The Roots of Epicurean Humanism: III – David Hume

Hume was an 18th-century Scottish philosopher, part of the so-called “Scottish Enlightenment”.

In his first work, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), he aimed to provide a naturalistic “science of man” that described the psychological basis of human nature. In contrast to the rationalists who preceded him he argued that not reason but desire explained human behavior. “Reason is,” he said, “and ought only to be the slave of the passions”.

He is generally thought of as being in the skeptical philosophical tradition and a strong empiricist. He denied the existence of innate ideas, saying rather that people can know only those things that they have experienced. He therefore divides perceptions between strong and lively “impressions” or direct sensations and fainter “ideas”, which are copied from impressions.

He developed the position that mental behaviour is governed by “custom”, that is habit or learned behaviour. Lacking direct impressions of a metaphysical “self”, he reasoned that people 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. He was also a Sentimentalist, teaching that ethics are based on feelings rather than abstract moral principles. 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 (1777).

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”.

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