David Hume’s Life and Works
by Ted Morris
The most important philosopher ever to write in English, David Hume (1711-1776) — the last of the great triumvirate of “British empiricists” — was also well-known in his own time as an historian and essayist. A master stylist in any genre, Hume’s major philosophical works — A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-1740), the Enquiries concerning Human Understanding (1748) and concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), as well as the posthumously published Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (1779) — remain widely and deeply influential.
Although many of Hume’s contemporaries denounced his writings as works of scepticism and atheism, his influence is evident in the moral philosophy and economic writings of his close friend Adam Smith. Hume also awakened Immanuel Kant from his “dogmatic slumbers” and “caused the scales to fall” from Jeremy Bentham’s eyes. Charles Darwin counted Hume as a central influence, as did “Darwin’s bulldog,” Thomas Henry Huxley. The diverse directions in which these writers took what they gleaned from reading Hume reflect not only the richness of their sources but also the wide range of his empiricism. Today, philosophers recognize Hume as a precursor of contemporary cognitive science, as well as one of the most thoroughgoing exponents of philosophical naturalism.
Early Life and Education
Born in Edinburgh, Hume spent his childhood at Ninewells, the family’s modest estate on the Whitadder River in the border lowlands near Berwick. His father died just after David’s second birthday, “leaving me, with an elder brother and a sister under the care of our Mother, a woman of singular Merit, who, though young and handsome, devoted herself to the rearing and educating of her Children.” (All quotations below are from Hume’s autobiographical essay, “My Own life.”)
Katherine Falconer Home realized that young David was “uncommonly wake-minded” — precocious, in her lowland dialect — so when his brother went up to Edinburgh University, David, not yet twelve, joined him. He read widely in history and literature, as well as ancient and modern philosophy, and also studied some mathematics and contemporary science.
Hume’s family thought him suited for a career in the law, but he preferred reading classical authors, especially Cicero, whose Offices became his secular substitute for The Whole Duty of Man and his family’s strict Calvinism. Pursuing the goal of becoming “a Scholar & Philosopher,” he followed a rigorous program of reading and reflection for three years until “there seem’d to be open’d up to me a New Scene of Thought.”
A Treatise of Human Nature
The intensity of developing this philosophical vision precipitated a psychological crisis in the isolated scholar. Believing that “a more active scene of life” might improve his condition, Hume made “a very feeble trial” in the world of commerce, as a clerk for a Bristol sugar importer. The crisis passed and he remained intent on articulating his “new scene of thought.” He moved to France, where he could live frugally, and finally settled in La Flèche, a sleepy village in Anjou best known for its Jesuit college. Here, where Descartes and Mersenne studied a century before, Hume read French and other continental authors, especially Malebranche, Dubos, and Bayle; he occasionally baited the Jesuits with iconoclastic arguments; and, between 1734 and 1737, he drafted A Treatise of Human Nature.
Hume returned to England in 1737 to ready the Treatise for the press. To curry favor with Bishop Butler, he “castrated” his manuscript, deleting his controversial discussion of miracles, along with other “nobler parts.” Book I, Of the Understanding, and Book II, Of the Passions, was published anonymously in 1739. Book III, Of Morals, appeared in 1740, as well as an anonymous Abstract of the first two books. Although other candidates, especially Adam Smith, have occasionally been proposed as the Abstract’s author, scholars now agree that it is Hume’s work. The Abstract features a clear, succinct account of “one simple argument” concerning causation and the formation of belief. Hume’s elegant summary presages his “recasting” of that argument in the first Enquiry.
The Treatise was no literary sensation, but it didn’t “fall dead-born from the press,” as Hume disappointedly described its reception. And despite his surgical deletions, the Treatise attracted enough of a “murmour among the zealots” to fuel his life-long reputation as an atheist and a sceptic.
Essays and Enquiries
Back at Ninewells, Hume published two modestly successful volumes of Essays, Moral and Political in 1741 and 1742. When the Chair of Ethics and Pneumatical (“Mental”) Philosophy at Edinburgh became vacant in 1745, Hume hoped to fill it, but his reputation provoked vocal and ultimately successful opposition. Six years later, he stood for the Chair of Logic at Glasgow, only to be turned down again. Hume never held an academic post.
In the wake of the Edinburgh debacle, Hume made the unfortunate decision to accept a position as tutor to the Marquess of Annandale, only to find that the young man was insane and his estate manager dishonest. With considerable difficulty, Hume managed to extricate himself from this situation, accepting the invitation of his cousin, Lieutenant-General James St. Clair, to be his Secretary on a military expedition against the French in Quebec. Contrary winds delayed St. Clair’s fleet until the Ministry canceled the plan, only to spawn a new expedition that ended as an abortive raid on the coastal town of L’Orient in Brittany.
