David Hume Biography History Ideas

David Hume Philosopher, David Hume Biography and ideas

David Hume, the son of the owner of a small estate near the south-east corner of Scotland, was born in Edinburgh on 26 April 1711, the date being midway between the Union of the Scottish and English Parliaments which ended the political independence of Scotland in 1707 and the start of the first Jacobite rebellion (1715) in Scotland aimed at restoring the House of Stewart. Both these contiguous events were to exert a considerable influence on Hume's life. The Union of the Parliaments required Scots with political and intellectual ambitions to make themselves understood in both written and spoken English. Hume was to become a master of the English language and to be a vigorous opponent of 'Scotticisms' in literary works. This accounts for the curious list of Scots words which were to be avoided by his countrymen in their writings printed at the end of the Political Discourses. Hume's family were opposed to the Jacobites, as was Hume himself, but his impartiality as a historian led him to take a more balanced view of the Catholic House of Stewart than was considered proper by the churchmen who supported the ruling House of Hanover who were of course Protestants.

Hume was brought up on the small family estate very close to the small town of Duns in Berwickshire. There is a peculiar irony in the fact that the most famous Scots philosopher in Europe before Hume was the medieval theologian John Duns Scotus (c. 1265-c. 1308) who was brought up in Duns and was noted throughout the medieval world for his subtle proofs of the existence of God, whereas Hume was to become branded, misleadingly, as the philosopher of atheism. This locational affinity of Hume and Duns Scotus, if Hume was conscious of it, would not have been regarded by him as other than a chance event, though it is surely not devoid of interest. If the air of the Scottish Borders was congenial to study and speculation it was soon clear to Hume and his family that David would have to make his own way in the world and he dutifully enrolled at Edinburgh University at the age of 11 (not uncommon in the eighteenth century) but never took his degree (also not uncommon then) and studied law but without qualifying as an advocate. By the age of 18 he had already resolved to become a 'man of letters' but did not wish to be a burden on his family.

He was then on the brink of developing his famous theory of causation. He abandoned the law, and, after a brief and unsuccessful incursion into business in Bristol, settled in provincial France where he could live on his very modest income. The last two years of his three years in France were spent in the small town of La Fleche in Anjou where the greater part of his Treatise of Human Nature was written. It is again ironic that he was stimulated by friendly argument with the Jesuit Fathers who allowed him to use their foundation's extensive library. They may not have been entirely aware that their young genial Scots friend had embarked on an intellectual adventure designed to undermine the influence of their College's most famous alumnus - Rene Descartes, the author of the famous Discourse on Method (1637).

The relevance of the Treatise for his economic thinking will be explored below. In a biographical context what is interesting is how this work affected Hume's contemporary position as a thinker. Looking at his philosophic speculations through the eyes of his contemporaries, here was an unknown young man from an isolated part of Northern Europe, who had the temerity to argue that in making even the simplest prediction, such as the relation between the length of time an egg is in boiling water and its texture, we generalize from past experience and can never be certain that the future will replicate the past; who stood Descartes's philosophy on its head by claiming that the motive force of man's actions was his tastes and preferences - his 'passions' - and that man's reasoning ability did and ought to serve his passions; who claimed, therefore, that moral actions could not be derived from reason, and, who, worst of all, could find no grounds for supporting the Christian belief that Christianity had a monopoly of religious truth. Such speculations could be ignored but, pace Hume, they were not, for his opponents could see that they were formidably presented, as were his subsequent essays on moral philosophy, politics and economics which were soon to follow in 1742. Then in 1744 came the vital test when Hume presented himself as a candidate for the Chair ofEthics and Pneumatical Philosophy which had fallen vacant at Edinburgh University. The town authorities were swayed by a theological faction, including the Principal of the University, who charged Hume with atheism.

He was not appointed, and the same fate befell him six years later when the theologians at Glasgow vetoed his appointment to the vacant Chair of Logic.

The only teaching appointment that Hume was ever to hold was that of tutor to the Marquess of Annandale who turned out to be mad, and that lasted but a year.

Hume's problems of finding employment consonant with his wish to pursue his literary and philosophical activities was partly solved in other ways. Life amongst a coterie of Scots intellectuals in Edinburgh did much to restore his spirits and, as Political Discourses bears witness, he became a literary as well as a social success, despite the persecution by the Church which lasted all his life. His friends secured him the appointment of Librarian of the Faculty of Advocates in 1752, which gained him a useful small addition to his money income and a substantial addition to his real income in the form of access to the library's excellent book stock. The use of this library, which he was allowed to retain after his resignation from the post in 1757, was an essential prerequisite for the preparation of Hume's great History of England. Modest but tangible success as an author and refusal to waste his energies battling with his bigoted opponents had bought him time to become the man of letters which he desired to be.

