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Notable Scots: Philosophers & Academics

David Hume (1711-1776):

Philosopher, Historian & a Key figure in the Scottish Enlightenment

"Here am I who have written on all sorts of subjects calculated to excite hostility, moral, political, and religious, and yet I have no enemies - except, indeed, all the Whigs, all the Tories, and all the Christians."
~ David Hume, shortly before his death, as recounted by Lord Henry Brougham in Men of Letters.

"In every page of David Hume, there is more to be learned than from Hegel's, Herbart's and Schleiermacher's complete philosophical works."
~ Arthur Schopenhauer
David Hume
David Hume

David Hume, one of the Western world's most important and influential modern philosophers, is recognized today as a precursor of contemporary cognitive science and one of the most thorough exponents of philosophical naturalism. Immanuel Kant credits Hume for awakening him from his "dogmatic slumber"; Jeremy Bentham admitted that Hume's work "caused the scales to fall" from his eyes. Hume's influence appeared in the moral and economic philosophies of his close friend, Adam Smith, and Charles Darwin cited him as a central influence. Even Albert Einstein cited Hume's positivism as inspiration for his Special Theory of Relativity.

Hume was born in Chirnside, Berwickshire, and spent his childhood at the modest family estate, Ninewells, on the Whitadder River in the border lowlands. His father died shortly after his second birthday, leaving him and his older brother and sister to be reared exclusively by their mother. Katherine Hume recognized that David was "uncommonly wake-minded" (in her lowland dialect, precocious), so when her oldest son went away to the University of Edinburgh, she sent David, not yet twelve, with him. His family entertained the idea that he would go into a career in law, but he developed an "insurmountable aversion to everything but the pursuits of Philosophy and general Learning; and while [my family] fanceyed I was poring over Voet and Vinnius, Cicero and Vergil were the Authors which I was secretly devouring." 1

Hume went to France in the late 1730s, where he wrote A Treatise on Human Nature, perhaps his most important work, at the age of twenty-six. While scholars today regard the Treatise as one of the most critical works in Western philosophy, critics in Britain at the time disparaged the tome as "abstract and unintelligible". Hume recovered from this disappointment, however, writing in his autobiography, "Being naturally of a cheerful and sanguine temper, I soon recovered from the blow and prosecuted with great ardour my studies in the country" 2. The Treatise, however, attracted enough attention from the religious community to earn him a life-long reputation as an atheist and a skeptic, labels that twice kept him from filling vacant Chairs at Edinburgh and Glasgow universities.

Hume's Tomb
Hume's Tomb

Having failed to gain an academic post, Hume spent the 1750s as a Librarian for Edinburgh's Faculty of Advocates. This environment enabled him to complete his research for the massive, six-volume History of Great Britain, a best-seller that won him great literary fame as an historian. He went on to brief stints in bureaucracy in the 1760s, serving as Private Secretary to Lord Hertford in Paris, where he became the rage of the salons, enjoying the company of Diederot and Voltaire, and the affections of learned ladies. He was promoted to Charge d'Affaires at the Embassy before returning to England to spend a year as Under-Secretary of State, and finally settled in Edinburgh's New Town in 1769, where he lived the remainder of his years in quiet and comfort.

Drawing on influences such as John Locke, George Berkeley and Newton, Hume was the first modern philosopher to produce a thoroughly naturalistic philosophy, one in which all phenomena could be explained in terms of natural causes and laws. He rejected the idea that the human mind is a microcosm of the Divine Mind, and instead trusted in the power of human reason to gain insight into reality, free of God's influence. Hume applied the strongest empirical principles to his investigation of the human mind to develop a "Science of Man," which he believed was "the only solid foundation for the other sciences."

Statue of Hume
Statue of Hume

When Hume discovered he had some sort of gastrointestinal cancer, he prepared for death with the same cheerfulness that had characterized his life, even though, as an atheist, he did not believe in life after death. He had "a simple Roman tomb" built on the eastern slope of Calton Hill, overlooking his home, and wrote for his own epitaph: "Born 1711, Died [-]. Leaving it to posterity to add the rest."

A few months after Hume's death, Adam Smith wrote of the philosophical titan, "Upon the whole, I have always considered [David Hume], both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit." 3

  1. Hume, David, My Own Life, in The Cambridge Companion to Hume, op.cit., p.351.
  2. Mossner, E. C., The life of David Hume, Oxford University Press: London, 2001. p.352.
  3. Adam Smith in a letter to William Strahan, 9 November 1776.
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