|Birth:||April 26, 1711 (Edinburgh, Scotland)|
|Death:||August 25, 1776 (Edinburgh, Scotland)|
|Main interests:||Metaphysics, Epistemology, Mind, Ethics, Politics, Aesthetics, Religion|
|Notable ideas:||Problem of causation, Induction, Is-ought problem|
|Influences:||Locke, Berkeley, Hutcheson, Newton|
|Influenced:||Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, Bentham, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Comte, William James, Darwin, Russell, T. H. Huxley, J. S. Mill, Einstein, Ayer, J. L. Mackie|
David Hume (April 26, 1711 – August 25, 1776) was a Scottish philosopher, economist, and historian, as well as an important figure of Western philosophy and of the Scottish Enlightenment. Although in recent years interest in Hume's works has centred on his philosophical writing, it was as a historian that he gained his initial fame and his History of Great Britain was the standard work on English history for sixty or seventy years until superseded by the History of England by T. B. Macaulay.
Historians most famously see Humean philosophy as a thoroughgoing form of skepticism, but many commentators have argued that the element of naturalism has no less importance in Hume's philosophy. Hume scholarship has tended to oscillate over time between those who emphasize the skeptical side of Hume (such as the logical positivists), and those who emphasize the naturalist side (such as Don Garrett, Norman Kemp Smith, Mark Powell, Kerri Skinner, Barry Stroud, and Galen Strawson).
Hume was heavily influenced by empiricists John Locke and George Berkeley, along with various Francophone writers such as Pierre Bayle, and various figures on the Anglophone intellectual landscape such as Isaac Newton, Samuel Clarke, Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith, and Edward Butler.
David Home (later Hume), the son of Joseph Home of Ninewells, advocate, and Katherine, Lady Falconer, was born on 26 April 1711 (Old style) in a tenement on the North side of the Lawnmarket in Edinburgh. Throughout his life Hume, who never married, was to spend time occasionally at his family home at Ninewells by Chirnside, Berwickshire. (He changed his name to Hume in 1734 because the English had difficulty in pronouncing Home in the Scottish manner.) He was sent by his family to the University of Edinburgh at the unusually early age of twelve (fourteen would have been more normal). At first he considered a career in law, but came to have, in his words, "an insurmountable aversion to everything but the pursuits of Philosophy and general Learning; and while (my family) fanceyed I was poring over Voet and Vinnius, Cicero and Vergil were the Authors which I was secretly devouring." He had little respect for professors, telling a friend in 1735 "there is nothing to be learned from a Professor, which is not to be met with in Books."
At the age of eighteen, in 1729, Hume made a philosophical discovery that opened up to him "a new Scene of Thought" which inspired him "to throw up every other Pleasure or Business to apply entirely to it". He did not recount what this was, but it seems likely to have been his theory of causality - that our beliefs about cause and effect depend on sentiment, custom and habit, and not upon reason, nor upon abstract, timeless, general Laws of Nature.
In 1734, after a few months in commerce in Bristol, he retreated into self-study and conducted thought experiments in the library of the Jesuit seminary at La Fleche in Anjou, France. He lodged at the manor house of Yvandeau in Saint-Germain-du-Val two kilometers distant. During his four years there, he laid out his life plan, resolving "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 improvements of my talents in literature. While there, he completed A Treatise of Human Nature at the age of twenty-six. Although many scholars today consider the Treatise to be Hume's most important work and one of the most important books in the history of philosophy, the public in Great Britain did not agree at first. Hume himself described the (lack of) public reaction to the publication of the Treatise in 1739–40 by writing that it "fell dead-born from the press, without reaching such distinction as even to excite a murmur among the zealots. But being naturally of a cheerful and sanguine temper, I soon recovered from the blow and prosecuted with great ardour my studies in the country". There he wrote the Abstract Without revealing his authorship, he aimed to make his larger work more intelligible by shortening it. Even this advertisement failed to enliven interest in the Treatise.
The effort of writing the Treatise drove the youthful Hume to near insanity and he recounts how he escaped to the common life to restore his perspective. "Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther."
