Personal Background

David Hume is sometimes considered to be the greatest philosopher ever to have written in the English language. He was born on April twenty-six, 1711 in Edinburgh, Scotland to a prosperous and devoutly Calvinist family. He was a precocious child and entered the University of Edinburgh at the age of twelve (two years earlier than the norm). At University Hume developed the two passions that would guide the rest of his endeavors: his desire for literary success and his aversion to organized religion. While his family thought he was studying law, Hume was actually devouring classical texts (focusing his energies especially on Cicero) and studying newfangled philosophical ideas (particularly those of John Locke, George Berkeley, and Sir Isaac Newton). Inspired by what he read, Hume began to preoccupy himself with his own philosophical musings. These soon became so intense that they resulted in a nervous breakdown in 1729. Fearing for his sanity, Hume left the University to join a business venture in Bristol. Within a few months, however, Hume had become disillusioned with business and found himself unable to stay away from intellectual pursuits. He moved to France to continue his studies, and while living on a small allowance from his family he wrote the Treatise on Human Nature.

In 1737 Hume returned to London to arrange for the publication of his first book. While today we appreciate this text as Hume's greatest work, it was not received well by the 18th century public. In Hume's own words, the book "fell stillborn from the press." Nobody seemed to grasp the subtle and revolutionary arguments that he put forward, and the book was largely ignored. Unfortunately, the only aspect of the book that did receive a fair share of attention was its perceived anti-religious stance. Although Hume had removed the one overtly anti- religious section of the book (which would later be published as "On Miracles") the work won him an instant and dangerous reputation for atheism.

Disheartened but not despairing, Hume returned to Scotland and began to put his ideas into a form that he believed would receive more attention. The results of his effort were the Essays Moral and Political, which he published in 1741 and 1749. These books were significantly more successful than the Treatise and Hume was encouraged by the success to continue molding his ideas into more easily digestible forms. After being rejected from a teaching post at the University of Edinburgh on the basis of his reputation as an atheist, and then serving a brief stint as a tutor and as a member of two English government missions, Hume reworked the first two books of the Treatise into a smoother, more palatable book which he published in 1748 under the title of Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. In 1751 he published the Enquiry Concerning the Principle of Morals which was a reworking of the third book of the Treatise. Though both more popular than the Treatise, neither of these books was a runaway success. In 1752 Hume was rejected from yet another University position (this time in Glasgow) on the basis of his anti-religious reputation.

Starting in 1754 Hume began to attain the fame he had always craved. This was the year that he published the first installment in his six volume History of England, which secured his position as a literary luminary of Britain. Given his much-craved success, these years of Hume's life would have been tranquil if it had not been for his notorious reputation as an atheist. The publication of his book Five Dissertations was prevented after pressure was applied by the Orthodox agitator William Warburton, and in 1756 the General Assembly Church of Scotland made a formal attempt to excommunicate the man they referred to as "the Great Infidel". Luckily for Hume, he had many friends among the Moderate Party of the Church and they blocked the attempt.

In 1763 Hume was asked to be the personal assistant to the English ambassador to France. He moved to Paris where he became an intellectual hero and a favorite of French Enlightenment figures such as Diderot, D'Alembert, and Baron d'Holbach. (Hume's jovial and easygoing personality was appreciated by many of contemporaries.) Hume served in several more embassy positions before retiring from government life in 1767. He then returned to Scotland where he was revered as one of intellectual and cultural leaders of the country. In 1775 Hume contracted bowel cancer and although he adamantly refused to believe in an afterlife, he remained cheerful and active in the face of his impending death. He spent the last year of his life preparing the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion for publication. Actually, he had all but completed the Dialogues in 1751 but had been afraid to publish them for understandable reasons. Near his death, Hume told his friend Adam Smith that the only purpose he had left was to see Christianity routed from the world. He died in 1776 and the Dialogues were published three years later, in 1779.

Historical Context

Hume was born into the period of Enlightenment or the Age of Reason, a time when many writers were using the faculty of rational thought to investigate religion, politics, and social and moral matters. He was also, however, born in Britain, which had not yet become as freethinking about religious matters as the continent. Nearly all of his thought can be seen as molded by these two historical forces: the intellectual movement which encouraged him to push ideas to their logical limit, and the religious culture that warned him not to push too far.

