The Literary Encyclopedia, October 5, 2003
Active 1739-1776 in Scotland, Britain, Europe
Often considered Britain’s greatest philosopher, David Hume characterised himself simply as a ‘man of letters’. Indeed, Hume wrote on such a variety of subjects, ranging from traditional philosophy to economics, politics, aesthetics, religion and English history, that in his own way, he may be said to have exploded the conventional idea of a ‘philosopher’. This viewpoint finds some justification even within the field of philosophy, since Hume can be labelled as both a radical skeptic and a moralist, depending on whether one considers epistemology or concrete instances of psychology. Perhaps we can define Hume in terms that he would have found congenial by calling him a thinker in a new science, the ‘science of man’ or ‘human nature’.
Hume was born in Edinburgh in 1711, the second son in a moderate Presbyterian family of lesser gentry from the Lowlands. His father, a lawyer, died when he was only two years old, leaving him to be raised by his mother, the daughter of a Lord President of the Court of Session. Fairly little is known about his childhood or the exact nature of his studies at the University of Edinburgh, from the age of thirteen ’till about fifteen. Although Hume said that his education there was concerned primarily with languages (Latin and Greek), he came away from Edinburgh with a project for the future and a ruling passion. These were, respectively, a new approach to philosophy and a love of the literary life. His avowed aim as a thinker was to transform philosophy from a matter of scholastic dispute or personal inspiration, into a study of what all of us can know from ‘experience and observation’. At the time he left Edinburgh, his passion for literature translated concretely into his refusing to study law as the family wished. But literature still had its traditional meaning, denoting the world of books and learning in general.
An attempt to lay the foundation for ‘a compleat system of the sciences’ would be ambitious for a thinker of any age, let alone a sixteen year-old. It is not surprising that it put him under considerable strain. By the age of twenty-three he had ‘scribled many a quire of paper’ and also begun to suffer from psychosomatic illnesses, so much so that he decided to leave Scotland in 1734, interrupt his philosophical labours and take a position in active life to see if it would restore his health. Hume worked for only about four months as a merchant’s clerk in Bristol before he decided that this kind of active life was not the solution. Before the end of 1734, the young Scot postponed any further experience of England and headed for France, settling first in Reims and then at La Flèche, a town in the Loire valley where he hoped to progress in his study and reflection. The proximity of a Jesuit college was valuable for its library and the prospect of learned conversation. Nor could it be indifferent that Descartes had been educated there from 1604-1612.
Hume spent three years in France, and he returned with one of the great books in the history of philosophy. A Treatise of Human Nature, which he had completed by the age of twenty-six, makes an empirical approach to the ‘science of man’—and much more. In Book I (‘Of the Understanding’), working from Lockean premises whereby ideas arise in the mind from impressions outside of it, Hume attacks what he took to be the key philosophical question of the day, causality, to argue that we can have no real knowledge of a power that produces effects. By the same token, this limitation of reason strikes a heretic’s blow at revealed religion; even as it reveals the true foundations of human action, as detailed in Book II (‘Of the Passions’). Along with the famous claim that ‘reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them’, Hume enlarges the scope of imagination in human psychology. If the epistemology of Book I takes off from Locke, Books II and III (‘Of Morals’) show a clear debt to the writings of Anthony Lord Shaftesbury and to Frances Hutcheson. In particular, Hume follows them in placing the idea of a ‘moral sense’ at the centre of human nature. Man is not a wolf for man, but fundamentally a benevolent and sociable animal.
Even so brief a summary as this indicates the extraordinary ambition and sweep of the Treatise. But it must also be noted that the parts of Hume’s argument often have difficulty fitting together. For instance, it is sometimes easier to notice his points of departure for key arguments than to be sure where they lead. The most significant cases involve the arguments concerning causality and personal identity in Book I, which derive from successive chapters of Locke’s treatment of ‘relation’ in the Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690-1706). Hume makes causality into a problem where Locke found it to be a definable relation. A skeptical analysis of our knowledge of power leads him to surmise that there is no ‘necessary connexion’ between events, and that habit alone allows us to induce such relations. In other words, ordinary life provides us with a more convincing, saner and even scientific view of reality than does philosophy.