After the publication of Essays Moral and Political in 1744, he applied for the Chair of Ethics and Pneumatics (psychology) at Edinburgh University but was rejected. During the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 he tutored the Marquise of Annandale (1720-92) officially described as a lunatic. This engagement ended in disarray after about a year. But, it was then that he started his great historical work The History of Great Britain which would take fifteen years and run to over a million words, to be published in six volumes in the period 1754 to 1762. During this period he was involved with the Canongate Theatre and in this context associated with Lord Monboddo and other Scottish Enlightenment luminaries in Edinburgh. In 1748 he served, in uniform, for three years as Secretary to General St Clair writing his Philosophical Essays concerning Human Understanding later published as An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. The Enquiry proved little more successful than the Treatise.
Hume was charged with heresy but he was defended by his young clerical friends who argued that as an atheist he lay outside the jurisdiction of the Church. Despite his acquittal, and, possibly, due to the opposition of Thomas Reid of Aberdeen who, that year, launched a telling Christian critique of his metaphysics, Hume failed to gain the Chair of Philosophy at Glasgow. It was after returning to Edinburgh in 1752, as he wrote in My Own Life, that "the Faculty of Advocates chose me their Librarian, an office from which I received little or no emolument, but which gave me the command of a large library." It was this resource that enabled him to continue his historical research for his History.
Hume achieved great literary fame as an essayist and historian. His enormous History of Great Britain from the Saxon kingdoms to the Glorious Revolution was a best-seller in its day. In it, Hume presented political man as a creature of habit, with a disposition to submit quietly to established government unless confronted by uncertain circumstances. In his view, only religious difference could deflect men from their everyday lives to think about political matters.
Hume's early essay Of Superstition and Religion laid the foundations for nearly all subsequent secular thinking about the history of religion. Critics of religion during Hume's time were required to express themselves cautiously. Less than 15 years before Hume was born, 18-year-old college student Thomas Aikenhead was put on trial for saying openly that he thought Christianity was nonsense; he was later convicted and hanged for blasphemy. Hume followed the common practice of expressing his views obliquely, through characters in dialogues. Hume did not acknowledge authorship of Treatise until the year of his death, in 1776. His essays Of Suicide, and Of the Immortality of the Soul and his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion were held from publication until after his death (published 1778 and 1779, respectively), and they still bore neither author's nor publisher's name. So masterful was Hume in disguising his own views that debate continues to this day over whether Hume was actually a deist or an atheist. Regardless, in his own time Hume's alleged atheism caused him to be passed over for many positions.
Hume told his friend Mure of Caldwell of an incident which occasioned his conversion to Christianity. Passing across the recently drained Nor’ Loch to the New Town of Edinburgh to supervise the masons building his new house, soon to become No 1 St David Street, he slipped and fell into the mire. Hume, being then of great bulk, could not regain his feet. Some passing Newhaven fishwives seeing his plight, but recognising him as the well-known atheist, refused to rescue him until he became a Christian and had recited The Lord’s Prayer and the Creed. This he did and was rewarded by being set again on his feet by these brawny women. Hume asserted thereafter that Edinburgh fishwives were the ‘most acute theologians he had ever met’.
From 1763 to 1765 Hume was Secretary to Lord Hertford in Paris, where he was admired by Voltaire and lionised by the ladies in society. He made friends with and, later, fell out with Rousseau. He wrote of his Paris life "I really wish often for the plain roughness of the The Poker Club of Edinburgh . . . to correct and qualify so much luciousness." For a year from 1767, Hume held the appointment of Under Secretary of State for the Northern Department. In 1768 he settled in Edinburgh. Attention to Hume's philosophical works grew after the German philosopher Immanuel Kant credited Hume with awakening him from "dogmatic slumbers" (circa 1770) and from then onwards he gained the recognition that he had craved all his life.
James Boswell visited Hume a few weeks before his death. Hume told him that he sincerely believed it a "most unreasonable fancy" that there might be life after death. Hume wrote his own epitaph:"Born 1711, Died [----]. Leaving it to posterity to add the rest." It is engraved with the year of his death 1776 on the "simple Roman tomb" which he prescribed, and which stands, as he wished it, on the Eastern slope of the Calton Hill overlooking his home in the New Town of Edinburgh at No. 1 St David Street.
