Hume, David

Hume, David the most notable man of letters and speculation in Scotland during the last century. He was almost equally eminent as a metaphysician, a historian, and a political essayist. He was born at Edinburgh April 26 (O. S.), 1711. On his father's side he was related to the earls of Home or Hume, and through his mother he was the grandson of Sir David Falconer, lord president of the court of justice. His father was not rich, but he was-an independent proprietor, owning the estate of Ninewells, in Berwickshire. But David was the younger son, and was entitled to only a small share of his father's substance. He was left an orphan in his infancy, and, with his brother and one sister, depended on the sole care of his excellent mother. He passed without special note through the University, and was designed for the Scotch bar, but he had no taste for the profession; and having spent seven years at home at Ninewells, after leaving college, ostensibly engaged in studying the sages of the law, he visited Bristol in 1733 with some mercantile aspirations. Thence, after a few months of disgust, he passed over into France, and took up his abode first at Rheims, and afterwards at La Flechi. Here he devoted himself to philosophy for life, and composed his Treatise of Human Nature. It was in a discussion with one of the Jesuit fathers of La Flecchi that the celebrated argument against miracles flashed upon his mind. The Treatise of Human Nature was published in 1737, after his return to England. He says himself of it; "It fell dead-born from the press." The family home at Ninewells was again his shelter, and here he renewed his studies and extended his speculations. In 1742 he published the first part of his Essays, Moral and Political, which, in his opinion, met with considerable favor. Still, he had obtained no assured provision in life. He was disappointed in an application for a professorship in the University of Edinburgh, and in 1745 he accepted the charge of the marquis of Annandale. With him he resided twelve unpleasant months, but he derived some emolument from the association. In 1746 he became secretary to general St. Clair, whom in 1747 he attended on his military embassy to Vienna and Turin. The Inquiry concerning the Human Understanding a recast of the first part of his first treatise-was published while he was at Turin in 1749 he resought his old refuge at Ninewells, and occupied himself with the composition of his Political Discourses, and his Inquiry into the principles of Morals. The former constituted the second part of his essays; the latter was a revision and modification of the second part of his Treatise of Human Nature, which has always been better known in Germany than in England. In 1751, on the marriage of his brother, he abandoned the family seat, and, in company with his sister, made a new home in Edinburgh. He applied for a chair in the University of Glasgow, but again failed. In 1752 he accepted the post of librarian to the Advocates' Library in Edinburgh, but transferred nearly all his small salary to the blind poet, Blacklock. He now engaged in the composition of his History of England, which had attracted his regards some years before. The partisan temper in which it is designed is revealed by the period which he first took up. He plunged in medias res, or, rather, he commenced nearly at the end, and worked backwards. From its publication Hume experienced such hostility and disappointment that he would have changed his name and retired to the Continent if he had not been prevented by the occurrence of the Seven Years' War. The first volume of the History of England appeared in 1754; the second in 1756 or 1757. Between the two was published the Natural History of Religion (8vo), which was answered by bishop Hurd. The History of the House of Tudor came out in two volumes in 1759; and in 1761, two volumes, containing the early history of England, completed the work, which, before its conclusion, was recognized as an English classic, and still is justly so regarded. If the work encountered various and violent opposition, it gradually achieved eminent popularity, and rendered the author "not only independent, but opulent." Being now "turned of fifty," he resolved to spend the remainder of his life in philosophical dignity and comfortable retirement. The resolve was of no long duration. The marquis of Hertford invited Hume, with whom he was personally unacquainted, to become his secretary of legation at the French court. The distinguished philosopher and historian was received with marked attentions and flatteries by the eminent persons assembled at Paris. It was the period when the union of infidel sentiments with literary renown had become the rage in the most brilliant salons. After two years lord Hertford was recalled, but Hume remained as charge d'affaires till 1766 and received a pension of £400 for his diplomatic services. The "canny Scot" had become a rich old bachelor, and was able to extend his patronage and aid to Rousseau on his arrival in England, and even to procure for him the offer of a pension from the crown. These favors ended in a quarrel between the protected and the protector, of which an account was given by the latter in a pamphlet. About this time Hume became undersecretary of state, and held the office for two years, returning to Edinburgh in 1769. Here he passed the remaining years of his life, with the exception of a brief visit to Harrowgate and Bath, and it was shortly before setting out on this journey, undertaken for the restoration of his declining health, that he wrote his Autobiography. He had been attacked with diarrhea in the spring of 1775, and succumbed to the disease on Sunday, Aug. 25, 1776. He was serene in life, he was equally serene in death. If Christianity had no consolations for an expiring foe, the grave presented no terrors to the man who had cavilled about all religion. Yet few persons will assent to the unmeasured eulogy of Adam Smith, who "considered him, both in his life, and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit." But Smith, notwithstanding this testimony, refused to publish the Dialogues or, Natural Religion, though a special legacy of £200 was attached to such publication. They were not given to the world until 1779, and then by the agency of Hume's nephew. His Life, written by himself with a Letter from Adam Smith giving an Account of his Death, appeared in 1777 (Lond. 8vo). A better view of the life and the character of Hume than this edition of his autobiography is given in the Autobiography of Alexander Carlyle (Edinb. and N. Y. 1860).

