Hume, David

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Hume, David

David Hume was an eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher, historian, and social theorist who influenced the development of skepticism and empiricism, two schools of philosophical thought. Hume's economic and political ideas influenced Adam Smith, the Scottish economist and theorist of modern capitalism, and James Madison, the American statesman who helped shape the republican form of government through his work on the U.S. Constitution.

Hume was born August 25, 1711, in Chirn-side, near Edinburgh, Scotland. He entered Edinburgh University when he was twelve. He left the university after several years of study and attempted to study law. He did not like the subject, and instead read widely in philosophy. In 1729 he suffered a nervous breakdown. After a prolonged recovery, he moved to France in 1734, where he wrote his first work, A Treatise on Human Nature. The book was not published until 1739 and was largely ignored. His next work, Essays, Moral and Political (1741), attracted favorable notice. Throughout the 1740s Hume's religious skepticism doomed his chances for a professorship at Edinburgh University. He spent the decade as a tutor and then as secretary to a Scottish general. During this period he wrote several more works of philosophy, including An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751).

In 1752 he was made librarian of the Faculty of Advocates Library at Edinburgh. From 1754 to 1762, he published his monumental History of England, which for many years was considered the basic text of English history. This work brought him international fame. He later served as secretary to the British counsel in Paris. He died August 25, 1776, in Edinburgh.

"The Heart OF Man IS MADE TO RECONCILE Contradictions."
—David Hume

As a philosopher, Hume espoused a skeptical viewpoint, distrusting speculation. He believed that all knowledge comes from experience and that the mind contains nothing but a collection of perceptions, that all events are viewed and interpreted through the sensations of the mind. He attacked the principle of causality, which states that nothing can happen or exist without a cause. Hume was willing to admit that one event, or set of sense impressions, always precedes another, but he argued that this did not prove that the first event causes the second. A person can conclude that causality exists, but that conclusion is based on belief, not proof. Therefore, a person cannot expect the future to be similar to the past, because there is no rational basis for that expectation.

Like his philosophical beliefs, Hume's essays on politics and economics were influential in his time. Historians have concluded that James Madison read Hume's Essays, Moral and Political and applied some of the ideas from this work while helping write the Constitution and The Federalist Papers. Hume was concerned about the formation of factions based on religion, politics, and other common interests. He concluded that a democratic society needs to prevent factions, which ultimately undermine the government and lead to violence. Madison agreed that factions can divide government but came to the opposite conclusion: the more factions the better. In Madison's view more factions made it less likely that any one party or coalition of parties would be able to gain control of government and invade the rights of other citizens. The system of checks and balances contained in the Constitution was part of Madison's plan for placing some limits on factions.

Further readings

Allan, James. 1999. "To Exclude or Not to Exclude Improperly Obtained Evidence: Is a Humean Approach More Helpful?" University of Tasmania Law Review 18 (October).

Arkin, Marc M. 1995. "'The Intractable Principle': David Hume, James Madison, Religion, and the Tenth Federalist." American Journal of Legal History 39.

Mossner, Ernest Campbell. 2001. The Life of David Hume. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Schmidt, Claudia M. 2003. David Hume: Reason in History. University Park: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press.

Vermeule, Adrian. 2003."Hume's Second-Best Constitutionalism." University of Chicago Law Review 70 (winter).

Cross-references

Hobbes, Thomas; Jurisprudence; Locke, John.

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Instead of Plato, Wollstonecraft and Hume are discerned to animate the kind of beautiful intellect Shelley endorses, one promulgating "a quintessentially Humean point: it is only the imagination that can go beyond the limits of sensation to an intuition of nature's law" (101).
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Although in his early years as a monetary and trade-cycle theorist Hayek (and other "Austrians") departed from orthodoxy in technical economics, he was still a positivist in the sense of believing in "laws" (constant conjunctions) of a Humean type that the economist could discover.