David Hume


– All our ideas are derived originally from sense impressions.

– Since our beliefs are based not on reason but imagination, they cannot be rationally justified.

– We cannot establish the existence of an external, physical world.

– Causation must be explained subjectively rather than objectively.

– There are no minds distinct from the contents of consciousness.

– Ultimately, nothing can be known.

– Our moral convictions are based on feeling rather than on reason.

– The question of God’s existence is an enigma; although the chief arguments that attempt to establish that God exists are subject to telling objections, they still have a residual validity.


David Hume was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, 1711.

Hume’s widowed mother devoted herself to the education of “several young children.” She came from an influential family, her father being Sir David Falconer, President of the College of Justice. The family, if not David, had thoughts that David should choose the law as a profession.

At the age of 23, in March of 1734, Hume left Scotland for Bristol visiting London on the way. He had determined to attach himself to a merchant located at Bristol and to learn something of the business world. This venture, for whatever reason, did not work out; for, within a matter of months we see where Hume left Bristol and traveled to France. “There,” Hume writes, “I laid that plan of life which I have steadily and successfully pursued. I resolved to make a very rigid frugality to supply my deficiency of fortune, to maintain unimpaired my independency, and to regard every object as contemptible except the improvement of my talents in literature.”

Hume was to stay three years in France during which time he was to work on his first book, A Treatise of Human Nature. During September of 1737, Hume returned from France and passed 16 months at London polishing and publishing his work; after which, he went home, “Ninewells, near Berwick,” there, to languish at his family’s “fair domain.” He sought employment at the university at Edinburgh (Professorship of Moral Philosophy) and though he had powerful support, he did not get the job “on account of his well-known sentiments on religious subjects.”

In 1752, after a failed attempt (once again) to gain a university position (a chair in logic at Glasgow) Hume was appointed the Keeper of the Advocates’ Library in Edinburgh.

Hume’s connections included General Sinclair to whom, for a period of time, during the 1740s, he was secretary at the military embassies at Vienna and Turin (northern Italy). In 1763 he went to the embassy at Paris as Lord Hertford’s secretary, a place at which Hume as Chargé d’affaires stayed after Hertford when off to govern Ireland in 1765. Though “entirely unmoved by the raptures of Paris,” Hume moved in the highest of circles. “In the gay and fashionable circles of Paris his fame, station, and agreeable bearing, secured him so hearty a welcome that ladies and princes, wits and philosophers, vied in their attentions.”

On his return to England, in 1766, Hume was appointed by Lord Hertford’s brother, General Conway, as an Under-Secretary of State, a position in the Home Office. However, on account of failing health, Hume was obliged to give up his Home Office position after about a year. After a short stay at Bath, in order to take of its healing waters, he returned to Edinburgh to spend his last few years; he died there on the 25th of August, 1776; and, was buried in the Calton Hill cemetery.

Hume never married and as a bachelor led a “peripatetic life.” At Scotland with his family he enjoyed a “sophisticated, gregarious and bucolic intellectual life.

Hume valued friendship as one of the highest virtues, and conversation and claret as two of the major props of civilized living.” Hume described himself as “a man of mild dispositions, of command of temper, of an open, social, and cheerful humour, capable of attachment, but little susceptible of enmity, and of great moderation in all my passions.”

Though, in his day, Hume was better known as a historian, he is, today, remembered as a philosopher. Hume’s philosophical work, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, was written in 1748. It was a follow up to an earlier work, a more esoteric effort, a less popular work, A Treatise of Human Nature.

In addition, in 1752, Hume wrote Political Discourses. In 1755, he wrote The Natural History of Religion; and, then, between the years 1754-62, he set forth his six volume, History of England; which, though despite its errors of fact, was the standard work for many years.

David Hume died in Edinburgh in 1776 – the year his close friend Adam Smith‘s Wealth of Nations was published.

David Hume was an empiricist from the school of Locke. For empiricists, knowledge comes to a person exclusively through experience. What is true is what is experienced by the senses, and which, at the same time, is consistent and coherent with past experiences. We all take our cue from the customary or habitual succession of events. We judge that there is a causal relationship, and that the probabilities are that in the future a similar sequence of events will take place. Things, however, do not take place as a matter of necessity; things are not predetermined. Because of this, it is possible that some things, which we hold dear and near to our hearts, do not in fact exist, nonetheless, we proceed in life and make decisions, best we can, based on experience; and, regularly and subconsciously, bet that things will turn out for the best.

Hume questioned the process of inductive thinking, which had been the hallmark of science. Hume was of the view that no matter how many individual observations an investigator may come up with (empiricism), he would never be in a position to make an unrestricted general statement. “When on innumerable occasions we observe certain experiences succeeding others, we naturally feel under similar circumstances in the future like events or causes will be followed by like effects. …only custom or habit may validly be said to serve as the foundation for this causal idea.” There is no guarantee, no matter how accustomed we may have become to certain sequential events of the past that the sequence will necessarily repeat itself. He concluded that the “whole of our science assumes the regularity of nature – assumes the future will be like the past …”

This is referred to in the texts as Hume’s problem, the problem of induction.

Major Works of David Hume

– A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-1740)
– Essays Moral and Political (1741-1742)
– An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748)
– Essays Moral: Of the Original Contract (1748)
– An Enquiry Concerning the Principals of Morals (1751)
– History of England (1754-1762)
– Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1777)
– Of the Original Contract (1748)

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