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Who was David Hume?

David Hume (1711-1776) was the first philosopher in the Western tradition to construct a system of thought that had no intellectual reliance on God. His atheism was not merely a matter of personal belief, but was based on an application of skepticism to claims that the existence of God could be known by reason. Hume extended that skepticism to the nature of knowledge about the world, as well, and showed how limited our knowledge of both cause and effect, and the future, really is. He was the first, thoroughly modern, naturalistic philosopher.

What are some details of David Hume's life and career?

Hume was born in Edinburgh in 1711. His father was a distant relative of the Earl of Home, and his mother's close relatives were lawyers. David was expected to study law, but he didn't like it and left Edinburgh University when he was 15 to read and think about philosophy. He subjected himself to years of intense study, and in 1734 was under a doctor's care for ailments of body and spirit. This was followed by a philosophical breakthrough, as well as work for a merchant in Bristol. He then spent three years at La Fléche, René Descartes' (1596-1650) old school. Hume anonymously published A Treatise of Human Nature in 1739. This work was ignored by other intellectuals, and Hume himself later described it as having fallen "stillborn from the press."

In hopes of greater recognition (Hume was consumed by what he called "love of literary fame") he composed An Abstract of a Treatise of Human Nature, which was anonymously published in 1740. His next major philosophical work was Philosophical Essays concerning the Human Understanding (1748), which was retiled An Enquiry Concerning the Human Understanding (1758). Then came An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751). The Enquiry was more explicitly anti-religious than the Treatise. His Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion was probably written during the 1750s, although published posthumously.

With his philosophical research complete, Hume applied himself to history (his History of Great Britain won him great fame and acclaim), economics, ethics, and political philosophy. However, he also tried, although without success,

David Hume, depicted in this 1854 engraving, sought to create a science of the mind (iStock).

David Hume, depicted in this 1854 engraving, sought to create a science of the mind (iStock).

to secure the position of chair of philosophy at the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. He was appointed secretary to General St. Clair for three years in 1746, which led him to Brittany and Turin; and he was in charge of the Advocates Library in Edinburgh for five years, beginning in 1752. He was then private secretary to the British ambassador in Paris and undersecretary of state.

What was David Hume's great ambition in philosophy?

Hume sought to create a science of the mind, using empiricist methods in the same way that Isaac Newton (1642-1727) had created a science of the physical world.

How did Hume proceed philosophically to create his science of the mind?

Hume formulated and applied, over a large range of subjects, two main principles. First, all of our knowledge is the result of either sense impressions or reflections on the workings of our own mind. Second, no matter of fact can be proved a priori, or before experience. As Hume put it: "All the perceptions of the human mind resolve themselves into two distinct kinds, which I shall call impressions and ideas."

He held that the sciences of the natural world and beliefs about human society are the result of empirical investigation. The truths of mathematics and logic are known without investigating the world. For this reason, they are not about the world, but about the workings of human minds. Our sensory information, which gives us immediate factual knowledge, is more compelling than our ideas. As Hume stated: "The most lively thought is still inferior to the dullest sensation."

Hume had no use for past philosophical projects that contained a priori speculation about the workings of this world or the next. Here is how he summed up this doctrine:

If we take into our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Consign it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

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