Though Hume wrote in the 18th century, his work seems still uncommonly relevant in the philosophical disputes of today compared to that of his contemporaries. A summary of some of Hume's most influential work in philosophy might include the following:
Hume believes that all human knowledge comes to us through our senses. Our perceptions, as he called them, can be divided into two categories: ideas and impressions. He defines these terms thus in his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding: "By the term impression, then, I mean all our more lively perceptions, when we hear, or see, or feel, or love, or hate, or desire, or will. And impressions are distinguished from ideas, which are the less lively perceptions, of which we are conscious, when we reflect on any of those sensations or movements above mentioned." He further specifies ideas, saying, "It seems a proposition, which will not admit of much dispute, that all our ideas are nothing but copies of our impressions, or, in other words, that it is impossible for us to think of anything, which we have not antecedently felt, either by our external or internal senses." This forms an important aspect of Hume's skepticism, for he says that we cannot believe that a certain thing, such as God, a soul, or a self, exists unless we can point to the impression from which the idea of the thing is derived. The Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding concludes with a statement of what has become to be known as Hume's Fork. "When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion."
When one event continually follows after another, most people think that a connection between the two events makes the second event follow from the first (post hoc ergo propter hoc - after this, therefore, because of this.). Hume challenged this belief in the first book of his Treatise on Human Nature and later in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. He noted that although we do perceive the one event following the other, we do not perceive any necessary connection between the two. And according to his skeptical epistemology, we can trust only the knowledge that we acquire from our perceptions. Hume asserted that our idea of causation consists of little more than expectation for certain events to result after other events that precede them. "We have no other notion of cause and effect, but that of certain objects, which have been always conjoin'd [sic] together, and which in all past instances have been found inseparable. We cannot penetrate into the reason of the conjunction. We only observe the thing itself, and always find that from the constant conjunction the objects acquire a union in the imagination." (Hume, 1740: 93). We cannot actually say that one event caused another. All we know for sure is that one event is correlated to another. For this Hume coined the term 'constant conjunction'. That is, when we see that one event always 'causes' another, what we are really seeing is that one event has always been 'constantly conjoined' to the other. As a consequence, we have no reason to believe that one caused the other, or that they will continue to be 'constantly conjoined' in the future (Popkin & Stroll, 1993: 268). The reason we do believe in cause and effect is not because cause and effect are the actual way of nature; we believe because of the psychological habits of human nature (Popkin & Stroll, 1993: 272).
Such a lean conception robs causation of all its force, and some later Humeans like Bertrand Russell have dismissed the notion of causation altogether as something akin to superstition. But this defies common sense, hence, the problem of causation – what justifies our belief in a causal connection and what kind of connection can we have knowledge of? – is a problem which has no accepted solution. Hume held that we (and other animals) have an instinctive belief in causation based on the development of habits in our nervous system, a belief that we cannot eliminate, but which we cannot prove true through any argument, deductive or inductive, just as is the case with regard to our belief in the reality of the external world.
In Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (EHU), §4.1.20-27, §4.2.28-33, Hume articulated his view that all human reasoning is of two kinds, Relation of Ideas and Matters of Fact. While the former involves abstract concepts like mathematics where deductive certitude presides, the latter involves empirical experience about which all thought is inductive. Now, since according to Hume, we can know nothing about nature prior to its experience, even a rational man with no experience "could not have inferred from the fluidity and transparency of water that it would suffocate him, or from the light and warmth of fire that it would consume him." (EHU, 4.1.6) Thus, all we can say, think, or predict about nature must come from prior experience, which lays the foundation for the necessity of induction.
Inductive inference says that the past acts as a reliable guide to the future. For example, if in the past the sun has risen in the east and set in the west, then, inductive inference suggests that it will probably rise in the east and set in the west in the future. But how can we justify such an inference, known as the principle of induction? Hume suggested two possible justifications, but rejected both:
The noted 20th century theoretician and philosopher, Bertrand Russell, attempted to reinstate induction as a rational procedure and to restore the credibility of the scientific method. However, all he could say was that induction is an independent logical principle, incapable of being inferred either from experience or from other logical principles, and that without this principle, science is impossible".
