A major force in the fields of empiricism and skepticism, David Hume (1711–1776) was a Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist. He was a key figure in the Scottish Enlightenment, a movement characterized by intellectual and scientific accomplishments.
Eric Steinberg is a professor emeritus at Brooklyn College, where he served as chairperson of the philosophy department and associate provost. His edition of Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding has been adopted in many college courses throughout the United States; his articles and reviews have appeared in various scholarly journals.
Simply Charly: You’ve devoted an entire career to exploring the ideas of philosopher David Hume. What initially sparked your interest?
Eric Steinberg: Although I was a philosophy major as an undergraduate, my exposure to Hume during those years was minimal. Even in a course that included many philosophers from the modern period, British empiricism received little time or attention. When I began reading Hume seriously in my first year of graduate study, I was attracted by his engaging and clear style; like many students, I later learned that such a style often hid a subtlety and complexity of thought. As a person of skeptical bent, I also was impressed by Hume’s skeptical arguments. In my second year of graduate school, I wrote a paper on Hume’s account of memory in the Treatise of Human Nature for Arthur Danto’s exciting course on the theory of knowledge. Later, with Danto’s encouragement, I decided to write my dissertation on Hume.
SC: Hume is considered one of the three great British empiricists who, along with Bishop George Berkeley and John Locke, codified a method of inquiry and knowledge acquisition known as empiricism. Can you describe the overall principles entailed by empiricism?
ES: Empiricism is frequently defined as the view that knowledge is based on experience rather than reason. This is a crude characterization, not only because it oversimplifies diverse expressions of empiricism, but also because it may distort the nature of empiricism itself. The two major empiricists in the modern period, Locke and Hume, were concerned with examining the origin of ideas and the formation of concepts, thereby determining the limits of our knowledge. Each concluded that our ideas were ultimately derived from experience or, in Humean language, from antecedent impressions. Yet, neither disclaimed some role for reason in knowledge. Hume, the more thoroughgoing empiricist, said in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding that some objects, for example, “that three times five is equal to the half of thirty,” are “relations of ideas” and “intuitively or demonstratively certain;” he added that they are “discoverable by the mere operation of thought, without dependence on what is anywhere existent in the universe.” This is just to say that once we have ideas or concepts derived from experience, we can gain knowledge that is not simply a summary of experience.
SC: Hume was writing during a very fertile time and place in the 18th century, in what has become known as the “Scottish Enlightenment.” Can you tell us more about this movement? And who were some of its pivotal figures?
ES: The term “Scottish Enlightenment” was introduced at the very end of the 19th century to refer to an intellectual movement in Scotland in the 1700s. The movement, which was centered in (but not confined to) Scottish universities and involved numerous disciplines, grew out of an awareness of advances in science and reacted against the view that religion is central to all human knowledge. Although the philosophers who were part of the movement did not constitute a unified group and differed in their conclusions, in general, they applied to moral philosophy the methodology of scientists or natural philosophers who gained knowledge of the world through sense experience and the experimental method. Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, Thomas Reid, Adam Smith, Gershom Carmichael, James Beattie and Dugald Stewart are among the philosophers generally included in the movement. The title page of Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature says that the work is “An attempt to introduce the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects.” For Hume, this did not mean that he would carry out experiments in a laboratory or imitate the work of natural philosophers, but rather that he would draw conclusions about human nature by carefully observing human behavior in everyday life and history.
SC: In your introduction to the Hackett edition of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding you write that David Hume was “unappreciated and often condemned by the intellectual community of his time.” How so?
ES: Although Hume was well respected by many intellectuals in England and Scotland—among them the philosopher and economist Adam Smith—and became a celebrity among French intellectuals while serving in the British embassy in Paris, he was nevertheless a controversial figure. A major reason his work was unappreciated had to do with his perceived hostility to religion, which, even in the 18th century, was anathema to many learned individuals in Great Britain. In perhaps the most extreme case, Hume complained that William Warburton, Bishop of Gloucester, had formed a “confederacy of authors” who “have all of them successively honored me with their insults and outrages.” Hume may have excised some potentially offensive, irreligious material from the Treatise, and in later works created characters, such as the three participants in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion or “a friend” in Section XI of the first Enquiry, to present criticisms of arguments seeking to justify religious beliefs. Yet, in all these works, the thrust of Hume’s own attitude to religious belief was still apparent.
Hume was a candidate for two university teaching positions. In each case, he was passed over. The first occurred in 1745 when he sought the Chair of Moral Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. His lack of the proper political connections appears to have played a role in his rejection, but his views in the Treatise also became an issue. The university’s principal, William Wishart, prepared and circulated a pamphlet that accused Hume of numerous offensive views expressed in the Treatise, many of which concerned religious topics. It should be mentioned that there was an expectation at the time that as an educator of young people, a teacher of moral philosophy, would not express views thought to be subversive or harmful to students. In the second instance, when Hume failed to be appointed to the Logic Chair at the University of Glasgow in 1751, he blamed the “violent and solemn remonstrances of the clergy.”
