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DAVID HUME (1711-1776)

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Originally appearing in Volume V13, Page 877 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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DAVID HUME (1711-1776), English philosopher, historian and political economist, was born at Edinburgh, on the 26th of April (O.S.) 1711. His father, Joseph Hume or Home, a scion of the noble house of Home of Douglas (but see Notes and Queries, 4th sec% iv. 72), was owner of a small estate in Berwickshire, on the banks of the Whiteadder, called, from the spring rising in front of the dwelling-house, Ninewells. David was the youngest of a family of three, two sons and a daughter, who after the early death of the father were brought up with great care and devotion by their mother, the daughter of Sir David Falconer, president of the college of justice. Of Hume's early education little is known beyond what he has himself stated in his Life. He appears to have entered the Greek classes of the university of Edinburgh in 1723, and, he tells us, " passed through the ordinary course of education with success." From a letter printed in Burton's Life (i. 30-39), it appears that about 1726 Hume returned to Ninewells with a fair knowledge of Latin, slight acquaintance with Greek and literary tastes decidedly inclining to " books of reasoning and philosophy, and to poetry and the polite authors." We do not know, except by inference, to what studies he especially devoted himself. It is, however, clear that from his earliest years he began to speculate upon the nature of knowledge in the abstract, and its concrete applications, as in theology, and that with this object he studied largely the writings of Cicero and Seneca and recent English philosophers (especially Locke, Berkeley and Butler). His acquaintance with Cicero is clearly proved by the form in which he cast some of the most important of his speculations. From his boyhood he devoted himself to acquiring a literary reputation, and throughout his life, in spite of financial and other difficulties, he adhered to his original intention. A man of placid and even phlegmatic temperament, he lived moderately in all things, and sought worldly prosperity only so far as was necessary to give him leisure for his literary work. At first he tried law, but was unable to give his mind to a study which appeared to him to be merely a barren waste of technical jargon. At this time the intensity. of his intellectual activity in the area opened up to him by Locke and Berkeley reduced him to a state of physical exhaustion. In these circumstances he determined to try the effect of complete change of scene and occupation, and in 1734 entered a business house in Bristol. In a few months he found " the scene wholly unsuitable " to him, and about the middle of 1734 set out for France, resolved to spend some years in quiet study. He visited Paris, resided for a time at Rheims and then settled at La Fleche, famous in the history of philosophy as the school of Descartes. His health seems to have been perfectly restored, and during the three years of his stay in France his speculations were worked into systematic form in the Treatise of Human Nature. In the autumn of 1737 he was in London arranging for its publication and polishing it in preparation for the judgments of the learned. In January 1730 appeared the first and second volumes of the Treatise of Human Nature, being an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects, containing book L. Of the Understanding, and book ii., Of the Passions. The third Volume, containing book iii., Of Morals, was published in the following year. The publisher of the first two volumes, John Noone, gave him too and twelve bound copies for a first edition of one thousand copies. Hume's own words best describe its reception. " Never literary attempt was more unfortunate; it fell dead-born from the press, without reaching such distinction as even to excite a murmur among the zealots." " But," he adds. " being naturally of a cheerful and sanguine temper, I very soon recovered the blow, and prosecuted with great ardour my studies in the country." This brief notice, however, is not sufficient to explain the full significance of the event for Hume's own life. The work undoubtedly failed to do what its author expected from it; even the notice, otherwise not unsatisfactory, which it obtained in the History of the Works of the Learned, then the principal critical journal, did not in the least appreciate the true bearing of the Treatise on current discussions. Hume naturally expected that the world would see as clearly as he did the connexion between the concrete problems agitating contemporary thought and the abstract principles on which their solution depended. Accordingly he looked for opposition, and expected that, if his principles were received, a change in general light and amusing style, showing Hume's usual keenness of conceptions of things would ensue. His disappointment at its I sight in some directions and his almost equal blindness in others. reception was great; and though he never entirely relinquished his metaphysical speculations, though all that is of value in his later writings depends on the acute analysis of human nature to which he was from the first attracted, one cannot but regret that his high powers were henceforth withdrawn for the most part from the consideration of the foundations of belief, and expended on its practical applications. In later years he attributed his want of success to the immature style of his early exposition, to the rashness of a young innovator in an old and well-established province of literature. But this has little foundation beyond the irritation of an author at his own failure to attract such attention as he deems his due. None of the principles of the Treatise is given up in the later writings, and no addition is made to them. Nor can the superior polish of the more mature productions counterbalance the concentrated vigour of the more youthful work. After the publication of the Treatise Hume retired to his brother's house at Ninewells and carried on his studies, mainly in the direction of politics and political economy. In 1741 he published the first volume of his Essays, which had a considerable and immediate success. A second edition was called for in the following year, in which also a second volume was published. These essays Butler, to whom he had sent a copy of his Treatise, but with whom he had failed to make personal acquaintance, warmly commended. The philosophical relation between Butler and Hume is curious. So far as analysis of knowledge is concerned they are in harmony, and Hume's sceptical conclusions regarding belief in matters of fact are the foundations on which Butler's defence of religion rests. Butler, however, retained, in spite of his destructive theory of knowledge, confidence in the rational proofs for the existence of God, and certainly maintains what may be vaguely described as an a priori view of conscience. Hume had the greatest respect for the author of the Analogy, ranks him with Locke and Berkeley as an originator of the experimental method in moral science, and in his specially theological essays, such as that on Particular Providence and a Future State, has Butler's views specifically in mind. (See
End of Article: DAVID HUME (1711-1776)
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