David Hume: notes for next meeting

DAVID HUME (1711 -76)

We decided at the last meeting to move onto study a substantial philosopher and their work, to date we have not talked about David Hume; the following is a short biography as background for our discussions.


Hume, D. (ed. Mossner E.C.) (1969) A Treatise on Human Nature Harmondsworth: Penguin (first published 1739)

Magee, B. (2001) The Story of Philosophy London: Dorling Kindersley

Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (entry revised 2014) at: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hume/#Cau

Widely regarded as “one of the most important figures in philosophy”, David Hume’s early work seems to have been either largely ignored or repudiated in Britain at the time of publishing. However, it is not certain that it “fell deadborn from the press” as he himself wrote, for it fuelled much controversy in certain circles. Many thinkers later came to recognise his worth. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) thanked Hume for “first disturbing his dogmatic slumber” (although there is some scholarly dispute over how much of Hume he actually read). His friend Adam Smith (1723-90) wrote that: “I have always considered him, both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will admit”. Although Charles Darwin cited him as an influence, his work remained largely ignored in 19C Britain. Hume’s work attracted much interest in the 20C, perhaps due to the mood of both scepticism and scientific enquiry that characterised European modernity. Albert Einstein thought Hume the philosopher that helped him the most and Sir Isaiah Berlin said that: “No man has influenced the history of philosophy to a deeper and more disturbing degree”. Bertrand Russell wrote a short story in which “there is a particularly painful chamber in hell reserved for those who have refuted Hume”.

Born David Home in Edinburgh to a well-connected but not very wealthy family, he lived on their borders estate reading widely in languages, mathematics and sciences, until signing the matriculation book at Edinburgh University at the age of about 10 or 11. He did not complete a degree (apparently a common occurrence) perhaps because he was an auto-dictat who had already read very widely. He changed his name to Hume after a visit to England in 1734 when he found the locals would not accept that his name was pronounced Hume, despite the spelling. His family wanted him to study law but he found this “nauseous’ and in his autobiography writes about avidly reading classical authors such as Virgil and Cicero. In 1729 he gave up all pretence of studying law and devoted the next eight years of his life to studying philosophy, a pursuit that seems to have brought him to some kind of mental breakdown!

As a second son, his inheritance was meagre, so he moved to France, where he could live cheaply, and finally settled in La Flèche, a sleepy village in Anjou best known for its Jesuit college where Descartes and Mersenne had studied a century before. Here he read French and other continental authors, especially Malebranche, Dubos, and Bayle, and occasionally baited the Jesuits with arguments attacking their beliefs. By this time, Hume had not only rejected the religious beliefs with which he was raised, but was also opposed to organized religion in general, an opposition that remained constant throughout his life. In 1734, when he was only 23, he began writing A Treatise of Human Nature (THN). He returned to England in 1737 to try and get THN published and edited parts of the original to make it less provocative to the prevailing religious mood.

In 1744-45 the Provost of Edinburgh persuaded him to apply for the chair of Moral Philosophy at the University, but his appointment was opposed by the clergy who regarded THN as subversive; Hume never held an academic post. From 1754-1762 he brought out 6 volumes of “The History of England” described as “a prodigious piece of scholarship”. He became known as a man of letters and an essayist and in 1762 Boswell called him “the greatest writer in BRITTAIN”.

Hume made a living in various ways that included being a tutor, a judge-advocate, an aide-de-camp, librarian and senior civil servant. This last post began in 1763, when Hume accepted a position as private secretary to the British Ambassador to France. During his three-year stay in Paris, he became Secretary to the Embassy, and eventually its chargé d’affaires. He became the rage of the Parisian salons, enjoying the conversation and company of famous European intellectuals. He was known for his love of good food and wine, as well as his enjoyment of the attentions and affections of women. The French called him “Le Bon David”.
Early in 1766 Hume brought over to England, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in order to provide him with political sanctuary. There appears to have been a quarrel between the two, Rousseau had a reputation as a belligerent and paranoid man, apparently Hume had refused to listen to the many warnings he had received about Rousseau’s character. Hume was moved to publish his side of events and defend his reputation (there’s a fascinating book that I have not begun yet: by David Edmonds and John Eidinow called Rousseau’s Dog: Two Great Thinkers At War In The Age of Enlightenment, published by Faber & Faber). There is some irony in the observation that Hume’s reason ‘became a slave to his passions’ over this affair given his dictum that reason is a slave to the passions (emotions).