Hume also accompanied St. Clair on an extended diplomatic mission to the courts of Vienna and Turin in 1748. (“I wore the uniform of an officer.”) While he was in Italy, the Philosophical Essays concerning Human Understanding appeared. A recasting of the central ideas of Book I of the Treatise, the Philosophical Essays were read and reprinted, eventually becoming part of Hume’s Essays and Treatises under the title by which they are known today, An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding. In 1751, this Enquiry was joined by a second, An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals. Hume described the second Enquiry, a substantially rewritten version of Book III of the Treatise, as “incomparably the best” of all his works. More essays, the Political Discourses, appeared in 1752, and Hume’s correspondence reveals that a draft of the Dialogues concerning Natural Religion was also well underway at this time.
History of England
But even as a librarian, Hume managed to arouse the ire of the “zealots.” In 1754, his order for several “indecent Books unworthy of a place in a learned Library” prompted a move for his dismissal, and in 1756, an unsuccessful attempt to excommunicate him. The Library’s Trustees canceled his order for the offending volumes, which Hume regarded as a personal insult. Since he needed the Library’s resources for his History, Hume remained at his post, but he did turn over his salary to Thomas Blacklock, a blind poet he befriended and sponsored. Hume finished his research for the History in 1757, and quickly resigned to make the position available for Adam Ferguson.
Despite his resignation from the Advocates’ Library and the success of his History, Hume’s work continued to be surrounded by controversy. In 1755, he was ready to publish a volume that included The Natural History of Religion and A Dissertation on the Passions as well as the essays “Of Suicide” and “Of the Immortality of the Soul.” When his publisher, Andrew Millar, was threatened with legal action through the machinations of the minor theologian, William Warburton, Hume suppressed the offensive essays, substituting “Of Tragedy” and “Of the Standard of Taste” to round out his Four Dissertations, which was finally published in 1757.
In 1763, Hume accepted an invitation from Lord Hertford, the Ambassador to France, to serve as his Private Secretary. During his three years in Paris, Hume became Secretary to the Embassy and eventually its Chargè d’Affaires. He also become the rage of the Parisian salons, enjoying the conversation and company of Diderot, D’Alembert, and d’Holbach, as well as the attentions and affections of the salonnières, especially the Comtesse de Boufflers. (“As I took a particular pleasure in the company of modest women, I had no reason to be displeased with the reception I met with from them.”)
Hume returned to England in 1766, accompanied by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was then fleeing persecution in Switzerland. Their friendship ended quickly and miserably when the paranoid Rousseau became convinced that Hume was masterminding an international conspiracy against him.
Home to Edinburgh
After a year (1767-68) in London as an Under-Secretary of State, Hume returned to Edinburgh to stay in August, 1769. He built a house in Edinburgh’s New Town, and spent his autumnal years quietly and comfortably, dining and conversing with friends, not all of whom were “studious and literary,” for Hume also found that his “company was not unacceptable to the young and careless.” One young person who found his company particularly “acceptable” was an attractive, vivacious, and highly intelligent woman in her twenties — Nancy Orde, the daughter of Chief Baron Orde of the Scottish Exchequer. One of Hume’s friends described her as “one of the most agreeable and accomplished women I ever knew.” Also noted for her impish sense of humor, she chalked “St. David’s Street” on the side of Hume’s house one night; the street still bears that name today. The two were close enough that she advised Hume in choosing wallpaper for his new home, and rumors that they were engaged even reached the ears of the salonnières in Paris. Just before his death, Hume added a codicil to his will, which included a gift to her of “ten Guineas to buy a Ring, as a Memorial of my Friendship and Attachment to so amiable and accomplished a Person.”
Hume also spent considerable time in his final years revising his works for new editions of his Essays and Treatises, which contained his collected essays, the two Enquiries, A Dissertation on the Passions, and The Natural History of Religion, but — significantly — not A Treatise of Human Nature. In 1775, he added an “Advertisement” to these volumes, in which he appeared to disavow the Treatise. Though he regarded this note as “a compleat Answer” to his critics, especially “Dr. Reid and that biggotted, silly fellow, Beattie,” subsequent readers have wisely chosen to ignore Hume’s admonition to ignore his greatest philosophical work.
Upon finding that he had intestinal cancer, Hume prepared for his death with the same peaceful cheer that characterized his life. He arranged for the posthumous publication of his most controversial work, the Dialogues concerning Natural Religion; it was seen through the press by his nephew and namesake in 1779, three years after his uncle’s death.
© 2009 by William Edward Morris (used by permission)