Hume, David (1711–76)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DB040-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2005
Retrieved January 16, 2019, from

1. Life and writings

David Hume was born in Edinburgh on 26 April 1711, just four years after the formal union of England and Scotland that created Great Britain. The influx of Isaac Newton’s natural science and John Locke’s philosophy into the Scottish universities paralleled the political union (see NEWTON, I.; LOCKE, J.). Both Newton and Locke were widely seen as championing an empirical approach to knowledge in which observation and experimentation were to drive, constrain and determine theory. This approach stood in broad contrast to the readiness of many continental philosophers of the seventeenth century – such as René DESCARTES, Nicholas MALEBRANCHE, Benedict de SPINOZA and Gottfried Wilhelm LEIBNIZ – to allow high-level theoretical commitments to structure our understanding of the world and to determine the interpretation of sensory observations. Of particular concern to eighteenth-century philosophers were questions about the contents and faculties of the mind, causal reasoning, causal necessity, free will, God, the external world, personal identity, scepticism, motivation, the foundations of morality and political obligation. Hume was to make important contributions on each of these topics.

Hume was the youngest of three children. His mother, Katherine, was the daughter of Sir David Falconer, President of the College of Justice; his father, Joseph Home, practised law and was related to the Earls of Home. (Hume altered the spelling of his surname as a young man in order to aid its proper pronunciation.) The family maintained a modest estate, Ninewells, located in Berwickshire near the English border. Joseph Hume died in 1713, and young David was raised by his mother, a steadfast Calvinist who devoted herself to her children and never remarried. (She reportedly once declared, ‘Our Davie is a fine, good-natured crater [creature], but uncommon wake-minded’; the now-obscure final adjective of this famous but perhaps apocryphal remark has been interpreted variously as meaning ‘stupid’, ‘weak-willed’ and ‘intellectually alert’). Hume greatly admired his mother, but he rejected all religious commitments from an early age.

Between 1723 and 1725, Hume studied at the Edinburgh Town College – now the University of Edinburgh – with his older brother John. Among his subjects of study were Greek, logic, metaphysics and Newtonian ‘natural philosophy’. From 1725 until 1734, he resided at Ninewells – preparing for a legal career, although he later allowed (in his My Own Life) that he read more philosophy than law. An attempt at a business career in 1734 under the tutelage of a merchant in Bristol ended in disappointment after a trial of just a few months, and the 23-year-old Hume moved to rural France to live cheaply while pursuing philosophy.

After a year in Rheims, Hume settled in La Flèche, site of the Jesuit college at which Descartes had been educated. He took full advantage of the college library as he devoted himself to writing, and in 1737 he moved to London to pursue the publication of the result, which is now regarded as his most important philosophical work. The work was A Treatise of Human Nature (cited here as THN), described in its subtitle as ‘An Attempt to introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects’. By ‘moral subjects’ Hume meant not only ethics, but human nature and human affairs more generally; the book’s aim, as he described it in the Introduction, was to provide a ‘science of man’ – that is, what we would now call a cognitive and conative psychology. Because much of human knowledge concerns human beings and all of it is acquired by human beings using their human cognitive faculties, Hume proposed that such a science would provide ‘a foundation almost entirely new’ for all of the sciences. Just as Thales’ inauguration of the study of non-human nature was followed by Socrates’ inauguration of the study of human nature, he wrote, so too Francis Bacon’s application of the experimental method to the study of non-human nature had been followed by the application of the experimental method to the study of human nature by Locke and some other ‘late philosophers of England’ (see THALES; SOCRATES; BACON, F.). The unstated implication was that, just as Newton had perfected the former, Hume would endeavour to perfect the latter. Book I (‘Of the Understanding’) and Book II (‘Of the Passions’) of the Treatise were published together in 1739, anonymously; Book III (‘Of Morals’) appeared, also anonymously, in the following year.

Despite his efforts to obtain a wide readership for the book – he even composed an anonymous review, An Abstract of a Treatise of Human Nature, explaining some of its leading points and focusing particular attention on its central account of causal inference in Book I – the book’s reception was a great disappointment to him. Although it did receive a few (largely negative) reviews, he wrote later, that the Treatise ‘fell deadborn from the press, failing to elicit even a murmur from the zealots’ (My Own Life); and indeed, the initial printing of 1,000 copies did not sell out during Hume’s lifetime. Returning to Ninewells to live with his mother and brother, he turned his hand to essay writing, and his Essays, Moral and Political (2 vols, 1741–2) were somewhat better received. In 1745, he was considered for a professorship (of ‘moral and pneumatical philosophy’) at the University of Edinburgh. Although he was friendly with many of the more liberal clergy of Edinburgh, he was denied the chair because of the perceived anti-religious tenor of the Treatise. In the course of his candidacy, he wrote a pamphlet, published as A Letter from a Gentleman to His Friend in Edinburgh, rebutting theistically motivated objections to the book, including the charge of denying the causal maxim that every event has a cause.

Following the disappointment at Edinburgh, Hume took up a position as a tutor and caretaker to the psychologically troubled young Marquis of Annandale, a post that lasted for a year. There followed several years travelling as an aide and secretary to General St Clair (a distant relative), first on a military expedition – for which Hume’s reading in law allowed him to serve in the administration of military justice as Judge Advocate – that was originally projected to be against French Canada but which was ultimately directed against the coast of France (1746), and then on a series of diplomatic missions to Vienna and Turin (1747–8). In 1748 he published An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (cited here as EHU), which he later described as a ‘recasting’ of the material of Book I of A Treatise of Human Nature in response to his judgment that the poor reception of the Treatise had to do ‘more with the manner than with the matter’ (My Own Life) of the earlier work. He did, however, affix an ‘advertisement’ in 1775 to his collected Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects – which included the Enquiry but not A Treatise of Human Nature – asking that his philosophy not be judged on the basis of ‘that juvenile work’. This request was a response to the use of substantial quotations from the Treatise made by ‘that bigotted silly Fellow, Beattie’ (The Letters of David Hume 1932, Letter 509) in Beattie’s highly critical and largely uncomprehending 1770 work, An Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth (see BEATTIE, J.).