From causality both Locke and Hume proceed to the problem of personal identity. Whereas Locke wishes to associate the latter with ‘consciousness’, and to refute the possibility of matter as intrinsically endowed with thought, Hume again uses skeptical arguments to deny the existence of any coherent form of identity. Perceptions follow upon one another by means of causation (previously declared unknowable), contiguity or resemblance, and we are unable to detect any further connection in them. The idea of a self, for Hume, becomes that of a mere ‘bundle of perceptions’ or, as he also puts it, a fiction we all willingly embrace. Ordinary life is no longer bedrock, but shot through with fantasy. In addition, this proves only to be his philosophical view of the question: when he comes in Book II to discuss self from the standpoint of the passions, he is never tempted to deny its existence.
Important as it is today, the Treatise was so complete a failure upon its publication in London in 1739-1740 that it never again appeared in Hume’s lifetime. (The second edition was published only in 1817.) Faced with this disappointment, Hume showed one of his characteristic traits: without reneging on his ideas, he set out to understand the failure and to change accordingly. Specifically, he decided that the work’s ‘manner’ rather than its ‘matter’ was at fault, and that any further philosophizing he would do must adapt itself better to the public taste. At this point we find him at an important fork in the road. Having failed in his London début, and returned to Scotland, he needed to find a new direction for his work. Intellectually it may seem that he was able to pursue two different roads at the same time. He undertook at once to redraft the ideas of the Treatise in two works that represent the high philosophical road: the Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (1748) and the Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals (1751). Because these works are shorter and easier of access, they are sometimes dismissed as simplified, softer versions of the Treatise. But there are also formal differences that cut into the substance of his thought: for instance, the skepticism of Book I is toned down (or ‘mitigated’) in the first Enquiry, and the discourse on the passions, which were supposed to rule over human reason, is relegated to a short ancillary work called ‘Of the Passions’ (1757). Another sizeable difference is that Hume never acknowledged the authorship of the Treatise during his lifetime, whereas these derivative works were among the first he signed.
The second road that leads away from the Treatise can be associated not with a set of philosophical ideas, but with the idea of a literary form, the essay. In prefacing the Treatise Hume had promised a Book IV ‘On Criticism’, if the public showed signs of interest, that he would complete his ‘system of the sciences’. While the exact meaning he attached to the word ‘criticism’ remained unclear, and the public’s indifference disposed of the need to find out, we know that within two years Hume had assembled a variety of short meditations it is tempting to call cultural analysis. The subjects are impressively varied, including the freedom of the press, the need for a discipline we today call ‘political science’, the institution of marriage, and the nature of avarice. These he published anonymously in a volume entitled Essays, Moral and Political (Edinburgh, 1741). Apparently he had succeeded in gauging his public this time, for the Essays were well received and very quickly ran into a second edition. Encouraged, he followed up with a fresh set of essays published in 1742 under the same title, and that deal with subjects such as essay-writing, eloquence in the modern world, philosophical character types, and the relation between political systems and progress in the arts and sciences. Later additions include topics such as aesthetic taste and national characters. Addison had boasted in the Spectator (1711) that he was bringing Philosophy into the coffeehouse and the home; Hume was doing the same, while also turning facets of everyday life into philosophical subjects.
Hume’s engagement with the everyday world was soon to take yet another form. The Essays had helped to improve his financial situation but the second son of a gentry family had no settled income. Possibilities of various kinds arose in these years, though he was turned down (because of his views on religion) for a chair in Ethics and Pneumatical Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh in 1744 and a chair in Logic at Glasgow in 1751. In the same years, he found he did not thrive in the role of tutor to a nobleman. At the end of his life Hume would express his pride at having been Britain’s first independent man of letters, never having had to accept the patronage of a politician or aristocrat; nevertheless, in 1746 he was very pleased to accept an unusual job offer from a distant relative, General James St Clair. The War of the Austrian Succession was underway, and St Clair enrolled Hume to accompany him as Secretary on a military expedition against the French in North America. The expedition was prepared for, then never undertaken, but Hume was present at a fumbling incursion by British troops against the northern coast of France. He likewise served as an aide-de-camp on a diplomatic mission in Austria and Northern Italy in 1748. From these activities, he obtained income that allowed him to pursue his literary interests and also a chance to observe other aspects of contemporary reality.
