An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, David Hume



David Hume was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1711. He was raised as a Scottish Calvinist and attended the University of Edinburgh between the ages of 13 and 14. After studying law for a short period, he decided to take up a writing career. His first book and the basis of all his later philosophy, A Treatise of Human Nature, was completed when he was 26 years old. His contemporaries largely ignored it. He then turned to writing short, witty essays on a wide range of subjects, including economics, morality, and civil society. The first edition of his Essays Moral and Political, of 1741-42, was well received, and the essays were republished and expanded many times during his life. In 1745, Hume attempted to gain an academic position at the University of Edinburgh, but his application was opposed by many in Edinburgh society who believed that he was an atheist. Hume then rewrote part of his earlier Treatise in a more accessible form as An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. To it he attached a notice that he did not want anyone to regard the earlier work as containing his current views. His fame grew with the publication of the History of Great Britain (1754-62), which he wrote while employed as a librarian. In 1762 Boswell declared him "the greatest writer in Britain." After a short career as a diplomat stationed in Paris, Hume returned to Edinburgh, where he died in 1776.

Eight years after Hume's death, William Rose summarized Hume's philosophy in this way:

Were a drunken libertine to throw out such nauseous stuff in the presence of his bacchanalian companions, there might be some excuse for him; but were any man to advance such doctrines in the company of sober citizens, men of plain sense and decent manners, no person, we apprehend, would think him entitled to a serious reply, but would hear him with silent contempt.

Although Rose was personally close to Hume, this sentiment was not untypical.

In the period immediately prior to Hume's career, modern science was routinely defended on the grounds that mathematics are the true way to grasp the laws of nature. Since mathematical knowledge was thought to be innate, all knowledge depends on the use of reason. Hume opposes this doctrine, defended by Continental  Rationalists such as Descartes. Hume believed that reason and rational argument plays very little role in the formation of our beliefs and the acquisition of knowledge. To show this, he defends empiricism, the doctrine that there is no innate knowledge and that all factual knowledge depends on sense perception.

In section II of the Enquiry, Hume attacks the doctrine of innate ideas (see the footnote at the end of the section). We saw that Descartes equates ideas with the contents of our mind and then divides ideas into three types, one of which is sense perception. Hume opposes ideas to impressions. Sense perception is a species of the latter. (In addition to sense perceptions, impressions or lively perceptions include such things as emotions, pleasure and pain.) Hume argues that all our ideas (with perhaps a few insignificant exceptions) are derived from impressions. Because words are used to communicate ideas, meaningful words have to be ones that communicate some combination of ideas. To see if something is meaningful, one must trace the ideas to impressions one has had. If one cannot do so, the words are meaningless jargon. Hume believes that a great deal of philosophy is jargon. However, by tracing our ideas to their sources, he thinks we can clear up a great deal of conceptual confusion.

In section VIII, Hume puts his proposal to work. He examines the ideas of liberty (freedom) and necessity (as in the necessity that a cause leads to a specific effect). Instead of adopting Descartes' vindication of free will, Hume argues that we do not really apply the idea of "liberty" to cases of free will at all!

In section IX, Hume refutes the rationalist faith in human reason by looking to animals; animals learn from their experiences, but we do not believe that they engage in complicated reasoning. Instead of reason, Hume emphasizes the importance of conditioning: "custom alone" leads us to draw the conclusions that we do from the evidence available to us. By this he means that patterns we repeatedly observe set up unconscious associations among ideas; when we see or otherwise learn of some situation, we instinctively believe that certain results will follow. In this we are no different from other animals; the deer smells a human and if humans have threatened the deer, the deer instinctively believes itself threatened and flees. (Hume is not saying that we instinctively know any specific associations, like that of smoke and fire or that of winter and coldness. He is saying that we instinctively form these associations when we observe them paired up in sense perception.)

In section X, Hume considers the Protestant doctrine that faith in Jesus alone can save us, and he contrasts this doctrine with the doctrine that the divinity of Jesus was established by the miracles he performed. Hume examines the idea of a miracle and, surprisingly, argues that it is impossible to believe in any miracle. (Beliefs, we learned in section IX, depend on associations; such associations are lacking here. In Part II, he emphasizes that belief in miracles is actually opposed to the associations we have actually formed in other cases where people relate similar stories.) Be very careful about Hume's concluding comments. His remark on faith in the closing paragraph is usually taken to be ironic.


This page 2002 Theodore Gracyk