Hume, David (1711–1776)

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David Hume, considered by many the finest Anglophone philosopher, one of the first fully modern secular minds, and, along with Adam Smith, the leading light of the Scottish Enlightenment, was the author of four major philosophical works and many essays.

Born on April 26, 1711, in Edinburgh, Scotland, Hume spent his childhood mostly at Ninewells, the family estate near Berwick. Though his family was of good social standing, they were not rich, and, as the second son, he had to be prepared to earn a living to supplement an inadequate inherited income. He attended Edinburgh University from the ages of eleven to fifteen, in which city he remained to study law. Finding this not to his taste, Hume returned to Ninewells and threw himself into an intensive program of intellectual self-development. He read widely in ancient and modern literature, improved his knowledge of science and languages, and devoted himself above all to philosophy. In this way, sometime before he turned eighteen, Hume achieved the breakthrough that, he reported, "open'd up to me a new Scene of thought, which transported me beyond Measure, & made me, with an Ardor natural to young men, throw up every other Pleasure or Business to apply entirely to it" (The Letters of David Hume 1932, vol. 1, pp. 1314).

However, the strain eventually told on Hume's health, and he was obliged to curtail his studies and pursue a more active life. To this end, he secured employment with a Bristol merchant in 1734. Though this venture into the world of commerce was brief, his health was sufficiently restored to enable him to undertake the composition of the systematic philosophical treatise by which he hoped to make his literary mark. To stretch his meager income further than was possible in Britain, Hume relocated to Francefirst to Reims, then to La Flèche in Anjouwhere he was able to benefit from the outstanding library of the Jesuit college.

Hume returned to England in 1737 with the intention of publishing the first two books, Of the Understanding and Of the Passions, of the work he decided to call A Treatise of Human Nature: Being an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects. After publishing them as volume 1 in 1739, he went home to Scotland to revise the third book, Of Morals, which he published as volume 2 the following year. Never before or since has anyone so young published a philosophical work so comprehensive, ambitious, original, or accomplished. Still, Hume's obvious aspiration to be acknowledged the Isaac Newton of philosophy did not sit well with contemporaries. Reviewers were mostly hostile and uncomprehending, so that the Treatise "fell dead-born from the Press ; without reaching such distinction as even to excite a Murmur among the Zealots" (1987, p. xxxiv).

Having wisely taken the precaution to publish anonymously, Hume soon recovered from his failure and decided to apply his immense literary gifts to the more widely accessible medium of the essay. His Essays, Moral and Political of 1741 and 1742 duly succeeded where the Treatise failed. With a public won, together with a keen sense of its tastes, Hume presented a selection of the doctrines of the Treatise with some previously unpublished material in the form of Philosophical Essays concerning Human Understanding in 1748 (retitled An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding in 1758). With its companion published three years later, An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, Hume firmly established his reputation as one of the leading philosophical thinkers of his day. Around the same time Hume composed his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, but was prevailed on not to publish it during his lifetime. From that point on, Hume devoted himself to essays and wrote his most popularly successful work of all: the six-volume History of England: From the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution of 1688 (17541762).

Hume held a number of posts during his life, though he never succeeded in securing an academic position. In 1745 he served as tutor to the mentally unbalanced Marquess of Annandale. From 1746 to 1749 he was secretary to Lieutenant-General James St. Clair (17201806), whom he accompanied on a military expedition to Brittany. He was keeper of the Advocates Library in Edinburgh from 1752 to 1757. In 1763 Hume became private secretary to Lord Hertford (17181794), the British ambassador to France, where he spent the next three years being continually fêted and forming friendships with several leading figures of the French Enlightenment, including Denis Diderot, Jean Le Rond d'Alembert, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (though this last connection was to end in conflict). The last position he held was that of secretary of state in the Northern Department, from 1767 to 1768.

Physically, Hume was tall, somewhat ungainly, and, by the mid-1740s, corpulent. He never married, initially for lack of means to support a family, and afterward from a preference for bachelor life. Hume's most extraordinary quality was his personality. Warm, generous, eventempered, and honorable in all matters, he gained and kept an enormous number of close, devoted friends. This included many prominent clergymen who time and again staunchly defended him against his persecutors. Hume was thus able to spend his final years in Scotland in tranquillity, surrounded by well-wishing friends and family. When death came on August 25, 1776, he took it in the best spirit imaginable, while also making sure that no tales could be spread that his religious skepticism had weakened in the end.

Hume's influence on philosophy during his lifetime was nothing like what it later became. His moral theory undoubtedly made an impact on Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), while his theory of the understanding provided Thomas Reid with his principal foil in Inquiry into the Human Mind, on the Principles of Common Sense (1764). Reid and other less respectful philosophers of the Scottish "commonsense" school focused many of their severest criticisms on the Treatise. Their misunderstandings and misrepresentations of that work so infuriated Hume that he published an advertisement with the final edition of the Enquiries produced under his supervision (1777), desiring that these maturer efforts would "alone be regarded as containing his philosophical sentiments and principles."

A sea change in the reception of Hume's theory of understanding occurred in 1783, when Immanuel Kant declared that Hume's treatment of cause and effect was responsible for awakening him from his dogmatic slumber. Kant's own transcendent importance in the history of philosophy, and the scholarly attention devoted to almost his every word, led to a reappraisal of the worth and importance of the philosopher Kant credited with making his achievements possible, and it was not long till the Treatise came to be recognized as Hume's masterpiece.

Being cast as Kant's John the Baptist did, however, have its downside, and many have labored to bring Hume's legacy out from under the shadow of Kant. Influenced by the latter, philosophers in the nineteenth century, and for much of the twentieth as well, tended to esteem Hume almost exclusively for the power of his skeptical arguments regarding reason, the natural world, and religion. Since then, the positive, constructivist aspects of his theory of understanding have come to be equally prized, as have his theories of passion, actions, morality, and aesthetics. Today, interest in Hume's philosophy is greater than ever and the wave shows no sign of cresting.

The Treatise and the Enquiries

Most scholars accept the essential correctness of Hume's assertion that there are few substantive differences between the Treatise and the Enquiries, and none of great consequence. Instead, the earlier and later works differ primarily in inclusiveness and style. The Treatise was pitched at the highest level, to pass muster with the most learned, exigent readers. Questions left unraised in the Enquiries were pursued at considerable length, whole batteries of arguments were assembled in support of major theses, and every effort was made to be both systematic and comprehensive.

By contrast, the Enquiries were aimed at the same readers who enjoyed Hume's more philosophical essays. This seems to have been the principal reason for his decision to omit from the first Enquiry almost everything in parts 2, "Of the Ideas of Space and Time," and 4, "Of the Skeptical and Other Systems of Philosophy," of book 1 of the Treatise. Much of parts 1, "Of Ideas," and 3, "Of Knowledge and Probability," were also sacrificed, so that what remains seems less like a condensation of the Treatise than a greatly expanded and improved version of the abstract of the Treatise that Hume published in 1740. The second Enquiry drew on the moral philosophy of book 3 of the Treatise, while eschewing the theoretical framework of the latter in favor of a more strictly literary approach (which both explains why Hume thought it his finest work and why so few today agree). Neither Enquiry contains any considerable trace of book 2 of the Treatise, on the passions, and though occasional echoes of it are to be found in Hume's essays, they give no idea of the impressive, highly sophisticated theoretical framework one finds in book 2 of the Treatise (and the same is true of Hume's A Dissertation on the Passions [1757]). Thus, despite Hume's wish not to be judged by the Treatise, its unity, scope, and rigor make it the work that best represents what is most important and enduring in his philosophy.

Hume's Science of Human Nature

Hume believed human nature to be the proper focus of the philosopher because its first principles necessarily carry over to every human endeavor, cognitive and conative alike. A science of human nature affords fundamental insight not only into such domains as morals, aesthetics, and politics but "even Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, and Natural Religion," which "are in some measure dependent on the science of MAN; since they lie under the cognizance of men, and are judged of by their powers and faculties" (1978, p. xv). Situating himself in the line of British empiricist thinkers extending from Francis Bacon and John Locke, Hume restricted the investigation of human nature to evidence gleaned from "careful and exact experiments, and the observation of those particular effects, which result from its different circumstances and situations" (p. xvii). It constitutes a science insofar as one "must endeavour to render all our principles as universal as possible, by tracing up our experiments to the utmost, and explaining all effects from the simplest and fewest causes." This may require one to revise initial determinations in the light of new experiments (Hume's evolving characterization of the difference between memory and imagination is a prime example), and obliges one to determine whether the fundamental principles of human nature have even wider scope (thus, Hume considered it a plus that much of his account of human nature extends to animals as well). Finally, the mandate for maximal simplicity means that the science of man should take the form of a system, deriving its principal authority from "the agreement of [its] parts, and the necessity of one to explain another" (p. 154).

The Elements of Hume's Science of Human Nature


Hume considered human nature always and only in terms of perceptions. Perception is Hume's substitute for Locke's term idea, and it refers to all objects insofar as they are immediately present to one by consciousness, be it in sensation, reflexion, or thought (reflexion is Hume's catch-all term for the objects present to internal sense or inward sentiment, including passions, emotions, desires, volitions, and mental operations generally). For Hume, just as for Locke with idea, the indeterminacy of perception the impossibility of contrasting it with anything that is not a perception because "[t]he mind never has anything present to it but the perceptions"is its principal virtue. If things other than perceptions exist, then, as what never "can be present to the mind, whether we employ our senses, or are actuated with passion, or exercise our thought and reflection" (1999, p. 202), they are no different from perfect nonentities so far as one's thoughts and actions are concerned. By contrast, even objects as fanciful as a billiard ball that transforms itself into wedding cake on being struck, though never present to the senses, are still objects of one's thought, and so too perceptions.

Perceptions come in two kinds: impressions and ideas. Impressions comprise sensations and reflexions, and ideas thoughts (the mental contents of thought, considered in themselves rather than in the capacity of signs used to signify other perceptions, whether by resemblance, linguistically, or in any other significative capacity). According to Hume, the difference between impressions and ideas consists in the greater "force and vivacity" of the former. This does not mean that impressions always make a forceful impression, for they can be so gentle as altogether to escape notice. Nor does it mean that they are vivid in the usual sense, since seeing a gray blur on an otherwise black night (visual sensation) is still more vivid than a brilliantly lit, detailed image in a daydream (visual idea).

The best indication of what Hume had in mind by "force and vivacity" is his subsequent equation of it with belief in the real existence of a content present to one in sensation, reflexion, or thought, all perceptions. According to Hume one believes in the reality of something that one merely thinks if one's conception of it exhibits force and vivacity, as when, on seeing smoke coming into the room, one not only thinks of a fire somewhere outside the room but believes that a fire really exists. Similarly, "the belief or assent, which always attends the senses, is nothing but the vivacity of those perceptions they present" (1978, p. 86). More particularly, the vivacity of a perception seems to consist in a feeling distinctive of the manner in which an object in sensation or reflexion is apprehended, or an object in thought is conceived, in virtue of which it is regarded as really existentactual rather than merely possible, fact rather than fiction.

If this reading is correct, then one needs to distinguish two senses of exists in Hume: an object, even if it is a mere fiction, exists simply in being present to consciousness (p. 6667), but it is taken to be really existent if, in addition, it is perceived or conceived in a lively manner (pp. 84123). Sensations and reflexions are impressions because human (and animal) nature is so constituted that these objects have only to appear to be believed really existent, whereas objects present to one only in thought are not believed really to exist unless circumstances intervene to induce one to conceive them with a high enough degree of force and vivacity. One of the principal occupations of Hume's theory of understanding was to determine what those circumstances are and to identify the underlying principles.

Finally, Hume distinguished perceptions according to whether they are complex or simple. In general, an impression or idea counts as simple if it cannot be distinguished into two or more components (different significative uses to which the same simple perception may be put do not compromise its intrinsic simplicity). But Hume also seems to allow that perceptions distinguishable in this way may still be simple if it is impossible for them to be derived by the combination or blending of perceptions already in one's possession (e.g., "The impressions of touch are simple impressions, except when consider'd with regard to their extension" [1978, pp. 230231]).

the copy principle and hume's theory of origins

The "full examination" of the question of how impressions and ideas "stand with regard to their existence, and which of the impressions and ideas are causes and which effects" is "the subject of the present treatise" (1978, p. 4). To this end, Hume notes that one's simplest perceptions all seem to come in duplicate impressions and nearly exactly resembling ideas, and asks if there is any causal significance to this relation. He then formulates perhaps the most important principle of his science of human nature: because experience shows that simple impressions invariably precede their resembling ideas, "all our simple ideas in their first appearance are deriv'd from simple impressions, which are correspondent to them, and which they exactly represent" (p. 4). The causal dependence of ideas on impressions expressed in Hume's copy principle owes its importance to his preeminent methodological concern to find a better method of clarifying the ideas at the heart of traditional metaphysical disputes than definition can provide:

Complex ideas may, perhaps, be well known by definition, which is nothing but an enumeration of those parts or simple ideas, that compose them. But when we have pushed up definitions to the most simple ideas, and find still some ambiguity and obscurity; what resource are we then possessed of? By what invention can we throw light upon these ideas, and render them altogether precise and determinate to our intellectual view? Produce the impressions or original sentiments, from which the ideas are copied. These impressions are all strong and sensible. They admit not of ambiguity. They are not only placed in a full light themselves, but may throw light on their correspondent ideas, which lie in obscurity. And by this means, we may perhaps attain a new microscope or species of optics, by which, in the moral sciences, the most minute, and most simple ideas may be so enlarged as to fall readily under our apprehension, and be equally known with the grossest and most sensible ideas, that can be the object of our enquiry.
(1999, pp. 135136)

Hume's science of human nature is, in the first instance, a critique of traditional philosophical definitions whereby they are supplemented or, more usually, supplanted, by psychological accounts tracing ideas to their originating impressions. These accounts inform everything else in the science, and it is often impossible to understand the positions Hume takes without returning to his explications of the relevant ideas in terms of their originating impressions.


To understand the nature of relation for Hume, one first needs to consider the two ways in which relations may be affirmed. If one can affirm a relation independently of the senses, and so of all matters of fact and real existence, one's affirmation is a case of knowledge and the relation affirmed is a necessary one. For "the necessity, which makes two times two equal to four, or three angles of a triangle equal to two right ones, lies only in the act of the understanding, by which we consider and compare these ideas" (1978, p. 166). When immediate, the knowledge of a relation is intuition, when it consists of a continuous sequence of intuitions, it is a demonstration.

Knowledge of a relation of ideas is attainable (1) when one is sensible of the impossibility of forming one idea without including another as a constituent, as, for example, one cannot form the idea of a valley without incorporating into one's conception the idea of mountains (p. 32), or, (2) even if the ideas can be conceived separately, one is sensible of the impossibility of conceiving a change in their relation without conceiving a change in the ideas themselves (p. 69), as "the shortest distance between two points is sa straight line" is known to be necessary even though shortness (a quantity) and straightness (a quality) are conceivable independently (pp. 4950). (The first type coincides with Kant's notion of an analytic judgment, the second with that of a synthetic a priori judgment; Hume did not, however, see fit to subdivide intuitive knowledge this way, that is, he either did not recognize or did not attribute to the question of the possibility of synthetic a priori judgments the same importance Kant would afterward accord it.) Either way, one's affirmation of a relation amounts to knowledge if and only if one is sensible of the impossibility of conceiving the ideas concerned in any other relation (pp. 652653).

Where knowledge is lacking, and other relations between the ideas (or none at all) are conceivable, one can still affirm a relation between distinct perceptions with probability, that is, with a certainty extending anywhere from just above logical possibility all the way to a certainty so great as to be immune to doubt (termed proofs by Hume, e.g. "the sun will rise tomorrow" and "all men must die"). Such relations consist essentially in transitions of thought characterized by a quality Hume termed facility (1978, pp. 99, 204, 220, 260). There is considerable evidence that Hume conceived of facility as affective; that is, like the vivacity of impressions or ideas in virtue of which one believes them really to exist, the facility constitutive of probable relations is a content the mind does not conceive but feels. Facility and vivacity tend to go together in Hume's theorizing. When a relation between ideas is known, facility and vivacity affect are redundant to the relation and its affirmation since one is "necessarily determin'd to conceive them in that manner" (p. 95). Only when one remains free to conceive both sides of the question can assent be supposed to be a matter of feeling rather than an act of thought. In this regard, one of the most important principles of Hume's theory of understanding is that the more facile the transition from a lively perception to an idea in thought (= the stronger the relation), the more nearly the vivacity of one's conception of it (= belief in its real existence) approaches that of the lively perception itself (pp. 9899).


The effect of a facile transition between perceptions is to associate them in reflexion or thought, and it is in this association that their relation consists. With the precedent of Newtonian gravitation in mind, Hume saw fit to characterize association as "a kind of ATTRACTION, which in the mental world will be found to have as extraordinary effects as in the natural, and to shew itself in as many and as various forms" (1978, pp. 1213). In the absence of the real connections falsely imputed to perceptions by the sophisticated and simple alike, the associative ties felt between perceptions are the source of all order and unity among them. Finally, in accordance with his scientific ideal of maximal generality and simplicity, Hume resolved all species of association into expressions of three fundamental associative principles: the contiguity of perceptions in space or time, their resemblance, and their connection as cause and effectas "these are the only ties of our thoughts, they are really to us the cement of the universe, and all the operations of the mind must, in great measure, depend on them" (p. 662).

Natural and philosophical relations

Not all relations are constituted by facile transitions of thought. Hume designated those that are natural and those that are not philosophical relations. Since one can arbitrarily compare anything with anything else, and since no two objects admit comparison unless they have some degree of resemblance, resemblance counts not only as a natural but also as a philosophical relation; and philosophical resemblance is, in turn, the condition for other natural relations to assume a nonassociative philosophical dimension: identity, space and time, quantity (in number), quality (in degree), cause and effect, and contrariety. The crucial thing to remark here is that, except in cases of intuitive or demonstrative knowledge, philosophical relations seem to have no independent power to generate belief (vivacity), and so are parasitic on natural relations for their power to influence one's thoughts and actions. Hume made this explicit in the case of the cognitively preeminent relation, causation, for "tho' causation be a philosophical relation, as implying contiguity, succession, and constant conjunction, yet 'tis only so far as it is a natural relation, and produces an union among our ideas, that we are able to reason upon it, or draw any inference from it" (1978, p. 94).

hume's rejection of abstract ideas

Hume expressed complete agreement with George Berkeley's exclusion of abstract ideas from the explanation of general ideas and terms. The keystone of this critique of abstraction is the separability principle that Hume, like Berkeley before him, made a centerpiece of his philosophizing. According to this principle, whatever objects (perceptions) are different are distinguishable, and so separable in thought; and vice versa (1978, p. 18). So far as abstraction is concerned, this means that one cannot abstract any X from any Y unless X can be perceived and conceived even in the absence of Y. For example, because the distinction between the shape and color of a visible object fails to satisfy the separability principle, the notion that these are distinct perceptions (different abstract ideas, as Locke supposed) has to be rejected as an illusion cast by language. For while there is indeed a significative distinction to be drawn in the use of the idea of a visible object to designate, on the one hand, things resembling it in shape and, on the other hand, things resembling it in color, when the idea is considered in itself, apart from any significative use to which it may be put, its shape and color are ineluctably one.

Accordingly, differences of aspectthat is, distinctions that fail to conform to the separability principle (sometimes called distinctions of reason)are never intrinsic to the object to which they are ascribed, but are instead always the by-product of the relations in which it stands to other objects. Thus, a globe of white marble may be found to resemble a black globe of papier-mâché, a white cube of sugar, or an oblong piece of red marble; and since resemblance is an associative relation, the facile transition from a white globe to a black globe will set up an relational dynamic in which it becomes easier to make a transition next to the idea of a blue globe, red globe, or yellow globe, than to any nonspherical white or red object. In the same way, a transition from the white globe to a white cube will make it easier to transition next to the idea of a white oblong or any other white shape than to a black globe or red oblong. It is in these divergent axes of resemblance relations, ramifying in various directions from the same object, as it were, that aspects have their basis.

Resemblance association alone does not, however, suffice to explicate general representation. Custom is equally indispensable, "If ideas be particular in their nature, and at the same time finite in their number, 'tis only by custom they can become general in their representation, and contain an infinite number of other ideas under them" (1978, p. 24). The habits instilled by frequently encountered axes of resemblance association lie in readiness to be triggered by any of the infinitely many possible stimuli (determinate, nonabstract impressions or ideas) capable of triggering it (= representational generality); and which of the many habits it happens to trigger will determine to which species a given stimulus will be recognized as belonging (i.e., under which general sort it will be subsumed or classified). For example, a single, fully determinate (nonabstract) perception of an equilateral triangle one inch in circumference can serve as a general representation of figures, rectilinear figures, regular figures, triangles, or equilateral triangles, according to which custom one uses it to represent or which custom it triggers in a particular context (pp. 2122). Finally, with the addition of words to overcome the confusion that would otherwise result either from the capacity of the same idea to trigger any of various customs, or from the same custom to be triggered by dissimilar ideas, one arrives at Berkeley's principle "that all general ideas are nothing but particular ones, annexed to a certain term, which gives them a more extensive signification, and makes them recall upon occasion other individuals, which are similar to them" (p. 17).

space and time

Hume's treatment of abstract ideas exemplifies his general method of tracing ideas to their originating impressions; only here, where association and custom are indispensable, the experience of the operations of one's own mind (transitions of thought, the facility affect essential to associative relation, and the triggering of customs) proves to be the source of contents essential to these ideas. The abstract ideas of space and time are a case in point. Just as the shape and color of a visible object are one and indistinguishable, so, too, are extension and color. That is, the only idea one can derive from an impression of, say, uniform purple is the idea of uniform purple. To distinguish the extension from the color, one must compare the impression to others, associate them according to their resemblances, and, from the different axes of resemblances thus formed, arrive at last at an ineluctably relational conception of their difference.

Even so, to form a visual idea of space it is not enough simply to find what is resembling between purple, green, yellow, and other uniformly colored expanses, or between these and nonuniformly colored expanses. Visual space is the idea of something in which visible objects do or can appear and disappear, change their color and contour, grow, shrink, and alter their relative visible positions and situations inside, outside, alongside, adjacent, separated, above, below, right, left, in front, or behind one another. An idea with such limitless determinability is impossible except when visual perceptions are conceived of as an ordered manifold, or nexus, formed of coexistent loci (points) that preserve their relative positions to one another (their situation and relations) through any and all changes in respect of light and color ("co-existent parts dispos'd in a certain order, and capable of being at once present to the sight" [1978, p. 429]). That is, for Hume, the visual idea of space is the outcome of comparing visible objects, associating them according to their various resemblances, and forming habits when these associations are continuously reinforced, whether by frequent recurrence or some other cause. The key, as with aspects and distinctions of reason generally, is that visible space is never anything present to our eyes, prior to and independently of experience and habit, but rather something that exists only in and through the actions and affects of associative imagination (imagination in its associative capacity).

Unless this is appreciated, one cannot hope to understand how, on Hume's view, it is possible to form an idea of space common to vision and touch alike, notwithstanding the qualitative incommensurability of the objects of the two senses. For, lacking the ability to discriminate aspects immediately (nonrelationally), one can no more distinguish the extension of a tangible object from its other distinctively tactual qualities (hard or soft, smooth or rough, and wet or dry) than one can distinguish the extension of a visible object from its color. Consequently, to find visible and tangible space in any way resembling in appearance (sensible quality), one would have to find wet to be "like" yellow, red "like" softness, and so on, which of course is impossible. The locus of resemblance in virtue of which tangible and visible objects alike are supposed to instantiate the same general idea of space must instead lie in the operations the mind performs on these otherwise incommensurable appearances.

In particular, by contrast with data of the other senses, one is able to discern, and keep track of, distinctions of the finest, subtlest kind among visible and tangible appearancesdistinctions sufficient in each case for association and custom to yield the abstract idea of an ordered manifold of coexistent loci (points) that preserve their relative positions to one another (their situation and relations) through any and all changes. To the imagination, then, producing and operating with two such similar manifolds feels so similar that, notwithstanding their radical qualitative disparity as appearances, it ranks them under a single, highly general idea of space. Moreover, thanks to the innumerable correlations (constant conjunctions) disclosed by experience between the objects situated in the respective imaginary spaces of each sense, one fancies that one is dealing not with distinct instances of the same general idea, but with a single, mulitsensory space, with its own, sense-divide transcending objects.

Hume's account of the origin of the idea of time differs from that of space in two principal regards: (1) whereas ideas of spatial features originate only in vision and touch, temporal ideas can be "deriv'd from the succession of our perceptions of every kind, ideas as well as impressions, and impressions of reflection as well as of sensation" (1978, pp. 3435); and (2) whereas the manner of appearance of the spatial is defined by "that quality of the co-existence of parts," the temporal "is compos'd of parts that are not co-existent and consequently that idea must be deriv'd from a succession of changeable objects" (p. 36). These differences aside, the psychological processes whereby ideas of the temporal are acquired are identical to those that give rise to ideas of the spatial.

From an unchanging object no idea of time can be derived "since it produces none but co-existent impressions"; only "a succession of changeable objects" can yield the idea of something composed of noncoexistent parts. But since the successiveness of, say, five notes played on the flute cannot be perceived or conceived independently of the sounds"The ideas of some objects it [the mind] certainly must have, nor is it possible for it without these ideas ever to arrive at any conception of time" (p. 37)any supposition that the former, as the manner of appearance of these auditory objects, is something really distinct from these objects themselves falls foul of Hume's antiabstractionist separability principle. So, just like the idea of space, that of time can only be formed by comparing distinct perceptions and associating them in resemblance relations, until a custom is produced that stands in readiness to be triggered by all and only those stimuli to which ideas of succession and duration are applied. Time, understood as an ordered manifold of determinable positions composed of indivisible, noncoexistent instants, is thus, on Hume's account, as much an amalgam of the senses and associative imagination as space.