An additional factor in the undervaluation of Hume’s philosophy may be his skepticism, an issue that was mentioned in some of the early reviews of the Treatise, as well as by Wishart. The following comment from Section V of the first Enquiry, published a few years after his rejection for the University of Edinburgh chair, was a reply to such critics. Talking about “Academic or Sceptical Philosophy,” the title of Section XII of the work and the kind of skepticism that Hume seemed to be espousing, he said: “It is surprising…that this philosophy, which in almost every instance, must be harmless and innocent, should be the subject of so much groundless reproach and obloquy. But perhaps, the very circumstance, which renders it innocent, is what chiefly exposes it to the public hatred and resentment. By flattering no irregular passion, it gains few partisans: By opposing so many vices and follies, it raises to itself abundance of enemies, who stigmatize it as libertine, profane and irreligious.”
SC: Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, which he began writing when he was only 23, is widely considered to be his magnum opus. But during its time, it was under-appreciated having, according to Hume, “fell dead-born from the press, without reaching such distinction as even to excite a murmur among the zealots.” What kept it from being appreciated at the time and what marks it as an important work of Western philosophy?
ES: Hume’s statement was somewhat of an exaggeration. The work was reviewed in a number of periodicals, even though for decades sales were sluggish. There is evidence that Hume deleted some material from the work because it might have offended religious readers. Nevertheless, some reviews criticized its “dogmatic skepticism” and cited a few positions that were at odds with traditional religious beliefs, such as the claim that all human behavior is “necessary.” Reviewers also objected to the obscurity of Hume’s arguments. His dissatisfaction with the manner in which he composed the Treatise is one of the recurrent themes running throughout his correspondence. In 1754, he went so far as to say, “Above all, the positive air, which prevails in that book, and which may be imputed to the ardor of youth, so much displeases me, that I have not patience to review it.” In the “advertisement” to the last editions of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals that Hume oversaw, he repudiated his “juvenile work”; he also stated in the essay “My Own Life” that he made an error in publishing it precipitously.
However, with only a few exceptions, Hume did not explicitly retract his positions in the Treatise. In fact, he retained much of the material in the more concise Enquiries. The earlier work contains a wide range of novel and provocative arguments on some perennial philosophical issues, a major reason for its enduring importance in philosophy today.
SC: In an attempt to make the ideas contained in his Treatise more accessible, Hume published several smaller volumes with reworked treatments of his philosophy. How were these slimmer works received? And how do they compare with the ideas first expressed in the Treatise?
ES: After the disappointing response to the Treatise, Hume reworked some of the material from Book One (and one topic from Book Two) into a slimmer work, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, first published in 1748 as Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding. He did something similar with the material from Book Three in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, which was published in 1751. Initial sales of the first Enquiry were slow; he noted that the second Enquiry “came unnoticed and unobserved into the World.” Still, in “My Own Life,” Hume said, presumably referring to the 1750s, that his bookseller informed him that except for “the unfortunate Treatise,” his publications were now being discussed, sales were gradually increasing, and there was a demand for new editions. In fact, numerous editions of each work appeared during Hume’s lifetime and a year after his death; he continually made revisions in each. A contemporary of Hume considered the first Enquiry a summary of the Treatise for “vulgar capacities.” But this assessment hardly did it justice. It is true that it, as well as the second Enquiry, is a more concise treatment of portions of the earlier work. Yet, each contains new or reworked material. In the first Enquiry, two sections on topics in the philosophy of religion were added; Hume also expressed a somewhat different view concerning liberty and necessity from that in the Treatise; in the second Enquiry, some of the material in Book Three of the Treatise was reorganized, and various topics were given a greater prominence, such as the discussion of self-love and the use of the experimental method. In the advertisement to the final editions of these works, Hume stated that his “philosophical sentiments and principles” should be judged by these works.
SC: Elsewhere in your intro to Hume’s Enquiry, you state that “Hume’s arguments concerning the nature of objects and abstract ideas are taken almost directly from Berkeley.” Yet, his method differed sharply from Berkeley’s. In what ways?
ES: Berkeley and Hume did hold similar views, not only on abstract ideas, but also (at least in the Treatise) about the analysis of a sensible object in terms of a collection of sensible qualities. Yet, Hume was a more thoroughgoing empiricist, if only because for him the intelligibility or meaning of ideas or concepts is ultimately derivable from prior or antecedent impressions, that is, experience. Berkeley, on the other hand, acknowledged that we couldn’t have an idea of mind or self, but claimed the concept had meaning because we could have a “notion” of it. The difference between the two philosophers is primarily a matter of different aims rather than different methods. Berkeley’s aim, as he indicated in both Principles of Human Knowledge and Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, was to bring us to a consideration of God and our duty by challenging views that lead us to “skepticism, atheism and irreligion.” This view could not be further from Hume’s aim in the Treatise, which was to develop an empirical theory of human nature, without reliance on religious beliefs and with skepticism about the role of reason.
