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David Hume

David HumeBorn: 7-May-1711
Birthplace: Edinburgh, Scotland
Died: 25-Aug-1776
Location of death: Edinburgh, Scotland
Cause of death: Cancer - Colon
Remains: Buried, Old Calton Burial Ground, Waterloo Palace, Edinburgh, Scotland

Gender: Male
Religion: Atheist
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Philosopher, Diplomat, Historian

Nationality: Scotland
Executive summary: Empiricist nonpareil

Philosopher, historian and political economist, born at Edinburgh, on the 26th of April (Old Style) 1711. His father, Joseph Hume or Home, a scion of the noble house of Home of Douglas, was owner of a small estate in Berwickshire, on the banks of the Whiteadder, called, from the spring rising in front of the dwelling-house, Ninewells. David was the youngest of a family of three, two sons and a daughter, who after the early death of the father were brought up with great care and devotion by their mother, the daughter of Sir David Falconer, president of the college of justice.

Of Hume's early education little is known beyond what he has himself stated in his Life. He appears to have entered the Greek classes of the university of Edinburgh in 1723, and, he tells us, "passed through the ordinary course of education with success." From a letter printed in Burton's Life, it appears that about 1726 Hume returned to Ninewells with a fair knowledge of Latin, slight acqtiaintance with Greek and literary tastes decidedly inclining to "books of reasoning and philosophy, and to poetry and the polite authors." We do not know, except by inference, to what studies he especially devoted himself. It is, however, clear that from his earliest years he began to speculate upon the nature of knowledge in the abstract, and its concrete applications, as in theology, and that with this object he studied largely the writings of Cicero and Seneca and recent English philosophers (especially John Locke, George Berkeley and Joseph Butler). His acquaintance with Cicero is clearly proved by the form in which he cast some of the most important of his speculations. From his boyhood he devoted himself to acquiring a literary reputation, and throughout his life, in spite of financial and other difficulties, he adhered to his original intention. A man of placid and even phlegmatic temperament, he lived moderately in all things, and sought worldly prosperity only so far as was necessary to give him leisure for his literary work. At first he tried law, but was unable to give his mind to a study which appeared to him to be merely a barren waste of technical jargon. At this time the intensity of his intellectual activity in the area opened up to him by Locke and Berkeley reduced him to a state of physical exhaustion. In these circumstances he determined to try the effect of complete change of scene and occupation, and in 1734 entered a business house in Bristol. In a few months he found "the scene wholly unsuitable" to him, and about the middle of 1734 set out for France, resolved to spend some years in quiet study. He visited Paris, resided for a time at Rheims and then settled at La Flèche, famous in the history of philosophy as the school of Descartes. His health seems to have been perfectly restored, and during the three years of his stay in France his speculations were worked into systematic form in the Treatise of Human Nature. In the autumn of 1737 he was in London arranging for its publication and polishing it in preparation for the judgments of the learned. In January 1730 appeared the first and second volumes of the Treatise of human Nature, being an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects, containing book I, Of the Understanding, and book II, Of the Passions. The third volume, containing book III, Of Morals, was published in the following year. The publisher of the first two volumes, John Noone, gave him £50 and twelve bound copies for a first edition of one thousand copies. Hume's own words best describc its reception. "Never literary attempt was more unfortunate: it fell dead-born from the press, without reaching such distinction as even to excite a murmur among the zealots." "But", he adds, "being naturally of a cheerful and sanguine temper, I very soon recovered the blow, and prosecuted with great ardour my studies in the country." This brief notice, however, is not stiflicient to explain the full significance of the event for Hume's own life. The work undoubtedly failed to do what its author expected from it; even the notice, otherwise not unsatisfactory, which it obtained in the History of the Works of the Learned, then the principal critical journal, did not in the least appreciate the true bearing of the Treatise on current discussions. Hume naturally expected that the world would see as clearly as he did the connection between the concrete problems agitating contemporary thought and the abstract principles on which their solution depended. Accordingly he looked for opposition, and expected that, if his principles were received, a change in general conceptions of things would ensue. His disappointment at its reception was great; and though he never entirely relinquished his metaphysical speculations, though all that is of value in his later writings depends on the acute analysis of human nature to which he was from the first attracted, one cannot but regret that his high powers were henceforth withdrawn for the most part from the consideration of the foundations of belief, and expended on its practical applications. In later years he attributed his want of success to the immature style of his early exposition, to the rashness of a young innovator in an old and well-established province of literature. But this has little foundation beyond the irritation of an author at his own failure to attract such attention as he deems his due. None of the principles of the Treatise is given up in the later writings, and no addition is made to them. Nor can the superior polish of the more mature productions counterbalance the concentrated vigor of the more youthful work.

