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David Hume

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Thinking hardly
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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.
—David Hume, as recounted by Lord Henry Brougham

A highly influential philosopher in Western thought, David Hume (1711-1776) was particularly well known for being an early and ardent skeptic and empiricist.[1]

He was rebuffed by many of his peers during his age because they suspected him of being an atheist.[2]


Hume viewed the writing of history as a form of philosophy, and his 6-volume book, History of England, brought him to his initial fame and wealth.[3] Notably, Hume recharacterized the then-common view of the Tudors as reasonable and rational rulers to one of being a pack of petty tyrants, particularly Henry VIII.[3] According to Hume, Henry was violent, cruel and impetuous.[3]

Henry was so much governed by passion, that nothing could have retarded his animosity and opposition against Rome, but some other passion, which stopped his career, and raised him new objects of animosity. Though he had gradually, since the commencement of his scruples with regard to his first marriage, been changing the tenets of that theological system, in which he had been educated, he was no less positive and dogmatical in the few articles which remained to him, than if the whole fabric had continued entire and unshaken. And though he stood alone in his opinion, the flattery of courtiers had so enflamed his tyrannical arrogance, that he thought himself entitled to regulate, by his own particular standard, the religious faith of the whole nation.

The Humean restorative[edit]

As a young man, after a decade of intense study, Hume fell-ill with the disease of the learn’d. His physician prescribed for him—what we may now call—the Humean restorative, to be taken on a daily basis (unless otherwise specified):

  • 1 “anti-hysteria” pill (for modern analogues see Benzobarbital),
  • 1 pint of Claret,
  • and 10 miles of horse-riding.


Conception of the self[edit]

Hume did not believe in a unified and continuous "self"; rather he believed that the self is an illusion generated through a chain of perceptions that result in a feeling of personal identity.[1]


Hume was considered to be an atheist by many of his contemporaries, but exactly how much of an atheist he was is debated.[5] The consensus seems to be that he was at least irreligious, though he did not reject the possibility of a God as some of his contemporary atheist philosophers did — bringing him closer in agnostic levels.[6] He proposed instead we should be skeptical of the claims made by any religions, and that most modern religions were continuations of ancient religions created by people who proposed invisible agents that did not in fact exist.[2] His supposed atheism became an issue throughout his life as he was denied opportunities and even charged with heresy, a charge he beat when his clerical friends came to his defense by declaring, ironically, he couldn't be a heretic because he wasn't a Christian.[7]

Hume's law[edit]

One of his most famous proposals is the is-ought problem, which states that you cannot derive an "ought" from an "is." That is to say, you cannot go from some truth value about what "is" true, to saying what you "ought" to do or what "ought" to be true. To bridge the gap you must propose and then defend an additional ethical principle.

For instance, it is not enough to say, "Eating fruit is healthy, therefore you ought to eat fruit." You must also add something so it appears like, "Eating fruit is healthy, and if you want to be healthy then you ought to eat fruit," or, "Eating fruit is healthy and you should be healthy therefore you ought to eat fruit." Notice that both of these additions now make the assumption that you should be or want to be healthy, and if you agree with this it is a more convincing argument. It does, however, also give more to defend, as you may be forced to justify why you should want to be healthy.

The problem of induction and causal skepticism[edit]

Hume was one of the most famous skeptics of induction and causality. Hume starts with his distinction between "matters of fact" and "relations of ideas" and his empiricist ideas about how humans reason. Hume claims that we gather knowledge about the world through the senses, so, psychologically speaking, we are reliant on inductive reasoning. However, he questions whether this knowledge can be truly justified because he sees induction itself as logically unjustifiable. Induction cannot be justified through deductive reasoning because the latter consists merely of relations of ideas, i.e. ones that are true by definition. Induction also cannot be justified inductively, because that would be circular reasoning. Thus, Hume concludes, we unjustifiably attempt to predict the future from past events. Perhaps the most famous illustration of the problem of induction was given not by Hume, but by Bertrand Russell. Russell imagines a chicken on a farm. The farmer feeds it every day, so the chicken assumes that this will continue indefinitely. One day, though, the chicken has its neck wrung and is killed.[8]

The problem of induction leads Hume to be a skeptic about causality:

  • If induction cannot be justified, we can't definitively make statements about causality. According to Hume, we have no direct access to knowledge about causality.
  • We can only observe regularities in the natural world. That is, we only think that event X causes event Y because we always see Y following X. But...
  • If induction is not justified, then we have no reason to assume that nature is uniform. The only reason we have to make this causal connection is because we have always seen Y come after X.

