Hume, David (1711–76)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DB040-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 23, 2024, from

3. Human passions and human actions

Passions and sentiments. Hume takes us to share our basic passion-repertoire, as well as our ability to learn from experience, with the higher animals. They may lack moral, aesthetic, religious, and philosophical ‘sentiments’, but they do, if Hume is right, love, hate, feel pride and shame, as well as desire, enjoy, suffer, hope, and fear. Their passions have the same sorts of objects that ours do, and we can sympathize with some of their passions, as some of them can with some of ours. ‘Passions’, with the exception of a few instinctive appetities, are ‘impressions of reflection’, reactions of pleasure or displeasure to some perception of our situation.

All passions have ‘objects’, what Brentano called ‘intentional directedness’ and others have termed ‘aboutness’ (see Intentionality). ‘Direct’ passions, such as desire, joy, sorrow, hope and fear, are caused by their ‘objects’. What Hume calls the ‘indirect’ passions, such as pride, involve both the thought of something that pleases, such as a fine cloak, and also the recognition of that good thing as belonging to a particular person, bringing a consequent pleasure in that person. Should the particular person be oneself, the pleasure one feels will be pride. Should it be another person, the pleasure will be affection or esteem for that person. So the basic ‘causes’ of all passions are ‘agreeable’ pleasure and ‘uneasy’ pain or distress, and thoughts about their causes or occasions. Since they are ‘impressions of reflection’, they are equally founded on our thoughts about what has given or would give us such pleasure and pain. Throughout Parts I and II of Book II of the Treatise, Hume traces ‘the double relations of impressions and ideas’ which are responsible for the varieties of pride and humility, love and hate, and various mixtures of them. He invokes association by resemblance to explain the transitions in our emotional life from one pleasure to another (from being pleased by some witticism to being pleased with the friend who uttered it), and he invokes association of more varied sorts to explain the thought transitions involved in such sequences of passions.

When Hume rewrote his account of human passions, as given in Book II of the Treatise, in one of his Four Dissertations, ‘Of Passions’, he blunted the distinction between direct passions such as joy and indirect passions such as pride, but he is still fairly boastful about the explanatory power of his principles of association. The Dissertation reverses the order of treatment in the Treatise, beginning with hope and fear and moving on to pride, humility, love, and hate, which he terms not ‘indirect’, but simply ‘passions of a more complicated nature’, ones which ‘imply more than one view or consideration’. The substance of the account is largely unaltered, and the ‘mechanics’ of association are still very prominent, but the order of treatment and the terminology have changed.

In both Treatise and Dissertation a distinction is drawn between ‘calm’ and ‘violent’ passions. This cuts across the distinction between relatively simple (or ‘direct’) passions and relatively complicated ones. Any passion can become violent. A passion, say a desire, is said to be violent when it produces ‘sensible emotion’ (Treatise: 417) or ‘sensible agitation’. Passions tend to become violent when one ‘swallows up’ another, thereby getting ‘new force and violence’, when a passion encounters opposition or delay in gratification, when uncertainty produces ‘agitation’ in the mind, including the case where the object of a passion is temporarily absent, or partially concealed or veiled. Although violence is not the same as strength, still the ‘force’ it involves usually strengthens a passion, so that ‘when we wou’d govern a man, and push him to any action, t’will commonly be better policy to work upon the violent than the calm passions’ (Treatise: 419). Custom, by giving us ‘facility’, can strengthen a passion despite the fact that it removes some causes of violence, namely agitating novelty, challenge, and uncertainty. Hume ends the Dissertation with the expressed hope that he has shown that ‘in the production and conduct of the passions, there is a certain regular mechanism, which is as susceptible of as accurate a disquisition, as the laws of motion, optics, hydrostatics, or any part of natural philosophy’. (Here he seems to echo Spinoza in his preface to Ethics III.) The ‘mechanics’ of violence in passions, however, seems a little less than fully systematised by Hume. Since, in the Treatise, he wants to explain the errors of rationalists in ethics in part by the hypothesis that they confuse calm passions with reason, any inadequacies in his account of calm and violence has repercussions for his case against the rationalists.

