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David Hume (1711–1776)

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David Hume was born David Home on April 26, 1711, in Edinburgh, Scotland. Hume’s father, lawyer Joseph Home, died in 1713, and Hume’s mother, Katherine, raised their three children alone. With his Calvinist family, young Hume faithfully attended services in Church of Scotland, where his uncle served as pastor. The boy’s family had a comfortable life and a moderate income, enough to provide him with a good education. He left home at age twelve to study law at the University of Edinburgh.

Although Hume’s earliest letters reveal that he took religion seriously, he developed a stronger interest in philosophy and literature while a student at Edinburgh. In 1729, Hume left Edinburgh to pursue a self-directed education. He worked briefly for a sugar merchant in England and left for France in 1734, where he wrote his first book, A Treatise of Human Nature. When he returned to Britain, he anonymously published three of the five volumes of the Treatise: Books I and II in 1739 and book III in 1740—a remarkable accomplishment for a twenty-nine-year-old. Many scholars today believe that the Treatise is Hume’s masterpiece, but it was not well received by the English public. The book was not widely reviewed and failed to arouse the public debate Hume hoped for.

In 1741 and 1742, Hume published his two-volume Essays, Moral and Political, which met with better success than the Treatise. Hume decided that the problem with his Treatise was its style, not its content, so he reworked it into several smaller publications. Two of these publications became major works: An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. This time, Hume caused a stir by advocating a system of morality based on utility, or usefulness, instead of God’s authority. His newfound success encouraged him to seek a department chair position at the University of Edinburgh, but the town council rejected him because of his antireligious philosophy. The new books established Hume as the founder of the moral theory of utility and inspired the utilitarian movement, but they also made him known as an atheist, and he was rejected from yet another chair position at the University of Glasgow.

In 1752, Hume became a librarian for the College of Advocates in Edinburgh, where he wrote and published his six-volume History of England. Although it was not a philosophical work in the strictest sense, Hume felt that History was the next step in his philosophical evolution. He described the series as the practical application of his ideas about politics. During this period he also published Four Dissertations: The Natural History of Religion, Of the Passions, Of Tragedy, Of the Standard of Taste. These works aroused controversy in the religious community before they became public. Early copies were passed around, and someone of influence threatened to prosecute Hume’s publisher if the book was distributed as it was. Hume deleted two essays and removed some particularly offensive passages, then published the book to moderate success. But the larger success of History of England restored Hume’s reputation and provided him with the income he needed to live comfortably.

In 1763, Hume left the library and returned to the world of politics, accompanying Lord Hertford, the British ambassador to France, as his personal secretary. Hume was a controversial figure in England, but Enlightenment Paris received him warmly. In 1766, Hume returned to London as under-secretary of state, bringing along the persecuted writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Despite the generosity of his good-natured host, Rousseau eventually grew paranoid and bitter over his enemies’ public attacks against him, and he broke with Hume in 1767. Rousseau wrote a public pamphlet accusing Hume of plotting against him while he was Hume’s guest. Hume effectively cleared his own name by publishing a response that explained the reasons for their dispute.

Another secretary appointment took Hume away from England for a year, but in 1768, he retired to Edinburgh, where he spent his remaining years revising his works and socializing. He died from a painful internal disorder on April 26, 1776, at age sixty-five. After his death, several of his unpublished works appeared in print. The first was the short autobiography My Own Life, in which he finally acknowledges that he had authored the Treatise and which aroused immediate religious controversy because of his professed happiness as an atheist. In 1779, Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion appeared after being suppressed for years by his closest friends. Again, the response was mixed. Admirers of Hume considered it a masterful work, whereas critics railed against its hostility to religion. In 1782, Hume’s last two suppressed essays, Of Suicide and Of the Immortality of the Soul, appeared to overwhelmingly negative criticism.

Hume is widely regarded as the third and most radical of the British empiricists, after John Locke and George Berkeley. Like Locke and Berkeley, Hume argued that all knowledge results from our experiences and is not received from God or innate to our minds. This kind of empiricism led to today’s “scientific method,” which holds that knowledge should be based on observations rather than intuition or faith. Radical empiricism went further, arguing that our knowledge is nothing more than the sum of our experiences. Unlike Locke and Berkeley, Hume removed God from the equation completely and argued forcefully against the possibility of his existence as his contemporaries envisioned it.

Hume excelled as a moral philosopher, historian, and economist. He was the leader of the Scottish Enlightenment, a movement that took place in the fifty years between 1740 and 1790. This period was a very stable one in Scottish history, free of the civil strife and turmoil of earlier eras, and it gave rise to a remarkable number of notable intellectuals. The French Enlightenment had already spread throughout continental Europe and was beginning to influence Scottish academics, including Hume. Although they shared the French spirit, the Scottish philosophers practiced extreme skepticism and identified more strongly with utilitarianism, which posits that actions should be measured by their effect on the greater good of the world, not their consequences for the individual.

Despite Hume’s nay-saying contemporaries, his theories of the “evolution” of ethics, institutions, and social conventions proved highly influential for later philosophers. Attention to his works grew after the great philosopher Immanuel Kant credited Hume with awakening him from “dogmatic slumber.”

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