Hume, David (1711-1776)

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David Hume (1711-1776) of Scotland was a moral philosopher and historian of the European and Scottish Enlightenments. His philosophy is often associated with skepticism, and his History of England is both a historical work and a vehicle for much of his philosophy.

Hume's philosophy is typical of Enlightenment attempts to apply the tremendous advances in the natural sciences to the study of man. His theory of causation exemplifies the skepticism often associated with him. Hume suggested that events have no truly knowable cause; what humans attribute to causation is merely their belief that two separate events are connected. He applied his skepticism to the realm of morals as well, positing that reason is indispensable in making moral decisions, but not in determining the ultimate source of right and wrong. The basis of morality, he thought, is the moral sense that nature implanted in the species. This view tends to identify human experience as the basis for all real understanding. Hume's History of England illustrates this by providing a sweeping history full of examples of good and bad behavior.

The History is also a work of political thought. Hume saw the advent of the rule of law and the establishment of an independent judiciary as the events that brought the oppressive and savage feudal order to an end. Furthermore, he criticized philosophers, such as Locke, who posited a contractual social order. Not only did Locke's view seem to delegitimize successful and otherwise good governments, it was also historically untenable. The English Constitution, for example, which Hume contended was the most perfect system of government, evolved over a long period through the confrontation of many forces but was not contractually defined. This point would later be revisited by such thinkers as Edmund Burke. Moreover, although Hume's philosophy relied on rational inquiry, his approach underscored the dangers of an excessive rationalism that attempted to understand society without considering historical experience.

Hume also differentiated between the nature of ancient and modern political thought. Whereas political participation had been the highest goal of life in ancient republics, individual security and prosperity were the goals of the culturally rich and commercially extensive societies that formed modern states.

Hume was a close friend of Adam Smith, and many of the ideas of economics that were current in the eighteenth century found expression in his writings. He frequently strove to counter prevalent misconceptions about commerce, pointing out that luxury, for example, was not entirely bad because it inspired people to be industrious in their pursuits.


Works by Hume

Hume, David. An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding and Selections from a Treatise of Human Nature. La Salle: Open Court Publishing Company, 1946.

Hume, David. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Edited by Henry D. Aiken. New York: Hafner Publishing Company, 1948.

Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. 3 vols. Edited by L.A. Shelby Bigge. Oxford: Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1955.

Hume, David. The Philosophical Works of David Hume. 4 vols. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1854.

Hume, David. Hume's Moral and Political Philosophy. Edited by Henry D. Aiken. New York: Hafner Publishing Company, 1948.

Hume, David. An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding: with a supplement "An Abstract of a Treatise of Human Nature". Edited by Charles W. Hendel. New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1955.

Hume, David. Political Essays. Edited by Charles W. Hendel. New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1953.

Hume, David. The History of England: From the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Abdication James the Second, 1688. 5 vols. Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1870. (Available from Liberty Fund's online book catalogue, 1983 edition from 1778. Indianapolis, Liberty Fund, Inc.)

Hume, David. Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals: With a Supplement "A Dialogue". Edited by Charles W. Hendel. New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1957.

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