A retrospective: David Hume

David Hume, born David Home (pronounced Hume), was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1711. He was raised by his mother, as his father died when he was two, and by the age of twelve he was already attending university in an attempt to study law, but his heart wasn’t in it, as his only interest was philosophy and had an avid interest in philosophers from days gone by, but little respect for the thinkers of his time. He was so intent on intellectual discovery that he had a nervous breakdown as aged 18, and had to take some years to recover, and at the age of 25 he moved to France to begin writing.

In France he spent much of his time studying and writing his book, Treatise of Human Nature. This was his attempt to create a philosophical system that would guide people into understanding more about questions like, why are we here? – what is morality? – what are the origins of space and time? – What is reason? – why do we have emotions?

He returned to Britain in 1739 to publish his book, which came in three parts, but its reception was far from positive, and he was overwhelmed with disappointment. It was only in his more mature years that he realised how juvenile, and how poorly written it was, yet it remains to this day as his most read book. Two years later he published his second book, Essays, Moral and Political, and this time he was more successful and in 1748 he rewrote book one of ‘treatise’, Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding, and wrote, Moral and Political, and in 1752 he rewrote book three of ‘treatise’, The Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals.

“Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous.” – David Hume

Hume researched endlessly, and regarding epistemology he was brutally sceptical, but incredibly passionate. He was accused of heresy on a number of occasions due to his scepticism, as he claimed it was extremely unreasonable to accept alleged claims of divine and miraculous events. The problem he faced was it was a time when religion was popular, and his desire was to separate philosophy and religion as they didn’t belong together, as religion leads to psychological corruption. He also promoted secular moral values, which went against the common belief that God instils morality with faith, but he argued that it was our positive and pleasing actions that defines our morality.

David Hume, Edinburgh’s Royal Mile

Hume claimed morality stemmed from sympathy as the fact of all human nature, and with this moral system it’s about happiness to others as a priority, as well as one’s self, if and where possible. Altruism is a moral theory that involves the good of others as paramount. Regarding sympathy, it’s human nature to laugh with someone who laughing, or mourn with a mourner.

From 1751 onwards he spent his time between Edinburgh and London, spending most of his time writing. Political Discourses, written in 1752, started making him famous, and Four Dissertations, in 1757, where he rewrote book two of his ‘treatise’, and, the natural history of religion’. He got tired of public life, and London, and he decided to move to Edinburgh to stay where he wrote many more books on philosophy, and an autobiography. He died there after a long illness.

His fame grew after his death, and will be remembered as an economist, historian, and philosopher, where he stood out as for his empiricism, scepticism, and naturalism. His philosophy on human nature, claimed that we are creatures who are guided by sentiment and emotions, as opposed to reason. He was also recognised for the reintroduction of scepticism into philosophy, that had been abandoned mostly since the decline of Greek philosophy. One of his biggest influences was Sir Isaac Newton, and whilst he admired his work, he disagreed with Newton’s causality theories, as he claimed naturalism is more logical than divinity.

“Epicurus’s old questions are still unanswered: Is he (God) willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? then whence evil?” – David Hume