David Hume 1711-1776

Born and educated in Edinburgh, David Hume wrote his first great work A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40) while living in Anjou in France. It set Hume up as an empiricist in the tradition of Locke and Berkeley but one who was massively sceptical about what he, or indeed anybody, can know.

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Hume is one of the most profound thinkers in Western philosophy, the man who provoked Voltaire into saying that it was to Edinburgh that the world should look for interesting ideas.  His thinking and writing is still widely studied and debated today in the philosophy departments of universities across the world.

He continued to outline his ideas in two major works - An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) and An Enquiry Concerning The Principles Of Morals (1751).

Hume was a sceptic and an atheist and his finest work, the three volume Treatise of Human Nature, which he wrote when only twenty eight years of age in 1739, was actually seen as far too radical in his own day. It took about 200 years, with the emergence of the science of psychology, for his thought on human nature to be fully appreciated.

His political and historical writings were most appreciated in his own day and he was a great influence on Adam Smith. But his most radical thesis that has influenced contemporary thinking was that morality forms in the early years of life, within the family. He espoused sociability, sympathy, affection and concern for both self and others as being the mainsprings of moral life.

He also rejected everyday logic and questioned the idea of cause and effect. The theologians of the day argued that because we see an orderly universe there must be a creator. Hume expressed doubt: how do we know, for we have not seen any other universes to compare with our own.

His writings reveal a brilliant sceptical mind at work. As well as influencing Smith, he influenced the great German philosopher Kant and the thinkers behind the American Revolution, which indeed he predicted. His free thinking, which scandalised some, was tempered with a great sense of humour and he was a constant guest in intellectual circles both in Scotland and France.

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