It is in connection with time that Hume formulated another of his principles, restricting the application of ideas according to the copy principle, "Ideas always represent the objects or impressions, from which they are deriv'd, and can never without a fiction represent or be apply'd to any other" (1978, p. 37). Like the copy, separability, and other principles of concern to Hume, this principle governs only one's perception of objects in sensation, reflexion, and thought, and does not imply any restriction on one's talk of objects. Nevertheless, since perceptions are the only objects that can ever be present to one's mind, the principle restricting the application of ideas according to the copy principle restricts one's discourse to the extent that objective meaning can attach to what one says only insofar as it cashes out ideationally. And temporal ideas are a case in point: While one is free to speak of unchanging objects, no objective meaning can attach to one's discourse since one has no ideas other than those copied from fleetingly existent perceptions.

Denial of infinite divisibility

Because one's abstract ideas of space and time "are really nothing but particular ones, consider'd in a certain light" (1978, p. 34), Hume concluded that infinitely divisible space and time are impossible even to conceive. For since particular ideas are one and all copied from particular impressions, and since experience shows that one's impressions admit being divided to the point where an indivisible temporal and/or spatial minimum is reached, it follows that the ideas one derives from these impressions can never serve to conceive an infinitely divisible spatial or temporal object. (For similar reasons, Hume denied the conceivability of a vacuum in space or time.) Thus, whatever mathematicians may pretend to the contrary, the first principles of mathematics "are founded on the imagination and senses: The conclusions, therefore, can never go beyond, much less contradict these faculties" (p. 638).

Hume's Theory of Understanding

Causal relations are the centerpiece of Hume's theory of understanding. Without them, "[i]nference and reasoning concerning the operations of nature would, from that moment, be at an end; and the memory and senses remain the only canals, by which the knowledge of any real existence could possibly have access to the mind" (1999, p. 149). This is because, of all relations linking ideas to impressions, none approaches cause and effect in its power to produce belief (enliven ideas). If I see smoke coming into the room, my belief in the reality of the unseen fire causing it is as great as in the smoke itself. If the hearing of voices on the other side of the fence brings persons to mind as their cause, I not only think there are people there, I believe them really to be there. Thus, whenever I infer a cause for a given effect or an effect for a given cause, I thereby expand the scope of what for me constitutes reality beyond the immediate evidence of my senses and memory.

Although the other principles of association, contiguity and resemblance, also have power to enliven the ideas they associate with impressions, without the support of causal relations "their influence is very feeble and uncertain" (1978, p. 109). For while I can think constant relations of time and place exist beyond the scope of my senses and memory, or think an identity based on the resemblance between nonsimultaneous resembling objects, it is only insofar as causal relations underlie them that I am able to believe these relations really to exist (pp. 7374). Thus, when it comes to explaining reasoning in matters of fact and real existence, one has no choice but to focus on the relation of cause and effect, as "the only one, that can be trac'd beyond our senses, and informs us of existence and objects, which we do not see or feel" (p. 74).

analysis of cause and effect

Hume identified four constituents crucial to the idea of cause and effect: objects relatable as cause and effect must be distinct in the sense specified in the separability principle; they must be contiguous in time and (where the objects concerned are spatial) in place; the cause must precede the effect; and there must be a necessary connection between them. Since the first three are fairly straightforward, Hume focused on necessary connection, with an eye to clarifying the idea by tracing it to its originating impression.

To understand why Hume proceeded as he did in this matter, the inherently paradoxical character of the idea of a necessary connection between distinct existents must first be taken into account. It stipulates a necessary connection between the existence of items presupposed as distinct. For example, one does not consider valleys and mountains candidates for terms of a causal relation because their necessary connection is merely conceptual, incorporated into the ideas themselves: Valleys cannot be conceived to exist in the absence of mountains and vice versa. By contrast, fire and smoke qualify as candidates for terms of a causal relation precisely because each can be conceived to exist without necessitating one to conceive the existence of the other. But there lies the rub: If to conceive them as distinct is to conceive the existence of the one to be possible even in the absence of the other, and to conceive them as necessarily connected is to conceive the existence of the one to be impossible in the absence of the other, then their combination in a single concept seems self-contradictory.

The general causal maxim

By far the most important illustration of the unintelligibility of the notion of necessary connection is Hume's analysis of the general causal maxim that everything that begins to exist must have a cause of its existence (1978, pp. 7882). While recognition of the contingency of any determination in accordance with the maxim was a commonplace among pre-Humeansthat this specific thing causes that onethe truth of the maxim itselfthat everything that comes into existence must have some causewas taken to be an intuitively certain necessary truth, and so "one of those maxims, which tho' they may be deny'd with the lips, 'tis impossible for men in their hearts really to doubt of" (p. 79). Still, for Hume, the notion that the general maxim is a matter of knowledge rather than probability is easily refuted by a simple consideration of the concept of necessary connection itself. Its presupposition that the objects to be related in it are distinct already of itself implies the possibility that each of the objects can be conceived to exist in the absence of the other (pp. 7980). Since even so much as a single conceivable exception is sufficient to show that a general proposition is not knowable intuitively or demonstrably, Hume concluded that the certainty of the general causal maxim is of a completely different nature, consisting not in any necessity of thought (relation of ideas) but in irresistible feeling (great force and vivacity), founded on experience and rooted in the nature of human (and much nonhuman-animal) associative psychology (pp. 82 and 172; Kant rightly recognized in this result a challenge to the possibility of metaphysics itself).

the origin of the idea of necessary connection

A source of the idea of necessary connection in the objects present to one in sensation or reflexion is precluded by the fact that all perceptions as such conform to the separability principle, and so are "distinct" in the sense implying that it is always possible to conceive any one to exist in the absence of any other, or all others. Accordingly, Hume sought the origin of the idea in the experiencing subject and the ways it regards its objects, and, in particular, in the acts and affects incident to customary transitions from impressions to ideas (1978, pp. 165166). When one object is found by experience to constantly succeed another, a habit is formed so that when one of them is present in sensation or reflexion, it straightaway brings to mind its constant concomitant, and one not only conceives it but believes it really to exist. The facility of this transition, with the force and vivacity felt in the conception of the idea when the transition to it is from an impression, constitutes the sole and entire content of the impression-of-reflexion original of the idea of necessary connection (1999, p. 145). To be sure, a projective illusion induces one to ascribe the impression of reflexion immanent to associative imagination to the objects it considers (1978, p. 167). Nevertheless, the necessity of causes is never anything but a subjective necessity felt in the mind that considers objects, and it is in this sense that the "necessary connexion betwixt causes and effects," and "the transition arising from the accustom'd union are, therefore, the same" (p. 165).

Since Hume defined causal necessity both as a philosophical relation, in terms of constant precedence, and as a natural relation, in terms of customary association, many interpreters have supposed that the former has a meaning and scope of application unrestricted to associative imagination. Against this, one should note that, for Hume, (1) the idea of necessary connection is an essential element in all ideas of causal relations, (2) constant precedence as such does not include an idea of necessary connection, (3) the only source from which the idea of a necessary connection can be derived is customary association, and (4) ideas can never represent any objects other than those from which they are derived.

Accordingly, the only thing that can distinguish philosophical causation from constant precedence is the addition of the idea of necessity derived from customary association, so that the necessity that "makes an essential part" of both definitions of causality is "at bottom the same" (1999, p. 160). This means that philosophical causation owes its influence on one's thoughts and actions entirely to its inclusion of a content no less bound up with conscious mind than pleasure, fear, or love; and to forget this by attempting to apply causal concepts directly to objects, apart from "that determination of the mind, which is acquir'd by custom," is to "either contradict ourselves, or talk without a meaning" (1978, p. 267).

empirical rationality

In matters of fact and real existence, reasoning, as Hume understood it, is a transition in thought from a more vivid impression or idea to a less vivid idea in which the latter is conceived with more vivacity because of the relation the transition effects between them (where facility feeling is the essence of the relation). Since, in Hume's view, the enlivening of ideas primarily depends on their association with impressions, and since causal relations far exceed any other in their ability to enliven ideas to the point where they approach the vivacity of impressions, customary transitions from impressions to ideas are at once the source of the impression originals of ideas of necessary connection and the template of all empirical reasoning. This is just to say that the one indispensable item of evidence in any inferential matter of fact or real existence is an impression of necessary connection. For, in the absence of such an impression (maximally vivid perception), there could be no belief that an idea is connected to an impression in the manner requisite to enliven it, with the consequence that the impression would not then be regarded as a reason to affirm the idea. Thus, to explicate the nature of empirical reasoning, and to distinguish reasonable (factually justified) cases of reasoning from unreasonable ones, Hume undertook an investigation into the causes of such impressions.

The nonrational basis of empirical reasoning

The principal, and the most efficacious cause, of impressions of necessary connection is frequent experience of the items connected in them in an unvarying sequencetermed constant conjunction by Hume. As the evidence for this causal connection is itself a remembered constant conjunction (between relations of constant conjunction and subsequently felt impressions of necessary connection), Hume queried whether one infers the necessary connection from experience "by means of the understanding or of the imagination; whether we are determin'd by reason to make the transition, or by a certain association and relation of perceptions" (1978, pp. 8889).

Nothing in Hume's philosophy has received more attention than his solution to this question (usually called the problem of induction). He began by premising that if reason were responsible for the conclusion that a necessary connection exists whenever a relation of constant conjunction is found, then the inference would be grounded on the "principle, that instances, of which we have had no experience, must resemble those, of which we have had experience, and that the course of nature continues always uniformly the same " (1978, p. 89). The question thus becomes whether one's belief in this uniformity principle is itself a product of rational argument, demonstrative or probable, or whether the implicit confidence one places in it derives from a different, nonrational source (associative imagination). Demonstrative reasoning (knowledge) is easily ruled out, since "[w]e can at least conceive a change in the course of nature" and "[t]o form a clear idea of any thing, is an undeniable argument for its possibility, and is alone a refutation of any pretended demonstration against it" (p. 89). Hume next excluded probable reasoning on the ground that it cannot be the source of a belief it presupposes:

We have said, that all arguments concerning existence are founded on the relation of cause and effect; that our knowledge of that relation is derived entirely from experience; and that all our experimental conclusions proceed upon the supposition, that the future will be conformable to the past. To endeavour, therefore, the proof of this last supposition by probable arguments, or arguments regarding existence, must be evidently going in a circle, and taking that for granted, which is the very point in question.
(1999, p. 115)

Since the past can only matter to one in forming of beliefs about the present or future in probable reasoning if one already believes the future is conformable to the past, one's belief in this uniformity must have a basis other than probable reasoning. According to Hume its basis is none other than customary association, which instills in one a belief in the uniformity of nature long before one has left one's cradle and determines the reasoning of brute beasts in the same way it does humans (1999, p. 118 and 1978, p. 178).

Philosophical and unphilosophical probability

When conjunctions of perceptions are remembered to be less than constant, one's evidence of necessary connection falls short of the certainty of proof. How much credence should one accord each of the competing causes and/or effects? That is, what constitutes reasonable belief here? According to Hume the natural procedure is also the rational one: the accumulated belief (vivacity feeling) is distributed among the contrary causes or effects according to their relative constancy in past experience, subtract the lesser from the greater, and accord only so much credence (vivacity) to the latter as remains (1978, pp. 132140). In other words, experience shows that one proportions belief in causal connections according to the constancy of the conjunction of the items concerned in them in the past and that this experience is so natural and universal that such proportioning has in all times and places been regarded as the hallmark, if not indeed the essence, of reasonable belief, or philosophical probability.

Of course, Hume was well aware that experience shows there to be many other causes of impressions of necessary connection than experienced conjunction and that these causes sometimes prevail over the evidence of experience: the ebb and flow of passions, calculations of interest and gain, laziness, hastiness, credulity, the persistence of tenets in education that have ceased to be proportioned to experience, and so on. One may be tempted to object that Hume's distinction between such unphilosophical (unreasonable or even irrational) reasoning and reasonable inferences proportioned to experience is arbitrary, since both alike are functions of feeling (vivacity transference effected by facile transitions of thought). Was he simply endeavoring to reflect linguistic practice? More likely, Hume's distinction derives from the account of the origin of impressions of necessary connection on which all causal inference depends. Experience is the natural and original cause of ideas of causal relations: It operates most constantly and steadily on the imagination and is most inseparable from the nature of that faculty (compare to 1978, p. 280). So, even in the absence of any objective or normative paradigm of rationality, nature itself, on Hume's account, sets experience at the foundation of empirical rationality.

a world in imagination

In denying that one has intuitive or demonstrative knowledge of the truth of the general causal maxim, Hume at the same time affirmed that one has another kind of certainty that everything must have a cause of its existence, arising from observation and experience (1978, p. 82) and consisting in the great vivacity of one's idea of the relation of any beginning of existence (thing, action, or state) to something precedent from which its existence follows by necessity (p. 172). The consequence is an unquestioning assumption, in any particular instance, that a cause inferred for a given effect is itself the effect of some other cause. For example, if the sight of smoke makes me think and believe that there is a fire in the hall outside, I at the same time take for granted a cause of this fire, a cause of this cause, and so on. If I reflect on this regress, I might attribute the fire to the frayed wiring I saw earlier, this to the gnawing of mice, the presence of mice in the building to the construction going on next door, the construction to the renovation plans of the new owner, the purchase of the building to the death of the old owner and the greed of the new one, and so on. But even if my theory should turn out to be mistaken (it was arson), I still remain absolutely certain of the existence of some chain of causes leading to the fire.

Since similar causal chains, with fewer or more of the blanks filled in, are taken for granted in respect of every beginning of existence, the space and time of real things demarcated by the purview of one's senses and memory comes to be dwarfed by the sphere comprised of the realities one infers to exist by means of customary association in relations of cause and effect:

'Tis this latter principle, which peoples the world, and brings us acquainted with such existences, as by their removal in time and place, lie beyond the reach of the senses and memory. By means of it I paint the universe in my imagination, and fix my attention on any part of it I please. I form an idea of ROME, which I neither see nor remember; but which is connected with such impressions as I remember to have received from the conversation and books of travellers and historians. This idea of Rome I place in a certain situation on the idea of an object, which I call the globe. I join to it the conception of a particular government, and religion, and manners. I look backward and consider its first foundation; its several revolutions, successes, and misfortunes. All this, and every thing else, which I believe, are nothing but ideas; tho' by their force and settled order, arising from custom and the relation of cause and effect, they distinguish themselves from the other ideas, which are merely the offspring of the imagination.
(p. 108)


Hume explicated one's ideas of complex individuals (bodies and minds), both at a time (which he called simplicity) and over time (identity), as fictions resulting from failures to distinguish relations of genuine individuals from these individuals themselves. While granting that, in appearance, these fictitious individuals do not resemble genuine ones, he insisted that their feeling to the imagination in contemplating its objects is so similar in the two cases, and the associative influence of the resemblance relation so strong, that one affirms their simplicity or identity even in the face of contrary appearances (1978, pp. 202204 and 253254).

Hume opted for associationist explications of these ideas because he could find no way to make sense of complex individuals objectively. The only kind of simplicity one is capable of conceiving in objects (impressions and ideas) is incompatible with complexity and manifestly different from it: Perceptions may be simple, in which case there must be only one, or complex, in which case there must be more than one, but since they cannot be both one and more than one at once, the notion of a complex individual is, strictly speaking, unintelligible. The predicament is even worse when it comes to the identity of an object over time. Since "all impressions are internal and perishing existences, and appear as such" (1978, p. 194), no idea can be copied from them that is not of existents "interrupted, and perishing, and different at every different return" (p. 211). Hume took this so far as to insist that duration is inconceivable apart from succession, and so can never be represented otherwise than as a multiplicity (p. 37). To be sure, one can represent something as the same as itself at one and the same time; but this is unity, not identity (pp. 200201). Thus, unlike simplicity, the notion of identity seems to premise a combination of unity with number that, objectively at any rate, seems unintelligible.

perfect identity

While there may be nothing objectively to distinguish the presence to consciousness of a single continuing existent from a succession of distinct qualitatively identical fleeting existents, on the subjective side there is a feeling that suffices to mark a difference:

The faculties of the mind repose themselves in a manner, and take no more exercise, than what is necessary to continue that idea, of which we were formerly possest, and which subsists without variation or interruption. The passage from one moment to another is scarce felt, and distinguishes not itself by a different perception or idea, which may require a different direction of the spirits, in order to its conception.
(1978, p. 203)

Presumably, one's mind might have been so constituted that, instead of being all but effortless, the act of successively repeating the same idea might have required great exertion and a continuous redirection of the spirits to effect it. In that case, however, the change (succession of the distinct) would be as unmistakable here as with a kaleidoscopically varying flux. Alternatively, instead of being "scarce felt," contemplating a qualitatively invariant succession might involve no feeling at all. Still, in that case, there would be nothing to induce the imagination to confuse the observation of a continued, invariant sequence of perceptions with interrupted or variable ones and Hume's account of complex individuals could not even get off the ground. Thus, the original of the idea of what Hume called perfect identity lies not merely in the objects contemplated but also in the sustained affective disposition of the imagination in successively reproducing the same idea.

the imperfect identity of body (continued and distinct existence)

Perfect identity is terminated by the first interruption or variation sufficient to necessitate a new direction of the spirits. However, "a succession of related objects places the mind in this disposition, and is consider'd with the same smooth and uninterrupted progress of the imagination, as attends the view of the same invariable object" (1978, p. 204). Since the very nature or essence of relation is facility, a succession of a single relation of ideas (facility feelings) produces the same continuity of affective disposition distinctive of a successive repetition of the same idea, and so leads one to confound them (= imperfect identity). In the case of bodies (continued and distinct existents) the principal relation is resemblance:

We find by experience, that there is such a constancy in almost all the impressions of the senses, that their interruption produces no alteration on them, and hinders them not from returning the same in appearance and situation as at their first appearance. This resemblance is observ'd in a thousand instances, and naturally connects together our ideas of these interrupted perceptions by the strongest relation, and conveys the mind with an easy transition from one to another. An easy transition or passage of the imagination, along the ideas of these different and interrupted perceptions, is almost the same disposition of mind with that in which we consider one constant and uninterrupted perception. 'Tis therefore very natural for us to mistake the one for the other.
(p. 204)

To be sure, the identity the imagination wishes to ascribe to these appearances directly conflicts with the new direction of the spirits necessitated by their interrupted appearances. Since these interruptions "are so long and frequent, that 'tis impossible to overlook them; and as the appearance of a perception in the mind and its existence seem at first sight entirely the same, it may be doubted, whether we can ever assent to so palpable a contradiction, and suppose a perception to exist without being present to the mind" (1978, p. 206). Given that one does so virtually every moment of one's life, the question for Hume was not whether but how one reckons with the contradiction. He found the answer in the associative nature of the idea of the mind to which perceptions appear. If the mind is not, as most of Hume's predecessors believed, a real substantial unity on which perceptions essentially depend, but something conceivable only associatively, as a "connected mass of perceptions," then "there is no absurdity in separating any particular perception from the mind" (p. 207). That is, if, in accordance with the separability principle, one can conceive any perception to exist in the absence of any other or even all others, then one can conceive any perception to exist in the absence of the mind if the mind is, indeed, just another perception (namely, a complex idea produced in associative imagination).

By calling such absences interruptions in its appearance, one can attribute to the perception a reality independent of the mind. Of course, since the separability principle holds of all perceptions without exception, this is something one is capable of doing with any perception whatsoeversmells, pains, fears, desires, volitions, and thoughts no less than spatial (visible and tangible) objects. That one only exercises this conceptual capacity in the case of spatial objects is due solely to the fact that they alone exhibit the constancy requisite to produce resemblances sufficiently strong between interrupted perceptions to generate an affective disposition liable to be mistaken for perfect identity.

Even so, the distinction between the appearance and reality of spatial objects employed here is merely external (relative). Consequently, it can only disguise, not eliminate, the feature that sets up the palpable contradiction in the first place: the appearance and reality of perceptions are one and indistinguishable. Given that "all impressions are internal and perishing existences, and appear as such," the distinct, continued existence one accords to visual and tactual impressions has nothing whatsoever to do with either the reality or the appearance of these perceptions, and everything to do with operations of the imagination that considers them. That is, the only idea one is capable of forming of the identity of bodies is inseparably bound up by content with the subjective acts and affects of association imagination, and so is fictitious through and through.

In designating body a fiction, it was by no means Hume's intent to imply that one does or even can doubt its reality. For not only is the fiction rooted in fundamental principles of human nature, it is in effect self-confirming. The memories whereof ideas of bodies consist are, in general, one's most vivid ideas. Since the effect of the fiction of a continued existence is to unite the scattered memories of resembling appearances in a single idea, their vivacity feelings are pooled together in that idea, thereby producing the strongest conviction in the real existence of the continued existent thereby conceived (1978, pp. 208209). For this reason, "[w]e may well ask, What causes induce us to believe in the existence of body?, but 'tis vain to ask, Whether there be body or not? That is a point, which we must take for granted in all our reasonings" (p. 187).

the simplicity of body: the idea of substance

Hume explicated the idea of simplicity of bodies (their individuality at a time) by means of an associative fiction closely analogous to that responsible for one's idea of their identity. The appearance and reality of one's perceptions are ignored because of the powerful influence on the imagination of its own affective disposition when it contemplates coexistent perceptions bound together by customary associations of contiguity and causality:

The connexion of parts in the compound object has almost the same effect, and so unites the object within itself, that the fancy feels not the transition in passing from one part to another. Hence the colour, taste, figure, solidity, and other qualities, combin'd in a peach or melon, are conceiv'd to form one thing ; and on account of their close relation, which makes them affect the thought in the same manner, as if perfectly uncompounded.
(1978, p. 221)

Here, too, the contradiction between one's feelings and the manifest difference in appearance between a genuinely simple object and a bodythat is, the distinctness in the latter, according to the separability principle, of the color from the taste, these from the visible figure, these in turn from its tangible solidity, and so onis too pronounced to ignore, and so must be palliated by some fiction, even if the contradiction can only be disguised thereby, not eliminated. Accordingly, we "feign an unknown something, or original substance and matter, as a principle of union or cohesion among the qualities, as what may give the compound object a title to be call'd one thing, notwithstanding its diversity and composition" (p. 221).

the imperfect identity of the mind (self and person)

In the case of the mind, one is induced to attribute identity in the face of recalcitrant appearances more by causal relations than by resemblance:

As to causation ; we may observe, that the true idea of the human mind, is to consider it as a system of different perceptions or different existences, which are link'd together by the relation of cause and effect, and mutually produce, destroy, influence, and modify each other. Our impressions give rise to their correspondent ideas; and these in turn produce other impressions. One thought chaces another, and draws after it a third, by which it is expell'd in its turn.
(1978, p. 261)

One is a witness continuously, almost from the beginning of conscious life, to impressions causing idea copies of themselves to be formed, of these ideas being the occasion of further thoughts, passions, desires, and/or volitions, these in turn causing copies of them to be formed, and so on. One's perceptions may be subject to constant change, but never, even for a moment, is a causal relation between them of some kind absent from one's purview. Since "the very essence of these relations consists in their producing an easy transition of ideas" (1978, p. 260), the facility feelings incident to contemplating an unvarying, uninterrupted series of causal relations signify the presence in one of an unvarying, uninterrupted affective disposition. The strength of this disposition, with the strength of the feeling of its resemblance to the affective disposition incident to perfect identity, leads one to attribute an identity to this system of causal relations (pp. 253254), notwithstanding that, on the side of the appearances, one's perceptions are "a perpetual flux and movement" and nothing "remains unalterably the same, perhaps for one moment" (pp. 252253). (Hume's account of the simplicity of the self is essentially the same as that of body [p. 263].)

Second thoughts

Hume's explication of the idea one has of oneself thus shows it to be no less fictitious than that of the idea of external objects: nothing "really binds our several perceptions together," it merely "associates their ideas in the imagination"; one never observes any "real bond" among them, one "only feel one among the ideas we form of them" (1978, p. 259). Still, by excluding all real relations from the account of the self, Hume eventually came to realize that he had no way to "explain the principles, that unite our successive perceptions in our thought or consciousness" (appendix published with the second volume [book 3 1978, p. 636] of the Treatise ). Hume saw no way out of this quandary, nor did he ever return to this topic in any subsequent work.


Was Hume a skeptic? Though generally reputed to be among the most extreme of skeptics, the question is not so absurd as it may seem. If a skeptic is one who doubts or even rejects the use of reason as a means of arriving at truth, then Hume was no skeptic. So long as one is guided by intuition in one's inferences in mathematics and by experience in matters of fact, "Our reason must be consider'd as a kind of cause, of which truth is the natural effect" (1978, p. 180). Furthermore, Hume recognized that many beliefs are pointless to doubt because one is literally incapable of disbelieving them or not taking them for granted in all one's reasoning, including such philosophically contentious topics as the existence of external objects and the self, space and time, and the necessity of a cause to every beginning of existence.

Consequently, many commentators have come to regard Hume's skepticism as considerably more moderate and narrowly focused than traditionally supposed. For them, what makes Hume a skeptic is that he supposed one's ineliminable beliefs skeptically unassailable not because they are founded on reasons too strong to be undermined by skeptical argument but because they are not founded on reasons at all. It is nature, not reason, that has determined one to believe certain things. Nor is reason, when understood as Hume would have one do, capable of supplying these beliefs with a rational basis immune to skeptical assault.

The problem with this view is that it focuses almost exclusively on beliefs to the neglect of their ideational contents. If Hume did indeed deem belief in the existence of body skeptically unassailable, it must also be remembered that psychological processesthe actions and affects of associative imaginationare not merely essential to the formation of the idea in which this belief is reposed but also contribute elements essential to its content (i.e., apart from which bodies are inconceivable), and limit its application accordingly. Indeed, what is perhaps most distinctive of Humean skepticism is the conceptual dimension, in which association supplies subjective-psychological surrogates, as the only way around the "contradictions which adhere to the very ideas of matter, cause and effect, extension, space, time, motion; and, in a word, quantity of all kinds" (1992, pp. 189190).

