Monday, December 29, 2008


Where men are the most sure and arrogant, they are commonly the most mistaken, and have there given reins to passion, without that proper deliberation and suspense, which can alone secure them from the grossest absurdities - David Hume

Portrait of David Hume (1711-1776)
Artist Allan Ramsay
Year 1766
Location Scottish National Portrait Gallery
Type Oil on Canvas
Web Gallery of Art
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Hume noted that many writers talk about what ought to be on the basis of statements about what is (is-ought problem). But there seems to be a big difference between descriptive statements (what is) and prescriptive statements (what ought to be). Hume calls for writers to be on their guard against changing the subject in this way without giving an explanation of how the ought-statements are supposed to follow from the is-statements. But how exactly can you derive an "ought" from an "is"? That question, prompted by Hume's small paragraph, has become one of the central questions of ethical theory, and Hume is usually assigned the position that such a derivation is impossible. (Others interpret Hume as saying not that one cannot go from a factual statement to an ethical statement, but that one cannot do so without going through human nature, that is, without paying attention to human sentiments.) Hume is probably one of the first writers to make the distinction between normative (what ought to be) and positive (what is) statements, which is so prevalent in social science and moral philosophy. G. E. Moore defended a similar position with his "open question argument", intending to refute any identification of moral properties with natural properties ("naturalistic fallacy").
Although Hume leaves open the possibility for miracles to occur and be reported, he offers various arguments against this ever having happened in history:
People often lie, and they have good reasons to lie about miracles occurring either because they believe they are doing so for the benefit of their religion or because of the fame that results.
People by nature enjoy relating miracles they have heard without caring for their veracity and thus miracles are easily transmitted even where false.
Hume notes that miracles seem to occur mostly in "ignorant" and "barbarous" nations and times, and the reason they don't occur in the "civilized" societies is such societies aren't awed by what they know to be natural events. The miracles of each religion argue against all other religions and their miracles, and so even if a proportion of all reported miracles across the world fit Hume's requirement for belief, the miracles of each religion make the other less likely.
In philosophy, empiricism is a theory of knowledge which asserts that knowledge arises from experience. Together with John Locke, George Berkeley, and a handful of others, Hume is one of the principal early philosophers of empiricism. His History of England was the standard work on English history for many years, until Macaulay's The History of England from the Accession of James the Second.
David Hume, originally David Home, son of Joseph Home of Chirnside, advocate, and Katherine Lady Falconer, was born on 26 April 1711 (Old Style) in a tenement on the north side of the Lawnmarket in Edinburgh. He changed his name in 1734 because the English had difficulty pronouncing 'Home' in the Scottish manner. Throughout his life Hume, who never married, spent time occasionally at his family home at Ninewells by Chirnside, Berwickshire. Hume was politically a Whig.
Hume attended the University of Edinburgh at the unusually early age of twelve (possibly as young as ten) at a time when fourteen was normal. At first he considered a career in law, but came to have, in his words, "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." He had little respect for professors, telling a friend in 1735, "there is nothing to be learned from a professor, which is not to be met with in Books."
As he spent most of his savings during his four years there while writing A Treatise of Human Nature, he resolved "to make a very rigid frugality supply my deficiency of fortune, to maintain unimpaired my independency, and to regard every object as contemptible except the improvements of my talents in literature." He completed the Treatise at the age of twenty-six.

Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, Book I:
Contents ( PDF)
Part i ( PDF, 90kb)
Part ii ( PDF, 144kb)
Part iii:
Sections 1 through 10 ( PDF, 160kb)
Section 11 to end ( PDF, 154kb)
Part iv:
Sections 1 and 2 ( PDF, 140kb)
Sections 3 to end ( PDF, 190kb)

Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, Book II:
Contents ( PDF)
Part i ( PDF, 268kb)
Part ii ( PDF, 286kb)
Part iii ( PDF, 258kb)

Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, Book III:
Contents ( PDF)
Part i ( PDF, 155kb)
Part ii ( PDF, 433kb)
Part iii ( PDF, 253kb)

Although many scholars today consider the Treatise to be Hume's most important work and one of the most important books in western philosophy, the critics in Great Britain at the time did not agree, describing it as "abstract and unintelligible". Despite the disappointment, Hume later wrote, "Being naturally of a cheerful and sanguine temper, I soon recovered from the blow and prosecuted with great ardour my studies in the country". There, he wrote the Abstract.Without revealing his authorship, he aimed to make his larger work more intelligible by shortening it.
After the publication of Essays Moral and Political in 1744, Hume applied for the Chair of Pneumatics and Moral Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. However, the position was given to William Cleghorn, after Edinburgh ministers petitioned the town council not to appoint Hume due to his atheism.
1987. Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary. Edited by Eugene F. Miller.

