Hume, David (1711–76)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DB040-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 24, 2024, from

Article Summary

Hume’s philosophy has often been treated as the culmination of the empiricist tradition of Locke and Berkeley, but it can also be seen to continue the sceptical tradition, and, even more strikingly, the naturalist tradition of Epicurus, Lucretius, Hobbes and Spinoza. Hume challenges orthodox religious conceptions of human nature. He presents us as part of a larger nature, sharing our basic cognitive and affective capacities with the higher animals. Our ‘reason’ is not some God-given privileged access to truth, but simply our language-affected variant of ‘reason in animals’. The negative, anti-rationalist arguments of his first work, A Treatise of Human Nature, where he attacks the views of theistic rationalists, are more muted in his later writings, but the anti-religious arguments become ever more explicit. The importance of his philosophy lies in the thoroughness of his naturalistic project. He tries to show that neither knowledge nor ethics nor the political order needs any sort of religious foundations, and also to explain why so many thinkers had mistakenly held that they did.

To the end of his life Hume called himself a sceptic, but his scepticism was in the service of his secular reform of culture, and always ‘mitigated’ by his recognition that a ‘true sceptic’ would be as diffident of his doubts as of his convictions. Sceptical arguments are found useful, however, to cut down the pretensions of dogmatic religious and rationalist claims. His essay ‘The Sceptic’, although purporting only to portray one sort of philosopher, is often read as a self-portrait.

His first and now most famous work, his Treatise, was ‘of human nature’, which he takes to include our understanding, our passions, and what drives our moral and political life. Much of Book I of the Treatise, ‘Of the Understanding’, is devoted to showing how many of our beliefs are owing to our ‘imagination’, rather than to our ‘reason’. Book II analyses our passions, their foundation in pleasure and pain, their various idea ‘causes’ and ‘objects’, and their communication by sympathy. One of its most famous claims is that passions are needed to motivate action. Hume, whose project is similar to that of Hobbes in Human Nature or the Fundamental Elements of Policy, follows him in taking will to be simply the transition from belief-informed passions to action, and takes voluntary human action to be in principle predictable, like everything else. Book III examines our moral evaluations of actions and passions.

In the Abstract of the Treatise Hume underscores the importance of psychological association in our passions, our belief formation, and, more generally, in the workings of our imagination. Where John Locke and Francis Hutcheson had found associative thinking a disease of the mind, Hume makes it the norm. Association of ideas by ‘resemblance’, by temporal and spatial ‘contiguity’, and by ‘causation’ gently guides our minds in our spontaneous thinking and fantasizing, and association by causation guides us less gently in our inferences. Like Locke, Hume takes it for granted that ‘anatomists’ will have some explanation, say in terms of our nervous system and the physical proximity of memory traces in the brain, to account for the psychological phenomena.

Hume emphasizes the influence of experienced repetition on our beliefs and our passions. His famous account of causal inference, which Immanuel Kant claimed woke him from his ‘dogmatic slumber’, makes it the more or less instinctive extrapolation into the future of regularities and frequencies that have been experienced in the past, along with a tendency to project the felt ‘determination of the mind’, in its causal inferences, onto the subject matter of those inferences, giving us the idea of causal necessity. Even when made explicit in language, our causal inferences cannot be made into ‘demonstrations’, in which the conclusion follows with logical necessity from premises known to be true. Hume is credited with discovering ‘the problem of induction’, although Pascal may have helped in that discovery. Problematic or not, induction is relied on in Hume’s own account of our nature. Indeed he believed that, unless we did rely on it in ordinary life, we would ‘perish and go to ruin’.

Hume’s general theory of human nature, and of the basic capacities and passions which we share with other mammals, is put to work in his account of what is distinctive to us, namely morality, religion, art, politics, and criticism. Like Shaftesbury and Hutcheson before him, he takes morality to involve a special pleasure taken in some human character traits. As moral judges, we find various character traits pleasing and displeasing, and we evaluate forms of social, cultural, and political organization which express or encourage such traits. Our moral sense is a reflexive form of our more basic capacity to take pleasure and displeasure in a range of different things. Morality, as Hume analyses it, is in no way dependent on that other distinctively human phenomenon, religion.

In his writings on religion he gave great offence to believers of his day, both by his diagnosis of the causes of religious fervour, and by his claims about its ‘pernicious’ effects. Like Pascal, he saw the basic cause of religion to lie in our anxiety about our own fate, but unlike him, did not endorse the religious response to this anxiety. Our ability to think about the future, combined with the limits of our success in finding natural causes for events that affect our happiness, and the intensity of our concern for that, lead us to postulate gods, invisible intelligent causal forces, super-persons, whom we try to please and placate by our prayers and devotions. Different religions and different forms of monotheism naturally develop, and religious persecution and religious wars are the result.

This entirely naturalistic account of reason, morality, politics, culture, and religion made Hume a hero for later Darwinians, such as Huxley, and the toast of the free-thinking Paris salons of his day. But in Britain, despite the fact that his political views are often taken to be conservative, his views on religion were seen by his contemporaries as dangerously radical, as an attack on the very foundations of his own culture.

    Citing this article:
    Garrett, Don. Hume, David (1711–76), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DB040-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
    Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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