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The Life of David Hume

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The Scottish Enlightenment

David Hume 1711- 1776

David Hume, perhaps the most notable and controversial figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, was born in Edinburgh in 1811, the son of Joseph Hume of Ninewells, a Berwickshire laird who had married the daughter of Lord Newton, a judge of the Court of Session. Attending the University of Edinburgh, supposedly to study law, he seems to have spent most of the time in literary and philosophical pursuits. After a brief period working in the office of a Bristol merchant, in 1734 he reached a turning point in his career and went to France. There he devoted himself to study and writing his first major philosophical work, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40). He returned to London to supervise its publication. The Treatise is considered the most outstanding book written by any British philosopher, but in Hume's own time it was a flop. It fell, as he put it, 'stillborn from the press'. Hume's Treatise was divided into three books: 'Of Understanding'; 'Of the Passions`; and'Of Morals'. Overall, this was an attempt to formulate a complete philosophical system: Book 1 aimed at explaining man's process of knowing and dealt with the origin of ideas, space and time, causality and scepticism; Book 2 tried to explain the emotional in man, giving reason a subordinate role in the process; while Book 3 looked at moral goodness and considered human behaviour in the light of its consequences to oneself and others. Hume later repudiated much of the Treatise as juvenile, though it remained a work of vital importance to the development of empiricism.

He moved back to Edinburgh in 1740, working there and at Ninewells on his next venture, Essays, Moral and Political (1741-2), which had a better reception. He was encouraged to apply for the chair of moral philosophy at Edinburgh in 1744 but objections were raised on the grounds of both heresy and atheism with the Treatise cited as evidence. Disappointed, he resumed a wandering life, returning periodically to London and Scotland. First he was tutor to the Marquess of Annandale (1745-6), then served as secretary to General James Sinclair (d. 1762) in Brittany (1746) and on ambassadorial missions to Vienna and Turin (1748-9). Several important philosophical works derived from this period. A further Three Essays, Moral and Political (1748) and Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding (also 1748). The latter was a re-working of Book 1 of the Treatise, to which he later added the controversial essay, 'On Miracles', which denied that a miracle could be proved by any weight of evidence. This work is now better known as An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, the title given it in Hume's revision of 1758. Book 3 of the Treatise was also rewritten and popularized in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751). Following the publication of these books - which are generally regarded as his most mature works - he settled again in Edinburgh where he lived from 1751-63. Adam, Smith (1723-90), the political economist, tried to get Hume appointed as his successor to the chair of logic at the University of Glasgow, but as before he was regarded as suspiciously anti-establishment and atheistic. Yet in 1752, thanks to influence in high places, he was appointed keeper of the Advocates! Library and this gave him the opportunity for further literary ventures - philosophical and historical. His Political Discourses (1752) included some important statements on economics, anticipating the work of Smith in The Wealth of Nations, while the six-volume History of England (1754-62) brought him much wider publicity. Another book, Four Dissertations (1757) incorporated a re-working of Book 2 of the Treatise.

In 1761 the Vatican banned all his books - though James Boswell (1740-95) regarded him as the greatest writer in Britain. In 1763 Hume became secretary to the British ambassador to France, the Earl of Hertford. While in Paris he was universally honoured in the salons and at court. For a period in 1765 he was charge` d'affaires at the embassy and when he returned to London in 1766 he brought with him the eminent French philosopher Jean- Jacques Rousseau (1712-78). They later quarrelled and Rousseau. returned to France. During 1767-8 Hume was under-secretary to Henry Conway (1721-95).

Hume returned again to Edinburgh in 1769, where he joined his old circle of acquaintances and fellow-literati, entertained visiting dignitaries in his Edinburgh New Town residence, revised his earlier writings, and wrote his autobiography. He died in 1776 and was buried on Calton Hill. Hume was regarded by his contemporaries as an outstanding thinker and this reputation has been revived thanks to his continuing influence on modern philosophy.

David Hume Extract of letter to Gilbert Elliot of Minto Paris, 22 September 1764
... From what human Motive or consideration can 1 prefer living in England to that in foreign countries?
1 believe, taking the Continent of Europe, from Peterberg to Lisbon, & from Bergen to Naples, there is not one that ever heard my Name, who has not heard of it with Advantage, both in point of Morals & Genius. 1 do not believe there is one Englishman in fifty, who, if he heard that 1 had broke my Neck tonight, would not be rejoic'd with it. Some hate me because 1 am not a Tory, some because 1 am not a Whig, some because 1 am not a Christian, and all because 1 am a Scotsman. Can you seriously talk of my continuing an Englishman? Am 1, or are you, an Englishman? Will they allow us to be so? Do they not treat with Derision our Pretentions to that Name, and with Hatred our just Pretension to surpass & govern them? 1 am a Citizen of the World, but if 1 were to adopt any Country, it would be that in which 1 live at present, and from which 1 am deterrnin'd never to depart, unless a War drive me into Swisserland or Italy.…

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