Skeptic Heros – David Hume


Today, lets dip into the past and find out about David Hume. So who exactly was he?

Well, he was a Scottish philosopher and historian from the 1700’s, and is regarded as one of the most important figures in the history of Western philosophy and the Scottish Enlightenment. To say that he was smart is an understatement, he attended university in Edinburgh when he was 12. Other notables such as Immanuel Kant (the famous German Philosopher) credited Hume with waking him up from his “dogmatic slumbers”.

I could start listing lots of facts about him, but perhaps I’ll let him speak for himself. Here are a few¬† quotes:

“A propensity to hope and joy is real riches; one to fear and sorrow real poverty.”

“A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.”

“Any person seasoned with a just sense of the imperfections of natural reason, will fly to revealed truth with the greatest avidity.”

“Be a philosopher but, amid all your philosophy be still a man.”

“Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous.”

“Heaven and hell suppose two distinct species of men, the good and the bad. But the greatest part of mankind float betwixt vice and virtue.”

“Scholastic learning and polemical divinity retarded the growth of all true knowledge.”

“The Christian religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one.”

“The life of man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster.”

OK, snack over … ready for the main course now? Good, then read on …

Does a man of sense run after every silly tale of hobgoblins or fairies, and canvass particularly the evidence? I never knew anyone, that examined and deliberated about nonsense who did not believe it before the end of his enquiries. – Letters

A wise man’s kingdom is his own breast: or, if he ever looks farther, it will only be to the judgment of a select few, who are free from prejudices, and capable of examining his work. Nothing indeed can be a stronger presumption of falsehood than the approbation of the multitude; and Phocion, you know, always suspected himself of some blunder when he was attended with the applauses of the populace. – Letter to Adam Smith regarding the reception of “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”

“Nothing is more usual and more natural for those, who pretend to discover anything new to the world in philosophy and the sciences, than to insinuate the praises of their own systems, by decrying all those, which have been advanced before them. And indeed were they content with lamenting that ignorance, which we still lie under in the most important questions, that can come before the tribunal of human reason, there are few, who have an acquaintance with the sciences, that would not readily agree with them. ‘Tis easy for one of judgment and learning, to perceive the weak foundation even of those systems, which have obtained the greatest credit, and have carried their pretensions highest to accurate and profound reasoning. Principles taken upon trust, consequences lamely deduced from them, want of coherence in the parts, and of evidence in the whole, these are every where to be met with in the systems of the most eminent philosophers, and seem to have drawn disgrace upon philosophy itself. – Treatise of Human Nature – Introduction

Still with me?, OK try this then. Its taken from Part 4 Of the sceptical and other systems of philosophy, Sect. 7 Conclusion of this book

I am first affrighted and confounded with that forelorn solitude, in which I am plac’d in my philosophy, and fancy myself some strange uncouth monster, who not being able to mingle and unite in society, has been expell’d all human commerce, and left utterly abandon’d and disconsolate. Fain wou’d I run into the crowd for shelter and warmth; but cannot prevail with myself to mix with such deformity. I call upon others to join me, in order to make a company apart; but no one will hearken to me. Every one keeps at a distance, and dreads that storm, which beats upon me from every side. I have expos’d myself to the enmity of all metaphysicians, logicians, mathematicians, and even theologians; and can I wonder at the insults I must suffer? I have declar’d my disapprobation of their systems; and can I be surpriz’d, if they shou’d express a hatred of mine and of my person? When I look abroad, I foresee on every side, dispute, contradiction, anger, calumny and detraction. When I turn my eye inward, I find nothing but doubt and ignorance. All the world conspires to oppose and contradict me; tho’ such is my weakness, that I feel all my opinions loosen and fall of themselves, when unsupported by the approbation of others. Every step I take is with hesitation, and every new reflection makes me dread an error and absurdity in my reasoning.
For with what confidence can I venture upon such bold enterprises, when beside those numberless infirmities peculiar to myself, I find so many which are common to human nature? Can I be sure, that in leaving all established opinions I am following truth; and by what criterion shall I distinguish her, even if fortune shou’d at last guide me on her foot-steps? After the most accurate and exact of my reasonings, I can give no reason why I shou’d assent to it; and feel nothing but a strong propensity to consider objects strongly in that view, under which they appear to me. Experience is a principle, which instructs me in the several conjunctions of objects for the past. Habit is another principle, which determines me to expect the same for the future; and both of them conspiring to operate upon the imagination, make me form certain ideas in a more intense and lively manner, than others, which are not attended with the same advantages. Without this quality, by which the mind enlivens some ideas beyond others (which seemingly is so trivial, and so little founded on reason) we cou’d never assent to any argument, nor carry our view beyond those few objects, which are present to our senses. Nay, even to these objects we cou’d never attribute any existence, but what was dependent on the senses; and must comprehend them entirely in that succession of perceptions, which constitutes our self or person. Nay farther, even with relation to that succession, we cou’d only admit of those perceptions, which are immediately present to our consciousness, nor cou’d those lively images, with which the memory presents us, be ever receiv’d as true pictures of past perceptions. The memory, senses, and understanding are, therefore, all of them founded on the imagination, or the vivacity of our ideas.

Are you now curious enough to go find out more about who he was and what he wrote? If so, then I’ve been successful, because thats all I wished to achieve. To get you goinf on that journey, you can start with the Wikipedia entry on David Hume which is here.

Finally, lets finish with one final quote I really like …

“I have written on all sorts of subjects… yet I have no enemies; except indeed all the Whigs, all the Tories, and all the Christians.”

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