An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding | Study Guide

David Hume

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An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding | 10 Things You Didn't Know


The original version of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding was titled A Treatise of Human Nature and was published anonymously in 1739–40. According to its author, Scottish philosopher David Hume, it fell "dead-born from the press." Hume reworked the ideas and writing in the treatise and published them as An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding in 1748.

Other philosophers of Hume's day objected to or attempted to refute Hume's views in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, particularly his dismissal of metaphysical speculation and his ideas about the connections among emotions, thoughts, and beliefs. Today, however, Hume's work is highly influential.

1. Hume went to university at age 11.

When Hume was two years old, his father died, so he was raised by his mother at their home in the Scottish lowlands. His mother proclaimed him "uncommonly wake-minded," or precocious, so when Hume's brother went to the University of Edinburgh in 1723, Hume joined him. It was customary at the time to begin college at around age 14, but Hume was only 11. At Edinburgh, Hume read the classics, history, and philosophy, and he also took classes in science and mathematics.

2. Hume had a nervous breakdown while at college.

Hume's intellectual fervor was so intense that it precipitated a nervous breakdown. His family pressured him to study law, but he was obsessed with reading philosophy and wanted to write his own book to express the ideas he formulated as he read. Unable to distill his concepts into words, he broke down. His doctors prescribed horseback riding and red wine. It took him several years to recover fully.

3. Hume tried to rescue Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau from persecution, but his efforts backfired terribly.

In 1765 Hume worked as a diplomat at the British embassy in Paris. When he returned to London, he brought Jean-Jacques Rousseau with him. Rousseau's views on religion had inflamed both Catholics and Protestants against him, and the Swiss government asked him to leave the country. Hume and Rousseau were good friends, and Hume felt that Rousseau would be safer and more appreciated in England. However, once there, Rousseau began to believe that Hume was plotting against him and fled to France, where he spread rumors about Hume's alleged deceptions. Distressed, Hume published their correspondence in A Concise and Genuine Account of the Dispute Between Mr. Hume and Mr. Rousseau in 1766. The two men never spoke again.

4. Hume once fell in a bog, and a passerby almost refused to rescue him because of his atheism.

A story that has long been told about Hume involves his walk across a bog in 1770 or 1771 in the Old Town of Edinburgh. He became stuck in the mud and could not get out. A fishwife passed by and, recognizing Hume as the well-known atheist philosopher, did not know whether to aid or leave him. Hume pointed out that as a Christian, she should help him, and she replied, "But ye shallna get out o' that, till ye become a Christian yoursell, and repeat the Lord's Prayer and the Belief!" The tale claims that Hume, ever practical, did as she asked, and she helped him out. The story, as entertaining as it is, may have been invented by 19th-century writer Alexander Somerville in his autobiography.

5. Hume was so fun-loving that Parisians called him "le bon David."

Hume was apparently well-liked by a wide circle of friends and acquaintances. He loved to cook and entertain at his home, and he spent a lot of time in pubs with friends, often playing backgammon. He lived and traveled often in France and worked in Paris, where he was known by intellectuals there as le bon David, or "the good David."

6. When Hume worked as a librarian, his employers tried to fire him for ordering "indecent books."

Hume was asked to become the librarian of the Edinburgh Faculty of Advocates in the 1750s. The position gave him the opportunity to work on his book The History of England (1762), but he still found time to make trouble. In 1754 he placed an order for what were criticized as "indecent Books unworthy of a place in a learned Library." Among these volumes were the fables of French writer Jean de La Fontaine. The order was cancelled, but Hume stayed on so he could use the library's resources for his History. He resigned from the library when he finished the project.

7. Hume lost out on a position at Edinburgh University because of his views on morality in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.

In 1744 Hume was under consideration for a position as the chair of moral philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. William Wishart, the Principal of the University, opposed Hume's appointment. He strongly disapproved of Hume's writings on morality, in which Hume stated that reason is the slave of the passions and that moral sentiments are based on a desire for approval by others. Wishart accused Hume of "sapping the Foundations of Morality, by denying the natural and essential Difference betwixt Right and Wrong, Good and Evil, Justice and Injustice; making the Difference only artificial, and to arise from human Conventions and Compacts." Hume denied this charge in "A Letter from a Gentleman to his Friend in Edinburgh," but the damage was done, and Hume did not get the job.

8. Some scholars believe that Hume was influenced by Buddhist beliefs.

A number of scholars have noticed similarities between Hume's skepticism about the nature of the self and the Buddhist idea that there is no such thing as a permanent, unchanging self. Alison Gopnik, professor of philosophy at UC Berkeley, traced Hume's movements and found that he had visited the Jesuit college in the French town of La Flèche. Two Europeans who had spent time with the Buddhists of Siam (Thailand) lived there, and it is very likely that Hume spoke with one of them and read their writings on the topic of Buddhism.

9. During most of his lifetime, Hume was a failure as a philosopher but a success as a historian.

Until his death, Hume was reviled in many circles for his philosophy. His ideas about the fallibility of human beliefs, the similarities between humans and animals, and his reputed atheism led to attacks from fellow philosophers as well as readers. However, as the author of History of England, his reputation as a historian was stellar. English writer Samuel Johnson admired it so much he called Hume "the greatest Writer in Brittain." As naturalism, a philosophical view that focuses on natural elements and forces and discounts supernatural or spiritual forces, became more ingrained in philosophical circles in the 19th and 20th centuries, however, Hume's popularity as a philosopher surged.

10. An international poll found that the philosopher other philosophers most identified with was Hume.

In 2009 Professor David Chalmers of New York University conducted a poll asking 2,500 professors and graduate students to name the dead thinker with whom they most closely identified. The winner by far was David Hume. When asked why modern-day philosophers so admired Hume, his biographer James Harris responded:

Close to top of the list would probably be the fact that he was a religious skeptic. Interestingly, people didn't like that about Hume until relatively recently. I suppose, also, a kind of general skepticism about the reach of human knowledge, and the certainty of what human beings can achieve. These resonate with people; plus, of course, an extraordinary writing style and sense of humor and obviously just an extraordinary intelligence.

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