Authors: David Hume

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Scottish philosopher and historian

Author Works

Nonfiction:

A Treatise of Human Nature: Being an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects, 1739-1740

Essays, Moral and Political, 1741-1742 (enlarged as Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary, 1758)

Three Essays, Moral and Political, 1748

Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding, 1748 (best known as An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 1758)

An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, 1751

Political Discourses, 1752

The History of England, 1754-1762 (6 volumes)

Four Dissertations, 1757

A Concise and Genuine Account of the Dispute Between Mr. Hume and Mr. Rousseau, 1766

The Life of David Hume, Esq., Written by Himself, 1777

Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, 1779

Biography

No doubt the most thoroughgoing British skeptic of the eighteenth century was the Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume (hyewm). He received his early schooling in Edinburgh and began the study of law at the University there. He took a dislike to the legal profession, however, and also to the commercial career he began at a countinghouse in Bristol, and was finally permitted to study literature in France, from 1734 to 1737. There, he wrote the germinal A Treatise of Human Nature. It was published anonymously in 1739 and was practically unread at the time, and in 1777 Hume repudiated it. Later, in 1748, he revised his treatise into a more readable and manageable essay, which he titled An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, which became a better commercial success than the original version. On his return to Scotland, he wrote Three Essays, Moral and Political but failed to secure an appointment to the chair of moral philosophy at Edinburgh. In the next few years, he served as tutor to the near-mad marquis of Annandale, then as judge-advocate-general to General James Sinclair, with whom he served on a diplomatic mission to France. Clerical opposition to An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and the subsequent An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals prevented his being appointed to succeed his friend Adam Smith at the University of Glasgow.{$I[AN]9810000528}{$I[A]Hume, David}{$I[geo]SCOTLAND;Hume, David}{$I[tim]1711;Hume, David}

David Hume

(Library of Congress)

Hume then became keeper of the library of the Faculty of Advocates Library and a prominent member of intellectual circles in Edinburgh. Access to innumerable reference works encouraged his historical bent, and he began a comprehensive history of England from Julius Caesar to his own day, a popular work continued into the nineteenth century with additions by Tobias Smollett and others. These historical works retained his purity of style, which was the hallmark of his writing and thinking. They were, however, unremarkable in comparison with the original and brilliant philosophical works he wrote in his youth. He also published Four Dissertations (on Religion, the Passions, Tragedy, and Taste, with two others, Suicide, and the Immortality of the Soul, added posthumously). From 1763 to 1766, he served as secretary and sometime chargé-d’affaires with the British Embassy in Paris. There he befriended Jean-Jacques Rousseau, brought him back to England, and secured a pension for him; the friendship terminated abruptly under mysterious circumstances. Hume himself received a pension and served briefly as General Henry Seymour Conway’s undersecretary of state (1767-1768) before retiring to spend his life in writing and presiding over the intellectual life of Edinburgh, where he died in 1776.

Hume, having had the advantage of reading the works of John Locke and George Berkeley, retained some of the basic views of each and incorporated them into an entirely original and persuasive philosophy. He based all perceptions, whether sensory or ideal, on the functioning of the mind. According to Hume, human beings’ certainties about the world and about themselves are all a matter of habit and custom and of the way in which the human brain and nervous system work. Hume’s radical reduction of all knowledge, including morality, to mere habits and physiology dazzled and infuriated thinkers from that time on. His system, in doing away with metaphysics, religion, and morality, paved the way for nineteenth century positivism and utilitarianism, with its opposition to all a priori knowledge.

BibliographyAyer, A. J. Hume: A Very Short Introduction. 1980. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. This brief introduction to Hume’s life is both well written and useful. The chapter on aims and methods is especially good.Box, M. A. A Suasive Art of David Hume. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990. Looks at Hume’s works as literature in the context of intellectual history.Chappell, V. C., ed. Hume: A Collection of Critical Essays. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966. This collection of twenty-one essays by such acknowledged authorities as Ernest Mossner and Anthony Flew is valuable to students of Hume.Flage, Daniel E. David Hume’s Theory of Mind. New York: Routledge, 1990. Hume’s theory of understanding and philosophy of mind–his two most important contributions to philosophy and psychology–are thoroughly discussed.Herdt, Jennifer A. Religion and Faction in Hume’s Moral Philosophy. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Herdt takes a new look at Hume’s writings about religion and suggests a new interpretation.Jenkins, John J. Understanding Hume. Edited by Peter Lewis and Geoffrey Madell. Lanham, Md.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1992. Offers a short biography, then spends the bulk of the book discussing Hume’s philosophy, primarily by explicating Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature.Mossner, Ernest Campbell. The Life of David Hume. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. A readable and clear exposition of Hume’s philosophy placed in historical context.Norton, David Fate, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Hume. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Two biographical sketches follow eleven essays by scholars discussing the philosophy of Hume.Passmore, John. Hume’s Intentions. 3d ed. London: Duckworth, 1980. A valuable discussion of what Hume said and intended. Passmore corrects earlier imprecise and biased views of Hume.Penelhum, Terence. David Hume: An Introduction to His Philosophical System. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1992. A short biography of Hume, a discussion of his philosophical system, and a number of annotated excerpts from his writing.Pompa, Leon. Human Nature and Historical Knowledge: Hume, Hegel, and Vico. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990. The beginning of the book is devoted to a discussion of Hume’s theory of history and his thoughts about the past.Price, John Valdimir. David Hume. Updated ed. Boston: Twayne, 1991. A general introduction designed for readers who know little about Hume.Quinton, Anthony. Hume. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented and requiring no special background.Wilson, Fred. Hume’s Defence of Causal Inference. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997. A lengthy attempt to justify Hume’s arguments and rules about causal inference. For the specialist.
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