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David Hume - Biography

David Hume (May 7, 1711 – August 25, 1776) born in Edinburgh was a Scottish Philosopher and Historian. He was raised from an early age by his widowed Calvinist mother and attended Edinburgh University. His self-description in his five-page autobiography holds to be quite honest, “a man of mild Dispositions, of Command of Temper, of an open, social, and cheerful Humour, capable of Attachment, but little susceptible of Enmity, and of great Moderation in all my passions.” His good friend, Adam Smith upholds Hume's portrait of himself in the obituary written in honor of his friend: “Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his life-time, 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.”

Arguably the most important of the British empiricists, Hume maintained the work of his predecessors John Locke (1632-1704) and George Berkeley (1685-1753) and moved beyond a the understanding that knowledge derives from experience in opposition to the rationalist belief, developed in the 17th century, that ideas held an innate value. He embraced a radical skepticism suggesting that experience holds utmost importance writing that no philosopher “will ever be able to takes us behind the daily experiences or give us rules of conduct that are different from those we get through reflections on everyday life.” The ideas that abound, then, are made up of sensations from everyday life albeit rather complex ideas. Hume distinguished between impressions and ideas, impressions being immediate sensations of the reality that surrounds us and ideas being the recollection of these impressions. Any development of thought from politics to religion is reliant on the integration within the mind which Hume described as “a kind of theater, where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, re-pass, slide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations.” As for a notion that does not contain “abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number” or “experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence” Hume writes poetically, “Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” Hume's writings were crucial to the development of Kant's eventual work weaving rationalism and empiricism into a coherent bond.

Hume's first published work, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), is the most widely read and considered his masterpiece was published when he was 28, but he said that the impetus to write such a tome was within him since the tender age of 15. The Treatise was written during his stay in the small Northern French town of La Fleche in Anjou at the Jesuit College where Descartes had been educated. Upon return to London where he managed to enter into a contract with John Noon he was able to publish anonymously a thousand copy edition of the first two 'books' of the Treatise entitled “Of the Understanding” and “Of the Passions” in 1739 under the general title of A Treatise of Human Nature: Being an Attempt to introduce the experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects. The third book, “Of Morals,” was published a year later by a different publisher. The reception disappointed Hume and he called it “dead-born from the Press, without reaching such distinction as even to excite a murmur among the zealots.” Hume exaggerated the lack of reception for the Treatise was noticed in at least three lengthy reviews although the tone of said reviews was hostile and disdainful.

Hume took it upon himself to claim the responsibility for the poor reception of the work feeling that it had presentational defects and that the readers were hostile because they couldn't understand the concepts he laid out while in all actuality, his critics found Hume's views to be heretical and even more ghastly unto themselves, atheistic. In a move that would be characteristic of Hume throughout his life, he sought to rewrite the Treatise so that his arguments could be better understood. While his later reworkings and reincorporations of earlier work into later work were more successful, Hume's attempt to clarify the Treatise was a six-penny pamphlet, again published anonymously, and laboriously entitled “an abstract of a late Philosophical Performance, entitled A Treatise of Human Nature, &c. Wherein the chief Argument and Design of that Book, which has met with such Opposition, and been represented in so terrifying a Light, is further illustrated and explain'd.”

While Hume was met throughout his life with accusations of heresy and conflict in regards to his disobedience in light of religion, he did gain notoriety as an effective and important figure in philosophy (and later history). His following work after the Treatise was another anonymous work, the two-volume Essays, Moral and Political which included 27 essays of a range of topics from criticism to manners to politics to name a few. These volumes did well enough for Hume to become a candidate for the Professorship of Ethics and Pneumatical Philosophy at Edinburgh University. Although there was no direct opposition to Hume, he was not chosen and instead he accepted a tutorship for the Marquis of Annandale. It was during this time that Hume produced An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding and Three Essays, Moral and Political which were both published in 1748.

The Enquiry was intended to supersede the Treatise and indeed brings the issue of causality to the forefront, casting aside the more (what we would call now) psychological approaches. In a chapter, “Of Miracles,” Hume began to gain fame amongst his peers for his iconoclastic implications. It is in this particular chapter (which he had left out of the Treatise) that he writes, “That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact, which it endeavors to establish.” It was the Three Essays that was the first of Hume's works to be published under his own name and gained popularity for its timeliness. Of the Three Essays, Hume described them as such, “One is against the original Contract, the system of Whigs, another against passive Obedience, the system of the Tories: A third upon the Protestant Succession, where I suppose a Man to deliberate, before the Establishment of that Succession, which Family he should adhere to, and to weigh the Advantages and Disadvantages of each.”

Consequently, Hume was dismissed from his tutorship and was briefly enlisted in an expedition under General St. Clair before becoming an Aides-de-camp in the Embassy to the Court of Vienna and Turin where he remained until 1748. It was during this time that he held correspondence with Montesquieu for the last seven years of the French thinker's life. Apparently Montesquieu had been so taken with Three Essays, Moral and Political that he shared his own work with Hume and they wrote to each other often. Hume's popularity was increasing but the reworking continued when Hume returned to Scotland where he wrote Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, (1751) meant to replace the third book of the Treatise and a piece that Hume considered to be his best. The next year, 1752, Hume published Political Discourses and began work on Dialogues concerning Natural Religion as well as History of England. The hostility originally inspired by the Treatise did not seem to be as prevalent with Political Discourses although it was still listed on the Roman Catholic Index along with his other works.

Hume continued his work on the what came to be six-volume History of England while working as the Librarian to the Faculty of Advocates at Edinburgh. He occupied the position from 1751-57 although he intended to resign after the curators would not allow Hume to include La Fontaine's Contes in 1754. Instead he gave his salary to a struggling poet named Blacklock until he finally left in 1757. The History, published throughout the end of the 1750s and into the 1760s, gained Hume notoriety as a historian and received abounding acclaim as shown by Voltaire's exuberant remark that, “nothing can be added to the fame of this History, perhaps the best ever written in any language.” Voltaire was not the only French thinker to herald Hume's importance as shown by his popularity among the 'philosophes' of Paris during his visit in 1763, most notably the 'encyclopedistes' Diderot and d'Alembert. When he returned home from Paris in 1766, Hume brought Jean-Jacques Rousseau back with him since Rousseau had been living in Switzerland since he had made so many enemies in Paris. Hume received firsthand experience as to how Rousseau had lost his connections in Paris for Rousseau's paranoia made staying in England impossible. The friendship ended roughly as Rousseau returned to continental Europe.

The late part of Hume's life was spent in Edinburgh continuing to rework and work on his philosophical enterprises. He continued to be the radical skeptic up until the end with one of his final works being The Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion published posthumously in 1779. The Dialogues dispute any claims for rational or natural theology and it is perhaps due to the extremely controversial nature of the work that Hume withheld the text. It was also within the last years that Hume was able to act as mentor to the burgeoning thinker, Adam Smith, and was able to read the first part of The Wealth of Nations before expiring.

David Hume was a Scottish Philosopher and Historian (May 7, 1711 – August 25, 1776)