The Wikipedia entry on David Hume is extraordinarily extensive. What we have attempted to do here is provide a shorter description covering less about his life and a little more about his philosophy. We have also sought to place any pertinent quotes from him in the observations and not the body of the text.
David Hume (7th May 1711 NS (26 April 1711 OS) – 25th August 1776) was a Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist, who is best known today for his 'highly influential system of philosophical empiricism, scepticism, and naturalism'.
It is not widely recognised quite how influential he was. At age 46, Kant was an established scholar and an increasingly influential philosopher. But something shook his confidence and in correspondence with his friend Markus Herz, Kant admitted that, in the Inaugural Dissertation, he had in effect made a very serious mistake and he credited David Hume with awakening him from this "dogmatic slumber”.
According to Schopenhauer, "there is more to be learned from each page of David Hume than from the collected philosophical works of Hegel, Herbart and Schleiermacher taken together." Hume also influenced Karl Popper.
Swami Vivekananda, the chief disciple of the 19th-century mystic Ramakrishna, studied Western philosophy at the Scottish Church College and covered the work of both David Hume and Immanuel Kant. [Below Edinburgh]
My friends never had occasion to vindicate any one circumstance of my character and conduct; not but that the zealots, we may well suppose, would have been glad to invent and propagate any story to my disadvantage, but they could never find any which they thought would wear the face of probability.
Hume is classified by some today as an atheist, but this is not true, he was a Christian. Hume simply questioned the dogma that seemed to have become embedded in both religion and the philosophy of the day. When he travelled to La Flèche in Anjou, France, for example he ‘had frequent discourse’ with the Jesuits of the College of La Flèche. If anything he was entirely open minded and willing to accept whatever good science and observation showed him.
Does a man of sense run after every silly tale of hobgoblins or fairies, and canvass particularly the evidence? I never knew anyone, that examined and deliberated about ‘nonsense’ who did not believe it before the end of his enquiries.
It needs to be remembered that the Church of Scotland is essentially Protestant and he noticed that extreme Protestant sects, the members of which he called "enthusiasts", were ‘corrupters of religion’. If anything, he was simply not an unquestioning Christian, so we might better classify him as a scientific Christian - of which many exist.
He would be in tune with much of today’s beliefs, “The life of man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster.” In other words, man deludes himself if he follows the doctrine that the world was somehow constructed by God especially for him, yet this view was prevalent at the time and one still prevalent in the uneducated.
It seems that he was actually labelled all sorts of things by those whose feathers he ruffled. In a statement to a friend shortly before his death, Hume said
Men of Letters - Lord Henry Brougham
Here am I who have written on all sorts of subjects calculated to excite hostility, moral, political, and religious, and yet I have no enemies — except, indeed, all the Whigs, all the Tories, and all the Christians.
One example of his approach can be seen in his The Natural History of Religion, where he advocates an open mind in respect to polytheism as opposed to monotheism.
‘Were any one inclined to revive the ancient Pagan Theology, which maintained, as we learn from HESIOD, that this globe was governed by 30,000 deities, you might object’ , but, he says, if you use logical arguments, and evidence you can just as easily ‘find a numerous society of deities as explicable as one universal deity’, and that as a consequence it is worth investigating ‘all these systems, then, of Scepticism, Polytheism, and Theism’. And to do so ‘on a like footing, so that no one of them has any advantage over the others’.
In his Treatise on Human Nature, it is worth noting however, that he wrote that: "Generally speaking, the errors in religions are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous”.
Examples of his philosophy
Once we start to examine the essence of Hume's definition of what 'science' should be based on, it becomes very clear that whatever approach appears to be being used today, it is not science. Rather alarmingly, practically all his key criteria are being blatantly ignored. I am not sure what that makes today's practices, in some cases we can clearly call them fraud, in others just opinion, in cases where life and death are involved one might even include criminal negligence, but to call them science and preface any statement with 'scientists say' is in effect meaningless.