For Hume, it is impossible even so much as to conceive these things without incorporating into one's ideas of them contents copied from impressions as irreducibly subjective as pain or disgust. What does it matter that the belief (vivacity) conferred on these ideas renders them skeptically unassailable if the ideas themselves are of such a nature that no skeptic would think to contend against them? One's reliance on associative imagination for the content of one's ideas comes at a price. If, for example, "we suppose necessity and power to lie in the objects we consider, not in our mind, that considers them," then, apart from this, "it is not possible for us to form the most distant idea of that quality" (1978, p. 167). This restriction on the scope of application of concepts so fundamental to human understanding as causation and body to the purview of a suitably constitutive experiencing mind unquestionably qualifies as a form of extreme skepticism.

varieties of hume's skepticism

When Hume himself characterized his philosophy as skeptical, he meant that it abounds with "discoveries concerning the weakness and narrow limits of human reason and capacity" (1999, p. 145). Although virtually everything in Hume's philosophy is directed to this end, among the arguments, analyses, and approaches to which he explicitly appended the term skeptical, three seem most deserving of being singled out.

Skepticism with regard to reason

After explicating empirical rationality as inferential belief proportioned to the evidence of past experience in Treatise I.iii, Hume advanced an argument in I.iv.1 to show that the result of adhering always and only to the canons of empirical rationality leads inexorably to the conclusion that "all is uncertain, and that our judgment is not in any thing possest of any measures of truth and falsity," so that "the understanding, when it acts alone, and according to its most general principles, entirely subverts itself, and leaves not the lowest degree of evidence in any proposition, either in philosophy or common life" (pp. 183 and 267268). While most commentators consider his reasoning fallacious, Hume himself clearly deemed it impeccable and irresistible on any conception of empirical rationality, his own included (pp. 184185). What interested him was why the argument nevertheless fails to convince. The reason he offered is that "[n]ature, by an absolute and uncontroulable necessity has determin'd us to judge as well as to breathe and feel" (p. 183).

More particularly, the argument lacks the affective force on which all relation (facility) and belief (vivacity) depend, "Where the mind reaches not its object with easiness and facility, the same principles have not the same effect as in a more natural conception of the ideas; nor does the imagination feel a sensation, which holds any proportion with that which arises from its common judgments and opinions" (p. 185). Vivacity (belief) follows facility (relation); so even if experience and custom support a certain inference, if for some reason, however trivial, facility feeling fails, vivacity will as well. And the circumstance in which understanding would subvert itself is a case in point:

We save ourselves from this total scepticism only by means of that singular and seemingly trivial property of the fancy, by which we enter with difficulty into remote views of things, and are not able to accompany them with so sensible an impression, as we do those, which are more easy and natural. We have, therefore, no choice left but betwixt a false reason and none at all.
(p. 268)

Skepticism with regard to the senses

However impossible it may be for one in ordinary life not to believe in the distinct, continued existence of the bodies one sees and touches, only "a very little reflection and philosophy is sufficient for us to perceive the fallacy of that opinion" (1978, p. 210). Still, even if the more philosophical part of humankind recognizes this, they typically attempt to salvage the common opinion by arguing that unperceived objects correspond to perceptions that resemble them in various particulars but not their internal perishing existence. Many interpreters believe that Hume judged the philosophical view capable of sustaining skeptical scrutiny. This, however, is hard to credit in the face of his assertion that the philosophical view "contains all the difficulties of the vulgar system, with some others, that are peculiar to itself" (p. 211). If it contains all the difficulties, how can it withstand skeptical scrutiny any better? Hume's skepticism regarding the vulgar view centered on the content of the idea of a distinct, continued existence: the indispensability to it of something of the nature of an affective disposition (as is true of the idea of identity itself, this being the only means whereby the manifest differences between an interrupted or varying existence and a genuine identity can be overlooked and the two confounded).

Since the idea carries this content with it into all its applications, Hume cannot have exempted its philosophical employment from the same skeptical arguments to which he subjected its vulgar. Indeed, because the philosophical view was erected in express opposition to the verdict of the most powerful, deep-seated natural human psychological propensity to believe in the distinct, continued existence of immediately perceived visible and tangible objects (sensations), only the weakest, most ephemeral conviction can be accorded to the philosophers' objects (p. 213). Finally, Hume contended that philosophers, having no means of conceiving their would-be objects except their own perceptions, in effect do no more than "arbitrarily invent a new set of perceptions" (p. 218). If, to avoid this implication, they suppose their objects to be specifically different from everything one can conceive, the result will be an "unknown, inexplicable something a notion so imperfect, that no sceptic will think it worth while to contend against it" (1999, p. 203).

Academic, or mitigated, skepticism

Despite the extremity of the skepticism resulting from the "deficiency of our ideas" (1978, p. 267), Hume saw fit to describe his philosophy as an exercise in "mitigated scepticism" (1999, pp. 207211). A skepticism qualifies as such if, instead of advocating the rejection of reason in all its forms, it counsels one to reject all abstract reasoning other than mathematics, and all reasoning regarding matters of fact and experience that is not carefully and precisely calibrated to accord with the deliverances of experience.

Does Hume's own philosophical reasoning meet these criteria? It was because the empirical investigation of human understanding turns up no evidence of any other faculties besides sense and imagination that he endeavored to account for all the phenomena of perception, judgment, and reasoning (mathematics included) in terms of their operations. And it was because the only empirical source to which ideas of causal connection, substance, real existence, space, time, and the mind could plausibly be ascribed as associative imagination that he was compelled to conclude that even one's most basic, indispensable concepts of objects incorporate an ineliminably subjective element of feeling into their content (facility and vivacity). To be sure, with the understanding thus transformed (in part) into an organ of feeling, Hume's philosophy became the first to set reason on a par with pleasure and pain, passions, desires, and everything else previous philosophers had denigrated as belonging to the baser, animal part of human nature; and this may seem skeptical indeed. But since his conclusions are fully consonant with the strictures of a mitigated skepticism, he could at least be confident that his books would not be incinerated by anyone answering his call to "commit to the flames" any volume that fails to respect them.

The Will

Will is "the internal impression we feel and are conscious of, when we knowingly give rise to any new motion of our body, or new perception of our mind" (1978, p. 399). There is no implicit proposition the affirmation of which constitutes the act of volition. Volitions, for Hume, are not ideas or manners of conceiving, but feelings, felt excitations to mental or physical action. They are full-fledged perceptions (impressions of reflexion) in their own right, distinct from all others under the separability principle, capable of existing in complete isolation (p. 625). As such, they are completely indefinable: like flavors, to know volitionsto be able to form (copy) clear ideas of themit is necessary to have the corresponding impressions; to lack the impressions is to be completely ignorant of will, to be unable to form even the most obscure idea of it.

With nothing more to be said of the will per se, Hume focused on the causes of its actuation. Nothing precludes reason from doing so since here, as always, "to consider the matter a priori, any thing may produce any thing" (1978, p. 247). Still, as a matter of fact, one finds "that reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will" (p. 413). Convinced by reason that I am about to be devoured by a ravenous beast, for example, I would be completely indifferent to the fact, and not be provoked by this belief to any exercise of will, without the mediation of some passion in response to (caused by) the belief. Indeed, if human nature was such that being devoured by the beast was one of our fondest desiresbecause, say, passing through the digestive tract of a beast of that species was indispensable to reproductionthen this belief, with the passion, would excite actions to facilitate our capture. Alternately, our passionate response to the belief might be as tepid as that of a fifth grader to his or her belief regarding the result of the fifteenth of a series of long-division homework problems, so that we merely yawn at the imminent prospect of being devoured. Only passions actuate the will. Reason, according to Hume, is neither a necessary nor sufficient to do so.

For similar reasons, Hume argued that reason can never directly oppose, curb, or in any way act as a counterweight to the actuation of the will by passions. It can do so only indirectly, by giving rise to some new passion, as when it informs one that the object of one's desire is unattainable, or attainable only by a different course of action, whereupon it will produce an aversion to counter, or a desire to override, the existing passion. Consequently, when one speaks of "sweet reason" prevailing over "brute passion," it is not passionless, volitionally impotent, reason that is being invoked, but other, calmer passions. Their gentleness should not, however, be confused with weakness:

'Tis evident passions influence not the will in proportion to their violence, or the disorder they occasion in the temper; but on the contrary, that when a passion has once become a settled principle of action, and is the predominant inclination of the soul, it commonly produces no longer any sensible agitation. We must, therefore, distinguish betwixt a calm and a weak passion; betwixt a violent and a strong one.
(1978, pp. 418419)

Is there such a thing as a rational passion? According to Hume, no. For even though a belief can be the invariable cause of a certain passion, passions are one and all original existences: none of their features are copied from the ideas that cause them or in any way derivable from them (1978, p. 415); and even when a passion has an objectas pride takes the idea of oneself for its object and love the idea of someone elsethe object remains distinct (by the separability principle) from the passion itself, and only becomes an object to it by the mediation of some feeling of pleasure, such as that given by the beauty of the beloved or the opulence of a house that has passed into one's ownership (p. 279). Passions are therefore never rational in and of themselves; and since experience shows that only passions can actuate the will, reason

is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them. 'Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. 'Tis not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me. 'Tis as little contrary to reason to prefer even my own acknowledg'd lesser good to my greater, and have a more ardent affection for the former than the latter.
(pp. 415416)

good/bad and pleasant/unpleasant are indistinguishable

Since reason, considered apart from whichever passions its deliverances may provoke, leaves the will indifferent, it cannot be the source of any of one's ideas of good and bad. This means that nothing propositional in character (rule, maxim, principle) can be intrinsically good or bad: carnally, spiritually, aesthetically, or in any other way. Since the only place left to look for the impression originals of ideas of good and bad are pleasant and unpleasant feelings (sensations and passions), goods and ills must all be pleasures and pains of one sort or another (1978, p. 439). Thus, for Hume, the standards one applies in all one's value judgments have their origin exclusively in pleasant and unpleasant sensations or reflexions, and neither the goals of one's actions, the deeds themselves, one's volitions to perform them, nor the character of the person who wills can be supposed good or bad either intrinsically or in relation to any rule of conduct (maxim and principle) under which they fall; they are good or bad solely by virtue of the feelings that caused them and/or the feelings they arouse.

denial of free will

The question of freedom of the will takes on a different aspect according to how a philosopher analyzes volition. If one deems will and reason inseparable, as Berkeley did, and conceives of volition as the affirmation or denial of a proposition, like René Descartes, then any external cause that necessitates one to affirm or deny will be construed as a constraint on the freedom of one's will. But if, like Hume, one distinguishes reason from will and equates volition with a nonintellectual feeling of excitation to action (impression of reflexion), then a free will, unrestrained by any necessitating cause, would be one that acted blindly and randomly, unresponsive to one's desires and heedless of one's beliefs, and so is something rather to be dreaded. Thus, from his standpoint, it is fortunate that experience shows one will not to be free, but instead to act only when necessitated to do so by some passion, be it calm or violent, beneficial or destructive, responsive or unresponsive to the deliverances of reason.

Complementing Hume's denial of free will is his analysis of causal necessity in the operations of bodies as consisting of nothing more than facile transitions of thought from one perception to its customary conjunct. For this means that there is nothing "the mind can perceive, in the operations of matter, some farther connexion between cause and effect that has not place in the voluntary actions of intelligent beings" (1999, p. 157). All there is to causal necessity is what one experiences in every facile transition from an impression to the idea of its usual antecedent or successor. Thus, Hume's necessitarianism does "not ascribe to the will that unintelligible necessity, which is suppos'd to lie in matter," but "ascribe[s] to matter, that intelligible quality, call it necessity or not, which does or must allow to belong to the will" (1978, p. 410).

Consequently, to prove that one is in practice a necessitarian, protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, he had only to assemble reminders that one naturally and inevitably draws on one's past experience of regularities in human voluntary behavior to predict the actions of minds in precisely the same way one does to predict the actions of physical objects (1999, p. 150). To object that one encounters contrariety in the human sphere and often finds the actions of minds puzzling and unpredictable is futile since the same is true in the physical sphere as well, nor does one infer the freedom of bodies from causal necessitation because of the contrariety one finds there.

Illusions of freedom

Hume identified several reasons why one nonetheless insists on supposing oneself to be free. First, by not distinguishing the will as effect from the will as cause, one confuses two different notions of freedom. The will is free as a cause to the extent the actions of one's body and mind are subject to its control, that is, causally necessitated by it. This is the freedom one would lose if one's body or mind became unresponsive to the will or responded only to some external control. By contrast, the will is free as an effect only if its action is not necessitated by any cause, including one's own passions and beliefs, and so acts at random. The latter is the kind of freedom no one wants and, on the evidence of experience, no one has. But it is precisely this sort that matters philosophically, since the other is not only compatible with universal causal necessitation but would not be worth having otherwise.

There is also a psychological illusion of freedom implicit in the idea of necessity itself. When one perceives two objects, one does not feel a causal connection between them unless and until one observes their similarity to past constantly conjoined objects between which such a connection is felt, and then transfer the idea copied from this feeling (the reflexive impression of necessary connection) to the objects presently before one. By contrast, when one is not an observer but a performer of actions, no such reflection occurs, and consequently no connection is felt between one's perceptions (1978, pp. 408409). For example, if I believe someone has betrayed me, and I become enraged and smash a vase against the wall, I feel no causative forces necessitating my actions; it is only afterward, when I reflect on what happened, that I recognize the necessitation of my action by the passion and the passion by my belief. Even so, I am still apt to resist the claim that in so doing my will and action were no less necessitated than a body released from a height is necessitated to fall. But apart from the fact that "there is no known circumstance, that enters into the connexion and production of the actions of matter, that is not to be found in all the operations of the mind" (p. 404), this is simply to say I can reimagine the situation so that, instead of the vase, I hurled something else or nothing at all, or that I somehow stopped myself from becoming enraged in the first place. That is not the same as supposing my volition to have been unnecessitated. It only means that, given different antecedents, different causes would have necessitated something other than the action I performed under the circumstances that actually prevailed.

The Passions

Though Hume devoted as much of the Treatise to developing a theory of the passions as he did to the understanding, the former has never attracted as much attention as the latter has. This is regrettable. Hume's theory of the passions is the mirror image of his theory of understanding: just as he was able to show the understanding to be as much an organ of feeling as of thought by explaining its most basic and important operations in terms of principles of association, so, too, by showing how surprisingly far these same principles go toward explaining the operations of the passions, he was able to reveal a deeper, underlying affinity between reason and feeling that otherwise, apart from his associationist doctrine, must remain concealed. This fundamental unity of perceptions that, to all appearances, seem disparate, or even opposed, was surely prominent in Hume's mind when he compared the place of association in the science of man to that of universal gravitation in Newtonian science of nature. One may therefore hope that Hume's theory of passions will someday receive the same amount of careful study and attention that has hitherto been reserved for other topics in his philosophy.

direct passions

Hume distinguished passions into two basic types: direct and indirect. Direct passions such as grief, joy, hope, fear, despair, and security arise immediately from some good or ill (pleasure or pain), or are themselves productive of good or ill (natural impulses such as punishing enemies and rewarding friends, as well as natural instincts such as hunger, lust, and other bodily appetites). Because their immediate cause or effect is some impression or idea of pleasure or pain, Hume could identify no role for the association of ideas in explaining their origin and only an occasional, incidental role for the association of impressions (where there is only association by resemblance). Nevertheless, he found a number of cases in which associative imagination proves crucial to enable passions already present in the mind either to commingle (or not) or to oppose one another (or not).

indirect passions

The passions of principal interest for Hume's associationist science are those he classified as indirect ideas and their associative relations are found to be causally essential to their production. The most fundamental indirect passions are pride/humility and love/hatred, but they also include ambition, vanity, envy, pity, and malice. These share a causation that takes the form of a "double relation of ideas and impressions" (1978, p. 286). Thus, an object causes a pleasure of some kind; if the object happens to be related to me by a strong enough relation, this relation of ideas (of the object to me), together with the pleasurable quality (impression) of the object, causes me to feel the resembling (because also pleasing) passion of pride (impression), whereas that same object, if productive of something unpleasant, will, given the same relation to me, cause the resembling (displeasing) passion of humility. Take away that object's relation to me, and I will feel neither pride nor humility in response to its pleasing or displeasing quality; take away its pleasing or displeasing quality and again I will feel neither passion. Consequently, pride and humility are found by experience to exist only in conjunction with an idea of myself, another object strongly related to (associated with) me, and some pleasing or displeasing quality related to (associated with) that object.

What differentiates love and hate from pride and humility is simply the object of the passion. For just as I take pride in my body or mind, or some object, insofar as it possesses some pleasing quality and has a strong relation to memy looks, my brilliance, the imposing house I own, the beautiful painting I created, the coveted office to which I have been elected, and so onso, too, I love or esteem someone else from precisely the same causes. Otherwise, these passions exhibit the same double relational structure.

Hume was well aware of the profusion of seeming counterexamples to this structure and spared no effort to rebut or deflect them. Still, to many, these efforts have something ad hoc about them, and Hume tends to be condemned for too rigid an adherence to theory in the face of recalcitrant phenomena. But much of this criticism may be due to a failure to appreciate the significance that double relations in question are associative in character, that is, their essence consists in facile transitions felt between impressions and ideas (1978, pp. 289, 309, 335336, 378). This is never clearer than when, in the last three of Hume's "Experiments to Confirm This System" (pp. 332347), he shows what seem to be counterexamples are really cases in which something interferes not with the relation considered abstractly (philosophically) but with the degree of facility felt in it, so that one or both of the relations requisite to produce an indirect passion are deprived of their associating quality, either by losing facility or because some opposing, even more facile transition prevails. Thus, when one factors in the affective dimension of Humean associationism, one can begin to appreciate Hume's evident excitement at the prospect of an explanatory principle that, for the first time, permits a systematic exposition of the human conative mind (pp. 346347).


The compass of one's passions would be narrowly confined to those with whom one has close personal relations if sympathy did not overcome one's indifference by communicating to one the feelings of others and enabling these to arouse one's own feelings, whether they be strangers, those known to one only by reputation, persons long dead, members of far away societies, even characters in myth. Thus, sympathy plays a key role in the operation of the passions in the wider context of human society. Regarded from Hume's perspective, however, sympathy is simply an extension of the associationist principle into the societal sphere. For, in and of itself, it is just one among species of the general associationist operation of enlivening ideas related to impressions to the point where they approach or equal the vivacity of the impressions themselves; one can call it sympathy when it increases the vivacity of an idea related to the passion felt by another to the point where it equals or approaches the original impression (1978, p. 319).


Hume's approach to morality is of a piece with the rest of his philosophy. Are there specifically moral ideas, or does moral discourse have nothing in the only object ever present to oneone's perceptionsto confer objective meaning on its pronouncements? If there are ideas, then their content must be determined by tracing them back to their originating impressions: whether they have their source in the perception of some object in sensation or reflexion (impression) or in acts of associating ideas of these objects. With the origin of moral ideas determined, enough would become evident about their place in the cognitive and/or conative economy of the human mind to permit the discovery of the fundamental principles governing moral judgment and action.

The question whether causal discourse has a basis in the objects present to one's mind came down to the question whether one experiences nothing but constant conjunctions or whether there is something moreeven if that something should turn out not to be the objectively real necessary connections one's discourse might lead one to expect. In the case of moral discourse the question that was decisive for Hume regarding its objective significance is whether one's experience of good and ill is limited to passions and desires, or whether there is, in addition, a source of distinctively moral ideas.

Hume's confidence that there is more to causal discourse than experienced constant conjunction stemmed from a conviction that, given only this, reality, for one, would be restricted to the narrow compass of the senses and memory. Where morality is concerned, his confidence in its ideational foundations seems to have derived from the abundant evidence of morally motivated actions: action undertaken not for selfish reasons, from partiality for those one loves, from dread of the consequences of not performing them, or for any identifiable purpose other than the sheer morality of it. Accordingly, in tracing ideas of moral good and ill to their origin, Hume's first task was to determine whether they derive from the features or relations of the objects immediately present to one in perception or, like ideas of necessary connection, from something felt in their contemplation.

moral ideas are copied neither from objects nor their relations

For Hume, morality would count as objective if actions or things were moral or immoral prior to and independently of any course of reflection on them and, a fortiori, any feeling that arises only in the course of such reflection. For example, if willful murder were objectively immoral, then some impression embodying its immorality must exist to be copied in an idea. But what does one find when one considers such crimes objectively but a sequence of thoughts, passions, motives, volitions, and actions? The action itself is not immoral or else an avalanche would be immoral for taking the lives of skiers. That the action is voluntary does not of itself make it immoral or else lions would be guilty of immorality every time they killed. Nor does its immorality consist in the anger, greed, or other passion that determined the will, since these feelings are in themselves neither moral nor immoral. Finally, even if the course of reasoning that eventuated in the resolve to murder included an awareness that murder is wrong, its immorality, if objective, would derive not from this thought as such, but from the preexisting objective state of affairs recognized in it.

If not in the objects whereof willful murder consists, does its immorality reside in some relation of these objects discoverable by reason? Reason, as explicated by Hume, consists either in (intuitive or demonstrative) knowledge of the relations of ideas derived from objects or in belief (a vivid idea) regarding a matter of fact inferred from some other matter of fact. Against the former supposition, Hume argued that none of the knowable relations into which ideas can enterresemblance, contrariety, degrees in quality, and proportions in quantity and numberseem capable even of distinguishing the moral from the nonmoral, much less the moral from the immoral.

If there is some other kind of knowable relation in which objective morality consists, Hume confessed to being ignorant of it. But even if there were, it would have to satisfy two conditions that seem impossible to meet. In the first place, to be a knowable yet genuinely moral relation, it could only relate two species of objects to the exclusion of all others: internal actions of the mind to external objects. Otherwise, internal actions of the mind that never eventuate in any deed could be moral or immoral, as could deeds with no mental components (thoughts and volitions). Still, so selective a relation of ideas seemed to Hume beyond the scope of what is intuitable or demonstrable by mere human minds. Second, even if such a relation did exist and were known, it would still remain for one actually to intuit or demonstrate its power to determine the will of every being possessed of a knowledge of it, divine no less than human. Since the components of the relationknowledge and volitionare distinct perceptions, such determination could only take place via causal necessitation. Still, if Hume's analysis of causal connections shows anything at all, it is that no connection is ever intuitable or demonstrable "by the simple consideration of the objects," since "[a]ll beings in the universe, consider'd in themselves, appear entirely loose and independent of each other. 'Tis only by experience we learn their influence and connexion; and this influence we ought never to extend beyond experience" (1978, p. 466). Therefore, it seems that no moral relation can ever be knowable and vice versa.

Objective morality is also not discoverable by probable reason. Deeds objectively comprise thoughts, passions, volitions, and bodily actions. In which relation of these does its morality consist? Even if experiment revealed the existence of some hidden object, a neurochemical perhaps, that reliably tracked the distinctions one makes between the moral and nonmoral, and the moral and immoral, one's ideas of the moral and immoral could still not be originally derived from such a source since, in and of itself, neurochemicals are just as nonmoral as any of the more obvious objects concerned in moral and immoral deeds. Thus, there is nothing rationally discoverable in the objects, and expressible by an "is" or "is not," that can lead one simply by reasoning to any properly moral recognition, expressible by an "ought" or "ought not" (1978, pp. 469470).

the subjective origin of moral ideas in internal sentiment

With objects excluded as the source of moral ideas, Hume saw no alternative but to conclude that, like ideas of cause connections, they have their origin in something one feels in the act of contemplating objects. However, the exclusion of empirical reason as their source ipso facto precludes the facility and vivacity affects immanent to associative imagination. Instead, moral ideas originate in a species of impression of reflexion that is entirely independent of imagination. This, for Hume, is not to deny that experience shows that certain processes of thought are causally essential to moral impressions; it is only to say that these processesby contrast with the impression originals of ideas of necessary connection and identitycontribute nothing to their content. As such, moral sentiments are distinct from these processes, and from every other perception, under the separability principle, and so might conceivably have arisen in total isolation from processes of thought, as hunger and sexual appetites do, or from causes different from those experience in fact reveals. The special status of the impression of reflexion source of moral ideas therefore derives not from any special authority intrinsic to these feelings themselvesthey are simply one among many other varieties of pleasure and painbut from the unique circumstances of their causation and the special place in one's life they derive therefrom.

the causation of moral sentiments

Experience reveals that moral sentiments are aroused only in the course of reflecting on the doings of human beings, specifically the mental characteristics responsible for their voluntary actions, and of these only those most firmly rooted in a person's character: the most efficacious and enduring characteristics of the identity that constitutes an individual human mind. This causation explains why moral feeling weakens or vanishes altogether when one contemplates actions not considered to be tests of character, because, say, their performance was prompted by an uncharacteristic whim, an excusable misjudgment regarding the facts, fever, disease, medicinal side effects, or involuntarily through some unavoidable external cause.

The causal structure of moral feeling resembles that of the indirect passions of pride/humility and love/hate in that it involves a double relation of impressions and ideas: an object (idea) related to a person (another idea) is the subject of some pleasant or unpleasant feeling (impression) that, because of the relation between the objects, gives rise to its resembling (pleasing or displeasing) moral feeling (another impression). Indeed, with the proviso that the causes of moral feelings are restricted to mental characteristics strongly related to the person, the pleasures and pains that arouse moral feelings prove to be precisely the same ones that arouse feelings of pride/humility in oneself and to love/hate toward others (1978, pp. 574575), so that moral feelings may be regarded as "nothing but a fainter or more imperceptible" (p. 614) variety of these passions themselves.