Despite Hume's critique of induction, he held that it was superior to deduction in its realm of empirical thought. As he states: "this operation of the mind, by which we infer like effects from like causes, and vice versa, is so essential to the subsistence of all human creatures, it is not probable, that it could be trusted to the fallacious deductions of our reason, which is slow in its operations; appears not, in any degree, during the first years of infancy; and at best is, in every age and period of human life, extremely liable to error and mistake." (EHU, 5.2.22)
Hume pointed out that we tend to think that we are the same person we were five years ago. Though we've changed in many respects, the same person appears present as was present then. We might start thinking about which features can be changed without changing the underlying self. Hume, however, denies that there is a distinction between the various features of a person and the mysterious self that supposedly bears those features. When we start introspecting, "we are never intimately conscious of anything but a particular perception; man is a bundle or collection of different perceptions which succeed one another with an inconceivable rapidity and are in perpetual flux and movement".
It is plain, that in the course of our thinking, and in the constant revolution of our ideas, our imagination runs easily from one idea to any other that resembles it, and that this quality alone is to the fancy a sufficient bond and association. It is likewise evident that as the senses, in changing their objects, are necessitated to change them regularly, and take them as they lie contiguous to each other, the imagination must by long custom acquire the same method of thinking, and run along the parts of space and time in conceiving its objects.
Note in particular that, on Hume's view, these perceptions do not belong to anything. Rather, Hume compares the soul to a commonwealth, which retains its identity not by virtue of some enduring core substance, but by being composed of many different, related, and yet constantly changing elements. The question of personal identity then becomes a matter of characterizing the loose cohesion of one's personal experience. (Note that in the Appendix to the Treatise, Hume said mysteriously that he was dissatisfied with his account of the self, yet he never returned to the issue.)
Most of us find some behaviors more reasonable than others. Eating aluminum foil, for example, seems to have something unreasonable about it. But Hume denied that reason has any important role in motivating or discouraging behavior. After all, reason is just a sort of calculator of concepts and experience. What ultimately matters, Hume said, is how we feel about the behavior. His work is now associated with the doctrine of instrumentalism, which states that an action is reasonable if and only if it serves the agent's goals and desires, whatever they be. Reason can enter the picture only as a lackey, informing the agent of useful facts concerning which actions will serve his goals and desires, but never deigning to tell the agent which goals and desires he should have. So, if you want to eat aluminum foil, reason will tell you where to find the stuff, and there's nothing unreasonable about eating it or even wanting to do so (unless, of course, one has a stronger desire for health or the appearance of sensibility). Today, however, many commentators argue that Hume actually went a step further to nihilism and said there's nothing unreasonable about deliberately frustrating your own goals and desires ("I want to eat aluminum foil, so let me wire my mouth shut"). Such behavior would surely be highly irregular, granting reason no role at all, but it would not be contrary to reason, which is important to make judgments in this domain.
Hume first discusses ethics in A Treatise of Human Nature. He later extracts and expounds upon the ideas he proposed there in a shorter essay entitled An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. Hume's approach in the Enquiry is fundamentally an empirical one. Instead of telling us how morality ought to operate, he purports to tell us how we actually do make moral judgments. After providing us with various examples, he comes to the conclusion that most, though not all, of the behaviors we approve of increase public utility. Does this then mean that we make moral judgments on self-interest alone? Unlike his fellow empiricist Thomas Hobbes, Hume argues that this is not in fact the case, abandoning Hobbes' attachment to psychological egoism. In addition to considerations of self-interest, Hume maintains that we can be moved by our sympathy for others, which can provide a person with thoroughly non-selfish concerns and motivations, indeed, what contemporary theorists would call, altruistic concern. Hume defends his sympathy-based, moral sentimentalism by claiming that we could never make moral judgments based on reason alone. Our reason deals with facts and draws conclusions from them, but, all else being equal, it could not lead us to choose one option over the other; only our sentiments can do this. And, our sympathy-based sentiments can motivate us towards the pursuit of non-selfish ends, like the utility of others. For Hume, and for fellow sympathy-theorist Adam Smith, the term 'sympathy' is meant to capture much more than concern for the suffering of others. Sympathy, for Hume, is a principle for the communication and sharing of sentiments, both positive and negative. In this sense, it is akin to what contemporary psychologists and philosophers call empathy. In developing this sympathy-based moral sentimentalism, Hume surpasses the divinely-implanted moral sense theory of his predecessor, Francis Hutcheson, by elaborating a naturalistic, moral psychological basis for the moral sense, in terms of the operation of sympathy. Hume's arguments against founding morality on reason are often now included in the stable of moral anti-realist arguments. As Humean-inspired philosopher John Mackie suggests, for there to exist moral facts about the world, recognizable by reason and intrinsically motivating, they would have to be very queer facts. Still, there is considerable debate among scholars as to Hume' status as a realist versus anti-realist.
