Information on David Hume philosophy, thoughts, works and theories. David Hume’s knowledge theory, political theory, theories of economics and influence.
Conjoining British empiricism and French skepticism, Hume drew the conclusion that it is impossible to defend, on rational grounds, men’s everyday beliefs in the existence of a world governed by scientific laws, created by God, and inhabited by beings who possess selves. In his moral writings he is similarly intent on showing that moral distinctions do not rest on rational grounds. His economic, historical, and political writings set out to undermine legends about human society; his religious writings, to destroy every form of superstition and fanaticism.
Theory of Knowledge.
David Hume began from, and never questioned, John Locke’s view that what we immediately perceive is always a sense impression. Then, he asked, what rational ground do we have for believing that such impressions originate, as both science and common sense presume, in continuous, causally connected, complex physical objects? Impressions exist only as objects of our mind; we have no direct experience of independent physical objects. Each impression is quite distinct from any other impression, so that experience reveals no necessary connection between them. They are transitory and fleeting; for experience, nothing is permanent. The common-sense world, Hume concluded, is certainly not revealed to us in experience.
Equally, he considered, there can be no strict proof of the existence of such a world; reason is at this point as powerless as experience. Strict proofs exist in mathematics, but nowhere else. No one can demonstrate, then, that physical objects exist or that physical laws are true. Experience only tells us that in the past the similar impressions A1; A2, A3 have been followed by the similar impressions B1, B2, B3. This gives us no ground for concluding that in the future any A will necessarily give rise to a B. Yet such an invariable connection is precisely what physical laws assert—with the additional complication, however, that they refer not to sets of impressions but to physical objects.
For reason, as for experience, Hume concluded, the world consists in nothing more substantial than regular sequences of impressions. Even our own mind is “nothing but a bundle of different perceptions, which succeed each other with inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.” Yet in this conclusion it is impossible permanently to acquiesce. Hume, like the rest of us, was quite convinced that the world is very much the sort of thing common sense takes it to be. What, if neither rational argument nor experience, is the source of this belief?
Hume’s general answer was that our belief in the common-sense world arises out of the operations of a number of psychological mechanisms, of which the most important is “the association of ideas.” Ideas that are very like one another we identify; ideas that regularly go together we suppose to be invariably associated. Thus, in the special case of causal connection, our regular experience that an A-like impression is followed by a B-like impression leads us to suppose—not as a result of rational argument but merely because this is how our mind works—that anything of the sort A will be followed by something of the sort B. Indeed, the regularity of our experience gives rise to a feeling of necessity; we feel compelled, when we experience A, to expect B to follow. Thus we come to imagine that A is necessarily connected with B, although in fact the necessity is a feeling of ours, not a mode of connection between objects. As a result of similar mechanisms, which Hume describes in detail, we come to believe that there are independently existing continuous objects and that our perceptions are united in a continuous self.
In some respects, this conclusion suited Hume admirably. It has commonly been objected to the moral sciences that they rest on feeling, whereas the physical sciences are wholly rational. Now Hume could reply that the physical sciences, too, rest on feeling. He had hoped to show that “the science of man” is the fundamental science; and he had in fact demonstrated, he thought, that to understand the foundations of science, one must first study the workings of the human mind.
In other respects, his conclusions were less satisfactory. He wished to distinguish sharply between science and superstition and to uphold the possibility of studying moral questions in a scientific way. Yet his whole approach seemed to suggest that the distinction between science and superstition was a quite arbitrary one. To avoid this conclusion, Hume sometimes suggested that regularly operating psychological mechanisms, as distinct from mere eccentricities, have a measure of rationality about them and thus that science, which rests upon such regular mechanisms, is more secure than superstition.
No other philosopher has been satisfied with this way out. His contemporaries dismissed Hume’s philosophy as an absurd form of skepticism. Many later philosophers have accepted the critical side of his philosophy—agreeing with him, in particular, that physical laws are not demonstrably true—but have sought to construct a more satisfactory theory of scientific rationality.
Hume’s ethical theory, much influenced by Francis Hutcheson, is particularly directed against the view that to describe an action as vicious is to state a fact about it—or, in other words, that moral judgments are true or false in the same sense that “judgments of reason” are true or false. The viciousness of an act, he argues, resides in its effect upon our feelings as human beings. That is why the recognition that an act is vicious has an immediate effect upon our actions, as a mere judgment of reason does not, for “reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.”
To the question “What kinds of actions particularly arouse our moral feelings?” Hume’s reply is that we generally approve of those actions that are in the interest of humanity at large and disapprove of those that are not. His moral philosophy was long regarded as being of merely historical importance, as one of the precursors of utilitarianism. Recendy attention has been directed toward the logic of his fundamental argument—that from the mere statement that something is the case, it can never be deduced what ought to be the case. In other words, moral conclusions are deductible only from value statements, never from facts alone. Whether Hume’s sharp contrast between value judgments and factual judgments is a proper one is still in dispute.
Hume wrote his History of England from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution of 1688 backward. He published first his history of Stuart times (under the title History of Great Britain) and only gradually worked back to Roman Britain. His principal concern was political—to demonstrate that neither of the existing political parties could properly claim, as each did, to be the sole representative of the historical traditions in England. It was neither true, as the Tories argued, that kings ruled absolutely by divine right, nor true, as the Whigs argued, that the freedom of Englishmen had been constitutionally guaranteed by the Magna Carta. Hume conceived history very broadly, however—as including, for example, the history of English literature—and was the first to present a coherent narrative of the history of the English people.
In his essays on political theory Hume is critical of the setting up of parties along doctrinal lines and is insistent upon the need for basing political programs on the actual, as distinct from the imaginary, traditions of a country. Abstractly he believed that a republic was the best form of government, but under actual conditions in England, a republic would be torn asunder, he thought, by party strife. Like most men of the Enlightenment, Hume was never quite sure which he feared most—monarchal despotism or mob rule. In the end, he supported nothing more radical than prudent modifications in the existing constitution.
Theories of Economics.
In his half dozen essays on economics Hume set out to argue that what really mattered for the economic growth of a country were the energy and industry of its people and that economic growth would inevitably bring with it a general increase in happiness and civilization. He particularly attacked the view that a country must, above all else, ensure that it has a favorable balance of trade and thus avoid the draining of its stock of money. Any imbalance, he argued—in a country whose inhabitants were willing to work hard—would inevitably correct itself in time. He admitted that slow inflation was an incentive to economic growth but opposed paper money and public indebtedness. Taxation, he thought, should be on consumption, not on possessions.
David Hume’s political ideas influenced both the French revolutionaries and the American Founding Fathers. In economics it was he who converted Adam Smith to economic liberalism, although the pupil was to overshadow the master. Philosophically, Hume awoke Immanuel Kant from his “dogmatic slumber” and set him off on his attempt to reconcile the British and the Franco-German philosophical traditions. More recently, he has had a profound influence on the logical positivists, and contemporary philosophy of science, for the most part, still sets out to answer Hume. The questions he asked are very much alive, even if his own answers to them are seldom satisfactory.