Sympathy. All passions can be and often are communicated from one animal or person to another, through their understood bodily expression and our response to that in what Hume calls ‘sympathy’. Sympathy enlivens a mere idea of another’s passion into an impression. ‘The howlings and lamentations of a dog produce a sensible concern in his fellows’ (Treatise: 398). It is not only distress which is thus communicated, but any expressed passion, or even opinion. ‘This is not only conspicuous in children, who implicitly embrace every opinion propos’d to them; but also in men of the greatest judgment and understanding, who find it very difficult to follow their own reason or inclination, in opposition to that of their friends and daily companions’ (Treatise: 316). We spontaneously imitate the expressed state of mind of those around us, Hume believes, and this communication of feeling, along with its extension by our ability to imagine what others would feel, in various circumstances, is essential for the possibility of ‘the moral sentiment’. But there is also a ‘principle’, or basic tendency, which interferes with the workings of sympathy. This is ‘comparison’, which leads us to ask if we are doing better or worse than others. We can welcome another’s misfortune, rather than feel compassion for them, if that misfortune points up our own better fortune. ‘Comparison’ is invoked by Hume to explain malice and envy. He treats remorse as a case of malice against oneself, ‘an irregular appetite for evil’. He finds envy to be typically felt for those close in position to ourselves, and to be felt even when we are ‘superior’, should our inferiors be perceived to be advancing.

Sympathy can be blocked by the operation of ‘comparison’, but is facilitated by the perception of any sort of ‘natural relation’ between ourselves and others. ‘Similarity in our manners, or character, or country, or language…facilitates the sympathy’ (Treatise: 318). (Blood ties, and spatial contiguity also facilitate it.) Sympathy is sharing the feelings of others perceived to be like ourselves, or related to us, and so is felt differentially. Hume takes the moral sentiment to correct for such natural partialities in our sympathy.

The will, passion, and action. Hume includes an account of the will, and its freedom or lack of it, in Book II of the Treatise. Although he takes will to be the transition from thought and passion to action, it is discussed in his book on the passions, since‘the full understanding of its nature and properties is necessary to the understanding of them [the passions]’ (Treatise: 399). The ‘mechanical’ nature of human passions is found to be corroborated by the ‘uniformity and regularity’ of human conduct. Our decisions and behaviour are just as predictable (in principle) as what happens in inanimate matter. We have at best ‘the liberty of spontaneity’, on those occasions when our behaviour has determining causes internal to us as persons, rather than ‘violent’ external causes, overriding our own conscious wishes. In the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding Hume defines liberty as ‘the power of acting or not acting according to the determinations of the will’, (Enquiries: 94) and the will’s determinations are taken themselves to have their own psychological determining causes. This makes liberty a property not of the will, but of the agent (see Will, the). In this, as in his determinism, Hume agrees with Hobbes.

His account of our motivation, then, is that the complicated play of our passions, closely affected as they are by our memories, beliefs, and imaginings, lead to our intentions, ‘the determinations of our will’. These, as long as we are at liberty and do not forget or change our minds, get realized in our actions. Because passions are ‘impressions’, they are active psychological causes, sufficient to cause action. Because they are ‘impressions of reflection’, they incorporate the information about our situation that our memory, our beliefs, our reason and our reflection have given us. They need not be blind, however partial their ‘views’ often are. Hume’s account of the passions which motivate us makes them intrinsically reflective and thought-informed.

Because Hume takes our passions to determine our actions, the sort of conversation and company we provide, and the sorts of institutions, books, and artworks we are likely to produce, the evaluation of our passions becomes very important. His essays ‘Of Tragedy’, and ‘Of the Standard of Taste’ explore the passions literature arouses, our pleasure in it, and evaluation of it. Moral evaluation, he holds, is always the evaluation of ‘character’, of ‘principles in the mind and temper’ (Treatise: 477). His careful exploration of different sorts of sensitivity or ‘delicacy’, in the essay ‘Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion’, like his investigations into relative ‘violence’ in passions, and into the role played in our passions by sympathy and by ‘the principle of comparison’, as well as his discussion of liberty and necessity, all feed into his account of moral evaluation.

Hume’s ‘moral psychology’ bears a striking similarity to Spinoza’s. Whether he had read Spinoza’s Ethics or just Bayle’s version of it, he certainly shows agreement with Spinoza’s deterministic version of our psychology, and with particular points of detail, such as the effects of vacillation. His account of the effect of opposition on the violence of a passion (so that we naturally ‘desire what is forbid’) and his negative treatment of remorse, also repeat theses that Spinoza had advanced (see Spinoza, B. de; Bayle, P.).

Citing this article:
Garrett, Don. Human passions and human actions. 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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