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 Hume, David (1711-1776), Scottish historian and philosopher, who influenced the development of skepticism and empiricism, two schools of philosophy.  Born in Edinburgh on May 7, 1711, Hume was educated at home and at the University of Edinburgh, at which he matriculated at the age of 12 and left at the age of 14 or 15--another child prodigy.   He like Jeremy Bentham was pressed to study law--a family tradition.   He, like Bentham, found it distasteful, but unlike Bentham, did not seek to reform it, but turned his intellectual energies elsewhere.  And like John Stuart Mill, he had a neverous breakdown (1729).  His health was poor, and after working for a short period in a business house in Bristol (1734), he went to live in France for 3 years.


                II                LIFE AND WRITINGS:  
From 1734 to 1737 in France at La Fleche on the Loire in the old Anjou,  Hume occupied himself intensively with the problems of speculative philosophy and during this period wrote his most important philosophical work, A Treatise of Human Nature (3 volumes, 1739-40), which embodies the essence of his thinking.  Book I, on understanding the origin of ideas, the ideas of space and time, causality, and the testimony of the sense; Book II, on the passions of man; viz., the psychological machinery; and Book III,  on morals which sets out its emotive dimension.   In spite of its importance, this work was ignored by the public and was, as Hume himself said, dead-born, probably because of its abstruse style. Hume's later works were written in the lighter essay or dialogue forms that were popular in his day.

After the publication of the Treatise, Hume returned to his family estate in Berwickshire; there he turned his attention to the problems of ethics and political economy and wrote Essays Moral and Political (2 volumes, 1741-42), which attained immediate success. He failed to obtain an appointment to the faculty of the University of Edinburgh, probably because, even early in his career, he was regarded as a religious skeptic. Hume became, successively, tutor to the insane marquis of Annandale and judge (1745-46), and then advocate to a British military expedition to France. and secretary to General James St. Clair.  His Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding (afterward entitled An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding) appeared in 1748. This book, perhaps his best-known work, is in effect a condensation of the Treatise.

Hume took up residence in Edinburgh in 1751. In 1752, his Political Discourses was published, and in the following year, having again failed to obtain a university professorship, he received an appointment as librarian of the Advocates' Library in Edinburgh. During his 12-year stay in Edinburgh, Hume worked chiefly on his six-volume History of England, which appeared at intervals from 1754 to 1762.  This work, well received, provided him an income for life.  In the years 1762 to 1765 Hume served as secretary to the British ambassador in Paris. There he was lionized by French literary circles and formed a friendship with the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. Hume brought Rousseau back with him to England. Rousseau, however, plagued by delusions of persecution, accused Hume of plotting against him, and the friendship dissolved in public denunciations between the two men. After serving as undersecretary of state in London (1767-68), Hume retired to Edinburgh and there spent the rest of his life. He died August 25, 1776. His autobiography was published posthumously (1777), as was his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779). Hume had written the Dialogues in the early 1750s but had withheld the work because of its skepticism.

                III                HUME'S IDEAS  
Hume's philosophical position was influenced by the ideas of the British philosophers John Locke and Bishop George Berkeley. Hume and Berkeley both differentiated between reason and sensation. Hume, however, went further, endeavoring to prove that reason and rational judgments are merely habitual associations of distinct sensations or experiences.

                IV                METAPHYSICS AND EPISTEMOLOGY  
In a revolutionary step in the history of philosophy, Hume rejected the basic idea of causation, maintaining that reason can never show us the connexion of one object with another, tho' aided by experience, and the observation of their conjunction in all past instances. When the mind, therefore, passes from the idea or impression of one object to the idea or belief of another, it is not determined by reason, but by certain principles, which associate together the ideas of these objects and unite them in the imagination. Hume's rejection of causation implies a rejection of scientific laws, which are based on the general premise that one event necessarily causes another and predictably always will. According to Hume's philosophy, therefore, knowledge of matters of fact is impossible, although as a practical matter he freely acknowledged that people had to think in terms of cause and effect, and had to assume the validity of their perceptions, or they would go mad. He also admitted the possibility of knowledge of the relationships among ideas, such as the relationships of numbers in mathematics. Hume's skeptical approach also denied the existence both of the spiritual substance postulated by Berkeley and of Locke's material substance. Going further, Hume denied the existence of the individual self, maintaining that because people do not have a constant perception of themselves as distinct entities, they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions.

                V                ETHICS  
In his ethical thinking, Hume held that the concept of right and wrong is not rational but arises from a regard for one's own happiness. The supreme moral good, according to his view, is benevolence, an unselfish regard for the general welfare of society that Hume regarded as consistent with individual happiness.

As a historian Hume broke away from the traditional chronological account of wars and deeds of state and attempted to describe the economic and intellectual forces that played a part in the history of his country. His History of England was for many years regarded as a classic.

Hume's contributions to economic theory, which influenced the Scottish philosopher and economist Adam Smith and later economists, included his belief that wealth depends not on money but on commodities and his recognition of the effect of social conditions on economics.[1]

Encarta Encyclopedia, 2000, additions inserted without notation by JK.

[1]"Hume, David," Microsoft® Encarta® Encyclopedia 2000. © 1993-1999 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.