Whereas the Treatise had aimed at a rich and intricate ‘science of man’, the Enquiry aimed at a more streamlined ‘mental geography’ that omitted many elements and complexities from Book I of the earlier work in order to focus on the explanation of causal inference and its application to a selection of other topics. The often dramatic and sometimes combative tone of the Treatise gave way to a more urbane and conciliatory tone in the Enquiry. For example, in the Treatise the defence of the ‘doctrine of necessity’ against the ‘doctrine of liberty’ concerning the will becomes in the Enquiry, through a simple terminological modification with no change of substantive position, a ‘reconciling project’ between the two doctrines. But while the Enquiry was rhetorically more conciliatory than the Treatise, it was at the same time much more directly subversive, for the three applications of his theory of causal inference on which Hume chose to concentrate – concerning the freedom and necessity of the will, rewards and punishments in an afterlife, and miracles – all had obvious anti-religious implications, and he described the goal of the work in its opening section precisely as that of disentangling philosophy from the grip of ‘superstition’. Indeed the section of the Enquiry devoted to the topic of miracles – a topic that he had cautiously excised from the manuscript of the Treatise – soon became the most notorious piece of writing of his career (see MIRACLES). The year 1748 also saw the publication of his Three Essays Moral and Political; and at the end of the year, he returned from General St Clair’s service to Ninewells.

In 1751 Hume published An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals (cited here as EPM), a ‘recasting’ of Book III of the Treatise organized around the question of what constitutes virtue or personal merit, and a work that he later described as ‘of all my writings, incomparably the best’. Anxious for a return to city life, he moved to Edinburgh and set up a household with his sister, Katharine. In the following year, he published Political Discourses (which included essays on topics in what would now be considered economics) and was again passed over for a professorship in philosophy – this time at the University of Glasgow, where his friend Adam SMITH was vacating the Chair of Logic to take up the Chair of Moral Philosophy. Hume was obliged to accept instead the position of Librarian of the Faculty of Advocates’ Library (which developed into what is now the National Library of Scotland) in Edinburgh. The primary advantage of the position lay in the ready access it provided him to the library itself, which he used to write what ultimately proved to be a very popular six-volume History of England, published between 1754 and 1762. While serving as Librarian, he also published, in 1753, Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects, a two-volume collection of his previously published work that enjoyed many editions, and, in 1757, Four Dissertations, consisting of ‘The Natural History of Religion’, ‘Of the Passions’, ‘Of Tragedy’ and ‘Of the Standard of Taste’. (‘Of the Standard of Taste’, devoted to the topic of aesthetic judgment, was written to replace two essays – ‘Of Suicide’ and ‘Of Immortality’, both finally published only posthumously – that Hume cautiously decided at the last moment to suppress. He had first consented to their inclusion, in turn, in order to replace a dissertation on ‘the metaphisical Principles of Geometry’, now lost, that a friend had already convinced him to withdraw from the volume.) After completing sufficient research for his History, he resigned the librarianship in 1757. During the last several years of his term, he had been donating his salary to the blind Scottish poet Thomas Blacklock as the result of a dispute in which the library curators had rejected, on grounds of indecency, three French books that Hume had ordered.

In 1763, Hume was invited to serve as secretary to the British ambassador in Paris, Lord Hertford, and after some hesitation, he accepted. French intellectuals admired him for his philosophical scepticism and criticism of religion, his skill as a literary stylist and his sociable character; he was quickly lionized as ‘le bon David’ by French salon society. Among his friends were the philosophes DIDEROT, D’ALEMBERT and Baron d’Holbach. When Lord Hertford took a new post in Ireland, Hume was left in charge of the embassy until the arrival of a new ambassador. When he returned to Edinburgh in 1766, mutual friends prevailed upon him to take the controversial philosopher Jean-Jacques ROUSSEAU (who was no longer welcome in Switzerland) to Britain with him. Hume arranged on Rousseau’s behalf the rental of a country house in England. Rousseau soon grew unhappy and suspicious however, and attacked Hume’s motives, publicly alleging (apparently on the basis of a satirical piece written by Hume’s friend Horace Walpole) that Hume was trying to ruin his reputation. Hume responded, despite his dislike of literary controversies, by writing and circulating a defence of his conduct in the case.

From 1767 until 1769, Hume held a government post as Undersecretary of State for the Northern Department – a position that, ironically enough, required him to give formal government approval to ecclesiastical appointments in Scotland. He returned to his many friends in Edinburgh in 1769. In 1775, he became aware that he was suffering from intestinal cancer and he died the following year, composing in his final weeks the brief autobiographical essay My Own Life (‘this funeral oration of myself’, he called it) and impressing all those around him with his cheerfulness and good humour in the face of his impending demise. He left behind the completed manuscript of his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion – on which he had been working for many years and which he had meant to publish only posthumously – with a request that Adam Smith see to its publication. After Smith declined the request to publish the controversial work, it was published instead by Hume’s nephew. Smith did, however, write a moving remembrance of Hume, which he concluded with these words: ‘Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his life-time, 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.’

Citing this article:
Garrett, Don. Life and writings. Hume, David (1711–76), 2005, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DB040-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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