1. Causality, heuristics and induction
It is more probable that any law, at the knowledge of which we have arrived by observation, shall be subject to one of those violations which, according to Hume's definition, constitutes a miracle, than that it should not be so subjected
Hume argued that if one bases science on observation alone without establishing the rules by which a set of inputs produced a set of outputs, then one was not acting rationally. In other words, unless the process by which inputs are converted to outputs is described with as much accuracy as one finds in a computer program, for example, one has not actually acted scientifically. One can achieve a form of cause effect by linking the inputs of one process with the outputs of another, but where the workings of a process or function are unknown, then one is dealing only with heuristics not logic or science. To take a trivial example
|Tea, water||Make tea||Made tea|
This as it stands constitutes a sort of miracle, as we have absolutely no idea from this how the tea was made. Even if we further decompose the process, all we find is that we have missed some inputs [teapot, kettle ] and not been precise enough about the naming of them either
|Loose Tea, teapot||Put loose tea in teapot||Loose Tea in teapot|
|Water, kettle||Fill kettle with water||Filled kettle|
|Filled kettle||Boil water||Boiling water|
|Loose Tea in teapot, boiling water||
Pour boiling water over loose tea
|Made tea in teapot|
even at this level each and every single action required to achieve the process is not defined. To put it another way a robot would be unable to make tea from these instructions.
A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40)
Principles taken upon trust, consequences lamely deduced from them, want of coherence in the parts, and of evidence in the whole, these are everywhere to be met with in the systems of the most eminent philosophers, and seem to have drawn disgrace upon philosophy itself.
2. Science must be based on observation
Hume was probably one of the first to establish the basis on which ‘science’ should be carried out – and it was not hypothesis first and collect observations to prove it next. It was to observe and observe and observe in an area of interest [the scope] collecting data in order to reach a hypothesis. It is interesting that in our egotistical and opinionated age the whole basis for science seems to have been turned on its head. Beginning with A Treatise of Human Nature (1739–40), for example, Hume strove to create a naturalistic science of man that examined the psychological basis of human nature.
A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40)
We must … glean up our experiments in this science from a cautious observation of human life, and take them as they appear in the common course of the world, by men’s behaviour in company, in affairs, and in their pleasures. Where experiments of this kind are judiciously collected and compared, we may hope to establish on them a science, which will not be inferior in certainty, and will be much superior in utility to any other of human comprehension.
So first comes observation of human life – cautious meaning with care, ensuring attention to detail – and not experiments that are contrived in any way that might distort the end result. Only when this has been done, can the analysis and subsequent synthesis be achieved.
Hume even went so far as to say we should take absolutely nothing for granted , no assumptions should be made at all. Just because it looks round we shouldn’t assume it is round, we should check and measure that it is. As such no research paper should ever proceed with ‘let us assume’.
A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40)
There is nothing in any object, consider'd in itself, which can afford us a reason for drawing a conclusion beyond it; [...] even after the observation of the frequent or constant conjunction of objects, we have no reason to draw any inference concerning any object beyond those of which we have had experience.
3. No observation or fact should be denied
No great discussion should be needed on this, if there is evidence - in the sense of a verified observation, - to deny it exists is simply fraudulent and to spend ages having to defend its veracity to others is worse. In other words exclusion of observations that don't fit your hypothesis is wrong and it is also wrong for others to deny a verified observation and force the person to spend ages trying to convince them. The verified nature is however, key here [evident truth - a truth that has been proved with evidence].
PART III: Of knowledge and probability.
Next to the ridicule of denying an evident truth, is that of taking much pains to defend it
4. All beliefs must be constantly questionned
Hume like Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was absolutely emphatic about the need to question beliefs, all beliefs. He wrote a lot about religion, but then religion enjoyed considerable power in his time. Examples of his discussion papers include his 1757 dissertation, The Natural History of Religion, in which he argues that the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all derive from earlier polytheistic religions [true]. He also later wrote the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.
[On the right we see The Reverend Angus Smith, the ‘Wee Free’ minister and Sabbatarian who made headlines trying to stop a Sunday ferry service to the Isle of Skye.]
Unity is not the Church of Scotland’s strongest point.
It is I’m afraid something of a joke in England and is grouped with battered [deep fried] Mars bars and the philosophy of Rab C Nesbitt as examples of the archetypical Scottish approach to life. At the moment about 6% of the population are adherents. For example, in 1843, The Wee Free Church of Scotland was formed - a Calvanist Evangelical and Reformed Presbyterian denomination. As Wikipedia attempts to explain it “Historically it comprised that part of the original Free Church of Scotland that remained outside the union with the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland”. It has around 60 ministers and a congregation of 105. Here is a handy diagram that shows the Church's history and help to make everything clear.
