David Hume (1711 -1776) was a Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist, known especially for his philosophical empiricism and skepticism. He is regarded as one of the most important figures in the history of Western philosophy and the Scottish Enlightenment. Hume is often grouped with John Locke, George Berkeley, and a handful of others as a British Empiricist. Beginning with his A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), Hume strove to create a total naturalistic "science of man" that examined the psychological basis of human nature. In stark opposition to the rationalists who preceded him, most notably Descartes, he concluded that desire rather than reason governed human behavior, saying famously: "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions." A prominent figure in the skeptical philosophical tradition and a strong empiricist, he argued against the existence of innate ideas, concluding instead that humans have knowledge only of things they directly experience. He developed the position that mental behavior is governed by "custom"; our use of induction, for example, is justified only by our idea of the "constant conjunction" of causes and effects. Without direct impressions of a metaphysical "self," he concluded that humans have no actual conception of the self, only of a bundle of sensations associated with the self. Hume advocated a compatibilist theory of free will that proved extremely influential on subsequent moral philosophy. Hume also examined the normative is-ought problem. He held notoriously ambiguous views of Christianity, but famously challenged the argument from design in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779). Kant credited Hume with waking him up from his "dogmatic slumbers" and Hume has proved extremely influential on subsequent philosophy, especially on utilitarianism, logical positivism, William James, philosophy of science, early analytic philosophy, cognitive philosophy, and other movements and thinkers. The philosopher Jerry Fodor proclaimed Hume's Treatise "the founding document of cognitive science." Also famous as a prose stylist, Hume pioneered the essay as a literary genre and engaged with contemporary intellectual luminaries such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith (who acknowledged Hume's influence on his economics and political philosophy), James Boswell, Joseph Butler, and Thomas Reid.
An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (Second Edition)by David Hume
After his three-volume Treatise of Human Nature dropped like a rock to the bottom of the pool of British philosophic writing, Hume set out to write a briefer, more accessible version -- the Enquiry concerning Human Understanding. One of the early points it makes is that most endeavors to write about the nature of thought are hopeless and nearly impossible to understand. With that disclaimer, Hume sets out to contradict himself by writing lucidly about, while candidly acknowledging the severe limits of, this topic. He uses logic to show that most human understanding falls into two categories: a very small group of innate truths deducible by logic, like every triangle has three sides, and a much larger group -- nearly everything we "know" -- which is based on reality-based observation. This latter group always has, at a fundamental level, an element of probabilistic assumption: Things customarily happened this way before, so they probably will again. Thus almost everything we (think we) know about the world is based on empirical experience, not pure logic. A must-read for anyone with even a passing interest in philosophy or modern thought, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding is primarily concerned with the psychological question of the origin of our concepts. About the answer to this question, the empiricists were all agreed--our concepts are furnished by experience, which includes both sensory experience and introspection (i.e., the experience of our own mental states). The empiricists also agreed about the way we can justify our beliefs. Some beliefs are true (or false) in virtue of the ideas they contained, and we can know their truth (or falsity) simply by thinking about them; other beliefs are true (or false) in virtue of how the external world is, and we can know their truth (or falsity) only by drawing on our experiences of the world. According to Hume, all substantial conclusions about the world fall into this second category. That is, the truth (or falsity) of all substantial claims about the existence and nature of things in the external world can be discovered only by checking those claims against the evidence of our senses.
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