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The Essential David Hume
by James R. Otteson

David Hume (1711–1776) is a towering and intriguing figure. He was the preeminent philosopher in what is now called the Scottish Enlightenment, a time that was “crowded with genius” and in a place regarded as the rebirth of the golden era of Athens. His writing displayed an astonishing range, addressing everything from metaphysics to politics, and in subject after subject he produced fresh, novel, and brilliant insights.

David Hume (1711–1776) is a towering and intriguing figure. He was the preeminent philosopher in what is now called the Scottish Enlightenment, a time that was “crowded with genius” and in a place regarded as the rebirth of the golden era of Athens. His writing displayed an astonishing range, addressing everything from metaphysics to politics, and in subject after subject he produced fresh, novel, and brilliant insights.

Hume was born in 1711 in Edinburgh, Scotland. His father died when Hume was only two years old, and he was raised by his mother, Katherine, an advocate (or lawyer). Hume matriculated at the University of Edinburgh at the tender age of 10, pursuing the then-standard course of study of Greek, Latin, metaphysics, and “natural philosophy” or natural science. Until he was 22, he engaged in independent study, reading widely in history, literature, philosophy, law, and theology.

Hume wanted to devote himself to reading and writing literature and philosophy. His resources were “very slender,” however, so he traveled to France and resolved to live as frugally as possible so that he could maintain his independence and dedicate his life to “the improvement of my talents in literature.” During his time there, and by this time in his late twenties, he wrote what is now considered one of the great texts in Western philosophy, his Treatise of Human Nature, which was published in two parts in 1739 and in 1740. The Treatise offered an account of human psychology, of causation and the limits of human knowledge, and of the origins and nature of moral judgments. He went on to produce penetrating insights on topics in political economy such as debt, interest, trade, and the origins and limits of political obedience, along with insights on many other areas ranging from aesthetics to religion. This book focuses on a handful of his central contributions with an emphasis on political economy, in particular his conception and defense of commercial society and of the role government should play in protecting it.

To his regret, Hume never married and had no children, and he was twice denied university professorships because of his religious “scepticism.” He included among his friends Adam Smith and many other luminaries of his time, but it was and is through his writings that his brilliance, his insight, his wit, his curiosity, and his joy emanate.

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Chapter by chapter summary of the book.

  • Who was David Hume?
    Chapter 1

    Who was David Hume?

    David Hume was born in 1711 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was the third and final child of Joseph and Katherine Home. (Hume changed the spelling of his last name from “Home” to “Hume” in 1734 so that its spelling matched its pronunciation.) His father died when Hume was only two years old, and Hume was raised by his mother, Katherine, who never remarried. Katherine was the daughter of Sir David Falconer, a prominent judge in Scotland, and was herself an advocate (or lawyer). It was perhaps understandable, then, that Hume’s mother expected him to follow a similar path and also become an advocate.

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  • Empiricism
    Chapter 2

    Empiricism

    Hume’s philosophical methodology can be described as “empiricism.” Unlike many philosophers before Hume and since, he was skeptical that we could learn about the world by merely thinking about it. We needed to observe it. We must run experiments; we must gather and assess data; we must measure and quantify. We make tentative hypotheses, and then test them against further observations. For Hume, this holds as much for physical sciences—how things move in the world, how chemicals interact, what materials should be used and how they should be configured to build bridges—as it did for the human sciences—how medicines affect us, how our passions motivate us, how our beliefs are formed, where our moral sentiments come from, what governments do or should do, where wealth comes from.

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  • Justice, Conflict, and Scarcity
    Chapter 3

    Justice, Conflict, and Scarcity

    Hume applied his empirical “experimental method” not just to the natural sciences, however, but to the “science of man” as well—which includes morality and politics, or what we might call political economy. How might Hume’s experimental method apply to, for example, justice? Hume argued that, as with other virtues, we come to have a sense or conception of justice based on our experiences. In that way, justice is, according to Hume, an “artificial” virtue, not a “natural” one—that is, it is constructed by human beings in light of their experiences, not written into the fabric of the universe or deduced from uncontradictable premises.