There are, however, two further features of the causation of moral sentiments that distinguish them from indirect passions:

Moral feeling requires a general point of view

The indirect passions are invariably partial for or against their particular object (oneself or another). Moral sentiments, by contrast, tend to be felt only when "we fix on some steady and general point of view" in which one abstracts from "our situation of nearness or remoteness, with regard to the person blam'd or prais'd, and the present disposition of our mind" (1978, pp. 581582). Moral feelings are at their strongest (remembering that, for Hume, the strength of a sentiment is often inversely proportional to its violence) when the character of the person is viewed from the standpoint where it

appears the same to every spectator. And tho' such interests and pleasures touch us more faintly than our own, yet being more constant and universal, they counter-ballance the latter even in practice, and are alone admitted in speculation as the standard of virtue and morality. They alone produce that particular feeling or sentiment, on which moral distinctions depend.
(p. 591)

From a personal perspective, one may be far more moved by the moral perfections of a best friend than by those of some moral giant of the past like Gandhi. Still, this delight is not moral sentiment. That feeling can arise only when one brackets out one's personal feelings for the person, whereon one cannot help feeling a far stronger feeling in contemplating Gandhi than one's friend (though this is no guarantee that, when it comes to determining the will, one's moral sentiments will be strong enough to prevail over nonmoral ones).

Moral feeling requires sympathy

Since reason is impotent to determine the will and useless by itself to distinguish moral right from wrong, moral action is wholly at the mercy of moral sentiment. But if moral sentiments can arise only through their association with other pleasures or pains (in the context of a double relation of impressions and ideas), how is it possible for moral feeling to arise if it requires one to regard persons from a general point of view in which abstraction is made from everything determinative of one's present affective disposition? Hume's answer is that the capacity to remain affectively engaged depends on one's ability to sympathize with the persons one considers from a general point of view. Thanks to this societal variety of association, one continues to feel pleasure or displeasure from the consideration of the mental qualities rooted in the characters of persons one considers impartially. Since this permits the condition for the double relation of impressions and ideas requisite to produce moral sentiment is met, one then has only to contemplate the character from the general point of view requisite for moral sentiment for the pleasant or unpleasant feelings produced by sympathy to cause a corresponding pleasant or unpleasant moral sentiment.

virtue and vice

Another way in which the impression of reflexion originals of moral ideas and those of ideas of necessary connection are alike is that, despite being subjective (felt only in contemplating objects), they are illusorily projected onto the objects contemplated and treated as though they were properties of the objects themselves (1978, pp. 167, 224225). In the case of moral feelings, the objects that take on moral attributes are the mental characteristics whose agreeableness or disagreeableness cause moral feelings, whereon they count as virtues or vices: "taste gives the sentiment of vice and virtue [and] has a productive faculty, and gilding or staining all natural objects with the colours, borrowed from internal sentiment, raises, in a manner, a new creation" (1998, p. 163).

Hume's typology of virtue of and vice

Hume distinguished four (nonexclusive) types of virtue:

(1) Mental qualities immediately agreeable to their possessors, such as skill, greatness of mind, cheer, equanimity in the face of adversity, and courage

(2) Qualities immediately agreeable to others, such as tact, delicacy, wit, and good manners

(3) Qualities useful to their possessors, such as intelligence, industriousness, skill, patience, and perseverance

(4) Qualities useful to others, such as gratitude, faithfulness, reliability, and charity

The pleasure one takes in these mental qualities in and of themselves is enhanced by the moral pleasure with which one responds to them, thereby adding a moral beauty to their original, nonmoral beauty. Similarly, the displeasure occasioned by their contraries is augmented by moral displeasure, and to their natural ugliness moral repugnancy is added. This, in turn, increases the effects these qualities have on other passions, above all the pride or love and humility or hatred felt on their account. Indeed, as mental qualities capable of stirring moral sentiments in one when considered with sympathy from a general point of view, pride/humility and love/hate now take on a moral value in their own right. Thus, if the pride another takes in his or her character is the effect of real virtues and proportionate to them, our contemplation of his or her pride (a pleasing quality) can only add to the pleasure we derive from contemplating the pleasing qualities in which he or she takes pride, whereas if his or her pride is a perverse pleasure deriving from morally repugnant mental qualities, his or her feelings about him- or herself can only increase the contempt we feel in contemplating those qualities.

Hume seems convinced that many of the qualities commonly deemed virtuous in his and other societies would not be considered virtues, or even be deemed vices, if people could overcome the distorting influences that prevent them from attaining a truly impartial, sympathetic perspective on human characters. Religious education, for example, can condition one to regard as virtuous the asceticism of monks, the fanaticism of zealots, or the credulity of the faithfulqualities of mind that would otherwise be certain to strike one as both repellant in themselves and harmful (1998, pp. 146147). But, for Hume, the fact that miseducation, harsh conditions of life, and other factors can lead people to mistake virtues for vices and vices for virtues no more makes the one really the other than the fact that people are often influenced to discount or ignore past experience in their reasoning means that there is no real difference, rooted in human nature, between good and bad empirical reasoning. Nothinginterest, expediency, or serendipitycan make disagreeable or harmful mental qualities be, or appear to be, anything other than they really are. Nevertheless, outside influences may intervene to prevent one from attaining the constancy and universality of perspective, and/or the sympathetic engagement, requisite to bring one's moral sense to bear on such disagreeable or harmful qualities and respond to them with the contempt they would otherwise naturally and universally inspire.

Of course, even if human nature ensures that universal agreement regarding virtue and vice is possible in the abstract, things are different when it comes to judging, in any particular instance, whether an action issued mainly from moral, immoral, or amoral motives, and in which proportions. Hume was keenly aware, in his capacity as philosopher no less than that of essayist or historian, that motives for particular actions can be complex and obscure, even to the agent, and that agreement in one's judgments regarding the morality may be impossible owing to differences in experience, education, access to information, and individual mental abilities. Matters are further complicated by the fact that moral sentiments must compete with other passions for influence on the wills of agents and the hearts of judges. Nonetheless, even if human nature cannot always reveal what one ought to do in each particular instance, Hume still deemed moral sentiment a universally valid standard accessible to anyone concerned to know what kind of person he or she ought to be; and, in this regard, moral sentiment serves as a dependable guide in moral decision making and judgment.

artificial virtues

Institutions such as property, contracts, government, intergovernmental relations, and marriage must exist before the virtues of justice (the rightful possession of property), promise-keeping, allegiance, treaty-keeping, and chastity are even possible. A first precondition is that everyone, or nearly everyone, realize that they stand to benefit when every member of society, selves included, adheres to the rules requisite for these institutions to exist and flourish. Second, each person's recognition of their interest in everything that promotes universal adherence to these rules leads them to take pleasure in those mental qualities of persons that contribute most to making them just, faithful keepers of promises, loyal subjects, good treaty-makers and -keepers, and good husbands or wives. Only then, when reflecting on these pleasing qualities of persons from a general point of view, will each person's moral sense respond to these qualities with its own distinctive feeling, whereupon qualities originally prized only from self-interest at last come to elicit one's admiration as virtues.

What prompted Hume to classify these and other virtues as artificial rather than as natural, even though their origin in a recognition of the utility of certain mental qualities is no different from many natural virtues? Justice, for example, presupposes property, which, as an institution founded on a tacit convention, is, in Hume's view, thoroughly artificial, and in that sense unnatural. Although there is possession, property in the strict sense (as carrying an obligation not to hinder possession) does not yet exist in a state of nature, where something is mine if, by strength or wit, I can get it and keep anyone else who wants it from taking it. When goods are either too plentiful or too scarce, and generosity is confined to one's closest relations, there is no interest or intrinsic virtue to inhibit one from taking anything one wants from anyone else, even if one's need for it is not desperate. But when goods are neither too plentiful nor too scarce, a condition in which everyone takes whatever they want whenever they can prevents anyone from enjoying the benefit of secure possession of the goods they want or need for future use. The resulting dissatisfaction with the existing state of things thus creates an openness to change.

The problem is that it is not in my interest to leave anyone else in secure possession of my goods if I cannot be assured that the other person will do the same for me. This impasse is broken only with the establishment of a tacit convention, based on self-interest, of leaving others in possession of their goods provided they are prepared to leave one in possession of oneself. Moreover, since it is in the interest of all to be able to exchange some of the goods one has for others one needs or desires more, the convention of secure possession must also provide means whereby the goods of another can become one's own and vice versa, so that secure possession is transferred with them. Thus, through the artifice of tacit conventions, property in goods, over and above their mere possession, first comes into existence.

The reason that Hume classified justice in matters of property as an artificial virtue is that there is nothing about any good one desires to possess or retain, considered in and of itself, that can convey to one an idea of it as property. Property is unintelligible apart from established conventions, and conventions, however universal, tacit, and informal, are always artificial. For this reason, Hume denied that there is any natural interest or virtue in justice. Only after one has been inducted into the mysteries of the institution of property can one arrive at a recognition of one's interest in universal adherence to the rules requisite to maintaining it and so, a fortiori, come to prize as virtues the mental qualities most conducive to that interest. The same is true of every other virtue that presupposes human institutions founded on tacit conventions secured by a recognition of self-interest: contracts, laws, public offices, government, and so on. So, even though artificial virtues are no less genuine or powerful expressions of moral sentiment than natural ones, Hume deemed them as unnatural to one's species as speaking English or paying in British currency.


One cannot be certain what Hume's actual views were with regard to belief in God. He was quite clear that he was not a Christian, and he seems to have regarded all religions as expressions of superstition, vestiges from less enlightened times that might (or might not) someday be superseded or wither away. However, Hume was also somewhat skeptical concerning contemporary atheistic conceptions. Matters are further complicated by the times in which he lived. Apart from legal sanctions (after a period of relative openness, new censorship laws began appearing in the late 1730s), a person's career prospects, social position, and tranquillity would be put in jeopardy by too open an expression of views liable to be construed as impious. For anyone unconcerned with mundane matters, zealous in the cause of atheism and enlightenment, desirous of being the focus of controversy, or sufficiently naive, these impediments might not matter. But Hume was not such a person. He was too worldly wise and fond of his place in society to bring down on himself the consequences of a frontal assault on the religious beliefs and institutions dear to the overwhelming majority of humankind. So, while many would agree with contemporary charges that his views on such matters as the general causal maxim and freedom of the will are implicative of atheism, Hume himself always professed the contrary (1978, pp. 40910, 633n; 1999, pp. 160164 1745/1967). And though his writings on religion seem to lead inexorably to the conclusion that a rational faith in God or revealed religion is an impossibility, he never ceased to proclaim that "the existence of a DEITY is plainly ascertained by reason" (1992, p. 280).

What is one to make of Hume's claims that his philosophy is consistent with, even supportive of, a rational belief in God? If these pretensions had been sincere, he would have had every reason to advertise the opinion, as other philosophers did who employed skepticism to humble reason to elevate faith. But one finds no evidence of this in his philosophizing beyond occasional brief asides, which seem too casually thrown out for one not to suspect that they are there merely to provide cover for his skeptical forays. It seems unquestionable that Philo, rightly regarded as Hume's principal mouthpiece in the Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, was not serving in that capacity when he declared that "[t]o be a philosophical skeptic is, in a man of letters, the first and most essential step towards being a sound, believing Christian" (1992, p. 292). Hume's actual skepticism points in a different direction, as a close examination of the arguments in his writings on religion reveals.

the idea of god

Hume professed agreement with Locke and other anti-innatists that the idea of "an infinitely intelligent, wise, and good Being" has its origin in one's "reflecting on the operations of our own mind, and augmenting, without limit, those qualities of goodness and wisdom" (1999, pp. 9798). Nevertheless, he also maintained that the attempt to realize this definition in an idea is fraught with difficulty. Not only is "the capacity of the mind limited, and can never attain a full and adequate conception of infinity" (1978, p. 26), even large numbers are representable only by means of the power of multiplying ideas, and, like all powers, rests ultimately on custom (pp. 2223). The case of qualitative superlatives such as wisdom and goodness is even more problematic, for, finite or infinite, they "are not, like quantity or number, susceptible of any exact mensuration, which may be the standard" (1992, p. 281). In addition, Hume devoted the greater part of the Dialogues to showing that the empiricist definition of the divine founded on qualities of the human mind can never provide one with an idea remotely adequate to underwriting the conception of God featured in the discourse of philosophical theologians. Had he been bolder, he might also have applied to the case of God the implications of his associationist explications of the ideas of power and efficacy (necessary connection), substance, identity over time, the simplicity of complex beings, personhood, and reason. For their result is to show that these ideas are all inseparably bound up by content with the actions and affects of associative imagination, and so cannot be used to comprehend anything that exists prior to and independently of idea-enlivening, transition-facilitating. Therefore, it is ironic (no doubt intentionally so) that Hume ended up on the same side as the most pious monotheists (represented by Demea in the Dialogues ) in insisting on the incomprehensibility of the nature of the divine.

a priori arguments for the existence of god

The ontological argument for the existence of God advanced by many philosophers before Hume depends on treating existence as a property of God in the same sense in which goodness, wisdom, power, and other attributes are ascribed to the nature of divinity, and, moreover, like them, a necessary property. Hume argued against the first part of the thesis by denying that existence can ever be conceived of as a property, be it of God or any other being. For to be able to do so, existence would have to be a distinct idea in its own right, capable of being combined with other ideas to form a complex idea, and there is no such idea in one's possession. Nor is the real existence attributed to God when, instead of merely conceiving him to exist, one believes him actually to exist, any new addition to the idea either, "When I think of God, when I think of him as existent, and when I believe him to be existent, my idea of him neither encreases nor diminishes" (1978, p. 94).

Even if there was an idea of real existence one could conjoin with one's idea of God, one still could not suppose it to apply necessarily, "Nothing that is distinctly conceivable implies a contradiction. Whatever we conceive as existent, we can also conceive as non-existent. There is no being, therefore, whose non-existence implies a contradiction. The words, therefore, 'necessary existence' have no meaning; or, which is the same thing, none that is consistent" (1992, p. 251). If it is objected that God might in fact be a necessary existent even if existence does not attach to God of necessity in the idea one's feeble mind is able to form of divinity, the reply is that the same may be true of the unknown nature of any object, sensible objects included. The point is that one can never have reason to include existence in one's idea of God as a necessary attribute.

a posteriori arguments for the existence of god

Insofar as Hume's explications of ideas such as cause and effect show them to be bound up by content with the actions and affects of associative imagination, the scope of their application is limited to the purview of appropriately constituted conscious minds. Consequently, in order to even to raise the question whether experience provides any justification for inferring the existence of God, Hume had first to set aside these explications. This should not be forgotten when trying to assess the true nature and scope of his critique of a posteriori theistic reasoning.

cosmological arguments for the existence of god

Many philosophical theists employ the general causal maxim to argue from the fact that something exists that some first cause must exist as well, since the supposition of an infinite regress of causes implies that the whole chain of causes and effects would lack a cause or reason for existing, and this is inconsistent with the maxim. Hume regarded such reasoning as fallacious:

[T]he uniting of these parts into a whole, like the uniting of several distinct countries into one kingdom, or several distinct members into one body, is performed merely by an arbitrary act of the mind, and has no influence on the nature of things. Did I show you the particular causes of each individual in a collection of twenty particles of matter, I should think it very unreasonable should you afterwards ask me what was the cause of the whole twenty. This is sufficiently explained in explaining the cause of these parts.
(1992, pp. 252253)

arguments from design

Though given a pass in the Treatise and elsewhere in Hume's corpus, Hume subjected the design argument for the existence of God to critical scrutiny in section 11 of Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, "Of a Particular Providence and of a Future State." The discussion takes the form of a dialogue between Hume and a paradox-loving skeptical friend who imagines what Epicurus might have said in his defense if brought before a tribunal on charges of impiety and endangering the state because of his denial that religion (the existence of God and of a providence and future) can be established "upon principles of reason" (1999, p. 189).

For the sake of argument, Epicurus grants that the order, beauty, and wise arrangement everywhere observed in the universe cannot have resulted from material causes alone, so that the point at issue is what kind of author(s) can be inferred from the work according to the canons of empirical reasoning. Since the cause is something that has never been observed by any mortal, and since the given effect (the totality of design in nature) is so singular as to afford no basis for determining the general characteristics (species) of its cause, Epicurus maintains that one has no choice here but to subject one's reasoning to the "maxim, that where any cause is known only by its particular effects, it must be impossible to infer any new effects from that cause, since the qualities, which are requisite to produce these new effects along with the former, must either be different, or superior, or of more extensive operation, than those which simply produced the effect, whence alone the cause is supposed to be known to us" (1999, p. 196n).

This means that one must incorporate into one's conception of the cause the abundant empirical evidence of disorder, ugliness, indifference to human welfare, and the unjust distribution of talents, goods, and fates. So, even with the concession that matter and motion are insufficient to account for the world, the cause one is warranted in inferring from the effect as one empirically finds it falls far short of the superlative, benevolent intelligence proponents of the design argument claim to be able to infer.

In the Dialogues this line of argument is deepened and expanded, even while Hume maintains the pretense that the design argument suffices to prove the existence of a deity and fails only when it comes to providing insight into the nature of that deity (like Kant after him, Hume suggests, in the Dialogues [dialogue 5], that empirical reasoning would need to be supplemented by a priori if this want were to be made good). It is impossible here to do justice to this splendid work, possibly the finest philosophical dialogue since Plato. Suffice it to say that its conclusion is "that the causes or causes of order in the universe probably bear some remote analogy to human intelligence" (1992, p. 291).

What this means becomes clearer in the light of Philo's observation in dialogue 7 that intelligence is just one of four known causes of order in the world and that the same claim of a remote analogy with the cause(s) of order in the universe can, with equal reason, be made for instinct (a bird's design of its nest), generation (of offspring by animals), and vegetation (seeding). Since even an atheist can admit that, in this highly attenuated analogical sense, it is proper to think of the cause of order in the world as similar to intelligenceand possibly to many other, as yet unknown principles of order as wellnothing of any consequence seems to be warranted by the conclusion reached in the Dialogues. Indeed, it is no wonder that Hume has Philo argue that the difference between atheists and certain theists is merely verbal (1992, pp. 280281).

Nor does Philo deny that, among the unknown principles of order in the world, some may be inherent in matter itself, such that over vast periods of time, a minute probability that the motions of particles will eventuate in the production and replication of stable, orderly forms must eventually be realized (1992, pp. 244247). Since other principles of order, known and unknown, may themselves be explicable in terms of principles inherent in matter, even the modest conclusion reached at the end of the Dialogues is put in jeopardy by this concession"So dangerous is it to introduce this idea of necessity into the present question! And so naturally does it afford an inference directly opposite the religious hypothesis!" (p. 1992, p. 253) Since Hume elsewhere made no secret that he embraced necessity in precisely this sense, one cannot help wondering if the neo-Epicurean excursus in Dialogues (dialogue 7) was not intended to remind his reader of Hume's own explication of cause and effect, to the end of rejecting all causal reasoning in matters of religionas happens overtly in Enquiry concerning Human Understanding :

It is only when two species of objects are found to be constantly conjoined, that we can infer the one from the other; and were an effect presented, which was entirely singular, and could not be comprehended under any known species, I do not see, that we could form any conjecture or inference at all concerning its cause. If experience and observation and analogy be, indeed, the only guides which we can reasonably follow in inferences of this nature, both the effect and cause must bear a similarity and resemblance to other effects and causes, which we know, and have found, in many instances, to be conjoined with each other. I leave it to your own reflections to pursue the consequences of this principle.
(1999, p. 198)

reason and revelation

Is it ever rational to accept the truth of revealed religion? Those who answer affirmatively typically point to prophecies fulfilled and miracles performed. Since such evidence comes to nearly all of us by way of oral or scriptural testimony, Hume asked if conditions exist under which one could rationally credit reports of prophesies and miracles and, if so, whether any revelation has ever met these conditions. The key to his reasoning in this matter is the recognition that human testimony on any topic owes whatever authority it has in the eyes of reason to the same source causal inferences do: past experience. Finding there to be a fairly constant conjunction between the facts as reported by witnesses and as ascertained by other means, one has only to hear or read (have an impression of) a report for one's mind not only to think (form an idea) of the event reported but also to believe it to the extent (enliven the idea to the degree) warranted by experience. For, besides lending authority to testimony in general, experience also teaches one that particular reports are more or less credible depending on the reporter, the circumstances under which the report is given and received, and the event reported itself. If a report falls short of maximum credibility on any of these counts, then reasonable persons must refuse to give it the same credence they accord to empirical beliefs founded on a frequently encountered, perfectly constant conjunction, having the certainty of proofs.

Reports of miracles are intrinsically suspect because the events they report are, by their nature, the least creditable. As defined by Hume, an event is miraculous only if it meets two conditions: it contradicts a law of nature and does so "by the particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent" (1999, p. 173n). A law of nature is a causal sequence found by constant experience to be invariable, and so has the highest authority empirical reason can confer. Accordingly, to determine whether one can rationally credit any report of a miracle, one must follow the procedure empirical reason prescribes whenever two beliefs regarding matters of fact are found to conflict: deduct from the empirical support of one of the beliefs the amount of support possessed by the other and, if any support remains, accord it only so much credence as that remainder warrants; otherwise, discount it or (if the beliefs have equal support) refrain from believing either way. However, when one does this, one finds that

no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish: And even in that case, there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior.
(p. 174)

Since it is impossible that experience could ever give one reason to regard the falsehood of any report of miracles as more improbable than the falsehood of a law of nature, even the most credible testimony imaginable could not win one's acceptance if belief were always proportioned to experience. The same is true of prophecies, for these are simply a species of miracle ("If it did not exceed the capacity of human nature to foretel future events, it would be absurd to employ any prophecy as an argument for a divine mission or authority from heaven" [1999, p. 186]). Thus, one's acceptance of revealed religion can never possess the rational authority to which belief proportioned to the evidence of experience can alone lay claim.

religious belief

Having established that one has no clear idea of God to underwrite religious discourse nor any rational basis for religious belief, Hume devoted the remainder of his discussion of miracles, as well as other writings ("The Natural History of Religion" [1757] most notably), to examining the nature and causes of religious belief. The upshot is that one believes in God and accepts the proofs of purported revelation from the same causes that lead one to form other beliefs not proportioned to experience (unphilosophical probabilities): failure to clarify one's ideas or to ascertain the existence of ideas corresponding to one's words; education; credulity; self-interest; the influence of the passions; eloquence and other appeals to imagination that detach reason from its moorings in experience; the errors and exaggerations that tend to creep in with each new telling of a story; and so on. The implication is that, however widespread a religious belief may be, it is not imposed on one by human nature, and so is not irresistible in the way that belief in causes, continued distinct existents, and the self are.

Hume did not deny that religious belief can ever be agreeable or useful, either for the individual or society, but he did seem to think that, in the forms it actually takesespecially when vitiated by superstition or enthusiasmit is neither. For example, in two essays, "Of Suicide" and "Of the Immortality of the Soul" (written in 1755 but published posthumously in 1777 [though a French edition appeared in 1770]), he argued that there is no rational or moral basis for the prohibition of the former or for belief in the latter. Still, his single most important philosophical contribution to the effort of combating the deleterious influence of religion is the example set by his theory of morals: It illustrates how universally valid moral standards can be understood nontheologically, in terms exclusively of natural sentiment and artificial interest.

See also Aesthetics, History of; Alembert, Jean Le Rond d'; Bacon, Francis; Beauty; Berkeley, George; Causation: Metaphysical Issues; Causation: Philosophy of Science; Colors; Common Sense; Cosmological Argument for the Existence of God; Determinism, A Historical Survey; Determinism and Freedom; Diderot, Denis; Enlightenment; Human Nature; Induction; Kant, Immanuel; Locke, John; Newton, Isaac; Perception; Philo Judaeus; Reason; Reid, Thomas; Revelation; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Skepticism, History of; Smith, Adam; Space; Virtue and Vice; Volition.


works by hume

Four Dissertations. London: Printed for A. Millar, 1757.

The Philosophical Works of David Hume. 4 vols. Edited by T. H. Green and T. H. Grose. London: Longmans, Green, 1875.

The Letters of David Hume. 2 vols. Edited by J. Y. T. Grieg. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1932.

New Letters of David Hume. Edited by Raymond Klibansky and Ernest Campbell Mossner. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1954.

A Letter from a Gentleman to His Friend in Edinburgh (1745). Edited by Ernest Campbell Mossner and John V. Price. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1967.

A Treatise of Human Nature. Edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1978.

The History of England, edited by William B. Todd, Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1983.

Essays Moral, Political, and Literary. Edited by Eugene F. Miller. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Classics, 1987.

Writings on Religion. Edited by Antony Flew. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1992.

The Clarendon Edition of the Works of David Hume. Edited by Tom L. Beauchamp, David Fate Norton, and M. A. Stewart. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals: A Critical Edition. Edited by Tom L. Beauchamp. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding. Edited by Tom L. Beauchamp. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

A Treatise of Human Nature. Edited by David Fate Norton and Mary J. Norton. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

works about hume

Àrdal, Páll S. Passion and Value in Hume's "Treatise". Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1966. A detailed textual analysis of Hume's theory of the passions.

Baier, Annette. A Progress of Sentiments: Reflections on Hume's Treatise. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991. An authoritative, highly persuasive vision of the Treatise as the onerous progress of reason toward self-comprehension, which it finds in society.

Baillie, James. Hume on Morality. London: Routledge, 2000.

Beauchamp, Tom L., and Alexander Rosenberg. Hume and the Problem of Causation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981. An attempt to defend Hume's views on induction and causation against contemporary views.

Bricke, John. Mind and Morality: An Examination of Hume's Moral Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Capaldi, Nicholas. Hume's Place in Moral Philosophy. New York: Peter Lang, 1989.

Flew, Antony. David Hume: Philosopher of Moral Science. Oxford, U.K.: Basil Blackwell, 1986.

Fogelin, Robert L. Hume's Skepticism in the Treatise of Human Nature. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985. Aspires to restore Hume's skepticism to a status equal, and complementary, to his naturalism, both in epistemology and in morals.

Forbes, Duncan. Hume's Philosophical Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975.

