May 7: David Hume

David Hume (1711)

David Hume

It was on this date, May 7, 1711, that Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume was born in Edinburgh. Though originally spelled Home, in 1734 He changed the spelling because the English were always mispronouncing it. Hume attended the University of Edinburgh, but concluded that “there is nothing to be learnt from a Professor, which is not to be met with in Books.” Giving up a prospective career in law for philosophy, Hume completed his first major work, A Treatise of Human Nature (1738), at the age of 26. There followed An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751) and a 6-volume History of England he published from 1754 to 1762.

Throughout his life Hume professed a belief in God, yet biographer E.C. Mossner (2001) says the Church of Scotland seriously considered bringing charges of infidelity against him. It may not have helped that Hume was known to say, “Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous.” But it is important to note that when the “great empiricist” applied the scientific method to determining how knowledge is acquired, and formulated the theory that all knowledge is subjective, he pretty much undercut the basis for even Deism. In his 1757 Natural History of Religion, he wrote, “Examine the religious principles which have, in fact, prevailed in the world, and you will scarcely be persuaded that they are anything but sick men’s dreams.” His last work on religion, published posthumously, was Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779).

Hume was friends with the moral philosopher and economist Adam Smith (1723-1790) and the famous diarist James Boswell (1740-1795). He was a contemporary of the atheist Baron D’Holbach (1723-1789) and appeared to steer a middle course between Smith’s agnosticism and D’Holbach’s atheism. But it was Boswell who attended him as Hume lay dying in 1776 and, hoping to convert him at last, was frustrated when Hume said flatly that “the morality of every religion was bad” and that “when he heard a man was religious, he concluded that he was a rascal.”

Hume died on 25 August 1776 at age 63 in the city of his birth. It was David Hume who said, shortly before his death, “Here am I who have written on all sorts of subjects calculated to excite hostility, moral, political, and religious, and yet I have no enemies—except, indeed, all the Whigs, all the Tories, and all the Christians.”

Originally published May 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

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Posted in Famous Freethinkers, Philosopher

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John Mill

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