The career of the Scottish philosopher David Hume is a parable of the writing life that speaks with eloquence about the strange and inexplicable progress of ideas in the marketplace of free debate. His career, moreover, is one that runs almost to the day he died, in 1776, just after the outbreak of the American revolution.
Hume was born and educated in Edinburgh, the son of a successful lawyer, and acquired a fierce appetite for philosophy at a precociously young age. After a mental breakdown as a student, and despite limited personal means, he spent three years of private study in France. Thereafter, he worked for four years on A Treatise of Human Nature. It was his first major work as a philosopher, and it bore the unwieldy subtitle â€œBeing an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjectsâ€.Hume completed Treatise in 1738, aged 28, and published it anonymously in two volumes the following year.
His ambitious intention was to construct a pragmatic science of man, a wholesale system of thought by which to appraise the psychological basis of human nature. In opposition to the rationalists of the day, Hume argued that it was passion rather than reason that moderates human behaviour: â€œReason 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.â€
From this position, Hume advanced the idea that human knowledge must ultimately be located in mankindâ€™s quotidian experience. â€œIt is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger,â€ he wrote.
The publication of Humeâ€™s Treatise was a disaster. Its wit and clarity (â€œPoetsâ€¦ though liars by profession, always endeavour to give an air of truth to their fictionsâ€) were overlooked; his majestic philosophical rigour misunderstood. He himself later observed that it â€œfell dead-born from the pressâ€. Today, however, Treatise is widely considered to be Humeâ€™s most important work, one of the keystone books of western philosophy, in the words of one commentator, â€œthe founding document of cognitive scienceâ€ and possibly the â€œmost important philosophical workâ€ in the English language.
In 1740, however, the critics were savage, describing his work as â€œabstract and unintelligibleâ€. Itâ€™s not hard to see why. Even today, the Treatise is notably dry, and makes few concessions to the reader.
Organised in three parts (Of the Understanding, Of the Passions and Of Morals), with many sub-sections such as â€œOf Ideas, Their Origin, Composition, Connexion, Abstraction, Etc.â€; â€œOf the Ideas of Space and Timeâ€; â€œOf Knowledge and Probabilityâ€ and â€œOf the Sceptical and Other Systems of Philosophy Etcâ€, it concludes with a recapitulation with Humeâ€™s reasoning for his thesis that â€œsympathy is the chief source of moral distinctionsâ€.
As the first reviews suggest, the Treatise is not for the faint-hearted. This passage is typical: â€œAfter the most accurate examination of which I am capable, I venture to affirm that the rule here holds without any exception, and that every simple idea has a simple impression, which resembles it, and every simple impression a correspondent idea.â€
Hume did not repine. He had devoted most of his savings to the long gestation of the work, and he would not give up. Addressing his restricted circumstances, he declared that he would dedicate himself to literature. He would, he wrote, â€œmake a very rigid frugality supply my deficiency of fortune, to maintain unimpaired my independencyâ€. With stoic self-belief he pronounced â€œevery object contemptible except the improvements of my talents in literatureâ€. And so, despite his bad press, and the frustration of his youthful ambition, Hume concluded: â€œBeing naturally of a cheerful temper, I soon recovered from the blow and prosecuted with great ardour my studies in the country.â€
With impressive sang froid, having determined that the problem with the Treatise was one of style not content, Hume reworked his material into two rather more accessible essays entitled An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751). These, Hume wrote, with typical brio, were â€œof all my writings, historical, philosophical, or literary, incomparably the bestâ€. Next, in 1752, he published his Political Discourses, which was translated into French and made Hume famous throughout Europe. Now on a roll, in 1754 he published the brilliant first volume of his History of Great Britain, a narrative largely devoted to the early Stuart kings followed by further volumes in 1757, 1759, and 1762.
Always a great stylist, Hume was now established as one of the great intellects of his time, a cultural icon, renowned as much in London as in Scotland. Forever in search of new kinds of self-expression, at the end of his life, and conscious that he was dying, Hume published a short autobiographical essay on â€œMy Own Lifeâ€ in which he summarised his entire life in â€œfewer than 5 pagesâ€ â€“ a genre that almost amounts to a private joke, being notably short on personal anecdote and standard autobiographical data. Dry as ever, he writes dispassionately of his imminent decease: â€œI now reckon upon a speedy dissolution. I have suffered very little pain from my disorder, and what is more strange, notwithstanding the great decline of my person, never suffered a momentâ€™s abatement of my spirits.â€
However, Hume did confess that a â€œlove of literary fameâ€ had served as his â€œruling passionâ€ in life. With his usual self-confidence, he claimed that this ambition â€œnever soured my temper, notwithstanding my frequent disappointmentsâ€. The reception of the Treatise was one of these, he admitted, but the success of his subsequent Essays had preserved his good spirits. â€œThat work was favourably received, and soon made me entirely forget my former disappointment,â€ he said.
In a line that many contemporary writers might profitably take to heart, he observed, of the Treatise, that his philosophical debutâ€™s immediate failure â€œhad proceeded more from the manner than the matterâ€. Hume explained his meaning thus: â€œI had been guilty of a very usual indiscretion, in going to the press too early.â€
A signature sentence
â€œIn every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a god, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprized [sic] to find that instead of the usual copulations of proposition, is and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought or an ought not; this change is imperceptible, but it is, however, of the last consequence.â€
Three to compare
Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan (1651)
John Locke: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689)
David Hume: History of Great Britain (1754)
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