Garrett, Don. Cognition and Commitment in Hume's Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. One of the finest books on Hume to date.

Gaskin, J. C. A. Hume's Philosophy of Religion. 2nd ed. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1988.

Haakonssen, Knud. The Science of a Legislator: The Natural Jurisprudence of David Hume and Adam Smith. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Harrison, Jonathan. Hume's Theory of Justice. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1981.

Laird, John. Hume's Philosophy of Human Nature. London: Methuen, 1932. A classic.

Livingston, Donald W. Hume's Philosophy of Common Life. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1984. Maintains that Hume adopted the approach of the social historian even in epistemology.

Mackie, John L. The Cement of the Universe: A Study of Causation. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1974.

Mackie, John L. Hume's Moral Theory. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980. A projectivist reading of Hume's sentimentalism, with a keen analysis of his account of virtue.

Miller, David. Philosophy and Ideology in Hume's Political Thought. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1981.

Mossner, Ernest Campbell, ed. "Hume's Early Memoranda, 17291740." Journal of the History of Ideas 9 (1948): 492518.

Mossner, Ernest Campbell. The Life of David Hume. 2nd ed. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1980.

Norton, David Fate, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Hume. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Norton, David Fate. David Hume: Common-Sense Moralist, Sceptical Metaphysician. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982. Contains an excellent account of Hume's relation to Frances Hutcheson and examines other influences on Hume.

Owen, David. Hume's Reason. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Corrects many misconceptions, especially regarding Hume's conception of deductive reason. An outstanding work.

Passmore, John. Hume's Intentions. 3rd ed. London: Duckworth, 1980.

Pears, David. Hume's System: An Examination of the First Book of His Treatise. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Effects a balance between Hume's empiricism and naturalism by correlating the first to a theory of meaning and the second to a theory of truth.

Philips, D. Z., and Timothy Tessin, eds. Religion and Hume's Legacy. New York: St. Martin's, 1999.

Read, Rupert, and Kenneth A. Richman, eds. The New Hume Debate. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Russell, Paul. Freedom and Moral Sentiment: Hume's Way of Naturalizing Responsibility. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Smith, Norman Kemp. The Philosophy of David Hume. London: Macmillan, 1941. Instigated the move away from skeptical readings of Hume.

Snare, Francis. Morals, Motivation, and Convention: Hume's Influential Doctrines. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Stewart, M.A., and John P. Wright, eds. Hume and Hume's Connexions. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.

Stove, D. C. Probability and Hume's Inductive Scepticism. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1973.

Strawson, Galen. The Secret Connexion: Causation, Realism, and David Hume. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Stroud, Barry. Hume. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977. Presents Hume as advancing a theory of human nature in which the traditional conception of man as rational animal is overturned.

Townsend, Dabney. Hume's Aesthetic Theory: Taste and Sentiment. London: Routledge, 2001.

Tweyman, Stanley, ed. David Hume: Critical Assessments. 6 vols. London: Routledge, 1995.

Tweyman, Stanley, ed. Hume on Miracles. Bristol, U.K.: Thoemmes, 1996.

Waxman, Wayne. Hume's Theory of Consciousness. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Waxman, Wayne. Kant and the Empiricists: Understanding Understanding. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Emphasizes the affinity between Hume and Kant as exponents of a psychologistic method of explicating concepts.

Whelan, Frederick G. Order and Artifice in Hume's Political Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985.

Wilson, Fred. Laws and Other Worlds: A Humean Account of Laws and Counterfactuals. Dordrecht, Netherlands: D. Reidel, 1986.

Wayne Waxman (2005)

Hume, David

views updated May 23 2018

Hume, David 1711-1776


David Humes work was crucial in the development of many important social scientific concepts like the fact/value distinction, ideology, and economic equilibrium. Moreover, in a period when the social sciences did not yet exist, he envisioned the transformation of the ancient discipline of moral philosophy into a science of man through the application of an experimental philosophy to moral subjects (Hume 17391740, p. 4). Such a methodological transformation was essential for the creation of the social sciences.

Hume was born in Edinburgh on April 26, 1711, and he grew up at his family home in the Scottish Borderlands. He studied at the University of Edinburgh, and after rejecting a career as a merchant or a lawyer, he made his way in life as an intellectual and author. He joined a circle of Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, including Adam Smith and Lords Kames and Monboddo, who made Edinburgh the center of their social life. They kept a careful distance both from the Scottish Highlanders to the Northwho were prone to violent rebellion against the powers that be in Londonand the English establishment figures to the Southwho were often hostile to ambitious Scots like themselves. Although his philosophical works did not win him fame and fortune, his multivolume History of England (published between 1754 and 1762) did. During his later years, between 1763 and 1768, he broke through the governmental glass ceiling for Scots and was appointed to a number of important diplomatic posts, including charge daffaires in the British Embassy in Paris and under-secretary of state for the Northern Department (which included Scotland). He died in Edinburgh on August 25, 1776.

Humes writings spanned the genres from intricate philosophical studies to belletristic essays and historical narratives. In these texts, Hume created concepts and attitudes that pointed social investigations away from the formal, contractualist framework that dominated Enlightenment social thought and toward a dynamic, empirical approach to human nature.

Hume acerbically made a sharp distinction in the discourse concerning human affairs between the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not and the propositions connecting subject and predicate with ought and ought not. He insisted that one could not validly deduce ought propositions from those stating facts about human behavior alone, and that once small attention was paid to this fallacious reasoning, all the vulgar systems of morality would be subverted (Hume 17391740, p. 302). Indeed, the is/ought distinction became a starting point for the social sciences in the next century.

Along with this categorical revision of the social world, Hume cultivated in his readers a healthy skepticism for the application of crude causal categories in the science of man. Just as Newton rejected the primacy of contact (push-pull) forces in natural philosophy and introduced relational forcessuch as gravitational attraction, which operates instantaneously across huge distanceshe also debunked the primacy of mechanical causation in the social realm and called for a deeper appreciation of tendential, correlational forces expressed in sympathy, convention, and habit.

Hume also rejected an atomistic conception of the self. He argued that the notion of a simple unified self is a fictional product of an ingrained propensity to confound identity with relation. Humes science of man guards against this propensity and seeks to uncover the complex relations and forces at play in the formation of a self, thus proposing one of the key research themes of the future social sciences. A century later, his recognition of the importance of fictions in social life was to be developed further with the notion of ideology.

Hume also emphasized the importance of the precontractual basis of contractual societies by refusing to take the rational, contracting individual as the starting point of social thought. He noted that two men, who pull the oars of a boat, do it by an agreement or convention, tho they have never given promises to each other (Hume 17391740, p. 315), and his new science gave primacy to this level of social cooperation and convention that makes promises and contracts possible.

Although Humes work affected the methodology of the social sciences in general, his discourses on commerce, money, and the balance of trade had a major impact on economic thought, both directly and through his influence on Adam Smith.

Hume also recognized that the rules of property ownership and the use of money are artificial, that they must be constructed both in an individuals life and humanitys history. Consequently, economic laws, such as the quantity theory of money, do not automatically apply, but instead require the development of a state where money has a universal diffusion and circulation (Hume 17421752, p. 294). Moreover, in a fully monetarized society, Hume, like Isaac Newton, differentiated between steady states and accelerating changes of a systems basic quantities. Thus, he argued that though, in the long run, the price of commodities will be proportional to the quantity of money, alterations in the quantity of money are not immediately attended with proportionable alternations in the prices of commodities (Hume 17421752, p. 288). For example, influxes of money, in some circumstances, can stimulate economic activity.

Hume observed that, in a commercial world, money moves across borders in an autonomous manner that makes mercantilist efforts to prevent a countrys loss of specie (e.g., by prohibiting the export of bullion) nugatory and even counterproductive. As long as a nation preserves its people and industry, its money supply will tend almost naturally toward an appropriate equilibrium level, just as all water, wherever it communicates, remains always at a level (Hume 17421752, p. 312).

Finally, although Hume was one of the first major European philosophers to oppose slavery, he was also one of the first to develop the rudiments of a modern race theory claiming to be based on science. His observations of plantation life in the British West Indies convinced him that wage labor was much more productive than slave labor, and that the threat of unemployment had much more disciplinary power for the free workers than the threat of the whip had for slaves (Hume 17421752, p. 390). However, since he also claimed to know of no ingenious manufactures amongst [Africans], no arts, no sciences, either in Africa or among the freed African slaves in Europe, he was apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites (Hume 17421752, p. 208). Thus, he was an influential founder of a biopolitical racism compatible with a regime of waged labor.

In many ways then, Hume is the most postmodern of Enlightenment thinkers. An appreciation for his subversive, paradoxical, and militantly secular attitudes and concepts has therefore grown among historians in search of alternative genealogies for the social sciences.

SEE ALSO Equilibrium in Economics; Philosophy; Quantity Theory of Money; Smith, Adam


Baier, Annette. 1991. A Progress of Sentiments: Reflections on Humes Treatise. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Berry, Christopher J. 1997. Social Theory of the Scottish Enlightenment. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Broadie, Alexander, ed. 2003. The Cambridge Companion to The Scottish Enlightenment. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Deleuze, Gilles. 1991. Empiricism and Subjectivity: An Essay on Humes Theory of Human Nature. Trans. Constantin V. Boundas. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hume, David. 17391740. A Treatise of Human Nature. Ed. David Fate Norton and Mary J. Norton. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Hume, David. 17421752. Essays Moral, Political, and Literary. Ed. Eugene F. Miller. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1987.

Norton, David Fate, ed. 1993. The Cambridge Companion to Hume. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

C. George Caffentzis

Hume, David

views updated May 14 2018

Hume, David

(b. Edinburgh, Scotland, 26 April 1711; d. Edinburgh, 25 August 1776)

philosophy, economy, political theory, history.

His father, Joseph Home—David Hume preferred the phonetic spelling—was a country gentleman with a small estate, Ninewells, near Berwick-upon-Tweed. His mother, Catherine Falconer, was a daughter of Sir David Falconer, lord president of the Court of Session. Hume retained a lifelong admiration for the gentry, ascribing to them that “moderate scepticism” which he himself sought to foster. His father died young, in 1713, leaving Hume a small legacy on which he later could barely support himself.

Hume matriculated at the University of Edinburgh in 1723, but left three years later without taking a degree. Edinburgh was a center of Newtonian physics, and Hume most probably was taught its elements either by the mathematician James Gregory or by Newton’s popularizer, Colin Maclaurin. On the philosophical side, at Edinburgh there flourished a group of ardent Berkeley disciples. The religious atmosphere was a liberal Calvinism but at an early age, Hume told Boswell, he lost all belief in religion as a result of reading Locke and Samuel Clarke.

Following a family tradition, he set out to study law. He became convinced, however, at the age of eighteen, that he had made a great discovery which “opened up anew scene of thought,” and the determined to devote himself wholly to working out his new ideas.

There is considerable controversy about the nature of Hume’s “new scene of thought,” but there are good grounds for believing that it at least incorporated the idea of constructing a “science of man” by applying Newtonian methods of analysis to the workings of the mind. The further development of Hume’s ideas was delayed by the onset of an acute depression, which he tried to shake off by undertaking a career in business. In 1734 he abandoned business to go to France, taking up residence there at La Flèche, where Descartes had been educated. He had already taught himself French and had familiarized himself with such French sceptics as Pierre Bayle; in the extensive library at La Flèche he developed that intimate acquaintance with French philosophy which exerted so profound an influence upon him, uneasily coexisting with his Newtonianism.

Hume returned to England in 1737 with his Treatise of Human Nature completed. The first two books, “Of the Understanding” and “Of the Passions,” were anonymously published in 1739; the third book, “Of Morals,” was issued in 1740 with an important appendix containing his second thoughts. Hume was confident that the Treatise would create a sensation, but it was unenthusiastically received. In order to draw attention to its merits, he published what purported to be an anonymous review of the first two books as An Abstract of a Treatise of Human Nature (1740). As an advertising device, it failed, but the Abstract is a useful guide to Hume’s philosophical intentions, especially interesting for the stress it lays on his associationism. Concluding that the failure of the Treatise was a consequence of its length and complexity, Hume henceforth expressed his ideas more fashionably—in essays and dialogues.

In 1741, with a second volume in 1742, Hume published his Essays Moral and Political. It is often said that Hume abandoned philosophy for economics and politics in search of literary fame. But for Hume philosophy was “the science of man,” and economics, politics, history—understood as “philosophy teaching by examples”—formed for him part of it. He modified his literary style to meet the tastes of his age, but not his fundamental conception of the philosopher’s task. The first book of the Treatise had been intended as his theory of social inquiry, his “logic”, the second book as his moral psychology; and the third as his ethics. It was now time to pass on to the other social sciences.

His new prose style having proved successful, Hume made another attempt to present his logic to the public. This time it was in an abbreviated and popular form, no longer as a treatise but as Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding (1748), renamed in 1758 An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. This was the work which, he told his critics in an advertisement first published in the posthumous edition of 1777, should “alone be regarded as containing his philosophical sentiments and principles,” his Treatise being, he explained, but a juvenile work.

Philosophers have been unwilling to take Hume at his word, for the Treatise contains a great deal of interesting philosophical analysis, especially of perception, which is not to be found in the Enquiry. But the Enquiry is in many ways the best introduction to Hume, especially in relating his philosophy to the history of scientific thought. It contains, too, a number of important essays—on miracles, on liberty and necessity, and on providence—which are not to be found in the Treatise.

Hume followed up the Philosophical Essays with his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), an abbreviated and considerably modified version of book III of the Treatise. Although Hume thought it to be his best work, it has only recently received the detailed attention it deserves. At about the same time, Hume wrote the first draft of his Dialogues on Natural Religion, a potent criticism of the traditional arguments for the existence of God and especially of the argument from design. His friends warned Hume against publishing it; it appeared posthumously in 1779.

The Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding had excluded the sections on space, time, and geometry which formed part of the Treatise. Hume intended to write, he tells us in one of his letters, a separate work on “the metaphysical principles of geometry.” He prepared for inclusion in Four Dissertations (1757) an essay entitled “Some Considerations Previous to Geometry and Natural Science,” but the comments of Lord Stanhope, an able mathematician dissuaded him from publishing it. Hume’s talents, indeed, did not lie in that direction; the sections on space and time in the Treatise add little to what Berkeley had already argued. For very different reasons, he was also persuaded not to publish his essays “Of Suicide” and “Of the Immorality of the Soul”; these first appeared in an unauthorized French translation in 1770 and also in an unauthorized English edition in 1777 as Two Essays. He did include in the Dissertations, however, his “Natural History of Religion,” in which he sets out to show that classical mythologies are at once more reasonable and morally more enlightened than systematic Christian theology.

Knowing that he was about to die of cancer, Hume wrote in 1776 My Own Life, which was first published by his literary executor Adam Smith in 1777 and which is as much an apologia as an autobiography. He died after a long illness, bravely sustained. Hume was a man of exceptional personal qualities, nick-named in France “le bon David” and in Scotland “Saint David.” Adam Smith described him as “approaching as near to the ideal of a perfectly wise and virtuous man as human frailty will admit.”

Methodology. The subtitle of Hume’s Treatise describes it as “an Attempt to introduce the experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects.” Under “moral subjects” Hume includes logic, to which he assigns the task of explaining “the principles and operations of our reasoning faculty”; moral philosophy; political theory, which incorporates economics and history; and literary criticism. He sometimes wrote (as in the introduction to the Treatise) as if he had fulfilled the common eighteenth-century ambition to be the Newton of human nature; as if, that is, he had constructed a science of man, paralleling physical science, by relating the elements of the mind in laws of association comparable to the laws of mechanics (Treatise, bk. I, pt. 1, sec. IV).

Hume’s important contributions to such moral subjects as economics and politics—he contributed nothing to and nowhere reveals any detailed knowledge of the physical sciences—did not depend on the use of a new method; he wrote as an intelligent and critical observer of the European scene, by no means as a methodological innovator. His approach is experimental only insofar as his explanations of social phenomena appeal to everyday human experience, rather than making use of such transcendental entities as “Providence.”

As for his positive methodology, that is dependent upon, and does not go far beyond, the “Rules of Reasoning in Philosophy” which Newton had laid down in the third book of his Principia mathematica. Hume himself wrote of his “rules by which to judge of causes and effects” (ibid., bk. I, pt. 3, sec. XV) that they are so obvious as scarcely to be worth the trouble of setting them out systematically. His importance lies not in his use or description of the experimental method, but quite elsewhere—in the doubts he raised about the rationality of the method.

His analysis of reasoning begins from a presumption universally accepted by his philosophical contemporaries, namely that what we are directly acquainted with are “perceptions in our mind,” as distinct from independently existing physical objects. Hume divides these perceptions into two classes, impressions and ideas. He counts as impressions not only sensations but any operations of the mind, including the passions, which are immediately apprehended. Ideas are “the faint images of impressions”; they are what men have before their mind when they think, as distinct from when they feel.

Since there are no ideas which do not derive from impressions, anybody who uses a word which purports to refer to an idea can properly be asked from what impression that idea derives. If the idea to which the word purports to refer does not derive from any impression, the word, Hume argues, must be meaningless (Abstract, p. 11). This is clearly the case, he tries to show, with such familiar metaphysical words as “substance” and “essence.” Hume’s analysis of perception thus provides him with a powerful polemical weapon to direct against all explanations that make use of concepts not derived from experience; explanations of this kind are, in his interpretation, mere word play.

Perceptions, whether impressions or ideas, occur in spatial and temporal sequences. Furthermore, very similar sequences of perceptions—“constant conjunctions”—regularly recur. Resemblance, spatiotemporal contiguity (in the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding replaced by temporal priority), and constant conjunction are, according to Hume, “to us the cement of the universe” (ibid., p. 32). Men are able to progress from their perceptions to a belief in an orderly systematic world only by virtue of the fact that similar perceptions recur in particular ordered sequences.

Both science and common sense take it for granted, so Hume believes, that there are independently existing objects which are necessarily linked one with another (Treatise, bk. I, pt. 4, sec. II). Perceptions, on the other hand, depend upon the human mind for their existence and have no necessary connection with one another. Berkeley had rejected this contrast; perceptions and objects, he had argued, are identical, and science does no more than correlate perceptions. This analysis of scientific knowledge Hume dismisses, in spite of Berkeley’s protestations, as a form of absolute scepticism. Berkeley’s arguments, he says, if “they admit of no answer [yet] produce no conviction” (Enquiry, sec. XII, pt. 1). Although there are places in the Treatise (bk. I, pt. 2, sec. VI) where Hume writes as if he were a phenomenalist, he for the most part—particularly in the Enquiry (sec. XII, pt. 1)—takes it for granted that there are physical objects which give rise to perceptions in us. He does not seriously question, that is, the general world view constructed by Galileo, Boyle, Newton, and Locke: he asks, rather, what grounds we have for believing in its truth.

So long as science does no more than describe and compare perceptions no problem arises. Mathematics, according to Hume, is secure knowledge because it restricts itself to relating ideas one to another (Treatise, bk. I, pt. 3, sec. I). This is true, at least, of algebra and arithmetic; in the Treatise and the Abstract, although not in the Enquiry, Hume expresses some doubts about geometry. Nor is there any problem with what Hume calls “mental geography” so long as it confines itself to the “delineation of the distinct parts and powers of the mind” (Enquiry, sec. I).

In his more sceptical moods, admittedly, Hume does not allow even mathematics and “mental geography” to escape unscathed. Although the rules of mathematics are “infallible,” he says, the fact remains that mathematicians themselves are properly hesitant about the validity of their proofs and fully accept them only when their colleagues do so (Treatise, bk. I, pt. 4, sec. I); as for “mental geography,” that breaks down when it tries to give a satisfactory account of personal identity (appendix to Treatise, note to bk. I, pt. 3, sec. XIV). But to carry scepticism to the point of questioning the certainty of mathematics and “mental geography,” Hume suggests, is to carry it beyond the point at which it is humanly possible consistently to be a sceptic (Treatise, bk. I, pt. 4, sec. I).

The case is very different, Hume thinks, with what he calls matters of fact, assertions which go beyond perceptions by referring to independently existing, continuous objects and ascribing to them a necessary connection with other objects. Whenever the scientist makes a “matter-of-fact” assertion, according to Hume, he is relying upon some form of causal reasoning. Only causal reasoning can carry the mind beyond what it actually perceives to beliefs about what it has not perceived, for example, from beliefs about perceived smoke to beliefs about unperceived fire (ibid., bk. I, pt. 3, sec. II). Only if causal reasoning is rational, then, can science be securely grounded.

It cannot be demonstrated, Hume is confident, either that whatever happens has a cause or that a particular occurrence is the cause of a particular effect. (Hume counts as demonstrative only those arguments which prove that it is logically impossible for the conclusion to be false.) Metaphysicians who profess to demonstrate that every event has a cause always beg the question. Every perception, Hume tells us, is distinct and separate from every other perception. There can be no contradiction, then, in supposing that a perception, that is, without a cause (ibid., bk. I, pt. 3, sec. III).

For the very same reason it is impossible, according to Hume, to demonstrate that a particular effect has a particular cause. Since perceptions are distinct and separable there is nothing in any perception, taken by itself and prior to any further experience, which logically presupposes the existence of any other perception (ibid., bk. I, pt. 3, sec. VI). Our everyday experience confirms this philosophical conclusion. Prior to experience we have no way of telling how anything will behave, that fire, for example, will burn rather than thicken the human skin. Neither the effect itself, as Descartes thought, nor a power to produce the effect, as was widely presumed, is implicit in the cause; if it were, the scientist should be able simply by examining an object to discover what effects it will have, and this is impossible.

Only experience, then, enable the scientist to determine that a particular cause will have a particular effect. But experience tells him only that in the past certain similar perceptions A1, A2, A3,... have been constantly conjoined with certain other similar perceptions B1, B2, B3,... When the scientist holds that A is the cause of B, however, he ordinarily thinks of himself as being committed to something much stronger than this: that A is necessarily connected with B. Yet he has had no experience of necessary connection, as distinct from mere conjunction. Nor is there any general principle which would enable him to move from “B has, always in the past been produced by A” to “B is necessarily produced by A.” It is quite easy to imagine a change in the course of nature such that A and B will no longer be constantly conjoined one with another; this is by no means a logical impossibility. Hence, Hume concludes, it is impossible to demonstrate that B cannot occur without A’s having occurred. Anybody who perceives the conjunction may be led to believe that A and B are necessarily connected, but this “being led” is a psychological fact, not a logical necessity. It is not that there is a valid inference from constant conjunction to necessary connection; the belief that A is necessarily connected with B is reducible to the fact that we habitually suppose that A must have happened when B is perceived and expect B whenever A is perceived (ibid., bk. I, pt. 3, sec. XIV).

To understand scientific inference, then, we must turn to mental geography and the analysis of our mental habits, not to formal logic. The belief in any matter of fact has only two sources: the existence of a particular relationship between perceptions—constant conjunction—and the tendency of the mind to react in a certain way to constant conjunctions. That is why Hume is prepared to assert that the science of man is the fundamental science on which all other science rests; only with the help of mental geography can we explain why we hold our empirical beliefs.

If we ask, however, exactly what mental geography tells us about nondemonstrative inference, Hume’s answer is by no means clear or consistent. Sometimes he says that reason (that is, empirical reasoning) is “nothing but a wonderful and unintelligible instinct in our soul” which leads us to move from past experience to expectations about the future (ibid., bk. I, pt. 3, sec. XVI). This has led some commentators to assert that Hume is a naturalist who, in the manner of Pope’s Essay on Man, bids us rely on instinct rather than reason for our fundamental beliefs. At other times, however, the responsibility for causal inferences is assigned by Hume to the imagination.

Just how sceptical is Hume’s analysis of empirical inference? That, too, is a point on which he vacillates. On the one hand, he is anxious to dispute the claims of transcendental metaphysicians and theologians that they possess rationally grounded beliefs. With his eye on such opponents, he argues that it is quite absurd to go in search of remote causes for the Universe when we cannot even give a satisfactory reason for believing that a stone will fall or that the sun will rise tomorrow (Enquiry, sec. XII, pt. 3). A belief, he says, is nothing but an unusually vivid idea; to believe that the sun will rise tomorrow is simply to have a vivid idea that it will do so. This doctrine, too, is useful against those who argue that the moral sciences are intrinsically inferior to the physical sciences because they rest upon feeling; every form of science, Hume can reply, does so (Treatise, bk. I, pt. 3, sec. VIII).

On the other hand, Hume is equally anxious to destroy fanaticism and superstition. He can scarcely deny, however, that the superstitious and the fanatical have vivid ideas. He sometimes suggests, therefore, that a belief is rational provided only that it can be traced back to a constant conjunction; hence the rational justification for believing that the sun will rise tomorrow, as opposed to the irrationality of superstitious beliefs. From this perspective Hume distinguishes between demonstrations, proofs, and probabilities. It is ridiculous, he says, to declare as only a probability that the sun will rise tomorrow or that all men are mortal (ibid., bk. I, pt. 3, sec. XI). Inferences from constant conjunction, he suggests, are properly describable as proofs, even though they clearly do not constitute demonstrations. But when conjunctions are irregular—A being only sometimes conjoined in our experience with B, and sometimes with something else—the proper inference is only to probabilities, since the probability of a conclusion depends upon the relative frequency of the conjunctions on which it is founded. The conclusions of the superstitious have a zero or minimal probability because they are contrary to our regular experience.

This attitude is most fully developed in Hume’s critical analysis of the belief in miracles (Enquiry, sec. X). Hume there begins by asserting that a wise man will always proportion his belief to the evidence. A miracle is by definition a violation of the laws of nature, that is, an event which is contrary to our regular experience. The evidence in its favor, as in the case of those miracles on which the historical religions rely, is that some witness or an oral tradition tells us that the miracle happened. We are entitled to accept this testimony only, Hume says, if it would involve a greater miracle, a more manifest divergence from all past experience, to suppose that the testimony is false. Since this condition is not satisfied in the case of any recorded miracle, he says, we cannot properly treat miraculous occurrences as probable, let alone as proved.

