Hume Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Although not widely read or well regarded during his lifetime, Hume’s first book, A Treatise of Human Nature, has become a central work in the four-hundred-year tradition of British empiricism.

Summary of Event

Before David Hume’s work in philosophy, John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Essay Concerning Human Understanding, An (Locke) (1690) and George Berkeley’s A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, A (Berkeley) (1710) constituted the core of British empiricism. Empiricism, in general, is the argument that knowledge comes from or through sense experience, and not, as rationalism Rationalism argues, solely from preexisting ideas or concepts in the mind. Hume’s empiricism brought the two arguments together: Materials for thinking—perceptions—come from reflection and sensation, that is, from the intellect and sense experience. [kw]Hume Publishes A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-1740) [kw]Nature, Hume Publishes A Treatise of Human (1739-1740) [kw]Human Nature, Hume Publishes A Treatise of (1739-1740) [kw]Treatise of Human Nature, Hume Publishes A (1739-1740) [kw]Publishes A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume (1739-1740) Empiricism Treatise of Human Nature, A (Hume) [g]England;1739-1740: Hume Publishes A Treatise of Human Nature[0960] [c]Philosophy;1739-1740: Hume Publishes A Treatise of Human Nature[0960] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;1739-1740: Hume Publishes A Treatise of Human Nature[0960] Hume, David Hutcheson, Francis Locke, John Berkeley, George Kant, Immanuel Reid, Thomas

Around 1726, at about the age of fifteen, Hume left the University of Edinburgh to teach himself law, but he soon immersed himself in philosophy and abandoned prospects of becoming a lawyer. For the next five years, Hume read philosophy on his own and became convinced that he had discovered the truth and that Locke and Berkeley had fallen short.

From 1732 to 1737, Hume wrote A Treatise of Human Nature: Being an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects, mostly while leading a happy-go-lucky life in Scotland and France, when he was in his early twenties. Building upon Locke, and challenging the tradition of continental rationalism, Hume laid out in the treatise all the philosophical concepts for which he is well known. In epistemology Epistemology and metaphysics Metaphysics he presented the contrast between impressions and ideas, the association of ideas, the rejection of traditional causality and necessary connection, the observation of constant conjunction, the rejection of persistent personal identity, and the advantages of healthy skepticism, customary belief, and habitual action. In ethics Ethics he argued for natural feeling, moral sentiment, approbation, sympathy, benevolence, utility, the rejection of natural law and natural right, and the recommendations for social justice based on self-interest tempered with the virtue of moral obligation.

The treatise first appeared anonymously in London as a cheap three-volume octavo edition in a press run of one thousand copies. It was published anonymously because doing so was common for young, unknown scholars of the time, and not because Hume had anything to hide. The first two volumes, Of the Understanding and Of the Passions, were published in January, 1739, by John Noon, and the third volume, Of Morals, was published in October, 1740, by Thomas Longman. The work did not sell well. In Hume’s own words, it “fell dead-born from the press.” Discouraged, Hume turned briefly from philosophy and moved to working in political theory, moralism, and history. It was his six-volume History of England (1754-1762) that made him famous during his time.

His next major philosophical work, Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding, Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding (Hume) which appeared in 1748, went into a second edition in 1750 and was much more successful than the treatise. This was the first appearance of his masterpiece, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (Hume) which is typically known as the first Enquiry to distinguish it from Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (Hume) (1751; the second Enquiry).

The few who read A Treatise of Human Nature in its earliest years did not like it. The reviews were uniformly negative. Hume sent Francis Hutcheson prepublication drafts of the sections on ethics and received only a scolding in return. Hutcheson considered Hume a hedonist and a baneful influence on morality. Thomas Reid, Hutcheson’s student at the University of Glasgow, did not like Hume’s work either. Reid’s anti-Lockeanism made him a natural opponent of Hume. The first book about Hume’s philosophy, Reid’s 1764 Inquiry into the Human Mind, Inquiry into the Human Mind (Reid) was a savage attack. Reid’s anti-Lockeanism Anti-Lockeanism[AntiLockeanism] showed through when he defended the everyday conceptions of what he called “the vulgar,” which conflicted greatly with Lockean empiricism. For example, when Reid saw a house, he saw a house; but when Locke saw a house, he saw his idea of the house, rather than the house itself. Mainstream British empiricism, derived mostly from Locke, was too abstract and fanciful for Reid, whose commonsense epistemology Epistemology;common sense would later develop into naïve realism. Naive realism

Hume himself would repudiate the treatise. He considered it juvenilia, remained disappointed that it sold so few copies, and, in the 1740’s, came to believe that he would have to write more carefully if he wished to gain acceptance for his philosophy. Thus, still believing entirely in the content of the treatise, he rewrote it as the Enquiries and as a minor work, Dissertation on the Passions Dissertation on the Passions (Hume) (1757), that is, in a form calculated to be more palatable to the learned audience that he aspired to impress. This second effort succeeded.

