Saturday, May 7, 2016

Why I Revere David Hume

Nearly anyone who knows me as well as patrons of this blog will know that I love, admire, and revere Scottish moral philosopher, economist, and historian David Hume. I often quote him; on Facebook, on Twitter, in arguments with people; case and point he is my go-to-guy. However, I have never in written form expressed why I revere him, so on the 305th anniversary of his birth I thought it would be a good day to write about and honor him.

For my readers who do not know much about Hume I will give a little biographical sketch, but I highly recommend the Ernest Campbell Mossner biography The Life of David Hume as well as Hume's autobiography My Own Life (which can be read for free here).

David Hume was born on May 7, 1711 (April 26 OS) in Edinburgh, Scotland. His father passed away when he was two, and he was raised by his mother who early on in life called him "extremely wake-minded", which meant that he tended to daydream rather than that he was unintelligent. He went to school at what is now the University of Edinburgh, but was denied a professorship there and later at the University of Glasgow because he was seen by the general community as an atheist (even though he himself writes to the contrary.) He would go on instead to be a military counselor, a librarian, an assistant on a voyage, a tutor, and a man of letters. He died on August 25, 1776 of stomach cancer. 

Hume's most famous writings include A Treatise of Human Nature, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, The Natural History of Religion, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals and The History of England. While the Treatise is his best known and most quoted work, it was not met with instant success; according to Hume it "fell dead-born from the press." None of his other works fared much better, The History of England being the lone exception; this became the standard history of England during its time and brought Hume great wealth and respect. However, he did say that of all his writings that the second Enquiry was his best work and the one with which he wished to be judged by.

Hume's approach to philosophy was empiricist; he believed knowledge comes through sense experience, so in many ways he was a scientific thinker. Along with this he was also a skeptic and a naturalist, meaning that he did not entertain the idea that a transcendent world existed. His thought covers areas such as what is now called philosophy of mind, cognitive science, neuroscience, moral psychology, philosophy of religion, aesthetics, and ethics. His influence in all these areas is considerable, with experts in those fields who endorse his views or carry on with them called "Humean".

While he was not extremely well received in his own lifetime, Hume had a great effect on Immanuel Kant who said that Hume "awoke me from dogmatic slumber" (although Hume would guess Kant never read his work), as well as other later schools of philosophy and continues to be well respected by academics to this day. Some philosophers and schools of thought greatly in debt to Hume (by their own admission) include John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell, William James, pragmatism, logical positivism, Karl Popper, Charles Darwin, and Albert Einstein.

Now that I have briefly sketched the mans life, I will now talk about what Hume has meant to me personally. I had never heard of him prior to my mission, but while I was there I knew I wanted to study philosophy upon returning home. As my luck would have it, a friend of mine was home teaching someone who had majored in philosophy in college, and a few weeks after returning home I met with him. He told me that if I wanted to study philosophy, that I needed someone as a philosophical guide, someone to kind of look up to. He mentioned that as an undergrad he had a friend named Don Garrett (who is now the chair of philosophy at NYU, the highest ranked department in the United States) and that Garrett had been smitten by Hume every since he read him. I went home and looked Hume up on Wikipedia (has it's glitches, but it is a great starting point most of the time) and was intrigued by what I read. I decided to go on Amazon and get one of his books, the first one I bought was Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. This book would go on to have a great effect on me, more on that later. I would go one to get Hume's complete works after that.

The reason I revere Hume could perhaps be considered twofold. First, I am very impressed with the man himself, I love his attitude and his style. He had the characteristics of a person that could be a good friend; a superior intellect, a wit, and a fierce loyalty to people. His willingness to defend his views even despite them costing him professorships and other appointments shows his dedication to the Socratic principle; following the evidence wherever it may lead. His sense of humility and disappointment that he expresses in places such as My Own Life show that while he did achieve fame during hi slide, he was disappointed that his work had been so misunderstood by his comrades in Scotland. Simply put, Hume was more than just a great philosopher; he was a great man.

Secondly his work itself. First, Hume is simply a joy to read, being called "the most important philosopher to write in English". He writes so well that even if you disagree with all of his ideas, you will enjoy having read him. His empirical approach to philosophy, his skepticism about his own findings, and some of the things his findings undermine also have had a great effect on me. For instance, Hume wrote in the Treatise that since knowledge comes from experience and we cannot observe ourselves, that the self is an illusion and we just have a bundle of perceptions about the self. His problem of induction is also one that has left me dumbstruck from time to time because while I sometimes wished he were wrong, I always end up concluding he was right.

By way of personal anecdote, before I read Hume I had questioned the idea of a finite God after reading Thomas Aquinas' Five Ways. However, after reading Hume's Dialogues and his argument that given the imperfections in the universe and our experience of design, it is more likely that several finite God's designed the planet rather than one infinite God. I had never thought of it that way, but after reading the argument and considering it, I came to the conclusion that Hume was right and remained in the LDS Church rather than joining the Catholic Church.

While I could go on and on about him, it will be sufficient to say that Hume has made me the man and thinker that I am today. Like Hume, I am a staunch empiricist, naturalist, and skeptic. This way of thinking has carried over to how I approach religion, politics, friendship, and obviously philosophy itself. I consider Hume, along with Jesus of Nazareth, Joseph Smith Jr,, Isaac Newton, and Charles Darwin to be among the 5 greatest men who have ever lived. I thank God daily that my friend introduced me to Hume and his thought; my life will never be the same because of it. God be thanked for David Hume.


  1. This may be of interest to you:

  2. I feel similarly about Buddha.

    1. Olavarria,

      Thanks for your comment. I have not read Buddha extensively, being a western analytic philosopher myself, but from what I have read of his I can see what you mean.