David Hume (1711-1776), a Scottish moral philosopher, historian, and public economist, is considered among history’s most important British men of letters. A major representative of British Empiricism, Hume influenced generations of thinkers, in particular Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Friedrich August von Hayek. His writings on perception, causality, history, time, morality, and economics prepared the ground for many important subsequent philosophical and economic schools, for example, Utilitarianism, Rationalism, and the Austrian liberal economic school of the 20th century.
Life and Work
Hume was born into a noble albeit no longer prosperous family in Edinburgh on April 26, 1711. After the death of his father in 1713 he grew up with his two elder siblings under the care of his mother at Ninewells in the Scottish lowlands.
At the young age of 12 he followed his older brother to Edinburgh University. There he first studied mathematics; later on, he studied law but never completed the degree. Soon Hume turned his concentration to the great ancient philosophers, especially Cicero and Seneca. Beyond them he read the major contemporary British writers like Joseph Butler, John Locke, and George Berkeley; he admired them as fathers of moral science that was based on an experimental approach.
In 1734, after several years of intense reading, he felt sick and exhausted. In an effort to recover his health through a change of habits, Hume relocated to Bristol to take up work for a sugar importer. Because this way of life did not suit him at all, he quickly decided to resign and, still in the year 1734, took up his former studies again—but this time in France. Declining to accept gainful employment forced him to live a very modest life for years.
In France he stayed mainly in La Fleche, where roughly a century before Descartes had received his education in the Jesuit College, which still existed in Hume’s time. There he read the continental philosophers’ works and soon gained back his mental strength. Between 1734 and 1737 Hume composed his initial work, Treatise of Human Nature. To finalize the editing and for the sake of managing the book’s release he moved to London. The first two volumes—Of the Understanding and Of the Passions were finally published in 1739.
Eventually the third volume, Of Morals, appeared. The Treatise included Hume’s attempt to introduce a “science of human nature.”
But the Treatise’s tepid reception and miserable sales left Hume disappointed since his ambition from his youngest age onward had been to become a reputable man of letters. Having experienced this frustration, he returned to Ninewells to carry on his studies. In 1741/1742, Hume published his Essays Moral and Political. In contrast to the previous work, this one met with wide success.
In search of a stable income and space for further free development, Hume applied in 1745 for a vacant chair of Ethics in Edinburgh. But the “murmur among the zealots” about Hume’s alleged skepticism and atheism as voiced in the Treatise gave rise to successful opposition against his appointment. For the same reason he failed again 6 years later in Glasgow in his second and final effort to obtain a professorship.
After several short engagements, he followed the call of General James St. Clair—a cousin of his—in 1746 to accompany him as a secretary on a campaign against France, and 2 years later on a diplomatic mission to Vienna and Turin. During his absence his Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding—today denoted as his first Inquiry— were published; these were succeeded by Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals and his major work as political economist, Political Discourses. The latter attracted international attention.
In 1752 Hume began engagement as Librarian to the Advocates’ Faculty in Edinburgh. His primary benefit was being able to pursue his independent studies, allowing him to elaborate and release his six-volume History of England, which, again, met with great success. His belief in the necessity of historical classification of current issues and his view on history as immeasurably valuable “collections of experiments” motivated this body of work. In 1757 his Four Dissertations were published.
Fortune led him to Paris again, this time (1763) as secretary to the English ambassador. He enjoyed his opportunities to associate with noble Parisian society, with its stimulating and convivial salons. Returning to Britain in the company of Jean- Jacques Rousseau, with whom he shared a brief friendship, Hume soon became undersecretary of state. As a newly prosperous man, he retired to Edinburgh in the late 1760s.
David Hume died in Edinburgh on August 25, 1776, after having spent some years of comfortable life. His most controversial literary work, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, was published posthumously in 1779.
Moral Philosophy and Method
Hume emphatically distinguished “ought from is”—in today’s scientific language to speak from normative versus positive analysis.
Along with Berkeley and Locke, Hume is regarded an important representative of British Empiricism; Hume’s theory of knowledge follows the distinction of the perceptions (sensations vs. reflections) of the human mind into impressions and ideas; according to Hume, any idea, however elaborate, is based on a bundle of simple impressions. Hume therefore stated that any theory not empirically based must be rejected categorically. He presented the copy principle (that simple ideas come from simple impressions of the outside world) and thought about the principles of natural connections of ideas in mind—the process of association. These findings had implications for his judgments of the status of the outside world and free will.
Hume bewailed the primacy of passions over sanity in human behavior, causing him to state, “Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange. . . .” Some authors took this as an indication of Hume’s disregard of time and history; others believed he grasped the understanding of history and reason being central to philosophical advance.
Hume challenged the widespread unconscious supposition of causality between two events closely following another in time. Historically constant conjunction of two events should not be misunderstood as a proof of natural coincidence through causation and must not lead to the firm expectation of conjunct occurrence in the future.
Hume described the custom and habit of induction based on humankind’s natural tendency to form expectations of a general circumstance out of single observations of incidents—that is to say, inductive generalizable deductions. He denied that this way of generalizing in order to build expectations for the future was rational, because he did not detect the slightest evidence to confirm such generalization or to believe in even the prospectively constant conjunction as a form of stationary behavior over time. On the contrary, there may occur significant inconsistencies between past and future events. Some traces of parallelism to John Stuart Mill’s thought may be discerned here.
Hume doubted the moral rationalists’ (in particular Locke’s) and the “selfish schools” (e.g., Thomas Hobbes’s) behavioral assumptions and thought about the origins of humankind’s natural sympathy (benevolence) and morality. Hume tended to be a skeptic, especially in regard to religion.
Beyond his philosophical and historical thoughts, Hume made relevant contributions to the new science of economics. By means of progressive empirical inquiries, he disproved the theories of the strong contemporary school of mercantilists who believed in the achievements of protectionism. Hume spoke in favor of free trade and more dynamic currency regimes and hereby set a cornerstone of classical economics; in this respect he strongly influenced his close friend and later famous economist Adam Smith, as well as constituting a source of Ricardo’s monetary theory. Furthermore, he was convinced that in the absence of economic freedom any real political freedom would be unreachable, an idea that later inspired Hayek and others.
Matthias S. Hauser
See also Berkeley, George; Causality; Ethics; Kant, Immanuel; Morality; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques
Mossner, E. C. (1954). The life of David Hume. London: Nelson.
Stewart, J. B. (1992). Opinion and reform in Hume’s political philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Stroud, B. (1977). Hume. London: Routledge.