Hume sometimes expresses his theory of “proof” in a way that links it closely with the workings of the imagination. The imagination, he tells us, has certain regular, associative ways of working, most clearly manifested in the case of causal inference. These ways we must accept as reliable and rational; to reject them is to undermine the whole foundation of our thought and action. The imagination, however, does not always work in a regular way; it has irregular and erratic tendencies which lead men into superstition. Conclusions derived from these irregular workings ought, on the face of it, to be rejected by rational men (Treatise, bk. I, pt. 4, sec. IV). The problem is that there exist unquestionably true beliefs—the belief in the independent existence of physical objects and the belief in personal identity, for example—which cannot wholly be explained in terms of causal inference, but which depend on the operations of irregular propensities of the imagination. So it is impossible, after all, to adopt a policy of accepting only those beliefs which are founded on constant conjunction (ibid., bk, I, pt. 4, sec VII).

In the Treatise especially, these considerations sometimes lead Hume to a posture of absolute scepticism, rather that the “mitigated scepticism” he generally adopts. But no man can live as an absolute sceptic (Enquiry, sec. XII). Mitigated scepticism, as Hume sums it up in his Dialogues (pts. VIII adn IX), asserts simply that it is impossible to demonstrate any matter of fact and that the nature of our experience, not some a priori principle of rationality, determines what we find intelligible. Such a position is substantially that of expiricism. But it is a different matter if our fundamental beliefs turn out to rest on nothing more solid than a trick of the imagination. We have only one defense against this sceptical conclusion, Hume suggests. Nature has not left our beliefs entirely to our choice; we cannot help coming to conclusions any more than we can help breathing (Treatise, bk. I, pt. 4, sec. I). Mitigated scepticism is therefore useful, for it prevents us from wandering into the wilds of metaphysical speculation by impelling us to reflect on the limits of our knowledge of even everyday physical experience and relationships.


I. Original Works. The classical edition, although an imperfect one, of Hume’s works is T. H. Green and T. H. Grose, eds., The Philosophical Works of David Hume, 4 vols. (London, 1875). This does not include J. M. Keynes and P. Sraffa, eds., An Abstract of a Treatise of Human Nature (Cambridge, 1938), or Ernest C. Mossner and J. V. Price, eds.,A Letter from a Gentleman to His Friend in Edinburgh (Edinburgh, 1967). Especially for their indexes, consult also L. A. Selby-Bigge’s eds. of A Treatise of Human Nature (Oxford, 1888) and Enquiries Concerning the Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1902). The best text of the Treatise is the Mossner ed. (London, 1969).

See also Norman Kemp Smith, ed., Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, 2nd ed., with suppl. (London, 1947). For Hume’s general writings on religion see Richard Wollheim, compiler, Hume on Religion (London, 1963).

II. Secondary Literature. John Hill Burton, Life and Correspondence of David Hume, 2 vols. (Edinburgh, 1846; repr. New York, 1968), is still valuable. The best modern life is E. C. Mossner, The Life of David Hume (Austin, Texas, 1954; London, 1955), which includes The Life of David Hume, Esq., Written by Himself or, as entitled in the original MS, My Own Life. See also J. Y. T. Greig, ed., The Letter of David Hume 2 vols. (Oxford, 1932), and Raymond Klibansky and E. C. Mossner, eds., New Letters of David Hume (Oxford, 1954).

It is impossible to give a straightforward, systematic, noncontroversial presentation of Hume’s views. That is one of the principal themes of J. A. Passmore, Hume’s Intentions, 2nd ed., rev. (London-New York, 1968). The most thoroughgoing commentary is N. K. Smith, The Philosophy of David Hume (London-New York, 1941), and the most useful introduction is D. G. C. Macnabb,David Hume: His Theory of Knowledge and Morality (London, 1951).

See also Charles W. Hendel, Studies in the Philosophy of David Hume rev. ed. (Indianapolis, 1963), with an account of recent work on Hume; Antony Flew, Hume’s Philosophy of Belief (London, 1961; New York, 1962), which concentrates on the Enquiuries; H. H. Price, Hume’s Theory of the External World (Oxford, 1940); and Farhang Zabeeh, Hume: Precursor of Modern Empiricism (The Hague, 1960).

John Passmore

Hume, David

views updated May 21 2018

Hume, David



David Hume was one of the most distinguished writers of the eighteenth century. Although he was only partly appreciated in his own period, with the passage of time his stature has grown, and his writings have attracted increasing attention from students in many disciplines.

Born in Scotland in 1711, Hume died in 1776, the year of the publication of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. His major work, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739–1740), lies in the field of philosophy. But the range of Hume’s writings is vast. In a large number of essays (which in 1758 were in corporated into a volume entitled Essays Moral, Political and Literary) Hume dealt with the fields of economics, politics, and aesthetics, as well as with much that would now be regarded as socio logical material. Hume was also a historian. His interest in history is reflected in many of his writings, and in the later years of his life he published (1754–1762), in serial volumes, a History of Eng land that was a pioneering work in the area.

Owing to the subsequent compartmentalization of the fields that Hume explored, students of his thought have tended to treat his work in a compartmentalized fashion. This is difficult to avoid, since Hume dealt with a large variety of problems, and their analysis often requires specialized train ing. An unfortunate consequence of this, however, has been the tendency to overlook the important unifying elements in Hume’s thought. Philosophers have argued that in turning to the essays, Hume was abandoning philosophy—allegedly because of the poor reception accorded his Treatise, and because of his passion for literary fame. Economists, on the other hand, have generally treated Hume’s economic essays (which first appeared in 1752 under the title Political Discourses) as a substantially self-contained segment of his thought, bearing little or no relation to his philosophy.

Hume, however, made it clear that he intended his philosophy to serve as the “capital or center” of all the “moral” (i.e., psychological and social) sciences, or as the center of a general science of human experience ([1739-1740] 1958, p. xix). And as is evident from the prefatory “Advertisement” to the Treatise, he hoped, if the Treatise met with success, to incorporate a study of the various “moral sciences” into a subsequent edition of this work. Many of Hume’s essays thus display relations to the substance of the Treatise; and this is clearly the case in his treatment of economics. Hume was pre-eminently, and notably more so than his close friend Adam Smith, the philosopher-economist of the eighteenth century.

A brief sketch of Hume’s general system of thought will help clarify the relation between his philosophy and his economic thought. The “capital or center” of Hume’s system consists of the “principles of human nature,” those qualities and relations pertaining to the human understanding and human passions that Hume believed to be irreducible and common to all mankind. Discussed in Books I and II of the Treatise, these principles constitute the analytical phase of Hume’s thought. The sec ond and synthetic phase of Hume’s thought consists of laws of human behavior in which Hume sought to show that various aspects of man’s behavior are products of environmental forces operating on “human nature.” The framing of these general uniformities is Hume’s concern in his study of the various “moral sciences.” An emphasis on psychology is thus a major distinctive characteristic of Hume’s treatment of these sciences.

Hume’s interest in history is likewise of major importance in his thought. This interest emerged early in Hume’s life and was integral to his approach to experience. As a philosophical empiricist, Hume repeatedly stressed the importance of the study of history for achieving understanding of human experience, pointing out that history constitutes the exclusive source of our “experiments” concerning human nature and human behavior (ibid., p. xxiii). Moreover, as both “moral scientist” and historian, Hume, by employing his principles of human nature, sought to frame historical laws of behavior, or laws that may explain basic transformations in human behavior. This approach he termed “natural history” (the word “natural” here denoting the “usual” or “probable“). Representing an attempt at “scientific history,” this differs from conventional historiography, with its stress on unique particulars, which predominates in Hume’s own History of England. Historical generalizations, reflecting the “natural history” approach, interlace much of Hume’s work. And within the context of his economic writings the method of “natural history” is of central importance. Its role becomes fully apparent when Hume’s economic thought is considered at three different levels of analysis: his economic psychology, political economy, and economic philosophy.

Before turning to this, however, it is well to consider one other aspect of Hume’s thought: his treatment of the methodology of science, which, as one of the most important of Hume’s contributions, is likewise relevant to his economic thought. Hume considered this question in Book I of the Treatise, where he was concerned with the basis of our “beliefs” concerning empirical events. His position represents an attack on the rationalist acceptance of a “necessary connection” between such events. As Hume argued, all beliefs concerning matters of fact are reducible to associations of ideas that are separable from each other. All causal relations take this form. We thus can “conceive any object to be non-existent this moment, and existent the next, without conjoining to it the distinct idea of a cause or productive principle.” What is conceivable, more over, is possible. And the demonstrability of a “necessary connection” requires that the opposite be shown to be impossible. Hence, “necessary connection” between matters of fact (unlike the logical relations between propositions, where validity depends wholly on the principle of noncontradiction) cannot be demonstrated (ibid., pp. 79-80).

On what, then, are our beliefs in matters of fact based? All that Hume could find here was a psychological process. More specifically, we come to ”believe,” say, that a causal relation exists between two events because, as a result of our repeated observation of their contiguity and reoccurrence (their “constant conjunction“), the mind—simply through a nonrational associative mechanism—so firmly links the two that the occurrence of one leads us to expect its usual attendant (ibid., p. 96). For Hume, “belief” is, in a word, a “habit.” The implication of this for “science” is clear: since we have no a priori justification for beliefs in empirical events, the only way we can enlarge our understanding of experience is through further investigation with a view to establishing additional “constant conjunctions.” It must be recognized, however, that the notion of the uniformity of nature itself, or the view that the future will resemble the past, is based on faith.

Hume’s observations on the prospects for discovering uniformities in the “moral sciences” are also noteworthy. Although he believed that history had already provided an adequate basis for framing “principles of human nature” ([1739-1779] vol. 4, p. 69 in 1898 edition), he was acutely aware of the wide historical variability of human behavior and the difficulty, especially in view of the range and complexity of human passions, of specifying how man would respond to changing circumstance (ibid., vol. 3, p. 163; [1739-1740] 1958, p. 131). With considerable caution, he sought to discriminate between different areas of human behavior in terms of their tractability to scientific treatment. It is very difficult, he pointed out, to discover uniformities in aspects of behavior which are peculiar to small numbers of individuals, since in such cases the passions involved are delicate and subtle and are often affected by imperceptible influences ([1739-1779] vol. 3, p. 175 in 1898 edition). It is difficult, also, to establish reliable generalizations in the field of “politics” (ibid., vol. 3, pp. 156-157). Since mass behavior, on the other hand, is frequently governed by passions that are “gross” and “stubborn,” reliable uniformities may be found here. Its dependence upon such “gross” passions as avarice, for example, would make it easier to account for the “rise and progress of commerce” than for the growth of “learning” (ibid., vol. 3, p. 176). Significantly, it is with a justification of the use of generalization in economics (which he contrasted with the chance-ridden field of foreign diplomacy) that Hume introduced his economic essays ([1752-1758] 1955, pp. 3-4).

With a view to the central role of psychology and history, let us turn now to the substance of Hume’s economic thought and consider first his economic psychology, which links his economic thought to the “capital or center” of all the “moral sciences,” as developed in the Treatise. Here the analysis takes the form of a natural history of the “rise and progress of commerce” in which Hume sought to explain the economic growth of his own general period in terms of the impact of changing historical circumstance on human passions. In the economic essays these passions are regarded as “causes of labour.” Because the analysis stems directly from Hume’s general treatment of human nature, it is notably multidimensional and is considerably more complex than the economic psychology typical of Hume’s own period. Beyond considering the importance of the desire for consumption pleasures as an incentive to economic activity, Hume called attention to the role played by the desire for “action” as well as a desire for “liveliness” (a state of lively passion that is common to the experience both of consumption pleasures and interesting activity). In turn, the desire for “gain,” joined to the desire for action, is treated in large part as a desire for the trophies of success in the “economic game.” All these motives are integral to the “rise and progress of commerce,” the initial stimulus to which is found in the opening of foreign trade and whose self-perpetuating character is traced to the growth of new habits of industry (ibid., chapter 2; Rotwein 1955).

Political economy, the second level of Hume’s economic thought, comprises the main portion of his economic essays. Here, where Hume was concerned with specific aspects of market relations, he dealt with several of the principal controversial questions of his period: monetary theory, interest theory, the issue of free trade, the shifting and incidence of taxes, and fiscal policy. At this level the role of the natural history of the “rise and progress of commerce” is seen in Hume’s critical evaluation of the doctrines of his period; for his analysis is predominantly concerned with one question: Are prevailing beliefs regarding market relations acceptable when considered in the light of economic growth and the psychological and other factors involved in the growth process?

A brief summary of several of the major aspects of Hume’s political economy will serve to make clear the general importance of this perspective. One of the most frequently emphasized of Hume’s contributions to later classical doctrine is his analysis of the quantity theory-specie flow mechanism. Here Hume sought to show that there is no ground for the mercantilist fear that without trade restrictions a nation will lose its money supply. The quantity theory-specie flow doctrine is thus introduced to show that it is ultimately a nation’s level of economic development that determines the quantity of money it can attract and retain. “I should as soon dread, that all our springs and rivers should be exhausted, as that money should abandon a kingdom where there are people and industry” ([1752b] 1955, p. 61). Hume’s interest theory—in its emphasis on the importance of real capital (as against the mercantilist stress on the quantity of money)—also anticipated the classical position. But, more fundamentally, Hume was concerned to show that the availability of real capital is itself determined by the impact of the growth of industry on economic motivation. And here he made use of all the “causes of labour” introduced in his economic psychology. In an industrially advancing economy, he argued, there is increasing opportunity for “action” in the form of “lucrative employment.” This induces frugality both by providing an alternative to pleasure seeking (the preoccupation of the idle landowner in an agrarian economy) as a mode of gratifying the desire for liveliness, and by intensifying the desire for gain, or the desire to accumulate the tokens of economic success. As the income of the industrious class grows, along with its contribution to output, there is thus a substantial increase in the supply of real savings, and the interest rate inevitably falls ([1752-1758] 1955, pp. 53-54).

In his treatment of the issue of trade restrictions, Hume recognized that free trade increases real income (at any given level of economic development) by bringing about a more efficient allocation of resources (ibid., pp. 66, 75, 79)—the argument Adam Smith was later to elaborate more fully and systematically. Growth considerations, however, occupy the center of Hume’s analysis: meeting the mercantilist argument for trade restrictions on its own ground, he sought to show that, far from inhibiting the economic growth of other countries, one nation’s economic growth commonly contributes to the development of its neighbors. An expansion of industry abroad, he emphasized, yields new technology that the home country can emulate, and since such an expansion increases foreign income, it also increases the foreign demand for home exports. In his detailed treatment of the growth of foreign industry that competes directly with domestic output, Hume stressed the stimulating effects of foreign competition on the spirit of industry at home: he argued, for example, that such competitive pressure encourages a nation to divert unemployed resources to new uses and, further, that the resulting diversification will minimize the impact on employment of any subsequent fluctuations of demand in particular markets (ibid., pp. 78-81).

In some respects Hume’s doctrine is a complex of classical elements and elements exhibiting an affinity to the mercantilist position (with inconsistencies between the two remaining unresolved). But this complex can itself be traced mainly to Hume’s interest in stressing the importance of developmental considerations. For example, Hume generally employed the quantity theory of money to show that it is economic growth rather than the quantity of money that is of basic significance to a nation. But with a view to growth considerations he was also led to argue that gradual changes in the money supply (as against large absolute quantities of money as such) are desirable. By repeatedly stimulating employment in the short run, such changes, he contended, will in the long run enhance the spirit of industry itself (ibid., pp. 37-40). Similarly, although on quantity theory grounds Hume argued that money has no effect on interest rates, he also acknowledged that if it affects economic growth, a long-run increase in the money supply will lower interest rates (ibid., p. 59).

Hume’s economic philosophy—the third level of his economic thought—is contained in his essay “Of Refinement in the Arts.” Here, Hume presented a moral justification for a commercial and industrial society and, as a basis for judgment, invoked the utilitarian ethic, which he had earlier elaborated and extensively defended in Book m of the Treatise and in his Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751). On this level of Hume’s economic thought the perspective of “natural history” played an especially important role. In this context, where Hume considered the relation between economic growth and the happiness of the individual, the “causes of labour” (the desires for “pleasure,” “action,” and “liveliness“) are treated as “ends” whose attainment is furthered by the development of industry ([1752-1758] 1955, pp. 21-22). His analysis here, both in its detail and in its adoption of a pluralistic position on human happiness, bears a direct relation to his earlier series of essays on the “good life” entitled “The Epicurean,” “The Stoic,” “The Platonist,” and “The Sceptic.” Among all ends, Hume placed the greatest emphasis on “action” (the response to challenge); and a reading of “The Stoic” makes clear that, when treating this end most broadly, Hume had in mind the value that is now generally stressed in justifying a free society—the striving for self-fulfillment (Rotwein 1955, pp. xcv-xcix).

Hume also considered the influence of economic development on the intellectual, cultural, moral, and political life of society; with regard to politics, he argued (in a passage Adam Smith was later to cite for its central importance and originality) that the growth of political liberty itself is traceable to the economic decentralization and individualism brought about by the development of commerce ([1752-1758] 1955, pp. 28-29). Making all allowances for gaps in Hume’s knowledge of medieval society (with which he compared an industrial society) and for other shortcomings in his argument, his analysis—in its statement of the case for a liberal social order—deserves recognition as an early classic.

Compared to the Wealth of Nations, Hume’s treatment of economics is brief. Hume, moreover, gave relatively little attention to the questions of value and distribution which absorbed much of Smith’s analysis, and which were to become the dominant interest of the classical and neoclassical economists. In its theoretical treatment of psychological and historical influences, Hume’s analysis, however, is both more comprehensive and more penetrating than Smith’s, although Smith was more concerned with such influences than the generality of the later classical economists.

Since Hume’s time, however, others have given these influences a prominent place in their work. The “historical” and “institutional” economists are cases in point. Other important themes that occur in Hume’s work are to be found in contemporary economic literature. Most conspicuous is the revived interest in economic growth and in the cultural forces associated with this process, a product of the concern with underdeveloped economies. Also, interest in the question of full employment has led to a consideration of the psychology underlying aggregative behavior, while the shift in emphasis from impersonal markets to the role of individual units or collective entities (including business organizations and trade unions) and to the area of imperfect competition generally has likewise directed attention to a variety of psychological considerations not ordinarily stressed in “orthodox” economic analysis. In view of the rapid ity of institutional change in recent decades, it is not surprising that the very question of the desir ability of alternative institutional “systems” and the consequent normative and historical analysis of institutions should now be receiving increasing attention.

In various ways, these streams of thought differ from Hume’s approach. Nonetheless, owing to Hume’s remarkable capacity to treat important issues with a view to relevant psychological and historical factors, much of his economic thought still retains its freshness. In the standard literature it has long been the practice to give Hume relatively little attention (as one of a group of “predecessors” of Smith), although over the years several major technical aspects of his work have received general recognition. Hume’s contribution can be fully appreciated, however, only when the body of his economic analysis as a whole is related to the context of broad and systematic social inquiry in which it was developed.

Eugene Rotwein

[Other relevant material may be found inEconomic Growth; History, article onTHE PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY; Money; Utilitarianism; and in the biographies ofMandeville; Ricardo; Smith, Adam; Turgot.]


(1739–1740) 1958 A Treatise of Human Nature. Edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge. Oxford: Clarendon. → Reprinted from the original edition; contains an analytical index.

(1739–1779) 1964 The Philosophical Works. 4 vols. Aalen (Germany): Scientia Verlag. → Volumes 1 and 2 are reprints of the 1886 edition, Volumes 3 and 4 reprinted from the 1882 edition.

(1741–1742) 1912 Essays Moral, Political and Literary. 2 vols. Edited by T. H. Green and T. H. Grose. New York and London: Longmans. → First published as Essays Moral and Political and changed to the above title in the 1758 edition.

(1751) 1957 An Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. New York: Liberal Arts Press.

1752a Political Discourses. Edinburgh: Fleming.

(1752b) 1955 Of the Balance of Trade. Pages 60-77 in David Hume, Writings on Economics. Edited by Eugene Rotwein. London: Nelson; Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press.

(1752–1758) 1955 Writings on Economics. Edited by Eugene Rotwein. London: Nelson; Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press. → Also contains correspondence from 1749–1776.

(1754–1762) 1894 The History of England. 3 vols. London: Routledge.


Jessop, Thomas E. 1938 A Bibliography of David Hume and of Scottish Philosophy From Francis Hutcheson to Lord Balfour. London and Hull: Brown.

Mossner, Ernest C. 1954 The Life of David Hume. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press.

Rotwein, Eugene 1955 Introduction. In David Hume, Writings on Economics. London: Nelson; Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press.

Schatz, Albert 1902 L’oeuvre économique de David Hume. Paris: Rousseau.

Smith, Norman K. 1949 The Philosophy of David Hume: A Critical Study of Its Origins and Central Doctrines. London: Macmillan.

Stewart, John B. 1963 The Moral and Political Philosophy of David Hume. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Hume, David (1711–1776)

views updated May 17 2018

HUME, DAVID (17111776)

HUME, DAVID (17111776), Scottish philosopher and historian. Hume was born in the Scottish border country near Edinburgh into an old family of prosperous provincial lawyers. His father died when he was an infant. His mother never re-married and devoted herself to raising Hume and his brother and sister. Throughout his life Hume was deeply attached to his family and proud of its traditions. He studied at the University of Edinburgh until the age of fourteen or fifteen. For the next ten years he pursued a rigorous plan of independent study that surveyed the whole of humanistic learning and cost him a temporary nervous breakdown. From this period, Hume conceived two projects, the later fulfillment of which would complete his career as a writera philosophical science of human nature (comprehending all the sciences) and the writing of history. Hume is unique in being both a great philosopher and a great historian. He is commonly ranked, along with William Robertson, Edward Gibbon, and Voltaire as one of the four most important eighteenth-century historians.

By the age of twenty-six Hume had composed his philosophical masterpiece, A Treatise of Human Nature (17391740). The work was not well received, and Hume quickly began recasting its ideas into the more readable form of essays. Most of these were published from 1741 to 1752 and were warmly received in Britain and America and translated into French, German, and Italian. The most important works from this period are Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary (1752), An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751). These essays contain important contributions to epistemology, aesthetics, economics, and moral and political philosophy. The Natural History of Religion (1757) and Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (published posthumously in 1779), arguably establish Hume as the founder of the philosophy of religion.

Around 1752 he turned to the second project set for himself in his youth, namely the writing of history. The History of England appeared in six volumes over the years 17541762. It achieved the status of a classic in Hume's lifetime, was viewed as the standard work on the subject for nearly a century, and was in print down to the end of the nineteenth century, passing through at least 160 posthumous editions. Hume had now achieved a European reputation as one of the great writers of his age, and he enjoyed friendships with such illustrious figures as Adam Smith, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, Denis Diderot, Jean d'Alembert, and Benjamin Franklin.

In 1983 The History of England was republished after having been out of print for nearly a century. During that period Hume had been narrowly thought of as a technical philosopher. The early skeptical and negative interpretation of The Treatise of Human Nature put forth by James Beattie, Thomas Reid, Immanuel Kant, and John Stuart Mill persisted far into the twentieth century. Hume's historical work was considered irrelevant to his philosophy and almost entirely forgotten. Hume, however, thought of the History as an integral part of his philosophical work. This can best be appreciated by considering his skepticism. The ancient Pyrrhonians taught that the main source of misery for highly cultivated people is the attempt to guide life by philosophical speculation. Hume denied that the disposition to philosophize could or should be purged, but he agreed with the Pyrrhonians that philosophical speculation can be a source of disorder in the soul. The first problem for Hume's science of human nature, then, was to distinguish what he called "true philosophy" from its corrupt and corrupting forms. Hume used skeptical tropes to make this distinction. His intention was neither to subvert (Beattie, Reid, Mill) nor to raise skeptical challenges for others to solve (Kant). His goal was to purge the philosophical intellect of its corrupt forms.

False philosophy seeks radical autonomy and imagines itself emancipated from the pre-reflective customs and prejudices of common life. True philosophy knows this to be a psychological and conceptual impossibility. True philosophy may still speculate about reality but only by critically passing through, and rendering more coherent, the inherited prejudices of common life. Hume went beyond the Pyrrhonians in teaching that false philosophy has a corrupting effect not only on the soul but on social and political order as welland especially so under modern conditions where, for the first time in history, the disposition to philosophize was becoming a mass phenomenon. He narrated the tragedy of the English Civil War in the History as just such a corruption. His critique of philosophical rationalism in all its forms (in science, morals, politics, religion, and philosophy itself) is the one theme that unites his philosophical and historical work. And it establishes Hume as the first to work out a systematic critique of modern ideologies.

See also Alembert, Jean Le Rond d' ; Diderot, Denis ; Historiography ; Kant, Immanuel ; Philosophy ; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques ; Skepticism, Academic and Pyrrhonian ; Smith, Adam .


Primary Sources

Hume, David. David Hume's Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals. Edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge. 3rd ed. revised, edited by P. H. Nidditch. Oxford, 1975.

. Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary. Edited by Eugene F. Miller. Indianapolis, 1985.

. Principal Writings on Religion, Including Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and The Natural History of Religion. Edited by J. C. A. Gaskin. Oxford and New York, 1993.

. A Treatise of Human Nature. Edited. by L. A. Selby-Bigge. 2nd ed. with text revised and variant readings by P. H. Nidditch. Oxford and New York, 1978.

Secondary Sources

Bongie, Laurence L. David Hume, Prophet of the Counter-Revolution. Indianapolis, 2000. Shows how important Hume's History was in shaping the ideological conflict in France shortly before, during, and after the French Revolution.

Forbes, Duncan. Hume's Philosophical Politics. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1975. Views Hume's History as an integral part of his political philosophy.