The Church of Scotland seriously considered bringing charges against Hume for his “un-Christian beliefs”, but it would have been very difficult to have made any charge stick simply because Hume followed the teaching of Jesus Christ from the 4 gospels of the New Testament, but was just not very keen on the theological baggage that had accrued with each breakaway group. The fact they could even consider such a move may seem incredible to us today, but then so does the Inquisition.
At least 400 people were put on trial for witchcraft and various forms of diabolism during the witch hunt. The exact number of those executed is unknown, but is believed to be about 200.
The Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1597 was the second of five nationwide witch hunts in Scottish history, the others being
The Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1590–91,
The Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1628–1631,
The Great Scottish witch hunt of 1649–50 and
The Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1661–62.
Above A mapping project from the University of Edinburgh traces "Great Scottish Witch Hunts." University of Edinburgh
See also Anne Bodenham. Presbyterian tradition, traces its early roots to the Church founded by Saint Columba, who was Irish. Instead of there being a head of the Church, a presbyter exercised authority within each monastery. The monasteries were independent of one another. So as you can see, things probably weren't terribly transparent. Hume was not agnostic or atheist but more than likely was looking for clarification and resolution – especially in moral terms. Thou shalt not kill seems straightforward enough to me and probably was for Hume.
16 And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?
17 And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.
18 He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness,
19 Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
5. Choose a style of argument best suited to the subject
In 1779, Hume wrote a book entitled Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Natural religion or natural theology is an attempt to understand the nature of higher powers by examining Nature – the Creation. As such it is a book about trying to understand something of the Creator [God] by looking at the Creation.
In the introduction Hume explains why he has used a different conversational [as in the Greek Plato and Socrates dialogues] approach in the book rather than a series of statements.
Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion
Any question of philosophy, …. which is so OBSCURE and UNCERTAIN, that human reason can reach no fixed determination with regard to it; if it should be treated at all, seems to lead us naturally into the style of dialogue and conversation. Reasonable men may be allowed to differ, where no one can reasonably be positive.
[In effect one can put alternative arguments forward and build up a case for each . He continues]
Happily, these circumstances are all to be found in the subject of NATURAL RELIGION. What truth so obvious, so certain, as the being of a God, which the most ignorant ages have acknowledged, for which the most refined geniuses have ambitiously striven to produce new proofs and arguments? What truth so important as this, which is the ground of all our hopes, the surest foundation of morality, the firmest support of society, and the only principle which ought never to be a moment absent from our thoughts and meditations? But, in treating of this obvious and important truth, what obscure questions occur concerning the nature of that Divine Being, his attributes, his decrees, his plan of providence?
In other words what is the NATURE of ‘God’. Note that at no stage does he doubt the existence, he regards that as proven, the discourse is on what ‘God’ actually is – one Being, a team, a trinity [creator destroyer, maintainer] and so on. One has to remember that in Hume’s day, the Church had eradicated the Celtic and Pictish belief in a tree of life with androgynous Intelligences for every species and replaced it with the Roman Catholic male bearded white man.
Hume knew enough about his country’s former beliefs [and the fact the witches all communicated with them] to venture a foray into a fictional discussion, which was less likely to have him persecuted by the Calvinists.
A fellow countryman - the Reverend Robert Kirk had even written, in 1691, a small book entitled the Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and fairies in which he documents the many experiences of the people of his parish and of Scotland. The Reverend Robert Kirk was a student of theology at St Andrews and took his Master's degree at Edinburgh, becoming the minister for Aberfoyle. He was no gullible easily convinced believer in things spiritual. And he died aged 51 in 'mysterious circumstances'. Sometimes it is better to be wary when publishing the truth.
"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown"
“It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things."
Hume creates three fictional characters, Philo, Demea and Cleanthes,
- Demea argues that God is utterly mysterious, beyond the ability of science to detect. I suspect this argument has been included as it is a standard religious argument, the word ineffable is frequently used meaning ‘too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words’.
