Hume, David (1711–76)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DB040-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 21, 2024, from

1. Life and reputation

Hume was born in Edinburgh on 26 April 1711. He left us his own brief account of his life, where he highlights the ‘good family’ he came from (lawyers and landowners on both sides of the family), his ‘slender’ patrimony from his father, Joseph Home of Ninewells, who died in his infancy, the devotion of his mother, Katherine Falconer, to her three children, his own disinclination to study law, as was thought suitable for him as younger son, and his life-long ‘passion for literature’.

After study at Edinburgh University, and beginning the study of law, he began working on what became the Treatise of Human Nature while living at Ninewells (Chirnside, near Berwick, Scotland) with his mother, brother and sister. His mother’s only recorded comment about her famous son, ‘Our Davie is a fine gude-natured crater [creature], but uncommon wake-minded [weak-minded, or weak of will]’, may have its explanation in his failure to stick to his law studies. He left home in 1734 and completed the Treatise in La Flèche, ‘a country retreat’ in France, where he had the use of the library of the Jesuit college (where Descartes had been educated), and could try out his arguments about miracles on the priests. The book was published in London in 1739–40, and Hume was bitterly disappointed by its reception. He published essays during the next few years, and his Essays Concerning Human Understanding, (later the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding), which restates some themes of the Treatise, in 1748. He had written to his friend Francis Hutcheson that the Treatise would offend the religious, but he still seems to have been dismayed when the offence it gave ruled him out as an applicant for the chair of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh University in 1745. His radical views also cost him the Chair of Logic at Glasgow; the only teaching position he ever held was as tutor to a mad English nobleman, for one year, 1745–6. Later he served as a military and diplomatic secretary, as librarian to the Advocates’ Library in Edinburgh (while he was working on his History of England), and as an Undersecretary of State in London, 1767–9. As Secretary to the British Ambassador in Paris, 1763–6, he met many French intellectuals and earned the title ‘le bon David’. On his return journey he escorted Rousseau to England to escape persecution in France and Switzerland. This brief acquaintance ended in a famous falling out.

During the 1750s he had published the Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, which Hume believed was his best work, the Political Discourses, and the Four Dissertations (containing his controversial Natural History of Religion), as well as volumes of his History of England. It was chiefly as a historian and essayist that he achieved fame in his lifetime. In 1769 he retired to Edinburgh, built a house in the new St Andrews Square, and could live ‘opulently’ on his earnings. He never married, but had several close friendships with women, and took a great interest in the education of the children of his older brother and of some of his friends. He and his sister entertained a large circle of Scottish friends (including Adam Smith, the architects Robert and James Adam, William Robertson, Adam Ferguson, Hugh Blair, and many ministers of the Church of Scotland), and occasional guests from overseas, such as Benjamin Franklin, who stayed with Hume for a month. Until his death in 1776 Hume continued adding corrections to new editions of his published writings and polishing his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, published posthumously in 1779. As he was dying he was visited by James Boswell, curious to find out if, when death was close at hand, the ‘great infidel’ could preserve his calm Epicurean acceptance of the view that death was annihilation. (His publisher, William Strahan, also expressed the same curiosity in a letter.) Hume joked with Boswell about death and the possibility of an afterlife, and then changed the subject to recommend that Boswell read Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Boswell left ‘with impressions which disturbed me for some time’.

Hume continued to disturb the religious from the grave. Leslie Stephen, writing in 1876, remarked that Hume’s writings were so subversive to religion that the general reluctance to face up to their arguments had led to a neglect of his philosophy. However Thomas Reid and Immanuel Kant had not neglected it, and nor had Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. T.H. Huxley saw Hume as an ally in the cause of a naturalistic science of human nature, and even T.H. Green, who found in his philosophy little except an object lesson in the errors of subjectivism and empiricism, did him the valuable service of re-editing his writings.

To his first biographer, T.E. Richie, Hume was a great historian who had dabbled in philosophy in his youth. For much of the twentieth century he was seen as a great sceptical philosopher who, having shown how little philosophy could hope to do, turned away from philosophy and passed his time writing a sort of ‘1066 and all that’. Increasingly he is coming to be seen as a scientist of human nature whose ‘science’ included studying the origins and development of his own culture. His History is found to be interestingly philosophical, his philosophy from the start to have been intent on ‘a cautious observation of human life …men’s behaviour in company, in affairs, and in their pleasures’ (Treatise: xix). The sceptical strain in his thought, especially when combined with his ambitions as a scientist of human nature, continues to fascinate commentators. Increasing attention is being paid to Hume’s essays and later work, and to their relationship to his earlier more ‘abstruse’ writings.

Strahan, in a letter to Hume’s nephew who was arranging the posthumous publication of the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, wrote that this long-delayed publication ‘will probably make some noise in the world; and its tendency be considered in different lights by different men’. Not only the Dialogues, but the entire corpus of Hume’s writings continues to make some noise in the world, and the tendency of his thought continues to be considered in different lights by different interpreters of it.

Citing this article:
Garrett, Don. Life and reputation. 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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