After the publication of the Treatise Hume retired to his brother's house at Ninewells and carried on his studies, mainly in the direction of politics and political economy. In 1741 he published the first volume of his Essays, which had a considerable and immediate success. A second edition was called for in the following year, in which also a second volume was published. These essays Butler, to whom he had sent a copy of his Treatise, but with whom he had failed to make personal acquaintance, warmly commended. The philosophical relation between Butler and Hume is curious. So far as analysis of knowledge is concerned they are in harmony, and Hume's skeptical conclusions regarding belief in matters of fact are the foundations on which Butler's defense of religion rests. Butler, however, retained, in spite of his destructive theory of knowledge, confidence in the rational proofs for the existence of God, and certainly maintains what may be vaguely described as an a priori view of conscience. Hume had the greatest respect for the author of the Analogy, ranks him with John Locke and George Berkeley as an originator of the experimental method in moral science, and in his specially theological essays, such as that on Particular Providence and a Future State, has Butler's views specifically in mind.

The success of the Essays, though hardly great enough to satisfy his somewhat exorbitant cravings, was a great encouragement to him. He began to hope that his earlier work, if recast and lightened, might share the fortunes of its successor; and at intervals throughout the next four years he occupied himself in rewriting it in a more succinct form with all the literary grace at his command. Meantime he continued to look about for some post which might secure him the modest independence he desired. In 1744 we find him, in anticipation of a vacancy in the chair of moral philosophy at Edinburgh university, moving his friends to advance his cause with the electors; and though, as he tells us, "the accusation of heresy, deism, skepticism or theism, etc., etc., was started" against him, it had no effect, "being bore down by the contrary authority of all the good people in town." To his great mortification, however, he found out, as he thought, that Hutcheson and Leechman, with whom he had been on terms of friendly correspondence, were giving the weight of their opinion against his election. The after history of these negotiations is obscure. Failing in this attempt, he was induced to become tutor, or keeper, to the marquis of Annandale, a harmless literary lunatic. This position, financially advantageous, was absurdly false, and when the matter ended Hume had to sue for arrears of salary.

In 1746 Hume accepted the office of secretary to General St. Clair, and was a spectator of the ill-fated expedition to France in the autumn of that year. His admirable account of the transaction has been printed by Burton. After a brief sojourn at Ninewells, doubtless occupied in preparing for publication his Philosophical Essays (afterwards entitled An Inquiry concerning Human Understanding), Hume was again associated with General St. Clair as secretary in the embassy to Vienna and Turin (1748). The notes of his journey are written in a light and amusing style, showing Hume's usual keenness of sight in some directions and his almost equal blindness in others. During his absence from England, early in the year 1748, the Philosophical Essays were published; but the first reception of the work was little more favorable than that accorded to the Treatise. To the later editions of the work Hume prepared an "Advertisement" referring to the Treatise, and desiring that the Essays "may alone be regarded as containing his philosophical sentiments and principles." Some modern critics have accepted this disclaimer as of real value, but in fact it has no significance; and Hume himself in a striking letter to Gilbert Elliott indicated the true relation of the two works. "I believe the Philosophical Essays contain everything of consequence relating to the understanding which you would meet with in the Treatise, and I give you my advice against reading the latter. By shortening and simplifying the questions, I really render them much more complete. Addo dum minuo. The philosophical principles are the same in both." The Essays are undoubtedly written with more maturity and skill than the Treatise; they contain in more detail application of the principles to concrete problems, such as miracles, providence, immortality; but the entire omission of the discussion forming part II of the first book of the Treatise, and the great compression of part IV, are real defects which must always render the Treatise the more important work.

