David Hume

Posted on 14 August 2019

David Hume (1711 – 1776) was a Scottish philosopher, economist and historian in the Age of Enlightenment.

Hume was born in Edinburgh, Scotland and went to university there. At the age of 28, he published what would be his most famous work, A Treatise on Human Nature (1738).

Commit It To The Flames

In A Treatise on Human Nature, Hume argues that the philosophy of the Rationalists has lost its way and should be committed to the flames:

“If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

David Hume

Being such a fierce opponent of the Rationalism advocated by Descartes, and Spinoza, Hume was a committed Empiricist who followed in the footsteps of  John Locke.

Impressions and Ideas

In his philosophy, Hume reasons that mankind has two different types of perception, which he called Impressions and Ideas. Impressions are the immediate sensations of external reality and Ideas are the recollection of such Impressions.

Imagine that you are a child and you step into a bath – and for the first time it’s too hot. You get an immediate Impression that the water might hurt you – and so you step out of the bath.

When you come to take your next bath, you have the Idea, based upon a previous Impression, that the water might be too hot so you test the temperature of the water first.

So, for Hume knowledge is gained through reflective memory. It was this philosophical breakthrough that would make Hume one of the most important philosophers

Complex Ideas

During the 18th century, there was a widespread belief in angels. For Hume, an angel is a Complex Idea – it is formed in your mind by fusing together your knowledge/experience of both humans and the wings of animals.

Hume argued that Complex Ideas must be regarded with skepticism as they do not rely on the senses. Therefore, Hume rejected angels as being false because they can’t be experienced by the senses – angels are a creation of the mind.

“Human experience is as close are we are ever going to get to the truth, and that experienceobservation must be the foundations of any logical argument.”

David Hume

In later life, however, Hume largely turned away from philosophy in favour of economics and his other great love, history – and it was only then that he achieved recognition in his own lifetime.

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