Just about everyone has noticed the apparent conflict between free will and determinism – if your actions were determined to happen billions of years ago, then how can they be up to you? But Hume noted another conflict, one that turned the problem of free will into a full-fledged dilemma: free will is incompatible with indeterminism. Imagine that your actions are not determined by what events came before. Then your actions are, it seems, completely random. Moreover, and most importantly for Hume, they are not determined by your character – your desires, your preferences, your values, etc. How can we hold someone responsible for an action that did not result from his character? How can we hold someone responsible for an action that randomly occurred? Free will seems to require determinism, because otherwise, the agent and the action wouldn't be connected in the way required of freely chosen actions. So now, nearly everyone believes in free will, free will seems inconsistent with determinism, and free will seems to require determinism. Hume's view is that human behavior, like everything else, is caused, and therefore holding people responsible for their actions should focus on rewarding them or punishing them in such a way that they will try to do what is morally desirable and will try to avoid doing what is morally reprehensible. (See also Compatibilism.)
Hume noted that many writers talk about what ought to be on the basis of statements about what is (is-ought problem). But there seems to be a big difference between descriptive statements (what is) and prescriptive statements (what ought to be). Hume calls for writers to be on their guard against changing the subject in this way without giving an explanation of how the ought-statements are supposed to follow from the is-statements. But how exactly can you derive an 'ought' from an 'is'? That question, prompted by Hume's small paragraph, has become one of the central questions of ethical theory, and Hume is usually assigned the position that such a derivation is impossible. (Others interpret Hume as saying not that one cannot go from a factual statement to an ethical statement, but that one cannot do so without going through human nature, that is, without paying attention to human sentiments.) Hume is probably one of the first writers to make the distinction between normative (what ought to be) and positive (what is) statements, which is so prevalent in social science and moral philosophy. G. E. Moore defended a similar position with his "open question argument", intending to refute any identification of moral properties with natural properties—the so-called "naturalistic fallacy".
It was probably Hume who, along with his fellow members of the Scottish Enlightenment, first advanced the idea that the explanation of moral principles is to be sought in the utility they tend to promote. Hume's role is not to be overstated, of course; it was his countryman Francis Hutcheson who coined the utilitarian slogan "greatest happiness for the greatest numbers". But it was from reading Hume's Treatise that Jeremy Bentham first felt the force of a utilitarian system: he "felt as if scales had fallen from [his] eyes". Nevertheless, Hume's proto-utilitarianism is a peculiar one from our perspective. He doesn't think that the aggregation of cardinal units of utility provides a formula for arriving at moral truth. On the contrary, Hume was a moral sentimentalist and, as such, thought that moral principles could not be intellectually justified. Some principles simply appeal to us and others don't; and the reason why utilitarian moral principles do appeal to us is that they promote our interests and those of our fellows, with whom we sympathize. Humans are hard-wired to approve of things that help society – public utility. Hume used this insight to explain how we evaluate a wide array of phenomena, ranging from social institutions and government policies to character traits and talents.
For Hume, the only way to support theistic religion beyond strict fideism is by an appeal to miracles saying, in Of Miracles "...we may conclude, that the Christian religion not only was first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its veracity: and whoever is moved by faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.’’”