Hume started his great historical work The History of Great Britain, which would take fifteen years and run to over a million words, to be published in six volumes in the period between 1754 and 1762. During this period, he was involved with the Canongate Theatre. In this context, he associated with Lord Monboddo and other Scottish Enlightenment luminaries in Edinburgh. From 1746, Hume served for three years as Secretary to Lieutenant-General St Clair, and wrote Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding, later published as An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. The Enquiry proved little more successful than the Treatise.

Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:
Sections 1 through 5 ( PDF, 160kb)
Sections 6 through 8 ( PDF, 167kb)
Sections 9 to end ( PDF, 187kb)

Hume achieved great literary fame as a historian. His enormous The History of Great Britain, tracing events from the Saxon kingdoms to the Glorious Revolution, was a best-seller in its day. In it, Hume presented political man as a creature of habit, with a disposition to submit quietly to established government unless confronted by uncertain circumstances. In his view, only religious difference could deflect men from their everyday lives to think about political matters.
However, Hume's volume of Political Discourses (1752) was the only work he considered successful on first publication.
1752. Political Discourses. Edinburgh: A. Kincaid and A. Donaldson.

From 1763 to 1765, Hume was Secretary to Lord Hertford in Paris, where he was admired by Voltaire and lionised by the ladies in society. He made friends, and later fell out, with Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He wrote of his Paris life, "I really wish often for the plain roughness of The Poker Club of Edinburgh . . . to correct and qualify so much lusciousness." For a year from 1767, Hume held the appointment of Under Secretary of State for the Northern Department. In 1768, he settled in Edinburgh.
In his ethical thinking, Hume applied the same scepticism to the idea of an objective rightness or wrongness about actions as he had applied to the idea of an objective causal connection between events. He argued that a belief that an action is right or wrong cannot be a belief about some matter of fact, because it is a belief that always in some degree motivates us to act, and beliefs about matters of fact never motivate us to act. Only desires and emotions can motivate us.
He went on to argue that when we think we are perceiving an objective rightness or wrongness in an action, we are only projecting on to the action the approval or disapproval that we, and other members of society, feel towards that action. The emotions of approval or disapproval in turn result from the fact that, although human beings are mainly self-interested, every person also has a degree of “sympathy” with all others. This is a tendency to resonate with their feelings, to feel happy when one sees that others are happy, to feel pain when one sees that they are in pain, and so on. If one thinks that an action is going to create a lot of happiness in a lot of people, then one's sympathy with those people expresses itself in a positive feeling towards the action, and this is the feeling of approval. It is the same with disapproval. Hume tried to show that all our moral experience and moral concepts could be explained as a result of the workings of sympathy, approval, and disapproval.
(From © 1993-2008 Microsoft Corporation)
The following is the substance of Hume's inquiries concerning human understanding:
All our perceptions may be divided into two classes: ideas or thoughts and impressions. Ideas are the less lively perceptions, of which we are conscious when we reflect on our sensations. By the term "impression" Hume means all our more lively perceptions, when we hear, or see, or feel, or love, or hate, or desire, or will.(8) Nothing, at first view, he says, seems more unbounded than thought; but a nearer examination shows that it is really confined within very narrow limits, and that it amounts to no more than the faculty of compounding, transposing, augmenting, or diminishing the materials afforded us by the senses and experience. All the materials of our thinking are derived either from our outward or inward sentiment; the mixture and composition of these belongs alone to the mind and will. Or, in other terms, all our ideas or more feeble perceptions are copies of our impressions or more lively ones. Even the idea of God arises from reflecting on the operations of our own mind, and augmenting, without limit, those qualities of goodness and wisdom which we observe in ourselves. We may prosecute this inquiry to what length we please; we shall always find that every idea which we examine is copied from a similar impression. A blind man can form no notion of colors; a deaf man of sounds. Moreover, all ideas, compared to sensations, are naturally faint and obscure.
(From History of Philosophy by Alfred Weber,

Tomb of David Hume on Calton Hill, Edinburgh, Scotland.
Source own work
Date may 31, 2006
Author User:pschemp
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Hume, Four Essays:
Tragedy ( PDF, 109kb)
The Standard of Taste ( PDF, 147kb)
Suicide ( PDF, 112kb)
The Immortality of the Soul ( PDF, 102kb)

Hume, Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals:
Sections 1-3 ( PDF, 215kb)
Sections 4-6 ( PDF, 239kb)
Sections 7-9 ( PDF, 206kb)
The appendixes ( PDF, 213kb)
Copyright ©2005-2008 Jonathan Bennett - Early Modern Texts

Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth
Copyright ©2002
Liberty Fund, Inc.

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