Livingston, Donald W. Hume's Philosophy of Common Life. Chicago, 1984. Argues against the reading of Hume as a radical empiricist; shows how his philosophical and historical writings are internally connected.

. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium: Hume's Pathology of Philosophy. Chicago, 1998. Fully explores Hume's distinction between true and false philosophy.

Norton, David Fate. David Hume: Common-Sense Moralist, Sceptical Metaphysician. Princeton, 1982.

Penelhum, Terence. Themes in Hume: The Self, the Will, and Religion. Oxford and New York, 2000.

Stewart, John B. Opinion and Reform in Hume's Political Philosophy. Princeton, 1992.

Donald W. Livingston

Hume, David

views updated Jun 27 2018

Hume, David

David Hume (17111776) was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on April 26, 1711. He was educated at home in the Presbyterian parish of Chirnside, near Berwick, and studied at the University of Edinburgh from 1723 until 1726, without taking a degree. Before leaving the university, he had projected his Treatise of Human Nature, and between the ages of fifteen and twenty-three he read widely and methodically in philosophy and other branches of learning, making the study of human nature his principal concern and the source from which he would draw all true conclusions in philosophy, morality, and criticism. In 1734 Hume went to France where he lived quietly for three years composing his revolutionary systematic study of human nature, which was published in three volumes in London from 1739 to 1740. The first volume concerns the understanding, the second the passions, and the third morality.

Finding that the work "fell dead-born from the press without reaching such distinction, as even to excite a murmur among the zealots," Hume penned a review of his own work, which he had anonymously published as a pamphlet: An Abstract of a Book lately Published, Entitled, A Treatise of Human Nature, &c. Wherein The Chief Argument of that Book is farther Illustrated and Explained (1740). This remarkable pamphlet is still the best brief guide to the central arguments and conclusions of Hume's theoretical philosophy, so it is unfortunate that a copy of it did not come to light until 1933. Though Hume's Treatise was a commercial failure during his lifetime, it is now almost universally regarded as one of the greatest works of systematic philosophy in the English language. However, because he was so disappointed with its reception and was inclined to blame himself for this fact, he recast the first volume into An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), and the third volume into An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1758), both of which have become philosophical classics.

The Treatise is firmly within the empiricist tradition of John Locke (16321704). No ideas are innate: all are derived, either directly or indirectly, from outer or inner experience. Experience is also the arbiter of all belief. Hume may be regarded as advancing a sophisticated Lockean viewpoint that has benefited greatly from the acute criticisms of Locke made by George Berkeley (16851753) and others. The universally accepted maxim that "every event has a cause" has no basis in reason. Nor does the ubiquitous assumption that what has happened in the past will happen in the future have any basis in reason. The problem of induction is emphasized and shown to be insoluble by reason alone. The faculty of reason is demoted from its historical hegemony at the same time as the nonrational faculty of imagination is promoted. The imagination, however, does not associate or connect ideas at random. It operates according to principles and associates resembling ideas, or ideas of objects that are contiguous in space and time or that are causally related: "Here is a kind of attraction, which in the mental world will be found to have as extraordinary effects as in the natural, and show itself in as many and as various forms." Reason gives way to instinct, custom, and habit. The three types of association "are the only ties of our thoughts," so "they are really to us the cement of the universe." Many items that reason allegedly discerns are reduced to projections or expressions of human nature. In the Abstract, Hume unequivocally describes his system as "very sceptical": "Philosophy wou'd render us entirely Pyrrhonian, were not nature too strong for it." His considered position is that of a moderate or mitigated scepticism, or one whose otherwise extreme conclusions have been somewhat "corrected" by common sense. This is the Hume who woke Immanuel Kant (17241804) from his "dogmatic slumber."

Philosophy of religion

From an early age Hume was preoccupied with religion and science. Before he was twenty, he set down in a notebook "the gradual progress" of his thoughts on theism: "It begun with an anxious search after arguments to confirm the common opinion: Doubts stole in, dissipated, return'd, were again dissipated, return'd again; and it was a perpetual struggle of a restless imagination against inclination, perhaps against reason." It therefore is unsurprising that the Treatise as originally written contained several antireligious sections and remarks that Hume prudently removed before publication. In 1737 he told a friend that he was "castrating" his manuscript, or "cutting off its nobler parts" so that it would "give as little offence as possible." He deleted an essay on miracles and probably also one on the immortality of the soul. But notwithstanding these precautions, the very first notice of the work warned readers of its "evil intentions," evident from the book's motto alone: "Seldom are men blessed with times in which they may think what they like, and say what they think".

Hume must have realized that a discerning reader of the Treatise would have detected echoes of principles and doctrines prominent in the works of Pierre Bayle (16471706), Anthony Collins (16761729), Thomas Hobbes (15881679), Baruch Spinoza (16321677), and other "free thinkers." He therefore should not have been surprised when, in 1745, he applied for a chair in philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, and the local clergy defeated his candidacy by charging him with advocating "universal scepticism" and "downright atheism." They also accused him of "denying the immortality of the soul" and of "sapping the foundations of morality, by denying the natural and essential difference between right and wrong, good and evil, justice and injustice; making the difference only artificial, and to arise from human conventions and compacts." Hume defended himself against these misunderstandings and misrepresentations, but thereafter his writings became increasingly antireligious.

In 1748 Hume published his essay on miracles, in which he argued that there is no reason to believe that any miracle has ever occurred. His argument was attacked by many contemporaries, including William Adams, John Douglas, Richard Price, and George Campbell, whose criticisms are still worth reading. In the same collection Hume devoted an essay to arguing that there is no reason to believe in a particular providence or a future state. This attack on the argument from design was elaborated in Hume's posthumously published Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), which is modelled upon Cicero's De Natura Deorum.

The historian Edward Gibbon (17371794) regarded the Dialogues as "the most profound, the most ingenious, and the best written of Hume's philosophic works." It remains the classic discussion of the argument from design (or argument a posteriori ), and some regard it as the most important work in the philosophy of religion in English. Had William Paley (17431805) carefully studied it, he might never have written Evidences of Christianity (1794) or Natural Theology (1802). Along the way Samuel Clarke's (16751729) a priori argument for the existence of God is refuted, and the objections to theism from the existence of evil are forcefully presented.

The Dialogues involves three disputants: the orthodox rationalist theologian Demea, the "careless sceptic" Philo, and the scientific theologian Cleanthes, who frequently echoes Bishop Butler's Analogy of Religion (1736). Though the argument from design is subjected to sustained criticism, and the attentive reader may be convinced that the canons of scientific reasoning do not issue in theism, at the end Cleanthes seems to emerge as the winner, leading some mistakenly to conclude that Cleanthes speaks for Hume himself. But the Dialogues were so "artfully written" that Philo the sceptic only appears to be "silenced." In a private letter Hume said that he objected "to everything we commonly call religion, except the Practice of Morality, and the Assent of the Understanding to the Proposition that God exists." But in the Dialogues the concept of God is virtually evacuated of all meaning, so such "assent" amounts to little or nothing. Hume's friend Dr. Hugh Blair, who advised against publishing the Dialogues during Hume's lifetime, remarked that they are "exceedingly elegant" and "bring together some of his most exceptional reasonings, but the principles themselves were in all his former works." Most scholars now hold that Philo represents Hume himself. Hume denied that he was an atheist or a deist, so he is perhaps best viewed as a not-socareless sceptic.

In the Treatise Hume argued that morality is not founded on reason, but on passion. Reason alone cannot motivate people to act, and one cannot logically derive statements about what one "ought" to do from statements about what "is" the case. One's sense of justice rests upon self-interest, limited generosity, utility, human conventions, and sympathy or fellow-feeling with the sentiments of others. Jeremy Bentham (17481832) said that the scales fell from his eyes when he read this part of Hume's work. Though utility enters into his explanation of the evolution of morality, Hume himself was not a utilitarian. But he was one of the first to insist upon the autonomy of morality, and especially its independence from religious belief. In the Natural History of Religion (1757) he inquired into the causes of religion and speculated as to how monotheism had evolved from primitive polytheism, while emphasizing the absurd doctrines and immoral consequences of most world religions. His critics argued that, though his temperament enabled him to be just without being religious, most people require the sanctions of religion in order to be just.

Anonymous writings

Hume counted several of the more liberal Church of Scotland ministers as friends but resented those evangelical ministers who had lobbied against his appointment to a professorship at Edinburgh and Glasgow and who, in the mid-1750s, had unsuccessfully tried to have the Church of Scotland excommunicate him. He carefully cultivated the character of a "virtuous infidel" by encouraging the literary projects of his clerical friends (and potential literary rivals) such as Hugh Blair, Adam Ferguson, and Robert Wallace; and by anonymously publishing favourable reviews of William Robertson's History of Scotland, William Wilkie's epic poem the Epigoniad, and Robert Henry's History of Great Britain, as well as of Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments. The extent of Hume's clandestine literary activity has yet to be determined.

In "My Own Life" (1777), Hume asserted that he was "a man of mild dispositions, of command of temper, of an open, social, and cheerful humour, capable of attachment, but little susceptible of enmity." Adam Smith (17231790) testified that his "constant pleasantry was the genuine effusion of good nature and good humour without even the slightest tincture of malignity, so frequently the disagreeable source of what is called wit in other men." Nevertheless, under cover of anonymity, Hume composed several satires against the clergy and corrupt politicians. "The Bellman's Petition" (1751) is directed against an increase in the stipends of ministers of the Church of Scotland. The far more ambitious, lengthy, and scathing Sister Peg (1760) is directed against politicians who had defeated his friends' struggle to reestablish a militia in Scotland. An anonymous satire from 1758 is directed against the commonly felt "antipathy to the corn merchant" during times of famine and "affection for the Parson" who at such times inveighed against the supposedly greedy corn merchants. In it Hume argued that these popular sentiments were based upon ignorance, superstition, and bad reasoning; good reasoning should direct one's passions in the opposite direction, so that one should instead feel affection for the useful corn merchants and antipathy for the useless parsons who "cram us with Nonsense, instead of feeding us with Truth." In these works Hume appears to have revenged himself against those who had previously opposed him.

Political history

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Hume was best known as an historian. His multivolume History of England is not only a narrative history but is a philosophical study of the English constitution in which he never misses an opportunity to satirize the folly and hypocrisy of self-interested politicians and clergymen. His historical research was informed by his political and economic theories, which were less conservative than many have assumed. Believing that the first duty of a historian is to be accurate and impartial, while the next is the be instructive and entertaining, he succeeded so well in fulfilling these obligations that his history is still read, while those of most of his contemporaries have sunk into oblivion. Though born a Scotsman, Hume always strove to write an elegant and correct English and to surpass the best English stylists. Occasionally some vanity is evident in his writings, which gives them a conversational tone and an engaging character. Hume believed that good writing "consists of sentiments, which are natural, without being obvious." He repeatedly revised his works in order to perfect them. His views in philosophy, politics, economics, theology, history, and criticism were generally original and unobvious and so artfully expressed as to disguise his artfulness.

Hume died on August 25, 1776, and was buried in Calton Hill cemetery, overlooking Edinburgh. At his internment someone was overheard to say: "Ah, he was an atheist." To which another answered: "No matter, he was an honest man."

See also Design Argument; Empiricism; God; Human Nature, Religious and Philosophical Aspects; Imagination; Kant, Immanuel; Miracle; Monotheism; Morality; Natural Theology


gaskin, j. c. a. hume's philosophy of religion, 2nd edition. london: macmillan, 1988.

hume, david. an abstract of a treatise of human nature, 1740: a pamphlet hitherto unknown, eds. john maynard keynes and piero sraffa. cambridge, uk: cambridge university press, 1938.

hume, david. sister peg: a pamphlet hitherto unknown, ed. david r. raynor. cambridge, uk: cambridge university press, 1982.

jeffner, anders. butler and hume on religion: a comparative analysis. stockholm, sweden: diakonistyrelsens bokforlag, 1966.

mackie, john l. the miracle of theism: arguments for and against the existence of god. oxford: clarendon press, 1982.

millican, peter., ed. reading hume on human understanding: essays on the first enquiry. oxford: clarendon press, 2002.

mossner, ernest c. the life of david hume, 2nd edition. oxford: clarendon press, 1980.

norton, david fate, ed. the cambridge companion to hume. cambridge, uk: cambridge university press, 1993.

penelhum, terence. themes in hume: the self, the will, religion. oxford: clarendon press, 2000.

raynor, david r. "hume's abstract of adam smith's theory of moral sentiments." journal of the history of philosophy 22 (1984): 5179.

raynor, david r. "who invented the invisible hand? hume's praise of laissez-faire in a newly discovered manuscript." times literary supplement (august 14, 1998): 22.

stewart, john b. opinion and reform in hume's political philosophy. princeton, n.j.: princeton university press, 1992.

stewart, m. a. the kirk and the infidel. lancaster, uk: lancaster university press, 1995.

david raynor

Hume, David

views updated May 18 2018


HUME, DAVID (17111776), was a Scottish philosopher and historian. Hume was born in Edinburgh on April 26, 1711, to Joseph and Katherine Home. Most of his childhood was spent on the family estate at Ninewells, in Berwickshire, forty miles south of Edinburgh near the border of England. At age eleven Hume entered the University of Edinburgh, and upon leaving the university three years later, began to prepare for a career in law. Hume's interest in law was soon eclipsed by his passion for literature, history, and philosophy; over the following decade most of his time was spent studying what he called "polite authors" such as Shaftesbury, Butler, Locke, and Cicero. In 1734, at age twenty-three, Hume left Scotland to take a position as clerk with a Bristol merchant. It was here that he changed the spelling of his surname from Home to Hume, because in Scotland Home is pronounced as Hume is in England; Hume preferred that his name be pronounced correctly, even if it meant changing the spelling. After four months in Bristol, Hume left for the south of France, determined to pursue a life of letters.

In 1737 Hume returned from France with the two volumes of A Treatise of Human Nature in manuscript form. Being sure that the work would bring him instant fame and fortune, he was eager to publish without delay. In his own words, however, the Treatise "fell dead-born from the press." This is not to say that it was not widely read both in Britain and on the continent. Hume undoubtedly meant that the ideas put forth in the Treatise fell dead-born on the minds of those who read it. Reviews of the Treatise were universally negative.

Hume's disappointment was profound. During the six-year period from 1739 to 1745 he lived in virtual seclusion at Ninewells, writing the third volume of the Treatise (published in 1740) and experimenting with the essay form as a medium of expression. Hume's first efforts as an essayist resulted in a two-volume work published in 1742 under the title Essays Moral and Political. This was Hume's first successful publication. Only a small selection of the twenty-seven essays therein contained can be counted as serious philosophical pieces, and these were not the ones that accounted for the popularity of the collection as a whole.

Short of money, in 1745 Hume took a position as tutor to the marquis of Annandale, and in the same year applied for the chair of Ethics and Pneumatical Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. Hume judged that a regular academic appointment would provide both the income and leisure necessary to pursue a full-time life of study. However, his application was opposed by the principal of the university, who accused him of atheism, heresy, and skepticism. His failure to secure this appointment was the second great disappointment of his life.

Hume's next two years were spent traveling in France as secretary to James St. Claire, a general in the British army. The army was of interest to Hume for financial reasons only: He stayed just long enough to accumulate the money needed for another retreat to his study. Between 1747 and 1751 he composed and published his two great treatises: An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (originally titled Philosophical Essays concerning Human Understanding ), and An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals. These were the first of Hume's serious philosophical works to achieve acclaim.

In 1752 Hume secured an appointment as librarian to the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh. This was the first time Hume had had steady access to a major library. He took the opportunity to pursue a project of long-standing interestthe detailed study of English history. Between 1754 and 1761 Hume published, in installments, his masterful six-volume History of England. Regarded as a classic in Hume's own time, this text remained the standard in its field until the end of the nineteenth century.

In 1763 Hume became secretary to the British embassy in Paris, spending the next three years writing and conversing with the luminaries of the Parisian intellectual set. By this time he was generally regarded as Britain's foremost man of letters. Hume returned to England in 1766 as under secretary of state, but he resigned from the diplomatic service three years later, retiring to Ninewells. In 1775 Hume was stricken with an internal disorder that claimed his life on August 25, 1776.

David Hume was a man of gentle bearinghumane, tolerant, charitable, and generous in his opinions of others. In his autobiographical essay "My Own Life," Hume characterized himself as being of "cheerful nature." From all reports, his wit was sparkling; he was a favorite both in the polite salons of Paris and the rude pubs of Edinburgh. To his French intimates he was known as "le bon David," while his many friends in Scotland referred to him as "Saint David." Although Hume never married, he was not unpopular with the ladies; his charm and good humor more than compensated for his obese physical appearance.

Directly following its poor reception in 1739, Hume made two attempts to stimulate interest in A Treatise of Human Nature. In 1740 he published an essay titled "An Abstract of a Treatise on Human Nature," which identified the nub of the work's method and summarized some of the conclusions of the text. At the same time, Hume was busy at Ninewells preparing a corrected edition of the first two volumes, which he hoped would remove the misunderstandings that his first efforts had generated. But the corrected edition never appeared. The only changes made during this period that survived in printed form were included in an appendix to the Treatise published together with the third volume in 1741. Neither the publication of the Abstract nor the materials appended to the Treatise had the desired effect. It was not until Hume cast the basic theses of the Treatise into essay form and released them in the Enquiries that the ideas first delivered in the Treatise received the sort of attention Hume thought they deserved. In later years, Hume in effect abandoned the Treatise in favor of his Enquiries. In the "Author's Advertisement" printed in volume 2 of the 1777 edition of Hume's works, Hume described the Treatise as a "juvenile work," stating that he had made an "error in going to press too early," and announcing that the Enquiries rather than the Treatise should be taken as expressing his considered views on the topics therein discussed. Still, succeeding generations of scholars have, as it were, rediscovered the Treatise. Most students of the history of philosophy now regard it as Hume's foremost contribution to philosophical literature.

Regarding the impact of the philosophical views first expressed in the Treatise and restated in the enquiries, two comments are in order. First, book 1 ("Of the Understanding") and its companion, An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, are generally thought to contain definitive statements of the epistemological theses associated with classical British empiricism and generative of the empiricist trends in Western philosophy during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the introduction to the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant acknowledges Hume as the one who inspired his own probing into the foundations of human knowledge. The empiricist elements in the philosophies of Mill, Russell, Carnap, and Wittgenstein are in no small measure traceable to the direct or indirect influence of Hume.

Second, it should also be noted that, in book 3 of the Treatise and in An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, Hume sets the stage for much of what follows in nineteenth- and twentieth-century moral philosophy. Here Hume works out a hedonistic, rule-based, and utilitarian theory of ethics very much like the one suggested more than a hundred years later by John Stuart Mill in chapter 5 of Utilitarianism. This theory has served as one of the major foci of moral-theoretical reflection in twentieth-century philosophical literature. It might be added that at least some commentators (e.g., A. J. Ayer, 1980) claim to find in Hume's ethical writings rudiments of the so-called emotive analysis of ethical languagea theory not brought to maturity until the mid-twentieth century, but very influential in British-American moral philosophy since that time. Whether or not this last claim can be sustained, it is clear that Hume stands as a major figure in the history of ethics. Putting it all together, it is hard to imagine how the last two hundred years of Western philosophy would have gone, had the ideas expressed in the Treatise really fallen dead-born from the press.

The corpus of Hume's writings includes seven texts that specifically treat religious topics. In order of their appearance in published form, they are: (1) "Of Superstition and Enthusiasm," published in 1742 as one of the Essays Moral and Political ; (2) "Of Miracles" and (3) "Of a Particular Providence and of a Future State," which appeared in 1748 as parts 10 and 11 respectively of An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding ; (4) "The Natural History of Religion," one of Four Dissertations published in 1757; (5) "Of Suicide" and (6) "On the Immortality of the Soul," brought out together in 1777 under the title Two Essays ; and (7) the Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, which occupied Hume's attention periodically during the last twenty-five years of his life and was finally published in 1779.

All these texts are critical of religionof religious institutions, religious practices, theological doctrines, and/or theological arguments. Correlatively, all were greeted in orthodox circles with suspicion and, in some cases, with hostility. Most were in one way or another suppressed either by Hume or by his publishers for fear of reprimand from the religious community. Thus, "Of Miracles," written prior to 1739 and originally intended for inclusion in the Treatise, was deleted from the text prior to publication, because Hume judged that it might be found scandalous and thus detract from the reception of his work. Similarly, "Of Suicide," "Of the Immortality of the Soul," and an early version of Dialogues concerning Natural Religion were all scheduled for publication in 1756, but they were suppressed by Hume's publisher for prudential reasons. All three were published only after Hume's death and even then without the author's or publisher's name attached. It should be recalled that in 1745 Hume's appointment at the University of Edinburgh had been opposed because his writings were judged wanting on religious grounds. Eighteenth-century Britain could be hard on religious dissenters; neither Hume nor his publishers sought to cause offense.

Although Hume is best known for his views in epistemology and moral philosophy, the essay "Of Miracles" and the Dialogues concerning Natural Religion are generally regarded by contemporary philosophers as classics in the philosophy of religion. "Of Miracles" is centered on the question of whether evidence supporting the claim that a given miracle occurred could ever be strong enough to warrant belief, given the facts that (1) a miracle is by definition an event whose occurrence violates natural law, and (2) the evidence supporting the claim is derived entirely from human testimony. Hume's negative verdict is based on a general historiographical principle that is applicable not only in the study of religion, but in any area of inquiry that relies on human testimony as a major source of evidence: namely, that the credibility of any given piece of testimony is in part a function of the plausibility of what is affirmed within it.

Dialogues concerning Natural Religion is focused on a very special version of the argument from design used by a number of eighteenth-century devotees of Isaac Newton's theological writings. In the course of the discussion, Hume not only delivers what many believe to be the definitive refutation of the argument from design (even anticipating the nineteenth-century Darwinian account of adaptation in nature), but he also presents a series of sharply penetrating critical studies on a wide variety of other important theological topics such as divine attribution, the cosmological argument for the existence of God, and, especially, the problem of evil. It should be added that, apart from its stunning philosophical merits, Hume's Dialogues can also be credited with what is perhaps the most beautifully executed employment of the dialogue form in Western philosophical literature.


Works by Hume

Dialogues concerning Natural Religion. In Essential Works, edited by Ralph Cohn; a reprint of the original 1779 edition. There are modern editions by Norman Kemp Smith (Oxford, 1935), Henry Aiken (New York, 1948), and myself (Indianapolis, 1970).

History of Great Britain from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution in 1688. 6 vols. The most recent edition is by R. Worthington (New York, 1880).

Hume on Religion. Edited by Richard Wollheim. New York, 1963. This text includes all seven of Hume's works on religion and the autobiographical essay "My Own Life."

Hume's Enquiries (1894). Edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge. 3d ed. Oxford, 1975. Contains both An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding and An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals. There is also a modern edition of the Enquiry concerning Human Understanding with Hume's autobiographical essay, "My Own Life," and a letter from Adam Smith concerning Hume's death (La Salle, Ill., 1956).

Hume's Philosophical Works. 4 vols. Edited by Thomas H. Green and Thomas S. Grose. London, 18741875. Contains all of Hume's philosophical works except the "Abstract."

A Treatise of Human Nature. Edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge. Oxford, 1888. Book 1, "Of the Understanding," has been published more recently in a volume that includes the appendix to the Treatise and the "Abstract," edited by D. G. C. MacNabb (London, 1962).

Works about Hume

Ernest C. Mossner's The Life of David Hume (New York, 1954) is the best available biography. It is a rich and abundant account. Norman Kemp Smith's The Philosophy of David Hume (London, 1941) is a well-worked-out analysis of Hume's ethical and epistemological theories. Barry Stroud's Hume, a thoughtful and patient work with a useful bibliography, covers much the same ground (London, 1977). See also A. J. Ayer's Hume (New York, 1980). The various editions of Hume's Dialogues by Kemp Smith, Aiken, and myself all contain commentaries on the text. Kemp Smith's is thought by some to be definitive. My own is more detailed (110 pages) and also contains a bibliography. See also Richard Wollheim's introduction to Hume on Religion. Wollheim comments briefly but broadly on Hume's writings on religious topics.

Nelson Pike (1987)

David Hume

views updated May 23 2018

David Hume

The Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) developed a philosophy of "mitigated skepticism," which remains a viable alternative to the systems of rationalism, empiricism, and idealism.

If one was to judge a philosopher by a gauge of relevance—the quantity of issues and arguments raised by him that remain central to contemporary thought— David Hume would be rated among the most important figures in philosophy. Ironically, his philosophical writings went unnoticed during his lifetime, and the considerable fame he achieved derived from his work as an essayist and historian. Immanuel Kant's acknowledgment that Hume roused him from his "dogmatic slumbers" stimulated interest in Hume's thought.

With respect to Hume's life there is no better source than the succinct autobiography, My Own Life, written 4 months before his death. He was born on April 26, 1711, on the family estate, Ninewells, near Edinburgh. According to Hume, the "ruling passion" of his life was literature, and thus his story contains "little more than the History of my writings." As a second son, he was not entitled to a large inheritance, and he failed in two family-sponsored careers in law and business because of his "unsurmountable aversion to everything but the pursuits of Philosophy and general learning." Until he was past 40, Hume was employed only twice. He spent a year in England as a tutor to a mentally ill nobleman, and from 1745 to 1747 Hume was an officer and aide-de-camp to Gen. James Sinclair and attended him on an expedition to the coast of France and military embassies in Vienna and Turin.

Major Works

During an earlier stay in France (1734-1737) Hume had written his major philosophic work, A Treatise of Human Nature. The first two volumes were published in 1739 and the third appeared in the following year. The critical reception of the work was singularly unfortunate. In Hume's own words, the Treatise "fell dead born from the press." Book I of the Treatise was recast as An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding and published in 1748. The third volume with minor revisions appeared in 1751 as An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals. The second volume of the Treatise was republished as Part 2 of Four Dissertations in 1757. Two sections of this work dealing with liberty and necessity had been incorporated in the first Enquiry. Hume's other important work, Dialogues concerningNatural Religion, was substantially complete by the mid-1750s, but because of its controversial nature it was published posthumously.

