David Hume (1711-1776) was a Scottish philosopher born in Edinburgh. Regarded the hero of modern day skeptics and empiricists, he is known for various philosophical inquiries and essays.
Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, initially a literary failure, is considered his major philosophical work. Hume renounced all knowledge except those gained from the senses.
Hume’s Ideas – Influence and Impressions
Hume drew the conclusion from John Locke that all human knowledge is based on relations amongst ideas or what he called “sense impressions.” Therefore, anything not given in experience is a mere invention and must be discarded.
As a result of this framework, Hume denies the existence of God and the self, as well as the objective existence of logical necessity – causation – and the validity of inductive knowledge itself.
His aim was twofold, namely:
- Get rid of science of all falsehoods based on “invention rather than experience (destructive)
- Found a science of human nature (constructive)
David Hume’s Skepticism
Hume’s rigorous empiricism rejected a priori reasoning as unreliable. He dismisses it as nothing more than a tendency to search for order in events claiming that: “There is no justification for believing that there is any causal necessity in the ordering of events.”
He observes that mortals never really experience their own selves, but only the continuous chain of experiences, a psychological fact that leads Hume to the metaphysical conclusion that the self is an illusion. “I am,” he famously says, “nothing but a bundle of perceptions.”
Following a similar line of thought, he notices that the force that completes one event to follow another, causation, is never experienced in sense impressions, that all given in experience is the regular succession of one kind of event followed by another. The supposition that the earlier event, the “cause,” must be followed by the succeeding event, the “effect,” is merely human expectation projected into reality.
Since all scientific laws are merely generalizations from inductive reasoning, this so-called “problem of induction” became an urgent one for science philosophers. Karl Popper is notable for offering the most promising solutions to Humean skepticism.
Insight into David Hume
Aside from being a philosopher, Hume was also a historian and a man of letters who wrote various essays and inquiries. He was a one-time friend of Rousseau when the latter went to England. Known for his skepticism, Hume held the idea that affirmed the contingency of all phenomenal events. His Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion indicates his atheism. He refuted Francis Bacon, and a friend of James Hutton. In his day, he was recognized as one of the leading figures of the Enlightenment era.
Works by David Hume
- Treatise of Human Nature, 1739
- An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 1748
- An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, 1751
- Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, 1779, Posthumous
McGovern, Una, Ed. Biographical Dictionary, 7th Ed. Edinburgh: Chambers, 2002.
Stokes, Philip. Philosophy, The Great Thinkers. London: Capella, 2007.