Alice C. Linsley
David Hume (1711-1776)
Naturalism, Empiricism, Skepticism; theses terms come to mind when one considers David Hume, the very remarkable philosopher and historian of the 18th century.
Hume was a brilliant Scottish thinker who lived for a time in France. One of his close friends was a fellow Scotsman Adam Smith who is considered the founder of modern economics. Hume also produced some writings on monetary theory.
David Hume has been called "the Skeptic's Skeptic" because of his empirical approach and insistence that there is a natural explanation for almost all observable phenomena. Although Hume leaves open the possibility of miracles as singular events, he offers arguments against their historicity. He notes that miracles seem to occur among the ignorant and superstitious, not in civilized societies which, informed by empiricism, know that most phenomena have a natural explanation.
Hume also notes that people have good reasons to lie about miracles occurring either because they believe they are doing so for the benefit of their religion or because of the fame that results. People enjoy relating miracles without checking their veracity and thus accounts of miracles are easily transmitted even when unverified or false. Hume also believed that the miracles of each religion argue against all other religions and their miracles, and so even if a proportion of all reported miracles appear to be substantiated empirically, the miracles cannot logically be considered conclusive.
George Berkeley had asserted that God's existence is a question of fact; that is, either God exists or God does not exist. Such a question can only be resolved on the basis of observational evidence. Hume insisted that God's existence has not observational evidence. The most that can be said is that the order in nature could be explained by the existence of an Intelligent Being.
Hume is often labeled an agnostic or an atheist. However, today he might have more in common with the Intelligent Design school of thought. Hume wrote, “the whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author; and no rational enquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the principles of genuine Theism and Religion” (Natural History of Religion 134).
David Hume penned what is still considered one of the greatest works on the History of Great Britain. He was a man who enjoyed lengthy conversations with friends on virtually every topic and these conversation stimulated his writing.
Hume’s writings stirred Immanuel Kant from his “dogmatic slumbers” around 1770. Kant produced his greatest work in reaction to Hume. Although the two great thinkers did not agree on many points, they both placed a high value on reason and evidence. Kant defined the Enlightenment by the motto Sapere aude ("Dare to Know") and wrote, “Have the courage to use your own understanding; this is the motto of the Enlightenment.”
Hume's key works are A Treatise on Human Nature (1739-40) which was published anonymously when he was only 28, An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), and Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (1779). In his forties he wrote a six-volume History of England (1754-62) and this work established him as an historian.
In his last years, Hume revised 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. Significantly, he did not revise A Treatise of Human Nature. Hume did not become famous for his philosophical works until after his death in 1776.
Hume believed that truth claims must be based up by material evidence and that much of what we accept in our ordinary lives has no basis in empirical observation and verification. He insisted that unless a truth claim can be demonstrated to be universally the case, it cannot be said to be "true" empirically. Hume's thinking encouraged the early development of the social sciences anthropology, sociology and psychology.
Related reading: David Hume: A Short Biography; Kant and Hume on Causality