David Hume, philosopher, atheist, historian, economist, author, sociologist and perennial sceptic, was born on the 7th of May, 1711.
David Hume wasn’t exactly a cause célèbre in his day, but his brand of philosophy still resonates, nearly three hundred years later. You can pick holes in his theories on causation, but since the uncovering of quantum physics it’s quite probable that his theories make more sense that you’d care to believe. Hume was an opponent of the ‘common sense’ school led by his Scottish contemporary, Thomas Reid, compared to whom, for some years into the 19th Century, he was regarded as less important. In terms of labelling, Hume is often grouped with John Locke, George Berkeley, and a handful of others as a British empiricist, but he stands head and shoulders above any of those. You could say he was the founder of his own ‘uncommon sense’ school of philosophy.
In fact, David Hume is one of the most significant figures in the history of Western philosophy and of the Scottish Enlightenment, and is still considered among the greatest philosophers of all time. He wrote about human nature and politics, and introduced social history. He is the author of such seminal works as ‘A Treatise of Human Nature’ and ‘An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding’. In ‘The Natural History of Religion’ and his brilliant ‘Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion’, Hume also wrote scathingly about the vulgar superstition of religion and produced compelling criticisms of the absurdity of ‘intelligent design’. For the simple truth that theological systems spread absurdity and intolerance, we should sing the praises of David Hume – amen.
David Home was born on the 7th of May, 1711, in Edinburgh, the second son of a lawyer. Wee Davie spent his childhood at Ninewells, his family’s modest estate on the Whiteadder River, in the borders near Berwick. When Davie’s elder brother went ‘up’ to Edinburgh University, the precocious David, not yet twelve, joined him. In Scotland’s capital, the nerve centre of 19th Century enlightenment, young David studied law, but he also read widely in history and literature as well as ancient and modern philosophy, and for good measure, he studied mathematics and contemporary science.
Pursuing the goal of becoming “a Scholar & Philosopher”, Hume followed a rigorous program of reading and reflection for three years until “there seem’d to be open’d up to me a New Scene of Thought.” He left the University in 1729 and, during a period marred by illness, depression, and mental breakdown, he dedicated himself to the construction of his formidable thesis. During that time, he moved to France. There, where Descartes and Mersenne had studied a century before, between 1734 and 1737, Hume drafted ‘A Treatise of Human Nature’.
The ‘Treatise’ was no literary sensation, but it didn’t “fall dead-born from the press,” as Hume disappointedly described its reception. Despite the surgical deletions, needed to ensure publication at all, it attracted enough of a “murmour among the zealots” to fuel his life-long reputation as an atheist and a sceptic. With the ‘Treatise’, Hume sought to introduce the scientific methods of the Enlightenment, of Newton and Bacon, to bear on five human subjects. These subjects were to be laid out in five volumes: ‘Of the Understanding’; ‘Of the Passions’; ‘Of Morals’; ‘Of Politics’; and ‘Of Criticism’. The first three appeared in 1739-40, but the next two volumes never saw the light of day, although much of what he sought to write on those topics ended up in his later ‘Essays’.
In 1751, Hume published an ‘Enquiry into the Principles of Morals’, clarifying his theory of ethics from volume three of the ‘Treatise’. He considered that work “incomparably the best” of all the works he had written. Later, in 1757, Hume published his ‘Dissertations’, which included the famous volume on ‘The Natural History of Religion’, lambasting the then popular idea that religion can be based on reason and not revelation, arguing instead that religious belief was very much a child of vulgar “superstition and enthusiasm.” He also wrote the highly atheistic ‘Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion’. These two volumes were suppressed from publication until after his death. A fitting conclusion to a philosophical life, the posthumously published ‘Dialogues’ alone assured the philosophical and literary immortality of its author. In this magnificent work, Hume demonstrates his mastery of the dialogue form, while producing what many regard as the preeminent work in the philosophy of religion.
Hume offered compelling criticisms against the common belief that God’s existence could be proven through a design or causal argument. In ‘The Natural History of Religion’, he gives an account of the origins and development of religious beliefs. He maintained that religion began in the postulation, by primitive peoples, of “invisible intelligences” to account for frightening, uncontrollable natural phenomena, such as disease and earthquakes. He went on to state that, when polytheism eventually gives way to monotheism, which is dogmatic and intolerant, what results are theological systems which spread absurdity and intolerance. Since religion is not universal in the way that our non-rational beliefs in causation or physical objects are, perhaps it can eventually be dislodged from human thinking altogether.
Hume created an earthquake in western philosophy, whose aftershocks are still being felt today, over two centuries later. Charles Darwin counted Hume as a central influence, as did ‘Darwin’s bulldog’, Thomas Henry Huxley. Hume’s friend and fellow Scot, Adam Smith, described him thus, “I have always considered him, both in 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.”
In 1769, Hume returned to Edinburgh and philosophical semi-retirement. Shortly before he died, he completed a short autobiographical notice, ‘My Own Life’, in which he acknowledged, for the first time, his authorship of the ‘Treatise’. After a prolonged, painful illness from intestinal cancer, David Hume died on the 26th of April, 1776. He died a happy and confirmed atheist.
By the way, Hume changed his name, in 1731, because Englishmen had difficulty in pronouncing the Scottish ‘Home’. He was, of course, also noted for his drinking ability, as immortalised in Monty Python’s ‘Philosoper’s Song’; “…David Hume could out-consume Schopenhauer and Hegel…”.