The Immortal David Hume

Nigel Bruce

The eighteenth century in Scotland was a period that witnessed the blooming of new ideas in medicine, chemistry, geology, economics, engineering, and other fields of knowledge. It came to be known as the “Scottish Enlightenment.” Scotland then has been referred to as “a hotbed of genius.” Being a small country with a small population but with several old centers of learning, many of the leading academics, scientists, and writers knew each other and held discussions. David Hume was only one of a number of outstanding thinkers at that time, but with the passage of time his reputation has gained in strength throughout the English-speaking world and beyond.’

Why then was Hume such an important figure in the history of philosophy? Because he challenged Calvinist ideas about the will of God, original sin, miracles, the soul, sin and punishment, the foundations of ethics, and human nature. Because he proposed a total rethinking of the way in which such crucial questions should be approached that would start out from what our senses and our experience tell us and from what we learn from the ever-widening field of the natural sciences. And because he proposed a rethinking of the way in which history should be written, both in order to avoid the creation of myths and in order to learn from understanding the underlying forces that influence the evolution of societies.

His writings on religion must, therefore, be seen as one of the foundations on which the modern approach to philosophy, ethics, and sociology rests. He swept aside generations of Christian theology and invited thinking people to look at the world and at human nature as they really are. That was the negative side of his message, which has had reverberations all around the Western world. But it was never his intention to deconstruct without rebuilding. From the earliest stage of his enterprise, he set out to analyze the psychology of human nature, to examine the quality of human emotions, and to explore the foundations of social institutions.

Hume’s success owed much to the fact that, although his ideas were revolutionary, his essays and treatises were couched in elegant and careful prose and argued with scrupulous care. His manner in company was gentle and sociable; he had no personal enemies, whether in the churches or in politics, although he had a large number of intellectual opponents, many of whom would have liked to have seen his writings suppressed. The Vatican placed all the works of Hume on the Index of Prohibited Books. In Scotland, an effort was made to excommunicate him from the Church of Scotland, the national church, but his liberal friends in the Kirk succeeded in preventing this on the strangely illogical ground that the church had no authority over non-believers.

Hume’s memory still arouses mixed feelings in Scotland today. Not only is he written off by Roman Catholic academics as “only a minor philosopher,” but other branches of the Christian church still have difficulty in expressing admiration for such an anti-religious philosopher. Even on the political left, he is sometimes denigrated for his staunch support for law and order and his economic views, which were similar to those of his friend and executor, Adam Smith.

From the time when he first entered Edinburgh University, at the age of twelve, Hume had felt a strong urge to challenge the Calvinist culture into which he had been born; this would mean challenging the religious, philosophical, and political ideas of his age. He could not accept what the professors tried to teach him. He wanted to do for the moral sciences what Sir Isaac Newton had done for the physical sciences. By the time he had reached the age of sixty-six, he had no doubts about the significance of what his philosophical and literary talents had achieved. At that age, he wrote his last will and testament, in which he set aside £100 for a tomb to be erected in a prominent place in the City Graveyard on Calton Hill, Edinburgh. He instructed his executors, however, to inscribe on the tomb simply his name and the dates of his birth and death. Then followed the famous enigmatic phrase: “Leaving it to posterity to do the rest.”

Now that posterity acknowledges Hume’s pre-eminence, it is appropriate that a statue of him should be placed in the High Street of his native city, close to where he lived and worked. A plan to do this, however, has had a mixed reception. At first, there was no special need for haste—the two hundredth anniversary of his death was in 1976—the project was pushed into top gear when the Bank of Scotland offered a contribution of £25,000 if the statue was erected as part of their tercentenary celebrations in 1995. The Saltire Society, a Scottish charity devoted to the support of Scottish cultural traditions,’ after a limited competition, selected a young Scottish sculptor, Alexander Stoddart, to start on maquettes for a bronze statue one-and-a-half-times life-size.’

Hume’s first publication, “A Treatise of Human Nature,” was his most original. It consists of three equal parts: “Book I: Of the Understanding”; “Book II: Of the Passions”; “Book III: Of Morals.” There is an impressive inner logic in the sequence of this presentation; it was the passions, in Hume’s eyes, that must play the central role in any such ambitious attempt to describe both individual behavior and social relationships.

In claiming this dominant role for the passions, Hume was deliberately launching an attack on the metaphysicians of the previous century, including Rene Descartes, who believed that the general nature of the world could be established by wholly non-empirical demonstrative reasoning and who came to be labeled “rationalists.” Hume insisted that we must begin by recognizing how little we can rely on abstract argument, on claims to irrefutable knowledge or on assumptions about causality. The path of wisdom, he argued, is to start out from a cautious, skeptical position and to proceed from there only step by step when we feel that we have sufficient evidence on which to base reasonable assumptions.

In advocating this cautious, radical approach to knowledge, Hume was a prominent forerunner of the school of philosophy that came to be known as Logical Positivism, founded in Vienna in the 1920s and brought to Britain in the 1930s by Sir Alfred Ayer. Ayer, who was the first president of the British Humanist Association, frequently acknowledged his debt to Hume. The essentially empirical and analytical approach to philosophy that the Logical Positivists advocated, and of which Hume would have approved, was developed further in the United States by Rudolf Carnap and others, who sought to bring philosophical theories and concepts more into line with the methods and terminology of mathematics, logic, and the natural sciences.

