David Hume

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Thinking hardly
or hardly thinking?

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Major trains of thought
The good, the bad
and the brain fart
Come to think of it
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] Henry was violent, cruel and impetuous according to Hume.[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.


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 into 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]

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.[10]

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[11].

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. [https://davidhume.org/texts/h/32 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 Enquiry into Human Understanding, Hume, David., Millican, Peter (2007) Oxford University Press. §1vi p. 54
  11. Ibid.