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Philosopher of the month: David Hume

This March, the OUP Philosophy team honours David Hume (7 May 1711 – 25 August 1776) as their Philosopher of the Month. Born in Edinburgh, Hume is considered a founding figure of empiricism and the most significant philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment. With its strong critique of contemporary metaphysics, Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (1739–40) cleared the way for a genuinely empirical account of human understanding.

Hume belonged to a landed family of modest means, with connections to the law. Spending his formative years in the Scottish Borders at his family estate, Hume probably attended private school before entering Edinburgh University at the age of ten in 1721. There Hume would have attended courses in Latin and Greek, before proceeding to logic and metaphysics in his third year, and natural philosophy in the fourth. His philosophy professors were Colin Drummond and Robert Steuart.

Under pressure to adopt a legal career, Hume read widely in moral philosophy and history. Hume lived with his family until finding temporary employment with a Bristol merchant in 1734. This did not suit him, and Hume travelled to France, where he learned to speak a language he previously only read. He returned to London in 1737, and after 1739 Hume moved back to Scotland. Shortly after finishing college, Hume began serious study of Greco-Roman philosophy and literature.

Books I and II of Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature were published in early in 1739, followed the next year by Book III. Despite poor initial sales, the Treatise is considered the greatest study in skeptical philosophy in the English language. Subsequent scholarship has failed to agree on the complexities of Hume’s skepticism, and on whether it was more than a phase in reaching his full philosophical system. The “human nature” of Hume’s title refers to the human mind. Culminating in a theory of action, Hume’s Treatise broadens its investigation from the private to the public sphere, crossing into socio-behavioural theory.

Hume intended to follow the Treatise with at least two further projects, neither of which came to fruition as planned. Two volumes of Essays, Moral and Political (1741–1742), contain some exercises in political science based in Hume’s analysis of human nature—particularly the operation of passion in the motivation of governors and governed. Further philosophical work by Hume includes Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1752), Political Discourses (1752), and The Natural History of Religion (1757).

A long-standing interest in the field led to Hume’s massive History of Great Britain. On display in the six volumes Hume published between 1754 and 1762 are his narrative brilliance and skill in organizing complex data into a comprehensive system. Primarily structured around the history of the monarchy, Hume’s volumes also encompass social, economic, and cultural histories.

Retiring to Edinburgh in the summer of 1769, Hume developed a detached view of the political follies of the nation and revised his writings for posterity. At the height of his literary reputation, Hume died on 25 August 1776. Today, Hume is perhaps best remembered for his “constant conjunction” account of causality, and the associated problem of induction. Hume is also remembered for his rejection of the “self-interest” view of human nature and morality, and for attempting to lay the foundations for an empirical science of human nature.

Featured image credit: David Hume, depiction by Allan Ramsay. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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