But, equally, Hume was a prominent forerunner of the Utilitarian school of philosophy. Hume’s emphasis on the pre-eminence of the passions led him to argue that virtuous actions derive their ethical value mainly from the approval that they excite in the impartial observer. He observed that there is a parallel between the way in which we respond to a virtuous action and our reaction to a thing of beauty. We applaud virtuous actions, however, not only because they excite our instinctive approval but because we appreciate their utility for the health of our society. Hume does not pursue this train of thought toward any attempt to measure the overall utility of actions as the Utilitarians did. Both the great names in the Utilitarian school of philosophy, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, paid tribute to Hume’s pioneering work in this field.

Hume’s rigorous critique of philosophical thinking about the natural sciences has also had lasting importance. His stated aim was to apply the scientific approach of Sir Isaac Newton to the human and moral sciences. This required him to lay emphasis on the need to examine all the evidence for a proposition before accepting its probable validity. It also required him to deconstruct the concept of causality and to emphasize the element of contingency in natural events. It was Hume’s skeptical approach to theories of causality that led Albert Einstein to express a personal debt to him.

As a historian, Hume broke new ground both by the professional detachment of his methods and with the sobriety of the message that he conveyed. He sought to be just as unbiased in his historical reporting as in his philosophical discussions. He sought to expose the theological and ideological myths on which authoritarian institutions rested and to interpret historical events in terms of political ambitions and economic power. He urged moderation and realism, greater breadth of vision, more toleration, and greater social solidarity. He thought that the detached study of history could help to achieve goals such as these.

Hume’s History of England in six volumes became an instant best-seller and was read widely in Europe and North America, not least by the political elites. His analytic approach and his elegant style greatly influenced the historians of the next generation. His claim to detachment allowed him to be critical not only of both the English factions of his day, Tories and Whigs, but also of the damage to society caused by factionalism itself.

The goal that he advocated was a stable society in which the necessary amount of order and justice prevailed to permit individual freedom, property rights, and scope for personal enterprise.

Hume, like Plato before him and Adam Smith soon after him, spent much time examining the nature of justice. Hume concluded that, although we applaud just acts by a natural reaction, justice is more essentially an “artificial virtue” that derives its authority from social experience, convention, and consensus. Both Hume and Smith developed the concept of the “impartial spectator” in an effort to escape the charge of subjectivity in dis-cussing justice’; to some extent, therefore, they are forerunners of John Rawls and his theory of “justice as fairness.”

Hume corresponded from time to time with Baron Montesquieu, the French philosopher-historian, who was twenty years his senior. The contributions to the study of politics and government that were made both by Montesquieu and Hume formed part of the intellectual capital from which the framers of the American Constitution developed their concept of the need for “checks and balances” between the institutions of a stable and democratic constitution.’

Since he was himself such an innovator and such an advocate of gradual change, Hume would not have expected either his philosophical or his political ideas to be seen as infallible or immutable; he argued strongly against those theologians who claimed the immutability of truth. We should beware, therefore, of claiming that Hume’s theorizing has not been rendered some-what anachronistic by progress in the natural sciences as well as in the human and social sciences. What has not become anachronistic is his exposure of religious and ideological myths, his genuine attempt to see the world as it actually is in the light of the best available knowledge and the profoundly human desire to improve social conditions and enlarge the areas of liberty and toleration.

It is scarcely surprising therefore that the French came to nickname him “le bon David” and that the unnamed street in which he built his New Townhouse in Edinburgh came to be named “Saint David Street.” Thirteen days before he died, when he was still revising a new edition of “An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals,” he wrote a sentence that sums up the essence of his philosophy. Ernest Mossner, at the end of his brilliant biography, The Life of David Hume, suggests that this sentence should be inscribed on Hume’s tomb as a tribute paid by posterity:

Upon the whole, then, it seems undeniable, that nothing can bestow more merit on any human creature than the sentiment of benevolence in an eminent degree; and that a part at least of its merit arises from its tendency to promote the interests of our species and bestow happiness on human society.

What a man! What a message!

 


Notes

  1. The Hume Society is an active international forum, based in the United States, for philosophical studies. It has some 400 members worldwide. Its annual conferences alternate between North America and Europe.
  2. Since 1936, the Saltire Society, which is based in Edinburgh, has encouraged all aspects of the cultural life of Scotland, through publications, conferences, performances, and national awards.
  3. By mid-1995, Stoddart had started work on a full-size plaster cast to be transported to bronze-casters in Scotland. Sums raised by mid-1995 fell short of the target by £15,000; further funds are urgently needed. Checks in dollars or pounds should be sent to the David Hume Appeal, the Saltire Society, 9 Fountain Close, 22 High Street, Edinburgh, EH1 1TF.
  4. The concepts of justice developed by the three Scottish philosophers, Hutcheson, Hume, and Adam Smith, and their reliance on “the impartial spectator,” are analyzed in V. M. Hope (1989) Virtue by Consensus, published by Clarendon Press, Oxford.
  5. Both James Madison and Alexander Hamilton were well versed in the work of David Hume, to the extent that they were labeled “Humians” by Thomas Jefferson. Benjamin Franklin was a friend of Hume’s and stayed as a guest in Hume’s new house in Edinburgh’s New Town for three weeks in November 1971.

Nigel Bruce

Nigel Bruce is co-founder of the Humanist Society of Scotland and currently convener of the David Hume Commemoration Committee of the Saltire Society.


The eighteenth century in Scotland was a period that witnessed the blooming of new ideas in medicine, chemistry, geology, economics, engineering, and other fields of knowledge. It came to be known as the “Scottish Enlightenment.” Scotland then has been referred to as “a hotbed of genius.” Being a small country with a small population but …

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