The History may not be read much today, but it is a landmark in eighteenth-century historiography. Before Hume, history was mostly written as narrative and often as an encomium of the ruling royal house. In keeping with his philosophy, he examines human motivation and the causes of change in society and with unusual detachment. Voltaire was to describe the work as 'perhaps the best ever written in any language' and to applaud 'a mind superior to his materials; he speaks of weaknesses, blunders, cruelties as a physician speaks of epidemic diseases'. The flavour of Hume's historical method can be savoured in several of the essays in Political Discourses, notably 'Of the Populousness of Ancient Nations'.

No later influences in Hume's life bear on the production of Political Discourses, for the second and last revision of the work appeared later in the same year as the first. Hume's later life, however, has an interest of its own and some consideration of his character has a bearing on his economic analysis.

It may be said that while Hume saw Edinburgh as the base of his intellectual endeavours, he consciously sought to gain experience from travel and even employment abroad. He made extended visits to London to test reactions to his work and to bargain with publishers of his works and those of Scots colleagues. He had many admirers south of the border and gained the respect of his intellectual antagonists but although Adam Smith, now a firm friend, and Hume contemplated settling in London, they were never entirely at ease in a city where Scots were still regarded as potential rebels and where literary success depended so much on soliciting favours from the great aristocratic families. Today, it is easier for Scots to acquire the protective colouration which enables them to pass for Englishmen and even to market their abilities as professional Scots who are 'rough diamonds whom London polishes well'. Justifiable doubts remain amongst Scots intellectuals about the patronizing attitude of some of their English counterparts and the curious blend of 'metropolitan parochialism' which 'foreigners', other than themselves, often remark upon.

Hume bought a house in Edinburgh in 1762 with the clear intention of settling there for a life of quiet contemplation. That was not to be. Local opposition to his work was now accompanied by professional jealousy. The following year, when diplomatic ties were renewed between the French and British after the Seven Years' War, Hume received an unexpected invitation to join the staff of the British Ambassador, Lord Hertford, with the prospect of becoming Secretary to the Embassy in Paris. After some hesitation he accepted, perhaps aware that the appointment had been made with at least the connivance of his growing number of French admirers. He found himself a great celebrity and Me bon David', as they called him, was a distinct success both socially and professionally. He was not to return to settle in Edinburgh until 1769 for he was promoted to Under-Secretary of State (Northern Division), a post which included conduct of diplomatic negotiations with the Court of Catherine the Great of Russia. Another ironic twist to his career emanates from his duties which included writing the Royal Speech delivered annually by the King's representative to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland! The more moderate members of that Church had cause to be grateful for his personal influence though one wonders how far they deserved it.

The final return to Edinburgh is marked by his serenity and detachment and by the somewhat tardy recognition by his colleagues of his pre-eminence. This period is remembered best by economists for his close ties with Adam Smith whose Wealth of Nations appeared as the philosopher was dying, and delighted him greatly. In the face of death he wrote My Own Life, a tantalizingly short but astute analysis of his own character and development. His moral courage in dying is on a par with that of Socrates. He quietly put his affairs in order, disturbing the morbidly curious James Boswell by his lack of fear that his own philosophy postulated that 'it was an unreasonable fancy that we should exist forever'.

When, on 29 August 1776. his coffin was being carried out of his home, one of the large crowd was heard to remark, 'Ah, he was an Atheist'. A companion added, 'No matter, he was an honest man'.

In My Own Life Hume sums up his own character as follows:

I was ... a man of mild dispositions, of command of temper, of an open, social and cheerful humour, capable of attachment but little susceptible of enmity, and of great moderation in all my passions. Even my love of Iiterary fame, my ruling passion, never soured my temper, notwithstanding my frequent disappointments. My company was not unacceptable to the young and careless as well as to the studious and literary; and as 1 took a particular pleasure in the company of modest women, I had no reason to be displeased with the reception I met with from them ... I cannot say that there is no vanity in making this funeral oration of myself, but I hope it is not a misplaced one; and this is a matter of fact which is easily cleared and ascertained.


When the facts are ascertained from contemporary accounts of friends, colleagues and even intellectual opponents, it is clear that David Hume knew himself very well, which is not typically the case with great men. Space does not permit the documentation of views of contemporaries but Adam Smith, his special friend, is only a shade more generous than others when he closed a famous account of Hume's last days with the words: 'I have always considered him ... as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit.'