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David Hume | Biography


Youth and Education

David Hume was born on May 7, 1711, in Edinburgh, Scotland. His father, Joseph Hume, was lord of a small estate, and his mother, Catherine, was the daughter of a knight. Joseph Hume died when David was only three.

At age 12, Hume entered the University of Edinburgh. He left the university when he was about 14 or 15. His youthful university experience was not unusual at the time. Hume later went on to study law, as was the family custom, but the law failed to capture his interest. He was, however, passionate about learning and read widely, both while in school and after he left. So engrossed was he in his studies that he succumbed to a nervous breakdown in 1729.

Professional Life

After recovering, Hume worked in a merchant's office before retiring to France to write full time. The product of his efforts was the monumental, A Treatise of Human Nature (1738). The book was not well received, and though Hume later considered this early work to be immature, he was disappointed at the time, famously writing that the Treatise "fell dead-born from the press." He continued to write, however, and produced works that continue to influence readers and thinkers today.

Hume's professional life was varied. He attempted to secure an academic post at the University of Edinburgh, but his effort was thwarted by local clergymen who, alarmed by Hume's atheism, petitioned the local council to prevent it. He also worked as a secretary to the British Embassy in Paris, where he met and interacted with a number of luminaries, including Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom he brought back to England to ensure his safety from persecution. Upon returning to England, Rousseau suspected a plot against him and fled back to France.

Retirement and Death

Hume subsequently became undersecretary of state, and then in 1769 he retired from public life. Back in Edinburgh, Hume continued writing. Among the works he completed was an autobiography that was published posthumously. He spent time with friends, including fellow Scottish philosopher, and author of The Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith.

Hume died on August 25, 1776, after a long illness. He was, apparently, cheerfully and unrepentantly atheist until the last. His influence as a writer continues today, from his work on the history of England to political, economic, moral, and epistemological essays and books. Indeed, it was none other than Hume whom German philosopher Immanuel Kant credited with inspiring his revolutionary philosophical work, Critique of Pure Reason (1781).

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