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Brief Lives

David Hume (1711-1776)

Alistair MacFarlane treats of the life of a great Scot.

Hume, a Scot, was the greatest philosopher to write in English. At the age of eighteen he had a sudden deep insight, asking himself whether the moral philosophy of human behaviour could be assimilated into the natural philosophy of the physical world developed famously by Isaac Newton (1643-1727). This is a question still at the cutting edge of philosophy. All Hume’s major contributions to philosophy were made before he reached thirty. After their indifferent reception, he shrugged off his disappointment to become a famous essayist and historian. But his youthful work roused Immanuel Kant from his “dogmatic slumbers” and so kick-started modern philosophy. Hume was the supreme asker of awkward questions – someone who flatly refused to accept beliefs on the mere grounds that they were widely and forcibly asserted. He became the greatest of sceptics.

There can be no progress without scepticism, since otherwise existing beliefs would never be challenged. Equally, total scepticism – a rejection of all beliefs – would result in intellectual paralysis. Philosophy thus proceeds in fits and starts: established approaches are challenged, and either survive or are supplanted by new approaches which are thought to give better explanations or guidance. Hume’s sceptical attitude to empiricism marked one of the great turning points in philosophy.

David Hume
David Hume portrait by Woodrow Cowher, 2017

Early Life

David Hume was born on 26 April 1711 (in the old calendar) in Edinburgh. His father, Joseph Home, was an advocate (a lawyer) and minor aristocrat with a modest estate at Ninewells in Berwickshire in the Scottish Borders. His mother Katherine was the daughter of Sir David Falconer, President of the Scottish College of Justice. David was the youngest of three children, having an older brother, John, born in 1709, and a sister, Katherine, born in 1710. (On going to France, Hume changed the spelling of his surname to match its pronunciation.)

Joseph Home died in 1713, and the estate passed to John. Their mother, who never re-married, managed the estate until John took it over. Hence David, although born into a moderately wealthy and socially well-connected family, had no significant inheritance, and eventually had to make his own way in the world. Katherine Home decided to have her children educated at home, hoping that David would follow his father’s footsteps into a legal career. She was a devout Calvinist who brought up the children in her faith. David, developing into an inveterate sceptic, soon renounced all religion, but his amiable nature ensured that there was no rupture with his mother, although she complained to a friend that “he was awful stubborn”.

In 1723 John went up to Edinburgh University, and Katherine sent David with him. Even for those days, twelve was an unusually early age to attend university. The level of instruction was however fairly elementary, and, as was common at the time, attendance did not necessarily involve taking a degree. After three years, having studied some Greek, Latin, logic, metaphysics, and natural philosophy, and in particular gaining some knowledge of Newton’s work, Hume left to head back to Ninewells, planning to prepare for the study of law. The next four years proved difficult but crucial for his later development. In his own words, he “found an insurmountable aversion to anything but the pursuits of philosophy and general learning.” While his family thought he was preparing for the law, Hume had made a momentous decision. He would seek to do for human behaviour what Newton had done for the physical universe. Hume was fully aware of the immensity of the task he was setting himself, and planned a ten year programme of work. But the difficulty of the task, combined with the intensity of his commitment, provoked a psychological and physical crisis, and he had a nervous breakdown.

The physical symptoms – notably severe heart palpitations and scurvy on his hands – did not respond to the treatment of his local doctor. But a mixture of clear thinking, determination and common sense saved the day. Hume decided that, come what may, he would pursue his philosophical ideas and publish them. But for this purpose he would have to regain his health and find a way of combining philosophical work with employment which would supplement his meagre income as a younger son. He decided to exercise regularly and eat properly. Over the next two years he became “the most sturdy, robust, healthful-like fellow you have seen” while he sought independent employment.

In February 1734, shortly before facing an ecclesiastical court to answer a charge of fathering an illegitimate child, he left for Bristol to work for a firm of sugar merchants. This only lasted for a few months before he travelled to France where he could survive better on his modest income while working on his ideas. Hume found an ideal place at the Jesuit College in La Flèche, where Descartes had been educated. By the autumn of 1737 he had nearly completed his first great book, and he returned to London to seek a publisher. Finding one was not easy, and took nearly a year.

A Treatise of Human Nature was published in two parts in January 1739, with a third part ‘On Morals’ delayed until November 1740. Its reception proved a great disappointment. In Hume’s famous description: “Never literary event was more unfortunate than my Treatise. It fell dead-born from the press, without reaching such distinction as to even excite a murmur among the zealots.” The zealots were those who, bitterly opposing his atheism and anti-clericalism, would become the bane of his life.

Although he was later to re-write and improve much of the Treatise, at the age of twenty-eight he had produced all the philosophical ideas for which he later became so deservedly famous. Hume now set out to pursue other ways of making a living and securing a reputation, and his fortunes soon began to change.

Essayist & Historian

After the initial failure of his Treatise, Hume accepted an appointment as a tutor to the young Marquis of Annendale. In 1741 he also published Essays Moral and Political. These were well received, and soon brought in several times the annual income he was receiving as a tutor. Hume lost his job after the Marquis was declared insane, but he now felt confident that he could earn his living as an author. Thus encouraged, he decided to re-write his Treatise in a shortened form, giving a clearer treatment of its material. His Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding appeared in 1748, but was no better received. At this point Hume abandoned philosophy and embarked on another major, and this time hugely successful, venture, producing a six-volume History of Great Britain, published between 1754 and 1762. It made his reputation in Europe after Voltaire hailed it as “perhaps the best [history] written in any language.”

