of emotions.
    • Book 3: "Of Morals" Moral ideas, justice, obligations, benevolence.
Hume intended to see whether the Treatise met with success, and if so to complete it with books devoted to Politics and Criticism. (It did not meet with success, and so was not completed.)
Contains reworking of the main points of the Treatise, Book 1, with the addition of material on free will, miracles, and the argument from design.
  • An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751)
Another reworking of material from the Treatise for more popular appeal. Hume regarded this as the best of all his philosophical works, both in its philosophical ideas and in its literary style.
  • Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (posthumous)
Discussions between fictional characters Cleanthes, Philo, and Demea. They discuss proofs of the existence of God and other fun stuff. Although there's some controversy, most scholars agree that Philo's view comes closest to Hume's own.
  • Essays Moral and Political (first ed. 1741–2)
A collection of pieces written over many years and published in a series of volumes before being gathered together into one near the end of Hume's life. The essays are dizzying and even bewildering in the breadth of topics they address. They range freely over questions of aesthetic judgement, the nature of the British government, love, marriage and polygamy, and the demographics of ancient Greece and Rome, to name just a few of the topics considered. However, certain important topics and themes recur, especially the question of what constitutes "refinement" in matters of taste, manners and morals. The Essays are written in clear imitation of the Tatler and the Spectator, which Hume read avidly in his youth.
  • The History of England (1754–62)
This forms more a category of books than a single work, a monumental history spanning "from the invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution of 1688". This work brought Hume the most fame during his own lifetime, going through over 100 editions. Many considered it the standard history of England until the publication of Thomas Macaulay's own monumental History of England.

See also

External links

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