Hume retired to Edinburgh in 1769 and enjoyed life amongst his friends of the Edinburgh Circle who included James Hutton, James Boswell, James Watt and Adam Smith. In 1775, Hume was diagnosed with intestinal cancer. Before his death in 1776, he arranged for the posthumous publication of his most controversial work, the Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, and composed a brief autobiography, “My Own Life”.

The Dialogues and THN are considered among his greatest philosophical works. Hume himself reckoned that he spent a lot of his life explaining, defending, and revising THN and in fact went as far as to renounce parts of it in later life. The 1751 publication An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals is a key work through which Hume develops his arguments. Hume described his ideas as mitigated or “academic scepticism’ where sceptism (from the Greek skepsis, meaning inquiry) means questioning received opinions and beliefs that are not founded on experience, a thoroughly reasoned reflection, and investigation and to various degrees, depending on the version, it means that it is impossible to ‘know’ anything with any certainty. (There was a classical Greek tradition in the “Academy” of scepticism that Cicero later translated into Latin). Hume thought it was good enough to get on with our lives on the basis of probability, in other words, we cannot know with absolute certainty something will happen but it could be highly probable on the basis of current understanding.

It is important to note that the subtitle to THN read: “Being an Attempt to introduce the experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects”. Hume overtly placed himself in the tradition of British empiricists such as Newton, Locke, Shaftesbury, Mandeville, Hutcheson and Butler. Although the arguments of these philosophers differ in many respects, empiricism broadly speaking is concerned with the role of experience (our knowledge can only come from experiences), evidence, experimentation and reason in understanding what it means to ‘know’ something. Hume wrote that these philosophers “have begun to put the science of man on a new footing and have engaged the attention, and excited the curiosity of the public”.

For Hume, one could not understand human endeavours such as science, morals, and politics if one did not understand the nature of human beings and how one acquires knowledge and ideas.   This is what one could call a naturalist position. Hume covered a lot of ground and we will introduce ourselves to the contents of his philosophy through some of the excellent podcasts that are available. Hume raised problems about understanding what we mean by such things as human nature, causation, induction, knowledge, necessity, morality and justice that are still current problems today and which contemporary neurosciences and psychology do not necessarily refute. One of Hume’s legacies has been the argument over whether one can derive an ought from an is, for example if a scientist can manipulate a gene, a fact, it does not necessarily follow on Hume’s account that one ought to do this. I will scan two or three pages of THN so that you can get an idea of the original, but if you have time to get library copies I recommend doing so; there is nothing like reading the original.



Following our previous discussion on artificial intelligence our group began to discuss what it means to live in a highly connected world and to ask questions about what obligations we owe to complete strangers, either those on the other side of the planet or those such as the Syrian refugees who face such hardships in an effort to find a better life within our ‘borders’.

This leads onto thinking about ideas that collect under the banner of cosmopolitanism. This is not a new term, although we might understand it in very different ways to the ancients. The word has been used to describe a wide variety of important views in moral and socio-political philosophy.  Seyla Benhabib has described it as “a key word of our times”, and I think she is undoubtedly right about the importance of the debate, given the humanitarian crisis that has washed tragically ever closer to our shores and the deep uncertainties about closer economic and political union within Europe.

The word ‘cosmopolitan’, derives from the Greek word kosmopolitês (‘citizen of the world/cosmos’), and was certainly in use by the Cynics of the 4th BC. The formulation probably reflected Cynic scepticism towards custom and tradition since it is used to highlight a paradox: one was held to be citizen of a certain city or polis to whom loyalty is owed, but one is also a citizen of the whole universe. The Cynic, Diogenes, was said to have replied when asked where he came from that: ‘I am a citizen of the world [kosmopolitês]’. By identifying himself not as a citizen of Sinope but as a citizen of the world, Diogenes apparently refused to agree that he owed special service to Sinope and the Sinopeans. Later Stoic philosophers in Roman history such as Cicero, Seneca and emperor Marcus Aurelius developed the conviction of the oneness of humanity, a view that proved congenial to early Christian intellectuals.

