Sociology Index

David Hume

David Hume (1711 – 1776) was a Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, historian, economist, librarian and essayist, who is best known today for his highly influential system of philosophical empiricism, skepticism, and naturalism. David Hume’s major works are, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-1740), the Enquiries concerning Human Understanding (1748) and concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), as well as the posthumously published Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (1779).

David Hume's tomb stands, as he wished it, on the southwestern slope of Calton Hill, in the Old Calton Cemetery. Adam Smith later recounted Hume's amusing speculation that he might ask Charon, Hades' ferryman, to allow him a few more years of life in order to see "the downfall of some of the prevailing systems of superstition". The ferryman replied, "You loitering rogue, that will not happen these many hundred years.… Get into the boat this instant." Smith, Adam. "Letter from Adam Smith, LL.D. to William Strathan, Esq.

Beginning with A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume strove to create a naturalistic science of man that examined the psychological basis of human nature. Hume argued against the existence of innate ideas, positing that all human knowledge derives solely from experience. This places David Hume with Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and George Berkeley as a British Empiricist.

David Hume argued that inductive reasoning and belief in causality cannot be justified rationally; instead, they result from custom and mental habit. We never actually perceive that one event causes another but only experience the "constant conjunction" of events. This problem of induction means that to draw any causal inferences from past experience, it is necessary to presuppose that the future will resemble the past, a presupposition which cannot itself be grounded in prior experience.

David Hume held that passions rather than reason govern human behaviour, famously proclaiming that "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions." David Hume was also a sentimentalist who held that ethics are based on emotion or sentiment rather than abstract moral principle. He maintained an early commitment to naturalistic explanations of moral phenomena and is usually taken to have first clearly expounded the is–ought problem, or the idea that a statement of fact alone can never give rise to a normative conclusion of what ought to be done.

Hume also denied that humans have an actual conception of the self, positing that we experience only a bundle of sensations, and that the self is nothing more than this bundle of causally-connected perceptions. Hume's compatibilist theory of free will takes causal determinism as fully compatible with human freedom. David Hume's views on philosophy of religion, including his rejection of miracles and the argument from design for God's existence, were especially controversial for their time.

Hume influenced utilitarianism, logical positivism, the philosophy of science, early analytic philosophy, cognitive science, theology, and many other fields and thinkers. Immanuel Kant credited David Hume as the inspiration who had awakened him from his "dogmatic slumbers."

Hume was seen as a forerunner of logical positivism, a form of anti-metaphysical empiricism. According to the logical positivists, unless a statement could be verified by experience, or else was true or false by definition, then it was meaningless.

Empiricist philosophers, such as Hume and Berkeley, favoured the bundle theory of personal identity. In this theory, "the mind itself, far from being an independent power, is simply 'a bundle of perceptions' without unity or cohesive quality". The self is nothing but a bundle of experiences linked by the relations of causation and resemblance; or, more accurately, the empirically warranted idea of the self is just the idea of such a bundle. According to Hume: For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception. When my perceptions are removed for any time, as by sound sleep; so long I am insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist. — A Treatise of Human Nature.