The philosophy of Hume underwent three revisions with, however, scarcely any essential change. It has been customary to enlarge upon the acumen and logical precision of Hume, but these qualifications resolve themselves, on close scrutiny, into mere dialectical subtlety. If his artifices imposed upon others, he was often the victim of them himself, and he was crushed to the earth beneath the ruins of the systems which he overthrew. Hume's fundamental thesis is that all human knowledge (no pun is designed) consists of impressions and ideas. Impressions are the direct perceptions of sense: ideas are only the relics or signs of former impressions. Impressions are always particular, and incapable of variation: ideas are consequently the unalterable specters of former sensations. The theory of Locke is accepted and simplified by discarding the office of reflection. The theory of Berkeley is accepted and expanded by applying his argument against matter to mind, and denying all evidence of the existence of either. The result is a thoroughly Pyrrhonistic doubt. The application of these postulates, for postulates they are, generated the whole philosophy of Hume. There are only two objects of knowledge-the relations of ideas, and the relations of impressions or facts. The former relations are concerned with unchanging signs, and are therefore simple, and readily discerned by the discussion of thought; but the latter always involve the principle of cause and effect, because due to some exciting influence. The relation of cause and effect is nothing more than the habitual succession of events; because all our complex conceptions are linked together only by customary association, and it is impossible that particular objects should produce a general idea. General ideas are, indeed, in possibilities, for all abstractions are only vague images of particulars. Ideas may represent either realities or phenomena, but no investigations can reach beyond the phenomenon to the reality. This reality is a pure delusion- a figment; it is only the name arbitrarily given to a system of connected impressions and ideas. There is neither reality nor substance, neither matter nor mind; at least, there is nothing to authorize the assertion of their existence except as factitious phenomena. The connection of phenomena, or of the conceptions corresponding with them, is accepted as truth in consequence of a primordial tendency of the mind, called belief. This belief, however, imports nothing more than the tenacity of certain notions in consequence of the vivacity of the impressions by which they are produced. The credibility of facts is thus resolved into their apprehensibility, and becomes merely a question of probabilities. This constitution of belief, and this complexion of knowledge, result from the mode in which the materials of thought are obtained. They are gathered by observation and experience, and are distinguished into two, and only two classes, according to their relative strength-impressions and ideas; the former being the primary and more forcible perceptions; the latter being the derivative and weaker, and being only copies of impressions. Further than this it is impossible to carry speculation. The mind, the instrument of thought, lies beyond; but its nature is discernible only in its operations, and these constitute its whole nature so far as any attainable knowledge is concerned. Thus the human mind is the mold and measure of all knowledge, and yet that mind is itself only a problematical phenomenon. A good-humored skepticism is accordingly the sole result of philosophy.

From this brief and imperfect synopsis of Hume's doctrine-so well summed up by Mackintosh: "He aimed at proving, not that nothing was known, but that nothing could be known" it is easy to recognize the mode in which he reached its most startling applications. He might assert the moral sense, but the assertion was nugatory, for there could be no foundation for morals, nor anything more valid than expediencies growing out of particular impressions and their observed sequences. He might admit the possibility, even the probability, of divine intelligence, but could not tell whether it was "ane or mair," since revelation could not be substituted for sensible perceptions. The scheme had no room for the admission of miracles, as they were unsupported by ordinary experience, and human testimony was fallacious. All this mischievous error is the appropriate fruit of the tree on which it hangs. Many refutations of these positions have been attempted, and a vigorous warfare has been waged on the principles supposed to form the foundation of this philosophy; but too little attention has been paid to the ambiguity of the terms employed, and to the vacillation with which they are used by the conjuror. A strict definition of "miracles" and "experience," and a rigid adherence to such definition, will reduce the celebrated argument against miracles to a bald petitio principii, or to a manifest absurdity. Hume endeavored to prove that "no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle," and the reasoning employed for this purpose is, that 'a miracle being a violation of the laws of nature, which a firm and unalterable experience has established, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can be; whereas our experience of human veracity, which (according to him) is the sole foundation of the evidence of testimony, is far from being uniform, and can, therefore, never preponderate against that experience which admits of no exception." This boasted and plausible argument has, with equal candor and acuteness, been examined by Dr. Campbell, in his Dissertation on Miracles, who justly observes that, so far is experience from being the sole foundation of the evidence of testimony, that, on the contrary, testimony is the sole foundation of by far the greater part of what Mr. Hume calls firm and unalterable experience; and that if, in certain circumstances, we did not give an implicit faith to testimony, our knowledge of events would be confined to those which had fallen under the immediate observation of our own senses. Hume maintained that a miracle is contrary to experience; but, in reality, it is only different from ordinary experience. That diseases should generally be cured-by the application of medicine, and sometimes at the mere word of a prophet, are facts not inconsistent with each other in the nature of things themselves, nor irreconcilable according to our ideas. Each fact may arise from its own proper cause; each may exist independently of the other; and each is known by its own proper proof, whether of sense or testimony. To pronounce, therefore, a miracle to be false, because it is different from ordinary experience, is only to conclude against its existence from the very circumstance, which constitutes its specific character; for if it were not different from ordinary experience, where would be its singularity? or what proof could be drawn from it in attestation of a divine message? SEE MIRACLES.