In 1749 Hume returned to Ninewells, enriched with "near a thousand pounds." In 1751 he removed to Edinburgh, where for the most part he resided during the next twelve years of his life. These years are the richest so far as literary production is concerned. In 1751 he published his Political Discourses, which had a great and well-deserved success both in England and abroad. It was translated into French by Mauvillon (1753) and by the Abbé le Blanc (1754). In the same year appeared the recast of the third book of the Treatise, called Inquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, of which he says that "of all his writings, philosophical, literary or historical, it is incomparably the best." At this time also we hear of the Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, a work which Hume was prevailed on not to publish, but which he revised with great care, and evidently regarded with the greatest favor. The work itself, left by Hume with instructions that it should be published, did not appear until 1779.

In 1751 Hume was again unsuccessful in the attempt to gain a professor's chair. In the following year he received, in spite of the usual accusations of heresy, the librarianship of the Advocates' Library in Edinburgh, small in emoluments (£40 a year) but rich in opportunity for literary work. In a playful letter to Dr. Clephane, he describes his satisfaction at his appointment, and attributes it in some measure to the support of "the ladies."

In 1753 Hume was fairly settled in Edinburgh, preparing for his History of England. He had decided to begin the History, not with Henry VII, as Adam Smith recommended, but with James I, considering that the political differences of his time took their origin from that period. On the whole his attitude in respect to disputed political principles seems not to have been at first consciously unfair. As for the qualities necessary to secure success as a writer on history, he felt that he possessed them in a high degree; and, though neither his ideal of an historian nor his equipment for the task of historical research would now appear adequate, in both he was much in advance of his time. "But", he writes in the well-known passage of his Life, "miserable was my disappointment. I was assailed by one cry of reproach, disapprobation, and even detestation;... what was still more mortifying, the book seemed to sink into oblivion. Mr. Millar told me that in a twelvemonth he sold only forty-five copies of it." This account must be accepted with reservations. It expresses Hume's feelings rather than the real facts. In Edinburgh, as we learn from one of his letters, the book succeeded well, no fewer than 450 copies being disposed of in five weeks. Nor is there anything in Hume's correspondence to show that the failure of the book was so complete as he declared. Within a very few years the sale of the History was sufficient to gain for the author a larger revenue than had ever before been known in his country to flow from literature, and to place him in comparative affluence. He seems to have received £400 for the first edition of the first volume, £700 for the first edition of the second and £840 for the copyright of the two together. At the same time the bitterness of Hume's feelings and their effect are of importance in his life. It is from the publication of the History that we date his virulent hatred of everything English, towards society in London, Whig principles, Whig ministers and the public generally. He was convinced that there was a conspiracy to suppress and destroy everything Scottish. The remainder of the History became little better than a party pamphlet. The second volume, published in 1756, carrying on the narrative to the Revolution, was better received than the first; but Hume then resolved to work backwards, and to show from a survey of the Tudor period that his Tory notions were grounded upon the history of the constitution. In 1759 this portion of the work appeared, and in 1761 the work was completed by the history of the pre-Tudor periods. The numerous editions of the various portions -- for, despite Hume's wrath and grumblings, the book was a great literary success -- gave him an opportunity of careful revision, which he employed to remove from it all the "villainous seditious Whig strokes", and "plaguy prejudices of Whiggism" that he could detect. In other words, he bent all his efforts toward making his History more of a party work than it had been, and in his effort he was entirely successful. The early portion of his History may be regarded as now of little or no value. The sources at Hume's command were few, and he did not use them all. Nonetheless, the History has a distinct place in the literature of England. It was the first attempt at a comprehensive treatment of historic facts, the first to introduce the social and literary aspects of a nation's life as only second in importance to its political fortunes, and the first historical writing in an animated yet refined and polished style.