There is a hard and a soft interpretation of Hume's view on causality; the harder, metaphysical interpretation states that causality itself does not exist. The softer, epistemological interpretation states that causality may exist, but we have no justification for believing it.[9]

Political economist[edit]

A stauch critic of MercantilismWikipedia and big friend of Adam Smith,[10] In 1752, Hume published his Political Discourses, where he advanced many fiscal and monetary policy concepts as well that are still up to date 250 years after his death. These essays were also important to the development of the methodology and epistemology of economics. As a reputed historian and empiricist, Hume brings lots of historical examples to prove his points, and while his qualitative approach fell out of favor to a more quantitative approach during the last century, the economic science remains highly empirical. According to Paul Krugman, one of his articles, On the balance of trade, represents the first attempt in history to to create an economic model.[11]

Ironically, considering his enduring popularity, Hume starts his first essay on political economy, "On commerce" dividing mankind in two classes, that of shallow thinker and that of obstruse thinkers (i.e. people that actually come up with new ideas, and even if we disagree with them, their opinions at least enlarge our views and make us think about our own beliefs). Unsurprisingly, Hume thinks he belongs to the second group, and he pledges the readers to stay with him even if they disagree with his ideas on this essay and on the others.

On commerce and trade[edit]

In two of his political essays, "Of commerce" and "Of jealous trade", Hume explains why everyone profits from free trade, claiming that "where an open communication is preserved among nations, it is impossible but the domestic industry of every one must receive an increase from the improvements of the other". According to him, countries can copy each other, resulting in a strenuous competition between nations and continuous technological advance.

On money[edit]

In one of his most important essays, appropriately called "Of money",[12] Hume argued that, in the short term, a boost of the money supply can also boost the economy, but in the long run, prices are proportional to money. In other words, money is neutralWikipedia, it's different from wealth, and a higher supply of money will only cause inflation in the long term (of course, Hume didn’t use these technical terms, as they only came to being in the 20th century).

On interest rates[edit]

Another groundbreaking essay by Hume is “Of interest”.[13] According to the mercantilist ideas, the interest rate could be lowered by a higher money supply or a favorable balance of trade. Hume explained again that a higher money supply might result in higher wages, but also result in higher prices, and as a result, a higher interest rate in the new equilibrium. For Hume, money is nothing but the representation of labour and commodities, and its main purpose is to estimate them. To explain his point, Hume gives the following example:

For suppose, that, by miracle, every man in GREAT BRITAIN should have five pounds slipt into his pocket in one night; this would much more than double the whole money that is at present in the kingdom; yet there would not next day, nor for some time, be any more lenders, nor any variation in the interest. And were there nothing but landlords and peasants in the state, this money, however abundant, could never gather into sums; and would only serve to increase the prices of every thing, without any farther consequence. The prodigal landlord dissipates it, as fast as he receives it; and the beggarly peasant has no means, nor view, nor ambition of obtaining above a bare livelihood. The overplus of borrowers above that of lenders continuing still the same, there will follow no reduction of interest. That depends upon another principle; and must proceed from an increase of industry and frugality, of arts and commerce.

Once again, for us moderns this is the theoretical basis of the quantitative theory of moneyWikipedia, which states that the general price level of goods and services is directly proportional to the amount of money in circulation. Hume’s ideas had a major impact especially on the prominent economist and leading scholar on money neutrality and Quantity Theory of Money Robert E. LucasWikipedia, who quoted “Of money” and “Of interest” on his Nobel lecture.[14]

On public debt[edit]

In one of his longest essays, called “Of public Credit”,[15] Hume claimed that it’s very tempting for governments to run deficits, as public spending is very popular, while taxation and budget cuts aren’t. The debt can stimulate the economy in the short run, but once again, its results in the long term are disastrous, only leading to inflation and, inevitable to a painful, recessive economic adjustment, with higher taxes and interest rates. Once again, many of his ideas can be found in leading scholarship centuries after his death: the idea of why governments tend to run on deficits was advanced during the twentieth century by another Nobel Prize winner, James M. BuchananWikipedia, one of the fathers of the public choiceWikipedia theory, while his views on fiscal responsibility can still explain a considerable part of the economic history of the United States in the 1970s and 1980s.

On the balance of trade[edit]

On his essay Of Balance of Trade,[16] Hume advanced a concept known as Price–specie flow mechanismWikipedia. According to Hume, money flowing to a nation is not, unlike the Mercantilist idea, the cause of welfare, but it's consequence. To illustrate his point, Hume gives as the following thought experiment:

Suppose four-fifths of all the money in GREAT BRITAIN to be annihilated in one night, and the nation reduced to the same condition, with regard to specie, as in the reigns of the HARRYS and EDWARDS, what would be the consequence? Must not the price of all labour and commodities sink in proportion, and every thing be sold as cheap as they were in those ages? What nation could then dispute with us in any foreign market, or pretend to navigate or to sell manufactures at the same price, which to us would afford sufficient profit? In how little time, therefore, must this bring back the money which we had lost, and raise us to the level of all the neighbouring nations? Where, after we have arrived, we immediately lose the advantage of the cheapness of labour and commodities; and the farther flowing in of money is stopped by our fulness and repletion.

