Who Was David Hume?

David Hume, who died in his native Edinburgh in 1776, has become something of a hero to academic philosophers. In 2009, he won first place in a large international poll of professors and graduate students who were asked to name the dead thinker with whom they most identified. The runners-up in this peculiar race were Aristotle and Kant. Hume beat them by a comfortable margin. Socrates only just made the top twenty.

This is quite a reversal of fortune for Hume, who failed in both of his attempts to get an academic job. In his own day, and into the nineteenth century, his philosophical writings were generally seen as perverse and destructive. Their goal was “to produce in the reader a complete distrust in his own faculties,” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1815–1817. The best that could be said for Hume as a philosopher was that he provoked wiser thinkers to refute him in interesting ways. As a historian and essayist, though, Hume enjoyed almost immediate success. When James Boswell called him “the greatest Writer in Brittain”—this was in 1762, before Boswell transferred his allegiance to Dr. Johnson—he was thinking mainly of Hume’s History of England, which remained popular for much of the nineteenth century. “HUME (David), the Historian” is how the British Library rather conservatively still catalogued him in the 1980s.

Hume the philosopher did have his early admirers, but they had to be careful what they said about him. Six months after Hume’s death, one of his closest friends, Adam Smith, implicitly likened him to Socrates, which caused a scandal. Smith had recently published a controversial treatise on economics, The Wealth of Nations, yet his eulogy of Hume, and especially his account of Hume’s composure in the face of death, “brought upon me ten times more abuse than the very violent attack I had made upon the whole commercial system of Great Britain.” In a published account of his visit to the expiring Hume, Smith reported that he had found him making jokes about the underworld, apropos a satire of Lucian’s, and in good spirits, as usual:
Thus died our most excellent, and never-to-be-forgotten friend…. Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his lifetime, and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will admit.
Educated readers of the time will have heard in Smith’s effusive words an echo of Plato’s encomium on the death of Socrates (“Such…was the end of our comrade, who was…of all those whom we knew…the bravest and also the wisest and most upright man”). The problem was that Hume was widely known to have been some sort of infidel. He was therefore clearly a reprehensible fellow, albeit a jovial one, and thus undeserving of a calm death, let alone of tacit comparisons to Socrates.

As James Harris drily notes in his fine new biography, Hume’s private letters show that “he was not very good at being serious about religion.” His lack of piety and the decorously veiled attacks on theism in his published writings may play some part in his current academic popularity. Most professional philosophers today are atheists—73 percent of them, according to the 2009 survey. Perhaps Hume’s cheerful wit and enjoyment of life also help to make him a model for today’s philosophers, who do not like to think of themselves as unduly serious when off-duty. When he lived in Paris in his early fifties, the famously equable and entertaining Hume was celebrated in the salons as le bon David. A plausible report in a London newspaper quoted him as declining his publisher’s requests for further volumes of his profitable History on the grounds that he was now “too old, too fat, too lazy, and too rich.”

Still, it is probably the rise of so-called “naturalism” in philosophy that best explains Hume’s newfound appeal. Naturalism has several components, all of which were prominent in his work. Hume stressed the similarities between people and other animals: a century before Darwin’s Descent of Man, he argued that there is no great difference between the minds of humans and the minds of some creatures in zoos. (Hume also anticipated Darwin in implying that certain mental traits function to aid reproduction.) He treated religion as a natural phenomenon, to be explained in psychological and historical terms—which tended to annoy the pious—and he argued that the study of the mind and of morals should be pursued by the same empirical methods that were starting to cast new light on the rest of nature. Philosophy, for Hume, was thus not fundamentally different from science. This outlook is much more common in our time than it was in his.

Philosophers now regard Hume’s account of reason not as a mischievous plot to undermine it but as an attempt to explain how it works. As Harris puts the matter, he was developing “an entirely new theory of rationality.” Hume treats humans as clever animals whose beliefs about most things are based on “custom,” in the form of a propensity to expect the future to resemble the past—a propensity, he argued, that is essential for the conduct of life, but cannot be provided with any sort of independent justification. This thesis has come to be known as “the problem of induction,” though Hume himself did not regard it as presenting much of a problem. He played up the importance of what he called “experimental” or “probable” reasoning in human knowledge, and played down the significance of mathematical and quasi-mathematical deductions. This was a considerable novelty after some two thousand years in which philosophers, still enthralled by Greek geometry, had mostly done the opposite. Hume’s emphasis on the sort of empirical and fallible beliefs that humans share with some lesser creatures was all too easily interpreted as a denigration of the powers of the human mind.

Hume first advanced his new theory of rationality in A Treatise of Human Nature, most of which was written by the time he was twenty-six, and which was, he claimed, mapped out while he was still a teenager. When the Treatise did not produce quite the philosophical revolution that he had been counting on, Hume blamed its failure mainly on the way he had expressed himself, not on the book’s main ideas. He then set out to find other ways to communicate them, and other literary projects to pursue.

Hume’s life may therefore seem to have been a drama in two very different acts. In the first, he tried unsuccessfully to make his mark in philosophy. In the second, he produced lighter works in order to make money and become famous. Hume the philosopher thus became Hume the popular historian and essayist.

But is that the best way to see his career? Did Hume dilute his ideas to make them more appealing to “the habitués of coffee-houses,” as one of his nineteenth-century editors sniffily suggested? And was it fair of another to claim that “few men of letters have been at heart so vain and greedy of fame”? Harris’s biography argues that there was more continuity and integrity to Hume’s intellectual journey than such remarks suggest. A love of literature had always been his “ruling passion,” wrote Hume at the end of his life, and as Harris points out, “literature” was a broad concept in Hume’s century. It covered the entire world of learning, including history, divinity, philosophy, and politics. Hume always saw himself as a “man of letters,” unconfined by any particular academic specialty, and the range of his interests was evident from the start. Eighteenth-century Scotland, with its four thriving universities and a plethora of discussion clubs, was the perfect place for such polymathy.

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