Hume was an Enlightenment philosopher par excellence. In questions of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and religion he did not hesitate to disregard received wisdom. In the Treatise Concerning Human Nature he rocked the foundations of thousands of years of epistemology and common sense by showing convincingly that there is no justification for our judgments concerning cause and effect: when we see one ball hit another and subsequently see the second ball moving, for instance, we have no rational basis on which to claim that the first ball caused the second ball to move. Rather, we expect the second ball to move when hit by the first out of habit (that is, because we've seen similar things happen many times in the past and then assume that they will happen the same way again). Hume argued even though we have no rational reason to expect the movement of the second ball, we should continue to do so because such beliefs are natural and necessary for our survival. Similarly, Hume argued that we have no rational basis for our belief in a benevolent creator.

While Hume's radically skeptical epistemological claims received no notice during his lifetime (until Kant stumbled on them during the following century and "awoke from his dogmatic slumber") his skeptical religious claims were not as easily ignored. Though theological debates raged in England between the more rational deists and the Orthodox theists, it was unacceptable at that time to deny the existence of God. Hume, therefore, had to tiptoe around his true opinions. Even in the posthumously published Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion Hume takes great care to submerge his own opinion underneath layers of literary artifice: the work is written as a dialogue with the author's mouthpiece left unidentified.

Philosophical Context

Hume's skepticism was the result of more than his strong commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of the supremacy of reason; it was also largely the result of his equally strong commitment to the philosophical principles of British Empiricism. Following in the footsteps of George Berkeley, Hume believed that all factual knowledge derives from experience. In contrast to the rationalists, such as Rene Descartes and Nicolas Malebranche (both influential for Hume), who believed that knowledge of matters of fact can be attained through the use of our reasoning faculty, Hume maintained that all matters of fact are established solely on the basis of our experience of the world. (In other words, according to Hume, you cannot just sit in your armchair, think really hard, and expect to come up with any knowledge of matters of fact. In order to arrive at new substantive knowledge, you have to go out into the world and investigate.)

In exploring the possibilities of human knowledge—whether it be scientific knowledge, moral knowledge, or religious knowledge—the relevant question for Hume was always the same: does our experience of the world provide us with enough evidence to draw a rational inference to the relevant conclusions? If experience does provide us with enough evidence, then the relevant beliefs (e.g. religious belief, in the case of the Dialogues) are justified and so rational, and if experience does not provide us with enough evidence, then the relevant beliefs are not justified and so not rational. (The assertion that a claim is rational if and only if it is supported by the evidence is commonly referred to as evidentialism. Both empiricists and rationalists alike believed firmly in evidentialism.)

Hume's commitment to empiricism accounts for the narrow focus of his religious investigation in the Dialogues. It might seem arbitrary, given the variety of arguments for God's existence that were employed in Hume's day, for him to have focused almost exclusively on one such argument, the argument from design. It is true that this particular argument (which claims that the intricate order and beauty of our universe is proof of an intelligent and benevolent designer) was enjoying a particular vogue during this period, largely because it was espoused by Sir Isaac Newton, but there were also other fashionable arguments, such as the ontological argument (which sought to prove God's existence from His very nature) and the cosmological argument (which claimed that God had to exist in order to account for our existence). Hume's focus makes sense when we consider that the argument from design is the only one of the three that seeks to base its conclusions on evidence drawn from experience of the world. Only the argument from design looks to the world and asks, "is there enough evidence here to justify our belief in an infinitely good, wise, and omnipotent God?"

In engaging in his investigation of religious belief, Hume was engaging three types of 18th century thinkers, each of whom is represented by a character in the dialogue. First of all, he discusses sort of man who would believe in the argument from design, the empirical theist. The empirical theist believes that by looking at the world, we can come to knowledge about both the existence and the nature of God. The most famous empirical theist of Hume's day was Sir Isaac Newton, but there were also other prominent defenders of the position such as the Dutch scientist and theologian Bernard Nieuwentyt. The second type of man that Hume discusses in this dialogue is the orthodox Christian or fideist, who believes that because human intellectual resources are too weak to lead us to any certain truths, we should abandon reason and accept truths on faith. Famous fideists include Montaigne and Pascal. Finally, Hume presents the skeptic, who is not wholly satisfied with either of these alternatives.

It is in part a testament to Hume's fair and thorough treatment of all these positions that followers of all three of these philosophical traditions have claimed Hume as their greatest mouthpiece. It is almost certainly the religious skeptics who have the best case for calling Hume one of their own (he incontrovertibly set the model for all later attacks on the rationality of religious belief), but fideists have been nearly as adamant in declaring him the greatest voice defending religious orthodoxy. The German philosopher J.G Hamann, for instance, was convinced that Hume had provided the most cogent argument for fideism by proving that there was no rational evidence for Christianity. He translated the dialogues into German hoping that Immanual Kant would read them and become a serious Christian. The Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard, the most important Christian fideist of the nineteenth century, was also very impressed by this interpretation of Hume's position.

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