David Hume Biography
HUME, David (1711–76). An English philosopher and historian. He was born at Edinburgh on April 26 (O. S.), 1711. His father was the laird of Ninewells in Berwickshire; but David, being the youngest son, had to make his fortune with no other assistance than an education and the influence of his family. He appears to have studied in the University of Edinburgh when 12 years of age, but his education for the most part consisted in home reading. His family designed the law to be his profession, and he submitted to the initial steps of the proper practical training; but it was not a pursuit to his liking. Deserting it, he experimented in a mercantile house in Bristol; but commerce was not more congenial to him than jurisprudence, and he gave it a very short trial. To use his own words, "I now went over to France with a view of prosecuting my studies in a country retreat, and there I laid the plan of life which I have steadily and successfully pursued. I resolved to make a very rigid frugality supply my deficiency of fortune, to maintain unimpaired my independency, and to regard every object as contemptible except the improvement of my talent in literature." He spent much of the next three years at La Flèche in intercourse with the Jesuits, and then he wrote his Treatise of Human Nature, which, however, he did not publish till 1739–40. It consists of three books, "Of the Understanding," "Of the Passions," and "Of Morals." Now one of the three or four most famous philosophical productions of England, at the time of its appearance "it fell deadborn from the press without reaching such a distinction as even to excite a murmur among the zealots," as Hume himself acknowledged, much to his mortification. He now turned to political theory and published anonymously in 1741–42 two volumes of Essays Moral and Political. In 1744 he was a candidate for the chair of "ethics and pneumatic philosophy" in the University of Edinburgh, but his Treatise had given him a reputation for "heresy, deism, skepticism, atheism, etc.," and the university would have none of him. In 1746 he obtained a "very genteel" appointment as secretary to General Saint Clair on "10 shillings a day, perquisites, and no expenses." An expedition had been planned to Canada, but an unsuccessful attack on L'Orient in France led to a recall of the general. Two years after Hume accompanied General Saint Clair to the court of Turin, as secretary and aid-de-camp, and took notes of his impressions of Holland, Germany, and Italy.
In 1748, during his absence on the Continent, he published his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. The following year he returned to England; in 1751 he gave to the public the Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, and in 1752 the Political Discourses, said to have been the "cradle of political economy." At the same time he also composed Dialogues on Natural Religion, which, however, were not published till after his death. By this time he had put by enough money to gain him an income of £50 a year. Besides he had "a hundred pounds’ worth of books, great stores of linens and fine clothes, and near £100 in his pocket, along with order, frugality, a strong spirit of independency, good health, a contented humor, and an unabated love of study," as he himself relates. In 1751 he had removed to Edinburgh, and a year later he was elected librarian to the Faculty of Advocates at a salary of £40. In 1754 he published the first volume of the History of Great Britain, Containing the Reign of James I and Charles I; the second volume appeared two years afterward. Then he took up the Tudors and, working backward, finished his History of England in 1762. In 1757 he had published Four Dissertations: the Natural History of Religion; of the Passions; of Tragedy; of the Standard of Taste. In 1763 he was a member of the embassy to France under Lord Hertford and here found himself famous. He was lionized by the society ladies, feted by the nobles, and taken by the men of letters into their friendship. After his return he was made Undersecretary of State (1767–69) and by 1769 had an income of £1000 a year. In 1770 he retired from public life and built a home in Edinburgh on a new street, which was jocularly called St. David’s Street, after him. Here he wrote My Own Life, and here he died, Aug. 25, 1776. His History of England became a classic as soon as it appeared; his economic writings were a fitting prelude to those of his friend Adam Smith (q.v.), while his philosophical works roused Kant "from his dogmatic slumber," gave rise by reaction to Scottish philosophy, and are among the most important of modern philosophical works. His philosophy was but the consistent development of Berkeley’s idealism. (See Berkeley.) Berkeley had denied the reality of matter and had accounted for what passed for matter by making it a complex of ideas; but he still held to the reality of mind as the percipient of ideas. Hume, claiming to find no empirical evidence for the existence of mind or spirit in Berkeley’s sense of the term, dropped out mind as Berkeley had dropped out matter and thus left nothing to be known except "perception" (impressions and ideas), together with certain fictions of the imagination, of which he gives no satisfactory account that can be made consistent with his general position. "All the perceptions of the human mind resolve themselves into two distinct kinds which I shall call impressions and ideas." These differ not by reason of any differences in the manner in which they are produced, but merely in priority and liveliness. Ideas are simply those perceptions which, appearing later than similar perceptions, are less forceful and vivid. Ideas are of two sorts—ideas of the memory and ideas of the imagination. Of these the former are the more lively and retain in great measure the order and sequence of these original impressions, whereas ideas of the imagination are fainter and are "not. restrained to the same order and form with the original impressions." Ideas are associated in accordance with certain principles, viz., "resemblance, contiguity in time or place, and cause and effect." There are no abstract ideas. Ideas of space are complexes of minima visibilia, or colored points, disposed in a certain manner. These points are indivisible. Ideas of time are derived from the succession of our perceptions, and as these perceptions are in the last instance indivisible, time is not infinitely divisible. A perception and a thing perceived are one and the same thing. A cause is an object precedent and contiguous to another, and so united with it in the imagination that the idea of the one determines the mind to form the idea of the other, and the impression of the one to form a more lively idea of the other. "There is no substance, hence no mind except the bundle of perceptions. A true skeptic will be diffident of his philosophical doubts as well as of his philosophical convictions." Skepticism is inevitable on this theory, inasmuch as belief is the liveliness of one’s ideas, and this varies from time to time. Hume himself admitted that when he left his study and entered upon practical affairs his philosophy made small appeal to him. Philosophical arguments control only when one is in a philosophical mood; at other times human nature prompts to the beliefs which philosophy shows to be without rational foundation. In ethics Hume was a utilitarian. (See Utilitarianism.) Self-love cannot be the sole basis of reasonable action. "Crucial experiments" render such a view impossible. Sympathy is a real principle in human nature, and reflections on public interest and utility are the sole sources of the moral approbation paid to fidelity, justice, veracity, integrity. Sympathy does the work it does because it is our pleasure in other persons’ pleasures and our displeasure in their pains. Thus, our own pleasure and pain are the springs of action, but they are not the ends of action.
A complete edition of Hume’s philosophical works was published by Green and Grose (4 vols., London, 1874–75); his Treatise and two Enquiries in two volumes by Selby-Bigge (Oxford, 1889–94); his History has appeared in almost innumerable editions; his autobiography was edited by Adam Smith (London, 1777). Consult also: J. H. Burton, Life and Correspondence of David Hume (Edinburgh, 1846); T. H. Huxley, Hume, "English Men of Letters Series" (New York, 1879).
The New International Encyclopaedia, Vol. XI (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920) 586-587.