There are a series of connections which establish a continuity between Hume and the 4 utilitarians (Jeremy Bentham James and John Stuart Mill, and Bertrand Russell) I have featured on the web (sites Utilitarianism, Thinkers on Religion, and elsewhere).  Hume's moral and psychological philosophies were compatible with the developing utilitarianism.  Hume was an Empiricist, so were they.  Hume not only denied that there was a spiritual realm, he also held that religion had done more harm than gooda position that the other 4 would take.  All in their turn had made a sizeable contribution to the world of ideas, and also spoke out against the present social order.  Hume was the least vocal of the group, probably because of his employment by government.  Though Hume never met James Mill (James was 3 years of age when Hume died in 1776), James was thoroughly aware of Humes teachings.  James Mill had made a notable contribution to political and economy theory as well as psychology.  And like Hume his history (Hume of England, Mill of the conquest of India) was a financial success.  Bentham was the godfather of John Stuart Mill, and John Stuart the godfather of Bertrand Russell.  The 5 British philosophers are very much connected.  

It is with sadness that I honor the passing of this  great humanist in 17776.  He left us much to occupy the scholar and a few that are simply memorable reading.  One is his account of his death, which I have squirreled away among my papers.  If my recollect is correct, it was appended to a later addition of his history of England.  It is 4 pages.  Here published is Adams Smiths letter. 



    1790: The Death of Hume


Dear Sir


It is with a real, though a very melancholy pleasure, that I sit down to give you some account of the behaviour of our late excel­lent friend, Mr. Hume, during his last illness. . . .


Upon his return to Edinburgh, though he found himself much weaker, yet his cheerfulness never abated, and he continued to divert himself, as usual, with correcting his own works for a new edition, with reading books of amusement, with the conversation of his friends; and, sometimes in the evening, with a party at his favourite game of whist. His cheerfulness was so great, and his conversation and amusements run so much in their usual strain, that, notwithstanding all bad symptoms, many people could not believe he was dying. I shall tell your friend, Colonel Edmond­a stone, said Doctor Dundas to him one day, that I left you much better, and in a fair way of recovering. Doctor, said he, as I believe you would not choose to tell any thing but the truth, you had better tell him, that I am dying as fast as my enemies, if I have any, could wish, and as easily and cheerfully as my best friends could desire. . . .


(On my last visit) I told him, that though I was sensible how

very much he was weakened. . . yet his cheerfulness was still so great, the spirit of life seemed still to be so very strong in him, that I could not help entertaining some faint hopes. He answered, Your hopes are groundless. . . . When I lie down in the evening, I feel myself weaker than when I rose in the morning; and when I rise in the morning, weaker than when I lay down in the evening.  I am sensible, besides, that some of my vital parts are affected, so that I must soon die. Well, said I, if it must be so, you have at least the satisfaction of leaving all your friends, your brothers family in particular, in great prosperity. He said that he felt that satisfaction so sensibly, that when he was reading a few days before, Lucians Dialogues of the Dead, among all the excuses which are alleged to Charon for not entering readily into his boat, he could not find one that fitted him; he had no house to finish, he had no daughter to provide for, he had no enemies upon whom he wished to revenge himself. I could not well imagine, said he, what excuse I could make to Charon in order to obtain a little delay.... He then diverted himself with inventing several jocular excuses, which he supposed he might make to Charon, and with imagining the very surly answers which it might suit the charac­ter of Charon to return to them. Upon further consideration, said he, I thought I might say to him, Good Charon, I have been cor­recting my works for a new edition. Allow me a little time, that I may see how the Public receives the alterations. But Charon would answer, When you have seen the effect of these, you will be for making other alterations. There will be no end of such excuses; so, honest friend, please step into the boat. But I might still urge, Have a little patience, good Charon, I have been endeavouring to open the eyes of the Public. If I live a few years longer, I may have the satisfaction of seeing the downfall of some of the prevailing systems of superstition. But Charon would then lose all temper and decency. You loitering rogue, that will not happen these many hundred years. Do you fancy I will grant you a lease for so long a term? Get into the boat this instant, you lazy loitering rogue.

But, though Mr. Hume always talked of his approaching dis­solution with great cheerfulness, he never affected to make any parade of his magnanimity. He never mentioned the subject but when the conversation naturally led to it, and never dwelt longer upon it than the course of the conversation happened to require. . . .­


(Adam Smith then relates how he learned the news of Humes death.)


Thus died our most excellent, and never to be forgotten friend; concerning whose philosophical opinions men will, no doubt, judge variously. . . but concerning whose character and conduct there can scarce be a difference of opinion. . . . The extreme gentleness of his nature never weakened either the firm­ness of his mind, or the steadiness of his resolutions. His con­stant pleasantry was the genuine effusion of good nature and good-humour, tempered with delicacy and modesty, and without even the slightest tincture of malignity, so frequently the dis­agreeable source of what is called wit in other men. . . . And that gaiety of temper, so agreeable in society, but which is so often accompanied with frivolous and superficial qualities, was in him certainly attended with the most severe application, the most extensive learning, the greatest depth of thought. . . . Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his lifetime 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 permit.

Letter to William Strahan, 1776


#18 David Hume on Miracles