The importance and value of Hume's political essays have rarely been appreciated. They are the best of all his productions, but they have been almost disregarded in the estimation of his genius. They exercised a considerable but unacknowledged influence on the age nearest his own. It is impossible to ignore the obligations of the Constitution of the United States to the essay on the Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth. Lord Brougham does no more than justice to the author when he declares that "Mr. Hume is, beyond doubt, the author of the modern doctrines which now rule the world of science, which are to a great extent the guide of practical statesmen; for no one deserving the name of legislator pretends to doubt the soundness of the theory." Many of the intellectual vices, as all the excellences of Hume-his speculative audacity, his regard for material comfort and independence, his want of enthusiasm, the restriction of his view to observation and experience, his acceptance of expediency as a principle, his acquaintance with courts and with affairs of state, his knowledge of history, his philosophic habits, his slow progress from pinched to easy circumstances, all favored proficiency in this branch of inquiry. Many of these characteristics were, however, adverse to his career as an historian. True, in Hume's History of England, the vigorous, easy, and unaffected style, the vivacity of the delineations, the arrangement of the topics, the disposition of the personages, the variety and penetration of the reflections, are all admirable. The narrative is always fascinating, if the expression is rarely idiomatic, sometimes ungrammatical, and often provincial. But to the highest merits of history it possesses no claim. It is hastily, carelessly, and inaccurately composed; it is incurious of truth; it disregards authentic sources of information from indolence and indifference; it is equally partial and prejudiced. In form, it is a model of historical art, but not of the art in its highest conception; in substance and in spirit it displays easily every sin and corruption, which a historian should abhor. His writings called forth many antagonists, and, in fact, may be said to have given rise to the Scotch metaphysical school of Common Sense, so called, of which the best exposition, and, at the same time, the best answer to Hume's skepticism, is to be proved by Reid's Complete Works, with Notes by Sir William Hamilton (Edinburgh, 1846, 8vo). Beattie's Essay on Truth, and Oswald's Appeal to Common Sense (Edinb. 1772, 2 vols.), were also written in reply to Hume.

See The Philosophical Works of David Hume, including all the Essays, and exhibiting the more important Alterations and Corrections in the successive Editions published by the Author (Edinburgh and Boston, 1854, 4 vols. 8vo); Burton, Life and Letters of David Hume (Edinb. 1847, 2 vols. 8vo); Letters of eminent Persons addressed to David Hume (Edinb. and Lond. 1820, 4to); Brougham, Lives of Men of Letters and of Science (London, 1845, 8vo); Tennemann, Manual History of Philos. § 376; English Cyclop. s.v.; Morell, Hist. of Mod. Philosophy, pt. 1, ch. 3; Sir Wm. Hamilton, Lect. on Metaphysics; Mackintosh, Hist. of Ethical Philos. p. 146 sq.; Allibone, Dict. of Authors, i, 914 sq.; Lewes, History of Philos. 2, 305 sq.; Tennemann, Gesch. d. Philos. 11, 425 sq.; Ritter, Christl. Philos. 8. 6, 7, ch. 2; Cousin, Hist. the la Philos. moderne, Leçon 11; Farrar, Crit. Hist. of Free Thought, p. 148 sq.; Edinb. Rev. Jan. 1847; Quart. Review, 73, 292; 77, 40; 1844, p. 315 sq.; Blackwood's Magazine (on the argument against miracles), 46, 91 sq.; June, 1869; Brit. Review, Aug. 1847, p. 288; 1868, p. 77 sq.; New Englander, i, 169,172; 2, 212; 4, 405; 18, 168; North American Review, 79, 536 sq.; Christ. Remembrancer, Oct. 1868, p. 272; Brit. and For. Evang. Rev. Oct. 1865. p. 826 sq.; Contemp. Review, May, 1869, art. vi, reprinted in the Amer. Presbyt. Rev. July, 1869, art. 8. (G. F. H.)

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