During his lifetime Hume's reputation derived from the publication of his Political Discourses (1751) and six-volume History of England (1754-1762). When he went to France in 1763 as secretary to the English ambassador, Hume discovered that he was a literary celebrity and a revered figure among the philosophes. He led a very happy and active social life even after his retirement to Edinburgh in 1769. He died there on Aug. 25, 1776. He specified in his will that the gravestone be marked only with his name and dates, "leaving it to Posterity to add the rest."

"Mitigated Skepticism"

Skepticism is concerned with the truthfulness of human perceptions and ideas. On the level of perception, Hume was the first thinker to consistently point out the disastrous implications of the "representative theory of perception," which he had inherited from both his rationalist and empiricist predecessors. According to this view, when I say that I perceive something such as an elephant, what I actually mean is that I have in my mind a mental idea or image or impression. Such a datum is an internal, mental, subjective representation of something that I assume to be an external, physical, objective fact. But there are, at least, two difficulties inherent in ascribing any truth to such perceptions. If truth is understood as the conformity or adequacy between the image and the object, then it is impossible to establish that there is a true world of objects since the only evidence I have of an external world consists of internal images. Further, it is impossible to judge how faithfully mental impressions or ideas represent physical objects.

Hume is aware, however, that this sort of skepticism with regard to the senses does violence to common sense. He suggests that a position of complete skepticism is neither serious nor useful. Academic skepticism (the name derives from a late branch of Plato's school) states that one can never know the truth or falsity of any statement (except, of course, this one). It is, however, a self-refuting theory and is confounded by life itself because "we make inferences on the basis of our impressions whether they be true or false, real or imaginary." Total skepticism is unlivable since "nature is always too strong for principle." Hume therefore advances what he calls "mitigated skepticism." In addition to the exercise of caution in reasoning, this approach attempts to limit philosophical inquiries to topics that are adapted to the capacities of human intelligence. It thus excludes all metaphysical questions concerning the origin of either mind or object as being incapable of demonstration.

Theory of Knowledge

Even though an ultimate explanation of both the subject or object of knowledge is impossible, Hume provides a description of how man senses and understands. He emphasizes the utility of knowledge as opposed to its correctness and suggests that experience begins with feeling rather than thought. He uses the term "perception" in its traditional sense—that is, whatever can be present to the mind from the senses, passions, thought, or reflection. Nonetheless he distinguishes between impressions which are felt and ideas which are thought. In this he stresses the difference between feeling a toothache and thinking about such a pain, which had been obscured by both rationalists and empiricists. Both impressions and ideas are subdivided further into simple and complex; for example, the idea of heat is simple, while the idea of combustion is complex.

These simple divisions are the basis for Hume's "phenomenalism" (that is, knowledge consists of "appearances" in the mind). Hume distinguishes the various operations of the mind in a descriptive psychology, or "mental geography." Impressions are described as vivacious and lively, whereas ideas are less vivid and, in fact, derived from original impressions. This thesis leads to the conclusion that "we can never think of any thing which we have not seen without us or felt in our own minds." Hume often overestimates the importance of this discovery with the suggestion that the sole criterion for judging ideas is to remove every philosophical ambiguity by asking "from what impression is that supposed idea derived." If there is no corresponding impression, the idea may be dismissed as meaningless. This assumption that all ideas are reducible, in principle, to some impression is a primary commitment of Hume's empiricism. Hume did admit that there are complex ideas, such as the idea of a city, that are not traceable to any single impression. These complex ideas are produced by the freedom of the imagination to transform and relate ideas independently of impressions; such ideas are not susceptible to empirical verification. This represents the major paradox of Hume's philosophy—the imagination which produces every idea beyond sensible immediacy also denies the truth of ideas.

Theory of Ideas

Hume accepts the Cartesian doctrine of the distinct idea—conceivability subject only to the principle of contradiction—as both the unit of reasoning and the criterion of truth. But the doctrine of the distinct idea means that every noncontradictory idea expresses an a priori logical possibility. And the speculative freedom of the imagination to conceive opposites without contradiction makes it impossible to demonstrate any matter of fact or existence. This argument leads to a distinction between relations of ideas (demonstrations which are true a priori) and matters of fact (the opposite of which is distinctly conceivable). And this distinction excludes from the domain of rational determination every factual event, future contingent proposition, and causal relation. For Hume, since truth is posterior to fact, the ideas of reason only express what the mind thinks about reality.

Distinct ideas, or imaginative concepts, are pure antinomies apart from experience as every factual proposition is equally valid a priori. But Hume does acknowledge that such propositions are not equally meaningful either to thought or action. On the level of ideas, Hume offers a conceptual correlative to the exemption of sensation as a form of cognition by his recognition that the meaning of ideas is more important than their truth. What separates meaningful propositions from mere concepts is the subjective impression of belief.

Belief, or the vivacity with which the mind conceives certain ideas and associations, results from the reciprocal relationship between experience and imagination. The cumulative experience of the past and present—for example, the relational factors of constancy, conjunction, and resemblance—gives a bias to the imagination. But it is man's imaginative anticipations of the future that give meaning to his experience. Neither the relational elements of experience nor the propensive function of the imagination, from the viewpoint of the criterion of truth, possesses the slightest rational justification. Hence the interplay between the criterion of truth and the logic of the imagination explains both Hume's skepticism and his conception of sensation and intellection.

The most celebrated example of this argument is Hume's analysis of the causal relation. Every statement which points beyond what is immediately available to the senses and memory rests on an assumption and/or extension of the cause and effect relation. Let us examine two cases: I see lightning and hear thunder; I see a rabbit and then a fox. The question is why I am right in concluding that lightning causes thunder but wrong in believing that rabbits cause foxes. Experience, in both instances, reveals an A that is followed by B, and repeated experiences show that A is always followed by B. While the constant conjunction of A and B might eliminate the rabbit-fox hypothesis, it is of no help in explaining causality because there are all sorts of objects, such as tables and chairs, which are similarly conjoined but not supposed to be causally related. Thus experience reveals only that constant conjunction and priority are sufficient but not necessary conditions for establishing a causal connection. And it is necessity, understood as that which cannot be otherwise than it is, which makes a relation causal in the propositional form of "If A then B must appear and if no A then no B."

But if necessary connection explains causality, what explains necessity? Experience yields only a particular instance and tells us nothing about the past or the future. Nor is there any necessity discoverable in repeated experiences. That the sun will rise tomorrow because it has in the past is an assumption that the past necessarily causes the future which is, of course, the connection that is to be demonstrated. If experience cannot account for necessity, then reason fares no better. I can always imagine the opposite of any matter of fact without contradiction. If someone tells me that Caesar died of old age or that thunder is uncaused or that the sun will not rise tomorrow, I will not believe him, but there is nothing logically incorrect about such statements since for every probability "there exists an equal and opposite possibility." Thus there is no justifiable knowledge of causal connections in nature, although this is not a denial that there are real causes. Man's supposed knowledge results from repeated associations of A and B to the point where the imagination makes its customary transition from one object to its usual attendant, that is, "an object followed by another, and whose appearance always conveys the thought to that other."

Because of his skeptical attitude toward the truths of reason Hume attempted to ground his moral theory on the bedrock of feeling—"Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions." In this, Hume followed the "moral sense" school and, especially, the thought of Francis Hutcheson. The notion that virtue and vice are to be derived ultimately from impressions of approbation and blame or pleasure and pain shows that Hume anticipated Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism, a debt which the latter acknowledged. Although Hume considered himself to be primarily a moralist, this doctrine is the least original part of his philosophical writings.

Further Reading

Ernest C. Mossner, who edited several volumes of Hume's correspondence, also wrote the best biography, The Life of David Hume (1954). John H. Burton, Life and Correspondence of David Hume (1846; repr. 1967), is still useful. Good studies of Hume include John A. Passmore, Hume's Intentions (1952); Farhang Zabeeh, Hume, Precursor of Modern Empiricism (1960); and Charles W. Hendel, Studies in the Philosophy of David Hume (1963). Also useful are Alfred B. Glathe, Hume's Theory of the Passions and of Morals (1950); and Antony Flew, Hume's Philosophy of Belief (1961), a study of the first Enquiry. Various aspects of Hume's work are considered in several anthologies of critical opinion: D. F. Pears, ed., David Hume: A Symposium (1963); Alexander Sesonske and Noel Fleming, eds., Human Understanding: Studies in the Philosophy of David Hume (1965); and V. C. Chappell, ed., Hume (1966). □

Hume, David

views updated Jun 11 2018


Scottish philosopher, political theorist, and historian; b. Edinburgh, April 26, 1711; d. there, Aug. 25, 1776. Little is known of his education, save that he completed it at Edinburgh University and that he spent much of his time even as a youth reading philosophy and classical literature. When he was 17 he tried to study law, but he eventually abandoned his efforts and entered a merchant's office in Bristol for a few months. However, his "passion for literature" made commerce as distasteful as the law, and in 1734 he went to France and settled at La Flèche to pursue his studies.

Works. In 1737 Hume returned to London with the completed MSS of A Treatise of Human Nature, which remains to this day the most widely read and warmly discussed study in classical British empiricism. He published the first two volumes anonymously in 1739 and the third volume in 1740; but to his intense disappointment they attracted little attention. The work, he said, "fell dead-born from the press." On returning to Scotland, Hume published two volumes of Essays Moral and Political (174142), which sold so well that he was encouraged to revise the Treatise and present its contents in a style better suited to the ordinary reader. In 1745 he applied unsuccessfully for the chair of ethics and pneumatic philosophy at Edinburgh University. In 1746 he went to France as secretary to Gen. J. St. Clair and in 1748 accompanied him to Vienna and Turin on a diplomatic mission, returning to England in 1749. In 1748 he published a third volume of Essays Moral and Political and Philosophical Essays concerning Human Understanding (the revision of the first book of the Treatise ), later known as An Enquiry concerning the Human Understanding from the title he gave the second edition (1751). In 1751 he published An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, which was in effect a revision of book three of the Treatise, and also completed his Political Discourses, which added considerably to his fame at home and abroad. About this time he began work on the Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, which he revised many times but withheld from publication during his lifetime.

In 1751 he also became librarian to the Faculty of Advocates and, having access to a large collection of books, began writing the four volumes of his History of England, in which he worked his way back from the Revolution of 1688 to the invasion of Caesar. Hume wrote the greater part as an anti-Whig polemic, and it became the center of disputes between Whigs and Tories for several years. The History occupied him from 1754 to 1761, but he found time to publish Four Dissertations (1757) containing a revision of the second book of the Treatise (on the passions), and a natural history of religion, in which he tried to show that polytheism was the earlier and more natural form of religion than monotheism. In 1763 Hume went to Paris and served as secretary to the embassy. He was received with enthusiasm by the court and consorted with les philosophes of Encyclopedist circles in Paris. In 1766 he returned to London with J. J. rousseau, but they soon parted as the result of their famous quarrel. Hume stayed in London for two years as undersecretary of state, and in 1769 he returned to Edinburgh. When in 1775 his health began to fail, he wrote the well-known sketch of My Own Life, which his lifelong friend Adam smith published in 1777. His nephew published his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion in 1779 in accordance with his will.

Method. On the title page Hume described his Treatise as "an attempt to introduce the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects." At the starting point of his philosophy is his complete skepticism about "the tedious lingring method, which we have hitherto followed," which made it necessary for him to reject all the uncritical convictions of common sense and the dogmatic assurance of philosophers concerning the existence or reality of unperceived and unperceivable metaphysical entities. As he explains in the introduction to the Treatise, Hume's ambition was to set all the sciences on the sure path to the conquest of truth by introducing two radical reforms.

First, he accepted the basic position of "some late philosophers in England, who have begun to put the science of man on a new footing," and took it to its logical conclusion by treating the science of man as "the only solid foundation for the other sciences." All other sciences have a relation of some kind to man, the study of whose nature pertains to the philosopher. Hence Hume proposed "to march up directly to the capital or center of these sciences, to human nature itself" in the anticipation that "from this station we may extend our conquests over all those sciences, which more intimately concern human life, and may afterwards proceed at leisure to discover more fully those, which are the objects of pure curiosity." Given a new science of man, Hume argued, "tis impossible to tell what changes and improvements we might make in these sciences were we thoroughly acquainted with the extent and force of human understanding, and could explain the nature of the ideas we employ, and of the operations we perform in our reasonings." Thus by "moral subjects" Hume understood questions about the nature and limits of human understanding; the workings of the passions, feelings, and sentiments; the origins of belief; and the first principles of conduct.

Second, Hume proposed to apply Newton's method for the study of the physical world to the study of human nature, to the exclusion of any other method. He assumed without question that "as the science of man is the only solid foundation for the other sciences, so the only solid foundation we can give to this science itself must be laid on experience and observation." experience is the one and only source of human knowledge, according to Hume, and "a cautious observation of human life" is the only possible method of constructing the science of man "which will not be inferior in certainty, and will be much superior in utility to any other of human comprehension." Plainly, then, Hume was committed from the start to a conception of experience as purely sensible and to the postulate that the one "true metaphysics" is a phenomenalistic study of human life.

Empiricism. Hume called the contents of human experience "perceptions" and found that all man's perceptions are of two kinds, "impressions" and "ideas." The difference between them is that impressions are given sensations that arise "from unknown causes," whereas ideas are man's thoughts, i.e., fainter copies or images in the imagination or memory of the sensations he has experienced. Hume argued that "every simple idea is derived from a corresponding impression," which is best understood by saying that "every indefinable term can be explained ostensively, by indicating the sort of experience to which it refers" (MacNabb, 30). Complex ideas are just those that can be analyzed into simple ideas or explained by a definition; ultimately, Hume insisted, all definitions must be reduced to certain simple indefinables,

whose meaning one must learn from "simple impressions" or ostensively.

Substance. On the basis of this doctrine that man's knowledge of things is solely of his impressions of sense, or of what can be pointed out empirically, Hume denied reality to any kind of substance, material (Treatise, 1.1.6) and immaterial in the case of persons (1.4.3, 5). What one calls substance is nothing more than a bundle of sense data one finds constantly associated with each other. There is no such reality as a permanent essence or structure proper to things. The self is just a flux of impressions, emotions, and feelings linked together in the unity of the person one observes in memory (1.4.6). One should not speak of a self but only of ideas attracting each other and becoming associated.

Causality. If Hume banished the idea of substance altogether, he transformed that of efficient causality in accordance with the demands of his phenomenalism. Hume held that causality involves a necessary relation-ship between the thing called a cause and its effects. But one has no sense impressions of a necessary link between a cause and its effects. What, then, is the origin of this idea of "necessary connection"? Hume held that the constantly repeated conjunction of the same sense impressions in the same temporal sequence gives rise to the expectation that they will continue to be conjoined in the future, and thus to the idea of the imagination that they must be conjoined. There is nothing objectively or inherently necessary in the links observed between things (cf.1.3.14). Hume considered that the proposition "whatever has a beginning has also a cause of its existence" is neither intuitively nor demonstrably certain, for "as all distinct ideas are separable from each other, and as the ideas of cause and effect are evidently distinct, 'twill be easy for us to conceive any object to be non-existent this moment, and existent the next, without conjoining to it the distinct idea of a cause or productive principle. The separation, therefore, of the idea of cause from that of a beginning of existence, is certainly possible for the imagination; and consequently the actual separation of these objects is so far possible, that it implies no contradiction nor absurdity" (1.3.3)an argument that simply assumes what it purports to prove, namely, that beginning to exist does not necessarily imply being caused.

God. Hume denied that one can establish the existence of God by a causal argument, for God and his relation to the universe lie beyond experience. He agreed, however, that one can postulate a cause or causes of the order exhibited in the universe on the probability that it bears a remote analogy to the human mind. But he denied that man can go any further. One cannot ascribe any attributes to a divine cause (Dialogues, ed. N. K. Smith, 227). [see miracles (theology of).]

Critique. Hume's world was that of a radical skeptic, for "it is not a world of persons and things but one of transitory atomic events. The connection of these events is in principle wholly unpredictable. Terms like being, substance and cause become almost or entirely meaningless. There is no room in such a world for a metaphysic or general science of Being" [D. J. B. Hawkins, Being and Becoming (New York 1954) 23]. Hume neglected all the permanent or enduring data of experience; he denied any permanent structure inherent in things and reduced human experience to transitory impressions and images. He concentrated on the purely passive aspects of mental receptivity to the point of ignoring the activities of man's thinking life. Thus he reduces things to sensible impressions, mind to memory and imagination, and philosophy to empirical psychology. He is, however, the most ruthlessly consistent of the empiricists and remains to this day the guiding light of all empiricists in philosophy.

See Also: empiricism; philosophy, history of.

Bibliography: Works. The Philosophical Works, ed. t. h. green and t. h. grose, 4 v. (London 1878); A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. l. a. selby-bigge (Oxford 1896); Enquiries concerning the Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals, ed. l. a. selby-bigge (2d ed. Oxford 1902; repr. 1951); Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, ed. n. k. smith (New York 1947), contains sketch of My Own Life; Letters, ed. j. y. t. greig, 2 v. (Oxford 1932). Literature. a. carlini, Enciclopedia filosofica 2:112844. n. k. smith, The Philosophy of David Hume (London 1941). h. h. price, Hume's Theory of the External World (Oxford 1940). r. w. church, Hume's Theory of the Understanding (Ithaca, N.Y. 1935). J. a. passmore, Hume's Intentions (Cambridge, Eng.1952). d. g. macnabb, David Hume: His Theory of Knowledge and Morality (London 1951). m. o'donnell, "Hume's Approach to Causation," Philosophical Studies 10 (Maynooth 1960) 6499. a.e. michotte, La Perception de la causalité (2d ed. Louvain 1954).

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Hume, David

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David Hume

Scottish philosopher who developed a philosophy of "mitigated skepticism," which remains a viable alternative to the systems of rationalism, empiricism, and idealism.

If one was to judge a philosopher by a gauge of relevancethe quantity of issues and arguments raised by him that remain central to contemporary thoughtDavid Hume would be rated among the most important figures in philosophy. Ironically, his philosophical writings went unnoticed during his lifetime, and the considerable fame he achieved derived from his work as an essayist and historian. Immanuel Kant's acknowledgment that Hume roused him from his "dogmatic slumbers" stimulated interest in Hume's thought.

With respect to Hume's life there is no better source than the succinct autobiography, My Own Life, written four months before his death. He was born on April 26, 1711, on the family estate, Ninewells, near Edinburgh. According to Hume, the "ruling passion" of his life was literature, and thus his story contains "little more than the History of my writings." As a second son, he was not entitled to a large inheritance, and he failed in two family-sponsored careers in law and business because of his "unsurmountable aversion to everything but the pursuits of Philosophy and general learning." Until he was past 40, Hume was employed only twice. He spent a year in England as a tutor to a mentally ill nobleman, and from 1745 to 1747 Hume was an officer and aide-de-camp to Gen. James Sinclair and attended him on an expedition to the coast of France and military embassies in Vienna and Turin.

Major works

During an earlier stay in France (1734-1737) Hume had written his major philosophic work, A Treatise of Human Nature. The first two volumes were published in 1739 and the third appeared in the following year. The critical reception of the work was singularly unfortunate. In Hume's own words, the Treatise "fell dead born from the press." Book I of the Treatise was recast as An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding and published in 1748. The third volume with minor revisions appeared in 1751 as An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals. The second volume of the Treatise was republished as Part 2 of Four Dissertations in 1757. Two sections of this work dealing with liberty and necessity had been incorporated in the first Enquiry. Hume's other important work, Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, was substantially complete by the mid-1750s, but because of its controversial nature it was published posthumously.

During his lifetime Hume's reputation derived from the publication of his Political Discourses (1751) and six-volume History of England (1754-1762). When he went to France in 1763 as secretary to the English ambassador, Hume discovered that he was a literary celebrity and a revered figure among the philosophes. He led a very happy and active social life even after his retirement to Edinburgh in 1769. He died there on Aug. 25, 1776. He specified in his will that the gravestone be marked only with his name and dates, "leaving it to Posterity to add the rest."

"Mitigated skepticism"

Skepticism is concerned with the truthfulness of human perceptions and ideas. On the level of perception , Hume was the first thinker to consistently point out the disastrous implications of the "representative theory of perception," which he had inherited from both his rationalist and empiricist predecessors. According to this view, when I say that I perceive something such as an elephant, what I actually mean is that I have in my mind a mental idea or image or impression. Such a datum is an internal, mental, subjective representation of something that I assume to be an external, physical, objective fact. But there are, at least, two difficulties inherent in ascribing any truth to such perceptions. If truth is understood as the conformity or adequacy between the image and the object, then it is impossible to establish that there is a true world of objects since the only evidence I have of an external world consists of internal images. Further, it is impossible to judge how faithfully mental impressions or ideas represent physical objects.

Hume is aware, however, that this sort of skepticism with regard to the senses does violence to common sense. He suggests that a position of complete skepticism

is neither serious nor useful. Academic skepticism (the name derives from a late branch of Plato's school) states that one can never know the truth or falsity of any statement (except, of course, this one). It is, however, a self-refuting theory and is confounded by life itself because "we make inferences on the basis of our impressions whether they be true or false, real or imaginary." Total skepticism is unlivable since "nature is always too strong for principle." Hume therefore advances what he calls "mitigated skepticism." In addition to the exercise of caution in reasoning, this approach attempts to limit philosophical inquiries to topics that are adapted to the capacities of human intelligence . It thus excludes all metaphysical questions concerning the origin of either mind or object as being incapable of demonstration.

Theory of knowledge

Even though an ultimate explanation of both the subject or object of knowledge is impossible, Hume provides a description of how man senses and understands. He emphasizes the utility of knowledge as opposed to its correctness and suggests that experience begins with feeling rather than thought. He uses the term "perception" in its traditional sensethat is, whatever can be present to the mind from the senses, passions, thought, or reflection. Nonetheless he distinguishes between impressions which are felt and ideas which are thought. In this he stresses the difference between feeling a toothache and thinking about such a pain , which had been obscured by both rationalists and empiricists. Both impressions and ideas are subdivided further into simple and complex; for example, the idea of heat is simple, while the idea of combustion is complex.

Theory of ideas

Hume accepts the Cartesian doctrine of the distinct ideaconceivability subject only to the principle of contradictionas both the unit of reasoning and the criterion of truth. For Hume, since truth is posterior to fact, the ideas of reason only express what the mind thinks about reality. Distinct ideas, or imaginative concepts, are pure antinomies apart from experience as every factual proposition is equally valid a priori. But Hume does acknowledge that such propositions are not equally meaningful either to thought or action. On the level of ideas, Hume offers a conceptual correlative to the exemption of sensation as a form of cognition by his recognition that the meaning of ideas is more important than their truth. What separates meaningful propositions from mere concepts is the subjective impression of belief.

Belief, or the vivacity with which the mind conceives certain ideas and associations, results from the reciprocal relationship between experience and imagination . The cumulative experience of the past and presentfor example, the relational factors of constancy, conjunction, and resemblancegives a bias to the imagination. But it is man's imaginative anticipations of the future that give meaning to his experience. Neither the relational elements of experience nor the propensive function of the imagination, from the viewpoint of the criterion of truth, possesses the slightest rational justification. Hence the interplay between the criterion of truth and the logic of the imagination explains both Hume's skepticism and his conception of sensation and intellection.

The most celebrated example of this argument is Hume's analysis of the causal relation. Every statement which points beyond what is immediately available to the senses and memory rests on an assumption and/or extension of the cause and effect relation. Let us examine two cases: I see lightning and hear thunder; I see a rabbit and then a fox. The question is why I am right in concluding that lightning causes thunder but wrong in believing that rabbits cause foxes. Experience, in both instances, reveals an A that is followed by B, and repeated experiences show that A is always followed by B . While the constant conjunction of A and B might eliminate the rabbit-fox hypothesis, it is of no help in explaining causality because there are all sorts of objects, such as tables and chairs, which are similarly conjoined but not supposed to be causally related. Thus experience reveals only that constant conjunction and priority are sufficient but not necessary conditions for establishing a causal connection. And it is necessity, understood as that which cannot be otherwise than it is, which makes a relation causal in the propositional form of "If A then B must appear and if no A then no B."

But if necessary connection explains causality, what explains necessity? Experience yields only a particular instance and tells us nothing about the past or the future. Nor is there any necessity discoverable in repeated experiences. That the Sun will rise tomorrow because it has in the past is an assumption that the past necessarily causes the future which is, of course, the connection that is to be demonstrated. If experience cannot account for necessity, then reason fares no better. I can always imagine the opposite of any matter of fact without contradiction. If someone tells me that Caesar died of old age or that thunder is uncaused or that the Sun will not rise tomorrow, I will not believe him, but there is nothing logically incorrect about such statements since for every probability "there exists an equal and opposite possibility." Thus there is no justifiable knowledge of causal connections in nature, although this is not a denial that there are real causes. Man's supposed knowledge results from repeated associations of A and B to the point where the imagination makes its customary transition from one object to its usual attendant, that is, "an object followed by another, and whose appearance always conveys the thought to that other."

Further Reading

Burton, John H. Life and correspondence of David Hume. 1846. repr. 1967.

Chappell, V.C., ed. Hume. 1966.

Flew, Antony. Hume's philosophy of belief. 1961.

Glathe, Alfred B. Hume's theory of the passions and of morals. 1950.

Hendel, Charles W. Studies in the philosophy of David Hume. 1963.

Mossner, Ernest C. The life of David Hume. 1954.

Passmore, John A. Hume's intentions. 1952.

Pears, D.F., ed. David Hume: a symposium. 1963.

Sesonske, Alexander and Noel Fleming, eds. Human understanding: studies in the philosophy of David Hume. 1965.

Zabeeh, Farhang. Hume, precursor of modern empiricism. 1960.

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