- Philo argues that the further we get away from what we observe as the EFFECT of the activity of ‘design’ the less likely it is we can identify the nature of the CAUSE. The argument is thus that the activity of Creation is not in question, it is the nature of the Being that was the cause of Creation. We don’t know the inputs or the detail of the process itself [as in 1]
- Cleanthes - Cleanthes argues that from our observations of Nature [which is all we have] we observe order, complexity, and fitness-for-purpose, craftsmanship and also great beauty. From this evidence of exquisite beauty and design in the universe as a whole, we may reasonably infer that this divine creator concept is at least Intelligent with an eye for beauty that we can appreciate, and capable of coming up with some fairly extraordinary inventions that work [unlike watches]
I have provided some observations from this work, but overall the book is showing that it is worth pursuing Cleanthes whilst remembering Philo’s argument and that using such an approach, it is also not invalid to suggest alternative types of theories for what ‘God’ actually is based on observations of the output – the Creation. Note that this is how we obtained the information for the strategy of the Great Work.
Life in brief
Hume was born in Edinburgh, the second of two sons. His father died just after his second birthday, and he was raised by his mother, who never remarried. Hume himself also never married. Although he studied philosophy at the University of Edinburgh from the age of 12, he did not graduate, simply because he used the opportunity to teach himself from the books in the library telling a friend in 1735 that "there is nothing to be learnt from a Professor, which is not to be met with in Books".
Aged around 18, Hume decided to spend a minimum of 10 further years reading and writing. He soon came to the verge of a mental breakdown, suffering from what a doctor diagnosed as the "Disease of the Learned" but which has all the appearances of nutritional deprivation, principally a lack of Vitamins C and D. The doctor prescribed “a Course of Bitters and Anti-Hysteric Pills", taken with a pint of claret every day. Later in his life, Hume would become well known for being very plump with a fondness for good port and cheese and gout!
Despite his wish to study books, he ended up studying life for a while, in order to earn a living. At 25, he became a merchant's assistant, leaving his native Scotland and going via Bristol to France. Later however he found himself the perfect job as a librarian at the University of Edinburgh. His tenure there, and the access to research materials it provided, ultimately resulted in Hume's writing the massive six-volume The History of England, which became a bestseller and the standard history of England for over sixty years. The book took fifteen years to write and runs to over a million words.
In 1746, Hume was given the opportunity to observe the world as it is by serving for three years as secretary to General James St Clair, who was envoy to the courts of Turin and Vienna. At that time Hume also wrote Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding, later published as An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. In 1749 he went to live with his brother in the countryside. In the 1750s, his friends helped avert a trial against him on the charge of heresy. Hume indicated however that he "would not have come and could not be forced to attend if he said he was not a member of the Established Church". Hume returned to Edinburgh in 1751.
It is ironic that despite all his other works. that it was only with the publication of his six-volume The History of England between 1754 and 1762,that Hume achieved any recognition. The six volumes traced events from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution of 1688, and were, extraordinarily, a bestseller.
From 1763 to 1765, Hume went to Paris, where he became secretary to the British embassy with some success. In 1766, Hume left Paris to accompany Jean-Jacques Rousseau to England. This ended up being a disastrous pairing and ended very quickly. In 1765, he served as British Chargé d'affaires, writing "despatches to the British Secretary of State" in Paris again. He returned to Britain in 1766. In 1767, he was appointed Under Secretary of State for the Northern Department. In 1769 he returned to James' Court in Edinburgh, and then lived, from 1771 until his death in 1776, at the southwest corner of St. Andrew's Square in Edinburgh's New Town, at what is now 21 Saint David Street.
Hume considered his two late works, the so-called "first" and "second" enquiries, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, respectively, as his greatest literary and philosophical achievements. He even asked to be judged on the merits of the later texts alone, rather than his early work.
- The History of England (Sometimes referred to as The History of Great Britain) (1754–62) - Many considered it the standard history of England in its day.