The most immediate result of these new experiences was a third set of essays, published under the title Political Discourses in 1752 and later incorporated into a volume with the other essays (in 1758 their title changed to the definitive Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary). The Political Discourses were devoted to a new subject that had attracted Hume’s interest and that we today call the science of economics. In these essays, which were immediately touted throughout Europe, Hume reflects on the relations between commerce and the state, on the nature of money and interest, and the dangers of public debt. It is remarkable also that to weigh such questions, Hume drew not only on the history of modern, commercial societies but on the slaveholding republics of antiquity as well. That Hume’s position as a man of letters in the world was increasingly credible can be seen in a portrait painted in 1754 by his friend the Scottish painter Allan Ramsay (the Younger). Hume is portrayed wearing the garb of a contemplative man in his study, a bonnet and a dull coloured coat, underneath which we glimpse a lively silken vest that must have been highly fashionable—and costly. Hume’s literary success also resulted in his appointment in 1752 to the position of Keeper of the Advocates’ Library in Edinburgh. Again he was supplied with a fixed salary and the resources of a good collection of books, from which he could undertake new literary projects. It is at this time too that Hume and Ramsay founded the Select Society, to regroup prominent members of the Scottish intelligentsia in exploring theoretical and practical issues of the day, including the development of Scottish industries. Adam Smith, the philosophers Lord Kames and Lord Monboddo, the architects James and Robert Adam, and literary scholar Hugh Blair were among the early members of the Society, and their interactions help to explain how Edinburgh acquired a reputation in the second half of the eighteenth century as ‘the Athens of the North’.
The most remarkable of Hume’s next projects was not philosophy, politics or economics but, to some extent, all of them at once. Hume claimed always to have been interested in historical narrative, but he had never had the kind of documents necessary to write history as he understood it should be written, namely as an informed and impartial (though not an exhaustively researched) account. In fact, his experience as an historian proved to be revealing about his whole career. The Essays had already shown how difficult it was for the worldly writer to feel comfortable writing in a society dominated by party politics and orthodox views of religion. But writing history pushed his sense of unease to the limit. It is easy enough to consider Hume as a ‘Revolution Whig’ (the name for those who approved of the replacement of James II by William of Orange in 1688, and who could not be enlisted in support of the Jacobite cause in the eighteenth century). But readers of his first volume, called The History of Great Britain (1754) and devoted to the reigns of James I and Charles I, were incensed to see him take what they felt was a ‘Tory’ view of the period, most famously when he painted a sympathetic portrait of Charles I. There was anger likewise about his critical presentations of the religious enthusiasm of the Puritans and the superstition of the Anglicans. But these outcries were not enough to stop the historian. He continued the narrative forward to 1688 in the next volume (1756), but the pressure was such that he then decided to forego a history of the recent past, including the union of England and Scotland (in 1707), in favour of accounts of Tudor England (1759) and the period from the Romans until Henry VII (1762). The entire work was renamed The History of England. It counts as one of Scotland’s or (as Hume might also have said) North Britain’s great literary achievements.
The story of Hume’s writing, though not of his life, largely stops here. It seems likely that the bitterness of writing in a world of hostile opinion was finally too much for him. The man whom, in 1760, James Boswell called ‘the greatest writer in Britain’ put an end to his public literary career after the last volume of the History. He went on to have other experiences, as the secretary of the British Embassy in Paris from 1763-1765 and a celebrity in the world of Parisian salons and the court; as the ill-starred friend of the persecuted and paranoid Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1766 (another period in Hume’s life that Allan Ramsay depicted, in a portrait showing Hume in a uniform of such finery that George III was said to have complained he was excessively grand); and lastly as the acclaimed historian and Edinburgh intellectual who continued to read and converse but who had ceased in large part to write.
Or so it seemed. Hume’s death of a wasting illness in 1776 was a matter of some interest to the British intellectual world not only because of his past importance as a writer but also because of his continued distance from traditional Christian ideas of priesthood, the soul and the afterlife. It was in part to demonstrate that a man of the world did not need religion in order to die with dignity that Hume wrote a short autobiographical account, entitled ‘My Own Life’, a few months before he died (published 1777). The serenity of this portrait took on new depth with a series of texts that Hume had never dared to publish during his lifetime, but that he left to the executors of his estate to bring to the knowledge of the public. Hume’s career as a man of letters ended two years after his death with the publication of essays on suicide and on the immortality of the soul, and the powerful Dialogues concerning Natural Religion.