Saturday, January 21, 2012

David Hume (1711-1776)

If I had to select one, and only one, philosopher to study (which fortunately I don't!) then that philosopher would be David Hume.

Hume was born in Edinburgh, Scotland and is now recognised as one of the most important figures in Western philosophy, being a key figure in the Scottish Enlightenment. He is often grouped with John Locke (1632-1704) and George Berkeley (1685-1753), all of whom promoted an empiricist approach to philosophy which is based on evidence and observation (i.e. scientific method) as opposed to a priori ('arm-chair') reasoning.

Hume wrote extensively on philosophy, history and economics. To my mind his essays are surprisingly readable considering they are 270 years old. The National Library of Scotland holds several of his manuscripts, all of which are free to request by library members.

Two of Hume's most famous philosophical works are A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40) and Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals (1777). It is mainly these two works that I will refer to for subsequent posts on Hume.

His talents were perhaps not fully appreciated by his mother, who is reported to have said of her youngest son "Our Davie 's a fine good natured crater, but uncommon wake-minded". He studied at Edinburgh University, "passing the ordinary course of education with success", leaving with at least a fair knowledge of Latin and at least an acquaintance with Greek.

Literary influences at the start of his career include Cicero and Seneca as well as works by Locke, Berkeley and Joseph Butler (1692-1752). From a relatively early age, Hume displayed a passion for literature and investigations into human nature.

The first choice of a profession, that of law, made for him by his relatives who thought it suited his "studious habits, sobriety, and industry", proved unsuccessful. In 1734 he travelled to Bristol with the intention of entering into a "more active" mercantile life. Fortunately for us, he quickly "found the scene wholly unsuitable" and in the same year left for France. He visited Paris, Rheims and settled in La Flèche, famous in the history of philosophy as the school of René Descartes (1596,1650). It was while resident in France that he wrote Treatise.

Treastise comprises three books (i) Of the Understanding, (ii) Of the Passions, and (iii) Of Morals. The first two volumes were published in 1739 with the third following the next year. Their reception was somewhat underwhelming, as Hume vividly describes "Never literary attempt was more unfortunate; it fell dead-born from the press, without reaching such distinction as even to excite a mumur among the zealots". "But, being naturally of a cheerful and sanguine temper, I very soon recovered the blow, and prosecuted with great ardour my studies in the country".

The disclaimer of the Treatise in the preface to the Inquiry is famous, but has more to do with his disappointment at the reception of the Treatise than its shortcomings as a work of philosophy. The Advertisement, which is printed at the beginning of the 1777 posthumous reprint of Hume's Collected Essays in 1777 (i.e. the Enquiry), declares the author's desire that "the following pieces may alone be regarded as containing his philosophical sentiments and principles"
I will return to Hume's Treatise in my next post.

To finish, I will just underline the philosophical influence Hume has had by referring to some quotes from other philosophers (from Wikipedia):
  • Kant credited Hume with awakening him from "dogmatic slumbers".
  • According to Schopenhauer, "there is more to be learned from each page of David Hume than from the collected philosophical works of Hegel, Herbart and Schleiermacher taken together". 
  • A. J. Ayer, introducing his classic exposition of logical positivism (Language, Truth and Logic), claimed: "The views which are put forward in this treatise derive from the logical outcome of the empiricism of Berkeley and Hume."
  • Albert Einstein wrote that he was inspired by Hume's positivism when formulating his Special Theory of Relativity.
  • Hume was called "the prophet of the Wittgensteinian revolution" by N. Phillipson, referring to his view that mathematics and logic are closed systems, disguised tautologies, and have no relation to the world of experience.
  • David Fate Norton asserted that Hume was "the first post-sceptical philosopher of the early modern period".
  • Hume's Problem of Induction was also of fundamental importance to the philosophy of Karl Popper. In his autobiography, Unended Quest, he wrote: "'Knowledge' ... is objective; and it is hypothetical or conjectural. This way of looking at the problem made it possible for me to reformulate Hume's problem of induction". This insight resulted in Popper's major work The Logic of Scientific Discovery. In his Conjectures and Refutations, he writes: "I approached the problem of induction through Hume. Hume, I felt, was perfectly right in pointing out that induction cannot be logically justified".

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