In other words, pretty much nothing would change if the all the supply of money in Britain was destroyed, as the amount of capital in the country would remain the same, and money from the rest of the world would follow it. If you want to have specie, you need wealth first. This does not mean, however, that Hume supported deflation, as it's clear from his other essays that he considered deflation just as bad as inflation.

So, what is the key to opulence according to Hume? Once again the answer is commerce.

On taxes[edit]

Hume's views on his essay "Of taxes"[17] nonetheless didn't age well, as he believed that taxation should be on consumption. According to Hume, this would prevent the government from raising taxes too much because of what we now call the Laffer curve. What Hume didn't know is that the Laffer curve is mostly wrong. Taxation on consumption is very regressive, and result in income inequality.

On public goods[edit]

Just like Adam Smith, despite his support for capitalism, Hume wasn't a free market fundamentalist. On his Treatise of Human Nature, Hume advanced the concept of public goods, and how markets often fail to provide them because of the Free-rider problemWikipedia:[18]

Two neighbours may agree to drain a meadow, which they possess in common; because 'tis easy for them to know each others mind; and each must perceive, that the immediate consequence of his failing in his part, is, the abandoning the whole project. But 'tis very difficult, and indeed impossible, that a thousand persons shou'd agree in any such action; it being difficult for them to concert so complicated a design, and still more difficult for them to execute it; while each seeks a pretext to free himself of the trouble and expence, and wou'd lay the whole burden on others. Political society easily remedies both these inconveniences. Magistrates find an immediate interest in the interest of any considerable part of their subjects. They need consult no body but themselves to form any scheme for the promoting of that interest. And as the failure of any one piece in the execution is connected, tho' not immediately, with the failure of the whole, they prevent that failure, because they find no interest in it, either immediate or remote. Thus bridges are built; harbours open'd; ramparts rais'd; canals form'd; fleets equip'd; and armies disciplin'd; every where, by the care of government, which, tho' compos'd of men subject to all human infirmities, becomes, by one of the finest and most subtle inventions imaginable, a composition, that is, in some measure, exempted from all these infirmities.

In other words, according to Hume, there are certain goods that cannot either be provided or financed without taxation. That's because users can't be barred from accessing or using them, even if they don't to pay for them.

Hume’s Fork[edit]

‘Hume’s Fork’ refers to his heroic attempt to demarcate worthwhile fields of inquiry—mathematics and empirical science—, from any work that purports to transcend these limits by establishing matters of fact a priori—Kant’s synthetic a priori, theology, metaphysics etc.[19]

When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning containing quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.
— Hume’s Heroics[20]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. 1.0 1.1 David Hume (1711-1776) Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  2. 2.0 2.1 David Hume Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 How Trump channels Henry VIII by Robert Zaretsky & John Scott (June 4, 2019 at 6:24 PM) The Washington Post.
  4. [ Volume 3. The History of the House of Tudor, Part 1 by David Hume (1759, 1778). Chapter 32.
  5. The Riddle of Hume's Treatise: Skepticism, Naturalism, and Irreligion, University of Notre Dame.
  6. Hume's Agnosticism, The Philosophical Review
  7. The Enlightenment, Edinburgh City Mission
  8. Bertrand Russell. "On Induction", Chapter VI in The Problems of Philosophy (1912).
  9. For more, see the SEP entry on the Problem of Induction and the IEP entry, David Hume: Causation.
  10. An Enlightened Friendship
  11. "How We Know The Earth Is Old - The New York Times". 2022-01-23. 
  12. "Of Money. In: Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary" (in en-US). 
  13. "Of Interest. In: Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary" (in en-US). 
  14. Lucas, Robert E, Jr, 1996. "Nobel Lecture: Monetary Neutrality," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 104(4), pages 661-682, August
  15. "Of Public Credit. In: Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary" (in en-US). 
  16. "Of Balance of Trade. In: Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary" (in en-US). 
  17. "Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary" (in en-US). 
  18. Hume, David (2009). A treatise of human nature : being an attempt to introduce the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects. [Waiheke Island]: Floating Press. p. 809. ISBN 978-1-77541-067-6. OCLC 589506983. 
  19. An Enquiry into Human Understanding, Hume, David., Millican, Peter (2007) Oxford University Press. §1vi p. 54
  20. Ibid.