Contrary to the traditional conception of human beings as essentially purely rational, David Hume, Scottish philosopher, historian, and essayist, argued that both reason and passion are essential parts of human nature. On the basis of his view of human nature, he hoped to radically reconstruct the moral discourse of his time. This led to his condemnation as an atheist and skeptic. Charles Darwin counted Hume as a central influence, as did Thomas Henry Huxley.
Life and Works
David Hume was born in 1711 near Edinburgh. He studied science and read widely in history, literature, and philosophy. In his mid-20s, he wrote his first, greatest, and most influential philosophical work, his three-volume Treatise of Human Nature, a difficult and provocative book. To Hume’s disappointment, the book failed to gain attention. Therefore, in 1741 and 1742, he published his Essays, Moral and Political to get his ideas across to a general public. With their popular style, the essays were more successful than the Treatise. But being condemned as an atheist and skeptic—he despised the “monkish virtues” of humility and self-denial—Hume never obtained an academic post. Popular revisions of his Treatise (Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and Enquiry Concerning The Principles of Morals) were published in 1748 and 1751. In 1751, Hume also published his Political Discourses, which drew immediate praise. But his most successful book was his six-volume History of England, published from 1754 to 1762. This work made Hume quite wealthy. After having held diverse professional positions and having spent several years of his life abroad (in France, Austria, and Italy), Hume could spend his last years in Edinburgh quietly and comfortably, dining and conversing with friends in Edinburgh’s intellectual circles.
Following the newly developed natural sciences of the 17th century, Hume wanted to establish a science of human nature that would be free of false and misleading metaphysics or superstition. His aim was to find the explanatory principles that produce order in diverse phenomena of human nature. In general, he thought that a study of history and an examination of all known societies suggested that these principles of human nature are as universal and immutable as those governing the rest of the natural world.
Impressions, Ideas, and Personal Identity
Hume criticized the traditional conception of human nature, which identified the capacity for reasoning as the true human nature. In his account, the passions are likewise potentially positive and beneficent parts of human nature. The materials of thinking (perceptions) are divided into ideas (thoughts) and impressions (sensations, such as colors and sounds, and passions, such as being happy or afraid). He argued that all ideas are ultimately derived from impressions, a thesis usually called the copy principle. But ideas are also regularly connected. It is the faculty of imagination that combines simpler ideas into new structures. The imagination flows from one idea to another via three principles of association: resemblance, contiguity in time or place, and cause and effect.
On this account, Hume was skeptical about personal identity. He claimed that we have no experience of a simple, individual impression that we can call “the self.” He diagnosed that we naturally (mis)take a highly constant and coherent series of momentary perceptions for a continuous mental substance (the self). Because of the associative principles, the resemblance or causal connection within the chain of our perceptions gives rise to an idea of oneself, and memory extends this idea past our immediate perceptions.
Passions, Motivation, and Freedom of the Will
Passions like pride and humility, love and hatred play a prominent role in human life and for this reason attracted Hume’s attention. Because Hume takes human nature as universal and unchanging, both over time and across cultural divides, he takes, for example, the mechanism behind the causes of the passions of pride as natural, that is, independent of convention. Pride is evoked by some intrinsically pleasurable factor when seen as relating to oneself. The particular things that cause pride, however, may change over time or culture. In contrast to pride and humility, which are self-directed states, love and hatred are caused by reflecting on someone else. Love naturally leads to benevolence, whereas hatred is constantly conjoined with anger. Some passions are influenced by the opinions and sentiments of others. The capacity to simulate what others are experiencing when we see or think of them is sympathy. Hume also argued that human actions must be prompted by passion and never can be motivated by reason alone. Thus, Hume concluded that “reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.”
On the issue of freedom of the will, Hume reconciled necessity with liberty. Although human behavior is just as predictable and explicable as any other natural phenomenon, necessity does not eliminate moral choice, because we rely on necessity to link a person’s actions with his motives and thus pass moral judgment on the person’s actions. Hume regarded an action as free when it systematically emerged from settled character traits.
Morality and the Seduction to Virtue
In his moral theory, Hume tried to reduce the phenomena of moral judgment, virtues, and vices to as few principles as possible. The starting point is an observation of the kinds of acts that elicit moral approval and the character traits constantly conjoined with them (i.e., virtues). This investigation reveals in Hume’s account four primary sources of moral virtue: (1) qualities useful to others (beneficence, justice, and veracity); (2) qualities useful to oneself (prudence, perseverance, and patience); (3) qualities immediately agreeable to those who encounter or consider them (wit, eloquence, and cleanliness); and (4) qualities immediately agreeable to oneself (good humor, self-esteem, and pride).
Making a moral judgment, people approve or disapprove of certain qualities. Moral distinctions do not derive solely from reason but are passions that come from a general and stable viewpoint. In Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Hume names the central moral passion the “extended or extensive sentiment of humanity,” which is a disinterested desire for the benefit of any person purely on account of shared humanity. Hume was very optimistic about human nature and morality: The sentiment of humanity could be found in everyone. No transcendental moral law has to be imposed upon people, because moral requirements are requirements of human nature itself. Hume’s work on morality was motivated by the conviction that outlining and communicating this truth to people would seduce them to be virtuous.
- Baillie, J. (2000). Hume on morality. London/New York: Routledge.
- Hume, D. (2003). A treatise of human nature (D. F. Norton & M. J. Norton, Eds.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Norton, D. F. (Ed.). (1993). The Cambridge companion to Hume. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.