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Issue 51 - David Hume

Scotland Magazine Issue 51
June 2010

 

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David Hume

The enlightened philosopher.

David Hume is now known as a philosopher of the Enlightenment, but in his lifetime he was better known as an historian and theorist of economics and politics. He cared about his literary reputation and enjoyed great respect internationally as a ‘man of letters’.

He was not born wealthy, though he came from a family of good standing. Born in Edinburgh on 26 April 1711, son of Joseph Hume, laird of Ninewells, a small estate near Chirnside, Berwickshire.

Hume was about 12 years old when he entered Edinburgh University, and his family assumed he would become a lawyer.

But Hume had a passion for philosophy and learning for learning’s sake.

He was driven by his thirst for intellectual advancement, to the extent that he worked himself too hard and had a nervous breakdown in 1729.

After such a knock to his health, Hume set out to live a more active life, but even this was only done to better facilitate his learning. He was as singleminded as ever.

Without a fortune, Hume still had to work for a living. Having spurned a career in law, he tried his hand at business, working for a merchant in Bristol. For whatever reason, this only lasted a few months and Hume was off again, this time to France. He resolved to live frugally, determined to remain independent so that he could improve his talents in literature.

During his three years in France, Hume wrote his first major work, A Treatise of Human Nature. He was only 26 at the time, and the Treatise was not well received. His next work, Essays, Moral and Political (1941- 42) was more successful but also raised some eyebrows among traditional thinkers.

In fact, his work came to damage his career prospects, when he applied for the position of Chair of Pneumatics and Moral Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh in 1744. Hume was seen as a heretic and an atheist, not to be trusted.

Even eight years later, this reputation prevented him from becoming Chair of Logic at Glasgow University, but instead he was appointed Keeper of the Advocates’ Library in Edinburgh. The job was poorly paid but Hume was ecstatic just to have access to so many books.

Over the years Hume had some impressive jobs, and some less impressive ones. He was a tutor to the insane Marquis of Annandale (1745-46), and later spent some years as Secretary to General St Clair, travelling to Brittany, Vienna and Turin.

His travels financed his true work, including the epic six-volume The History of Great Britain (written over 15 years and published 1754-1762), Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding (1748), Political Discourses (1752) and The Natural History of Religion (1757).

His work was extensive. He was compelled to question knowledge and belief, needing to apply scientific impartiality to human thought, even if his views ran contrary to the Establishment.

Among his great variety of work, he is known for his criticism of the ‘design argument’ as an argument for the existence of God, for his re-thinking of cause and effect, and his scepticism about human powers of reason. He was certainly a controversial figure for the Church.

Yet his behaviour was always circumspect. He was much admired and respected among his peers and described himself as “a man of mild dispositions, of command of temper, and of an open, social and cheerful humour.” In 1763 Hume returned to France in the service of Lord Hertford. The excesses of Paris left him unmoved. He was never seen to succumb to the indulgences of Parisian society, and never married. Nothing could distract from his intellectual pursuits.

In 1768 he returned to Edinburgh, where he remained, doing what he loved until his death on 25 August 1776.

Hume’s thinking on history, economics and politics inspired many of his contemporaries, such as his close friend the economist Adam Smith. Now remembered primarily as a philosopher, Hume’s writing has been pored over, expanded upon, classified and re-classified. He influenced the work of other great thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, and continues to inspire new generations of philosophers today.

Of the great Scottish minds, David Hume’s must be one of the greatest.