While the History was in process of publication, Hume did not entirely neglect his other lines of activity. In 1757 appeared Four Dissertations: The Natural History of Religion, Of the Passions, Of Tragedy, Of the Standard of Taste. Of these the dissertation on the passions is a very subtle piece of psychology, containing the essence of the second book of the Treatise. It is remarkable that Hume does not appear to have been acquainted with Spinoza's analysis of the affections. The last two essays are contributions of no great importance to aesthetics, a department of philosophy in which Hume was not strong. The Natural History of Religion is a powerful contribution to the deistic controversy; but, as in the case of Hume's earlier work, its significance was at the time overlooked. It is an attempt to carry the war into a province hitherto allowed to remain at peace, the theory of the general development of religious ideas. Deists, though raising doubts regarding the historic narratives of the Christian faith, had never disputed the general fact that belief in one God was natural and primitive. Hume endeavors to show that polytheism was the earliest as well as the most natural form of religious belief, and that theism or deism is the product of reflection upon experience, thus reducing the validity of the historical argument to that of the theoretical proofs.

In 1763 he accompanied Lord Hertford to Paris, doing the duties of secretary to the embassy, with the prospect of the appointment to that post. He was everywhere received "with the most extraordinary honours." The society of Paris was peculiarly ready to receive a great philosopher and historian, especially if he were known to be an avowed antagonist of religion, and Hume made valuable friendships, especially with D'Alembert and Turgot, the latter of whom profited much by Hume's economical essays. In 1766 he left Paris and returned to Edinburgh. In 1767 he accepted the post of under-secretary to General Conway and spent two years in London.

He settled finally in Edinburgh in 1769, having now through his pension and otherwise an income of £1000 a year. The solitary incident of note in this period of his life is the ridiculous quarrel with Rousseau, which throws much light upon the character of the great sentimentalist. Hume certainly did his utmost to secure for Rousseau a comfortable retreat in England, but his usually sound judgment seems at first to have been quite at fault with regard to his protégé. The quarrel which all the acquaintances of the two philosophers had predicted soon came, and no language had expressions strong enough for Rousseau's anger. Hume came well out of the business, and had the sagacity to conclude that his admired friend was little better than a madman. In one of his most charming letters he describes his life in Edinburgh. The new house to which he alludes was built under his own directions at the corner of what is now called St. David Street after him; it became the center of the most cultivated society of Edinburgh. Hume's cheerful temper, his equanimity, his kindness to literary aspirants and to those whose views differed from his own won him universal respect and affection. He welcomed the work of his friends (e.g. Robertson and Adam Smith), and warmly recognized the worth of his opponents (e.g. George Campbell and Thomas Reid). He assisted Blackwell and Smollett in their difficulties and became the acknowledged patriarch of literature.

In the spring of 1775 Hume was struck with a tedious and harassing though not painful illness. A visit to Bath seemed at first to have produced good effects, but on the return journey more alarming symptoms developed themselves, his strength rapidly sank, and, little more than a month later, he died in Edinburgh on the 25th of August 1776.

Father: Joseph Hume
Mother: Katherine Falconer

    University: University of Edinburgh

    Nervous Breakdown 1729
    Asteroid Namesake 7009 Hume
    Scottish Ancestry
    Risk Factors: Scurvy

Author of books:
A Treatise of Human Nature: Being an Attempt to introduce the experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects. (1740)
An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748)
An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751)


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