SC: Hume was a thoroughgoing skeptic, who questioned and overturned some of our most closely held beliefs about causation, induction, innate ideas, religion and morality. This kind of skepticism, according to Bertrand Russell, “represents, in a certain sense, a dead end…it is impossible to go further.” This sounds like an extreme form of skepticism. What kind of a skeptic was Hume?
ES: The precise nature of Hume’s skepticism is an issue that still occupies Hume scholars today. Yet, it is very doubtful that Hume considered himself a thoroughgoing skeptic. It is true that in the Conclusion of Book One of the Treatise, Hume was in despair because he couldn’t resolve the implications of some of the many skeptical arguments he had previously presented. However, in Section XII of the first Enquiry, he said that he was a “mitigated,” not an “excessive” skeptic or one whose arguments might amaze and confuse, but not convince. Mitigated skepticism had two practical consequences for Hume: first, when people are naturally dogmatic about their opinions “there is a degree of doubt, and caution, and modesty, which, in all kinds of scrutiny and decision, ought for ever to accompany a just reasoner.” This is similar to the final words of Book One, where Hume noted that, although he had used the language of certainty throughout the book, “such expressions… express no dogmatical spirit, nor conceited idea of my own judgment, which are sentiments that I am sensible can become nobody, and a sceptic still less than any other.” The second consequence of mitigated skepticism is to avoid “all distant and high enquiries,” confining oneself to “common life, and to such subjects as fall under daily practice and experience.” This does appear to differ from Hume’s comment in the earlier work that he was inevitably led to “speculations without the sphere or common life.” Hume went on to say that in such cases philosophy was a better guide than superstition.
SC: Aside from his philosophical writings, Hume was also known as a historian. What contributions did he make in this area of study?
ES: As we noted in answer to question #3, Hume’s “experimental method” requires that one draw conclusions about human nature by carefully studying human behavior. This study requires, or, at least, is aided by, the knowledge of recorded history, and historical examples are interspersed throughout many of Hume’s philosophical works. In fact, Hume was recognized in his own time not only as a philosopher and essayist, but also as a historian. His major historical work is the History of England, which begins with the Roman invasion of the Britons; it appeared in six volumes from 1754 to 1762. He also wrote the Natural History of Religion, a genealogy (as contrasted with a justification) of religious beliefs. It was first published as part of Four Dissertations in 1757, although Hume said he had kept these writings for years in order to polish them as much as possible. In Hume’s time, many histories included biblical studies and discussions of the likely fulfillment of biblical prophecies. In his discussion of miracles in Section X of the first Enquiry, Hume expressed doubt about the reliability of the Bible as a historical text, as well as prophecies in general; this explains why, in contrast to many other historical works in the 18th century, the History of England is a secular history.
SC: Where would you suggest the uninitiated readers coming to Hume, begin their exploration of his works?
ES: In teaching Hume for many years to students at various levels of education, I have frequently used, especially in courses on the problems of philosophy, specific excerpts from Hume’s writings—for instance, his discussion of personal identity in the Treatise or the critique of the argument from design in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. This is not, however, my preferred way of initially exposing students to Hume’s philosophy. I think it much more desirable and effective to have them begin by understanding Hume’s general aims and basic principles before reading his arguments and views on particular issues. Hume discussed his aims and principles explicitly in the Introduction and Book One of the Treatise, as well as in the first few sections of the first Enquiry. The former seems to me to be Hume’s most systematic and comprehensive work; however, unless one is exposed to Hume for the first time after having studied a good deal of philosophy, she or he will likely find it confusing and intimidating. The same may be said about Section I of the first Enquiry, but most of the subsequent discussions, including a more focused treatment of cause and effect than in the earlier work, make it, in my opinion, a preferable introduction to Hume’s thought.
SC: What would you say is Hume’s lasting legacy?
ES: I think there are two ways of describing or measuring Hume’s lasting legacy. The first concerns Hume as a historical figure who influenced other important philosophers and thus the subsequent course of philosophy. Besides being considered a member, if in some respects an atypical one, of the Scottish Enlightenment, Hume was the philosopher who, by interrupting Kant’s “dogmatic slumber,” changed the course of modern philosophy. He was a major influence on John Stuart Mill—perhaps the major British philosopher of the 19th century—and on numerous important figures in 20th-century British philosophy, such as Bertrand Russell and A.J. Ayer. This is the Hume who is studied in courses in the history of philosophy or intellectual history.
The second way concerns the specific content of Hume’s philosophical works. He had important things to say in numerous areas of philosophy, including moral theory, epistemology, metaphysics and the philosophy of religion. He is widely studied today not merely because he represents a certain period or school of philosophy, but also because the arguments and positions he presented continue to challenge some of our unreflective beliefs, as well as the views of thoughtful and intelligent individuals, including philosophers. The two factors in assessing Hume’s legacy are complementary. To better understand Hume’s writings and views we do need to understand their historical context; to better comprehend Hume’s influence in the history of philosophy, we need to understand exactly what he was saying.