Hume argued that, at minimum, miracles could never give religion much support. There are several arguments suggested by Hume's essay, all of which turn on his conception of a miracle: namely, a violation of the laws of nature. His very definition of miracles from his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding states that miracles are violations of the laws of nature and consequently have a very low probability of occurring. In a slogan, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. But far from that, Hume observes, "The gazing populace receive greedily, without examination, whatever soothes superstition and promotes wonder."
Critics have argued that Hume's position assumes the character of miracles and natural laws prior to any specific examination of miracle claims, and thus it amounts to a subtle form of begging the question. They have also noted that it requires an appeal to inductive inference, as none have observed every part of nature or examined every possible miracle claim (e.g., those yet future to the observer), which in Hume's philosophy was especially problematic (see above). Another claim is his argument that human testimony could never be reliable enough to countermand the evidence we have for the laws of nature. This point on miracles has been most applied to the question of the resurrection of Jesus, where Hume would no doubt ask, "Which is more likely – that a man rose from the dead or that this testimony is mistaken in some way?" This is somewhat akin to a modern application of Occam's Razor. This argument is the backbone of the skeptic's movement and a live issue for historians of religion.
One of the oldest and most popular arguments for the existence of God is the design argument – that all the order and 'purpose' in the world bespeaks a divine origin. A modern manifestation of this belief is creationism. Hume gave the classic criticism of the design argument in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and though the issue is far from dead in modern debate, many are convinced that Hume killed the argument for good. Here are some of his points:
Many regard David Hume as a political conservative, sometimes calling him the first conservative philosopher. His thought contains elements that are, in modern terms both conservative and liberal, as well as ones that are both contractarian and utilitarian, though these claims are historically anachronistic. More historically appropriate terms for analysing Hume's political thought would be that of Whig and Tory. His central concern is to show the importance of the rule of law, undergirded by a sceptical politics that stresses throughout his political Essays the idea of moderation. He thinks that society is best governed by a general and impartial system of laws, based principally on the 'artifice' of contract and convention; he is less concerned about the form of government that administers these laws, so long as it does so fairly (though he thought that republics were more likely to do so than monarchies).
Hume expressed suspicion of attempts to reform society in ways that departed from long-established custom, and he counselled people not to resist their governments except in cases of the most egregious tyranny. However, he resisted aligning himself with either of Britain's two political parties, the Whigs and the Tories, and he believed that we should try to balance our demands for liberty with the need for strong authority, without sacrificing either. He supported liberty of the press, and was sympathetic to democracy, when suitably constrained. It has been argued that he was a major inspiration for James Madison's writings, and the Federalist No. 10 in particular. He was also, in general, an optimist about social progress, believing that, thanks to the economic development that comes with the expansion of trade, societies progress from a state of "barbarism" to one of "civilisation". Civilised societies are open, peaceful and sociable, and their citizens are as a result much happier. It is therefore not fair to characterise him, as Leslie Stephen did, as favouring "that stagnation which is the natural ideal of a skeptic". (Leslie Stephen, History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, 2 vols. (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1876), vol. 2, 185.)
Though it has been suggested Hume had no positive vision of the best society, he in fact produced an essay titled Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth, which lays out what he thought was the best form of government. His pragmatism shone through, however, in his caveat that we should only seek to implement such a system should an opportunity present itself which would not upset established structures. He defended a strict separation of powers, decentralisation, extending the franchise to anyone who held property of value and limiting the power of the clergy. The Swiss militia system was proposed as the best form of protection. Elections were to take place on an annual basis and representatives were to be unpaid.
Through his discussions on politics, Hume developed many ideas that are prevalent in the field of economics. This includes ideas on private property, inflation, and foreign trade.
Hume's idea on private property is special—private property was not a natural right, but is justified since it is a limited good. If all goods were unlimited and available freely, then private property would not be justified, but instead becomes an “idle ceremonial”. Hume also believed in unequal distribution of property, since perfect equality would destroy the ideas of thrift and industry, which leads to impoverishment.
Hume did not believe that foreign trade produced specie, but considered trade a stimulus for a country’s economic growth. He did not consider the volume of world trade as fixed because countries can feed off their neighbor’s wealth, being part of a “prosperous community”. The fall in foreign demand is not that fatal, because in the long run, a country cannot preserve a leading trading position.