Last Days

Following the great success of his History, Hume spent the years 1763-1766 in France as the personal secretary to the Earl of Hertford, who was British Ambassador to the French Court. Hume was a huge success among the French intelligentsia, and established a reputation there as a great thinker and writer. When the Earl was made Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Hume refused an invitation to accompany him. But by the time he returned to Edinburgh in 1769, Hume had become a wealthy man, with an income of over £100,000 a year. He built a house in the New Town, in what became St David’s Street (the inadvertent achievement of secular sainthood would have greatly amused him). Resuming an active social life, he ignored the continuing attacks made on his philosophy by the zealots, and worked on Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, posthumously published in 1779.

In early 1775, in his own words, he was “struck with a disorder in my bowels, which at first gave me no alarm but has since, as I apprehend it, become mortal and incurable.” After an increasingly severe, yet stoically borne, illness, Hume died on 25 August 1776. In an obituary, his great friend the economist Adam Smith described him as “approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit.” Hume had asked to be interred in a simple Roman tomb inscribed with only his name and dates of birth and death, but ended up in an imposing mausoleum overlooking Edinburgh.


Hume is usually represented as completing an ‘empiricist’ movement started by John Locke (1632-1704) and continued by George Berkeley (1685-1753), but their approaches were very different. Locke made a valiant attempt to establish that all knowledge derived from experience. He regarded the mind as a ‘blank slate’ on which experience somehow inscribed knowledge. To articulate this idea, Locke differentiated between the primary qualities of objects, such as their solidity, shape and extension, and their secondary qualities, such as their colour, taste, or other sensations they induce. Berkeley went further, claiming that there was no need to invoke the existence of matter at all, only experiences and the minds that perceived them. Finally Hume, the supreme sceptic, argued that we had no more warrant for believing in minds continuing through time than for believing in the existence of matter. From this intellectual ferment and upheaval, modern philosophy began to emerge via the work of Immanuel Kant.

Hume’s most famous contribution to philosophy is perhaps his sceptical scrutiny of the concept that causality was some mysterious form of physical process. He argued that causality was rather a method of reasoning used to explain a variety of physical effects. Imagine an infant in its cot playing with a collection of soft toys and watched over by a grandfather. When the child throws its toys out of the cot they land on the floor with a soft thud, and stay where they landed. The grandfather now gives the child a rubber ball, which it has never seen before. After close inspection this is also thrown out. To the child’s delight it behaves quite differently, bouncing around before finally coming to rest. As the toys and ball are returned to it, they are repeatedly inspected, then ejected. Soon the child grasps that there is a fundamental difference in behaviour between soft toys and rubber balls. Hume would ask a crucial question here: In what way does the grandfather’s knowledge differ from that of the child’s? His answer is that the only difference is that the adult has had prior experience which the child did not have. The adult’s experience had led to his association of the ideas of rubber balls and bouncing.

Generally speaking, Hume maintained that causality cannot be distinguished from the constant conjunction of ideas. If one thing happens after another, this does not establish any necessary connection between them. We posit such a connection only when we have repeatedly seen similar conjunctions of events.

However, ‘necessary connections’ are our essential means of explaining what’s happening in the world. Causality, a means of arguing from (apparent) cause to (apparent) effect, antedates logic, which argues from premises to conclusions. Our distant ancestors learned to use causal reasoning long before formal logic emerged. Making flint axes, for example, would be impossible to explain and describe without invoking cause and effect: you hit the rock with another rock and the first rock splinters. A modern view is that all explanations and arguments must start from somewhere, and causality is best regarded as a form of reasoning. Hume’s insight was that we use causal relationships to explain certain forms of constant conjunctions of experiences. An older child might say to a younger one: “If you throw this ball then it bounces. Watch!” The infant then makes an association of the relevant ideas: throwing rubber balls makes them bounce. Causality, Hume maintained, is a way of rationalising and organising experience.

Hume brought the same unblinking scepticism to his consideration of human behaviour. He argued that reason, by itself, is concerned only with truth and falsehood, and so “can never be the motive for any action of the will.” This led to his famous dictum: “Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” For Hume, then, “The rules of our morality are not conclusions of our reason”, and so “the sense of justice, on which both moral and political obligations depend, is derived not from any natural impressions of reflection but from impressions due to artifice and human conventions.” In other words our moral feelings are the result of the education of our sentiments. Hume’s attitudes to causality and human behaviour are consistent. In his view they both arise from dispositions, formed in the one case by experience, and in the other by social convention.


The more one grasps the way modern philosophy seems to be developing, the more one’s admiration for Hume increases. And the more one considers how he fought his way back from ill health, rejection and disappointment to fame and success, the more one admires his character. It is pointless, even invidious, to compare philosophers as people. But if asked to select from among them a companion for a long journey or for someone to sit beside at a dinner, Hume would get my vote every time.

© Sir Alistair MacFarlane 2017

Sir Alistair MacFarlane is a former Vice-President of the Royal Society and a retired university Vice-Chancellor.

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