The first Enquiry recasts book 1 of the treatise. The second Enquiry and Dissertation on the Passions reinvent books 2 and 3. Thematically, there is little difference between the Enquiries and the Treatise of Human Nature. The respective sections correlate well. Students can check the analogous parts against each other to aid their learning of Hume. The treatise, though, is obviously the work of an ardent young man while the Enquiries are more soberly constructed, more tightly argued, and subtler in their wit. Also, the treatise is much longer than both Enquiries together. Because the treatise takes more chances, it is more entertaining, but whether it is more intellectually satisfying than the Enquiries remains controversial.

Significance

Immanuel Kant wrote in Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics (Kant) (1783) that reflecting on David Hume’s theory of causation around 1772 woke him from his “dogmatic slumber” and started him on the path toward developing the revolutionary critical philosophy that he brought to the world in 1781 with his Critique of Pure Reason. Kant had read the first Enquiry, not the Treatise of Human Nature, which had been included in Hume’s Vermischte Schriften, a four-volume German translation of some of his political and philosophical works prepared in the 1750’s. It included in 1755 a translation of the first Enquiry as Philosophische Versuche über die menschliche Erkenntniss, but there was no translation of the Treatise of Human Nature.

The treatise was conspicuously absent from the first posthumous collected edition of Hume’s philosophical works, published in 1777 as Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects. Just before he died, he wrote a famous “advertisement” for that edition, which reads, in part,

Most of the principles, and reasonings, contained in this volume, were published in a work in three volumes, called A Treatise of Human Nature: A work which the Author had projected before he left College, and which he wrote and published not long after. . . . Henceforth, the Author desires, that the following Pieces may alone be regarded as containing his philosophical sentiments and principles.

The second edition of the treatise appeared in 1817 and the third in 1874-1875. Philosophers did not begin to take the treatise seriously as a viable alternative to the Enquiries until the twentieth century. Norman Kemp Smith in the 1930’s and 1940’s was the first interpreter to examine it in depth. Thereafter, it has been a respected part of the Western philosophical canon. Despite its early neglect, the treatise has become Hume’s most influential work, and many Hume scholars consider it his most significant. Their failure to accept the philosopher’s posthumous wish at its word remains largely unexamined and ignored.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baier, Annette C. A Progress of Sentiments: Reflections of Hume’s “Treatise.” Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994. A key work by one of the world’s foremost Hume scholars.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Capaldi, Nicholas. David Hume: The Newtonian Philosopher. Boston: Twayne, 1975. An accessible and authoritative biography, part of Twayne’s World Leaders series.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Flew, Antony. Hume’s Philosophy of Belief. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961. A classic examination of Hume’s philosophy of religion that accepts Hume’s preference for the Enquiries over the Treatise of Human Nature.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding: A Critical Edition. Edited by Tom L. Beauchamp. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 2000. The standard edition sanctioned by the Hume Society.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals: A Critical Edition, edited by Tom L. Beauchamp. Oxford: Clarendon, 1998. The standard edition sanctioned by the Hume Society.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. A Treatise of Human Nature. Edited by David Fate Norton and Mary J. Norton. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. The standard edition sanctioned by the Hume Society.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, Oliver A. The Mind of David Hume: A Companion to Book I of “A Treatise of Human Nature.” Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995. A detailed analytic commentary on the treatise.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Livingston, Donald W., and James T. King. Hume: A Re-Evaluation. New York: Fordham University Press, 1976. Nineteen articles cover the full extent of Hume’s thought, and Livingston’s introduction sets the historical context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mossner, Ernest C. The Life of David Hume. 2d ed. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1980. Contains the standard account of the publication history of Hume’s treatise.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Norton, David Fate. David Hume: Common-Sense Moralist, Sceptical Metaphysician. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982. A challenge to previous interpretations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Hume. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. A broad, reliable, and accessible introduction to Hume’s entire corpus.

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