- My Own Life - In the last year of his life, Hume wrote an extremely brief autobiographical essay titled "My Own Life" which summed up his entire life in "fewer than 5 pages", it is in this essay that Hume provides an unambiguous self-assessment of the relative value of his works: "my Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals; which, in my own opinion (who ought not to judge on that subject) is of all my writings, historical, philosophical, or literary, incomparably the best." His genuine modesty is apparent, as well as the fact he was in general a well-liked and very nice man. He rather sweetly says that "My company was not unacceptable to the young and careless, as well as to the studious and literary" and concludes the essay with: " I cannot say there is no vanity in making this funeral oration of myself, but I hope it is not a misplaced one; and this is a matter of fact which is easily cleared and ascertained."
- A Treatise of Human Nature: Being an Attempt to introduce the experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects (1739–40). – was started when he was 23 and completed in 1738 at the age of 28. It is according to Wikipedia, “ now regarded as one of the most important in the history of Western philosophy.” Initially according to Hume, "it fell dead-born from the press, without reaching such distinction as even to excite a murmur among the zealots". ". It is over 700 pages long. It has three books and an appendix. In 1740 he tried to make it easier for people by releasing An Abstract of a Book lately Published: Entitled A Treatise of Human Nature etc which spelt out what he considered "The Chief Argument" of the Treatise
· Book I Of The Understanding
· Part I Of Ideas, Their Origin, Composition, Connexion, Abstraction, Etc.
· Part 2. Of The Ideas Of Space And Time.
· Part 3. Of Knowledge And Probability.
· Part 4. Of The Sceptical And Other Systems Of Philosophy.
· Book 2 Of The Passions
· Part I Of Pride And Humility
· Part 2 Of Love And Hatred
· Part 3 Of The Will And Direct Passions
· Book 3 Of Morals
· Part I Of Virtue And Vice In General
· Part 2 Of Justice And Injustice
· Part 3 Of The Other Virtues And Vices
- An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751) A reworking of material on morality from Book 3 of the Treatise. In the introduction Hume says “Most of the principles, and reasonings, contained in this volume, were published in a work in three volumes, called A TREATISE OF HUMAN NATURE:”. Hume then continues that this later book however “corrects some negligences in his former reasoning”. In this respect he asks that it is “this book alone that is regarded as containing his philosophical sentiments and principles”. It does beg the question, why does Wikipedia not take this specific request into account? We have honoured his request
- An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) Contains a reworking of the main points of the Treatise, Book 1, with the addition of material on free will, and miracles. Again, to be used in preference to Book 1 of the Treatise
- Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) Published posthumously by his nephew, David Hume the Younger. Being a discussion among three fictional characters concerning the nature of God. It contains an argument in favour of the existence of Intelligent Design
- Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary (first ed. 1741–2) A collection of essays on politics, economics, aesthetic judgement, love, marriage and polygamy, and the demographics of ancient Greece and Rome.
- The Natural History of Religion. Included in "Four Dissertations" (1757)
For iPad/iPhone users: tap letter twice to get list of items.
- Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion - David Hume – A mental world, or universe of ideas, requires a cause
- Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion - David Hume – Annihilation as a means of worship
- Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion - David Hume – Nothing exists without a cause; and the original cause of this universe (whatever it be) we call ‘God’
- Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion - David Hume – On the impossibility of knowing the nature of evolution and the Great Work
- Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion - David Hume – Reason alone is insufficient when investigating the spiritual and sublime as opposed to the mundane
- Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion - David Hume – System and order as an indicator of the Nature of ‘God’, but not necessarily proof of one Being
- Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion - David Hume – The effects of inspiration
- Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion - David Hume – The eye and the likeness of men and woman as observed examples of Intelligent Design
- Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion - David Hume – What is the soul of man
- Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion - David Hume – Arguments for the Great Work, Configurations and versions within the Work and an Intelligence hierarchy
- Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion - David Hume – Order and intention, all indicate in the clearest language an Intelligent Cause
- Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion - David Hume – The Intelligent hierarchy is both male and female, as is God
- Hume, David - 6th sense versus the other senses
- Hume, David - Animals have similar functions to humans
- Hume, David - Decision making and what influences the Will
- Hume, David - Desires, Objectives and the Ego
- Hume, David - Memory and the database of facts
- Hume, David - on empathy
- Hume, David - The Dual nature of the soul
- Hume, David - The Ego and Personality
- Hume, David - The Self and Perceptions