Hume was among the first to develop automatic price-specie flow, an idea that contrasts with the mercantile system. Simply put, when a country increases its in-flow of gold, this in-flow of gold will result in price inflation, and then price inflation will force out countries from trading that would have traded before the inflation. This results in a decrease of the in-flow of gold in the long-run.
Hume also proposed a theory of beneficial inflation. He believed that increasing the money supply would raise production in the short run. This phenomenon was caused by a gap between the increase in the money supply and that of the price level. The result is that prices will not rise at first and may not rise at all. This theory was later developed by John Maynard Keynes.
A footnote appears in the original version of Hume's essay "Of National Characters":
This should be understood in its historical context, of course, such views were all but ubiquitous in the intellectual establishment (as elsewhere) of the time, and indeed would continue to be for a century after his death. Unlike many others of his day and much in advance of his time, in 1758, Hume condemned slavery at great length.
Because he had real doubts about whether Hume was expressing only his ‘surface opinions’ and not making a genuine expression of his whole personality, Taylor (1927) doubted whether Hume was really a great philosopher but concluded that perhaps he was only a very clever man.
Ayer (1936) introducing his classic exposition of logical positivism, claimed that ‘the views which are put forward in this treatise derive from … the logical outcome of the empiricism of Berkeley and Hume”.
Both Russell (1946) and Kolakowski, (1968) saw Hume as a positivist holding the view that true knowledge derives only from the experience of events, from ‘impressions on the senses’ or (later) from ‘sense data’ and that knowledge otherwise obtained was ‘meaningless’. Einstein (1915) wrote that he was inspired by Hume's positivism when formulating his Special Theory of Relativity.
Anderson (1966), in discussing Hume’s First Principles, which are that all governments are founded on, and all authority of the few over the many is derived from, the public interest, the right to power, and the right to property, concluded that Hume was a materialist.
Popper (1970) pointed out that although Hume’s idealism appeared to him to be a strict refutation of commonsense realism, and although he felt rationally obliged to regard commonsense realism as a mistake, he admitted that he was, in practice, quite unable to disbelieve in it for more than an hour: that, at heart, Hume was a commonsense realist.
Husserl (1970), saw the phenomenologist in Hume when he showed that some perceptions are interrelated or associated to form other perceptions which are then projected onto a world putatively outside the mind.
Stroud (1977) claimed for Hume the title of naturalist, saying that he saw every aspect of human life as naturalistically explicable. He placed man squarely in the scientifically intelligible world of nature, in conflict with the traditional conception of man as a detached rational subject.
Flew, (1986) draws attention Hume's moral and logical scepticism about the senses, and calls him a Pyrrhonian sceptic.
Hume was called the prophet of the Wittgensteinian revolution by Phillipson (1989), referring to his view that mathematics and logic are closed systems, disguised tautologies, and have no relation to the world of experience.
In dubbing Hume neo-Hellenist, Penelhum (1993) saw him as following the Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics in maintaining that we should avoid anxiety by following nature. Before embarking on any philosophical venture, Hume, as those before him, contended that we must first come to understand our own nature.
Norton (1993) asserted that Hume was the first post-sceptical philosopher of the early modern period. Hume challenged the certainty of the Cartesians and other rationalists who attempted to refute philosophical scepticism, and yet himself undertook the project of articulating a new science of human nature that would provide a defensible foundation for all other sciences, including the moral and political.
Fogelin (1993) concluded that Hume was a radical perspectivalist, perhaps as in Protagoras and certainly in Sextus Empiricus. He referred to Hume’s own words that his writings exhibit “a propensity, which inclines us to be positive and certain in particular points, according to the light in which we survey them at any particular instant” (T 1.4.7, 273).
Hume called himself a mitigated sceptic (EHU, 162, his own emphasis).
Copies of most of Hume's major works are freely available from:
L A Selby-Bigge provides, by means of an introduction to Hume's Enquiries, a fascinating (and sometimes quite scathing) discussion of the various differences in the content and tone of Hume's Treatise and Enquiries.