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David Hume's work profoundly affected writers as influential as Immanuel Kant, Charles Darwin and Adam Smith, and contributed centrally to the project of developing a “naturalistic” philosophy, meaning one that builds from our best current scientific knowledge of the world. Having gained no small infamy early within his career as a skeptic and an atheist following the publication of his Treatise on Human Nature (1739-1740), he found great success with the publication of Essays, Moral and Political (1741 and 1742), and later with his six volume History of England (1754 – 1762). The range and depth of his knowledge of the arts, humanities and sciences, attested to in the scope of his many works, does not detract from his chief focus, using an approach of ‘mitigated skepticism’ to construct an an experimental philosophy of understanding, or, more broadly, a “science of man.”
Hume sought to apply his experimental study of human beings not just to our conception of human nature, but also our understanding of human beings as within the wider realm of their environment considered from a natural, moral, social, and aesthetic point of view. Having made an early attempt to reform philosophy through what he termed, ironically, the construction of a ‘true metaphysics’, Hume presented in his A Treatise of Human Nature (1739 – 40) a thoroughgoing rejection of reasoning without attention to sense experience as the basis on which to construct either a method or a systematic investigation of what we can consider the true nature of reality. The muted reception of that work – if not quite the indifferent reception Hume later claimed – prompted him to recast its main reflections on knowledge into a new form, eventually known known as An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). In this work Hume emphasized the need to eschew the abstract hypotheses and systems characteristic of much philosophy, such as Descartes or Hobbes, as a likely source of error and uncertainty; Hume attempted to proceed merely from the starting point of facts and observations. Based entirely within the limits of that which reason and experience (or at least the ‘powers of the mind’) can attest to be legitimate or true, the Enquiry purports to chart the relations between ideas and sensations that comprise the nature of those cognitive items Hume regards as fundamental to all and any thought: namely, our perceptions. Moving beyond these perceptions risks lapsing into incoherence, and it is on this basis that Hume came, in a famous passage, to show the deficiency of even basic notions such as causation. Hume applied this method with great profit to traditional philosophical questions regarding the nature of liberty and necessity, the religious argument from design, and the status of miracles. In his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, he extended his experimental program to offer a new, non-hypothetical account of the basis of morality. Rejecting claims that all human motives can be understood as forms of self-interest as empirically unfounded hypotheses, Hume instead claimed experimentally to discover the “moral sentiments” of self-love and benevolence underlying all claims about the merit of different actions and states of being.
Written by Ruairidh MacLeod, Program in Philosophy and Education, Teachers College, Columbia University
Morris, William Edward. "David Hume," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (Fall 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)