According to Kwame Appiah, cosmopolitanism “underwrote some of the great moral achievements of the Enlightenment, including the 1789 “Declaration of the Rights of Man” and Immanuel Kant’s work proposing a “league of nations”. The German writer Christopher Martin Wieland took up the Stoic theme writing in 1788 that “Cosmopolitans… regard all the peoples of the earth as so many branches of a single family, and the universe as a state…”. Thinkers such as Hume, Voltaire, Diderot and Jefferson all began to think of the necessity of developing a greater understanding of the inhabitants of the world they shared.

Around a rather vague core of the oneness of humanity different versions of cosmopolitanism appear. Cosmopolitanism interweaves moral traditions that ask questions about what obligations are owed to others across borders. It also takes on political forms that question the current narrowness of nation states, economic forms about shared markets (Adam Smith being a particular pioneer) and cultural interests in the relevance and value of particular cultural practices.   Thinking about cosmopolitanism challenges us to think quite widely about our place in the world and about what such terms as ‘human nature’, friendship and solidarity actually mean. The matter is very concrete and not at all abstract if we think about cosmopolitanism not as a literal evocation, as necessarily achievable, but as a desirable metaphor about how one ought to act.

In recent history, the 20th century witnessed barbaric genocides and a legal response that invoked the concept of “crimes against humanity”. Underlying this concept is an assumption about the humanness of humanity, or in Hannah Arendt’s words: the human right to have rights. Although utilitarians have written about human rights in a cosmopolitan framework, much of what we think of universal human rights that should be applied regardless of one’s particular state citizenship, can be found in some of Kant’s political and moral thought. Kant notes that “a violation of right on one place of the earth is felt in all” as peoples depend upon one another and know about one another more and more. Violations of cosmopolitan right would make more difficult the trust and cooperation necessary for perpetual peace among states. Kant restricted cosmopolitan right to the right of hospitality and he was highly critical of European colonisation. He wrote about the right to interact peacefully with one another, for example in trade, but this did not necessarily mean an obligation to accept trade. The cosmopolitan right is an important component of perpetual peace.

Of course the question is far more complex than it ever was given the huge increase in population, the spread of global media and the reach of corporations and military technology. The population of Athens that Socrates might have irritated in his questioning could probably have fitted into a few skyscrapers. Kant could write about the obligations of hospitality and the importance of democratic states in a world that did not endure the same pressures of mass migration and technical warfare that we currently face.

Kwame Appiah writes about how for most of our evolution we lived in small bands seeing few more in our mortal span than our fellow family or troop members. He puts the question rather neatly:

“Each person that you know about and can affect is someone to whom you have responsibilities: to say this is just to affirm the very idea of morality. The challenge then is to take hearts and minds formed over long millennia of living in local troops and equip them with the ideas and institutions that will allow us to live together as the global tribe we have become” (2006, p.xiii)

So a number of questions arise: what then are the necessary ideas for living together? What are the political institutions that enable them? What do we owe strangers? What is the tragedy of the commons? Is any form of cultural relativism right?


Arendt, H. (1998, first published 1958) The Human Condition Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Appiah, K. A. (2006) Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers London: Allen Lane

Benhabib, S. (2005) Another Cosmopolitanism Oxford: Oxford University Press

Williams, H (ed.) (1992) Essays on Kant’s Political Philosophy, Chicago: University of Chicago Press

There are many, many contemporary philosophers who write about these kinds of questions in very different ways. Some worth mentioning are:
Kwame Anthony Appiah, Seyla Benhabib, Nancy Fraser, Jurgen Habermas, Bonnie Honig, Will Kymlicka, Martha Nussbaum, Peter Singer, Charles Taylor, Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Peter Unger, Jeremy Waldron