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  • The Origins of Government and the Social Contract
    Chapter 4

    The Origins of Government and the Social Contract

    Hume offers two accounts of the origins of government. One account, which appears in his early Treatise of Human Nature, explores why a government would be necessary and what proper purpose it would serve. The other account appears in several of his later essays, in which he explores the historical development of actual governments. The former outlines what government should do, whereas the latter account focuses on what they actually do. As one might expect, the latter departs rather significantly from the former. But Hume’s purpose in giving these two accounts was, first, to help us see clearly what the nature of government is and, second, give us some potential guideposts for reform.

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  • Commercial Society
    Chapter 5

    Commercial Society

    Hume was one of the earliest expositors and defenders of commercial society. In a series of essays, he showed that, when secured in their lives and property, people would trade, transact, exchange, partner, and associate with one another in mutually voluntary and mutually beneficial ways, generating benefit not only for them as individuals but also for their fellow citizens, for their country, and even for others in the world.

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  • Trade, Money, and Debt
    Chapter 6

    Trade, Money, and Debt

    Hume’s support for markets, trade, and commerce were almost unqualified, and he made these arguments before Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations. But Hume also made groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of economic policy matters like the balance of trade, the role of money and the use of currency, the role of prices, the role of interest, and public credit.

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  • Virtue, Religion, and the End of Life
    Chapter 7

    Virtue, Religion, and the End of Life

    Hume did not believe that all preferences and desires are good. In fact, he drew clear distinctions between virtues, on the one hand, and vices, on the other. He went so far as to claim that people “who have denied the reality of moral distinctions”—that is, people who claim a moral equality among all preferences and desires, thereby eliminating any moral distinction among them—“may be ranked among the disingenuous disputants,” because, he claimed, no one “could ever seriously believe, that all characters and actions were alike entitled to the affection and regard of everyone”. The question for Hume, then, was not whether there are moral virtues and moral vices, but, instead, how we discern them and what their origin is—and what institutions support and encourage them.

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  • Happiness, Friendship, and Tragedy
    Chapter 8

    Happiness, Friendship, and Tragedy

    Can a philosopher be happy? Hume had a lot to say about happiness throughout his writings. He also appears to have been one of the few great philosophers in history—indeed, perhaps the only one—who was both joyful and would have been a joy to be friends with. He was beloved by virtually everyone he met, and though many disliked his ideas—in particular his religious skepticism—it appears that everyone who met or spent time with him enjoyed the experience. Hume was witty, sharp, incisive, and provocative without being belligerent. He was an excellent conversationalist, was frequently invited to attend dinner parties throughout his adult life, and was widely sought-after as an acquaintance and guest. Even those who objected to his alleged irreligiosity admitted that it was hard to hate him as a person, even if you hated his ideas.

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Watch the Videos

Who Was David Hume?
Who Was David Hume?

Commercial Society
Commercial Society

The Benefits of Free Trade
The Benefits of Free Trade

Public Debt
Public Debt

The Social Contract & The Origins of Government
The Social Contract & The Origins of Government

Resolving Scarcity and Conflict
Resolving Scarcity and Conflict

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About the Author

James R. Otteson

James R. Otteson

James R. Otteson, Fraser Institute Senior Fellow, is John T. Ryan Jr. Professor of Business Ethics in the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame, and a Senior Scholar at the Fund for American Studies. He received his BA from the Program of Liberal Studies at the University of Notre Dame and his PhD in philosophy from the University of Chicago. He specializes in business ethics, political economy, the history of economic thought, and eighteenth-century moral philosophy. He has taught previously at Wake Forest University, New York University, Yeshiva University, Georgetown University, and the University of Alabama.

Prof. Otteson’s books include Adam Smith’s Marketplace of Life (Cambridge, 2002), Actual Ethics (Cambridge, 2006), Adam Smith (Bloomsbury, 2013), The End of Socialism (Cambridge, 2014), The Essential Adam Smith (Fraser Institute, 2018), Honorable Business: A Framework for Business in a Just and Humane Society (Oxford, 2019), and The Essential David Hume (Fraser Institute, 2021). He has two books forthcoming: Seven Deadly Economic Sins (Cambridge, forthcoming in 2021); and The Ethics of Wealth Redistribution (with Steven McMullen; Routledge, forthcoming in 2022).

Additional Resources

Listed below are links to other websites and resources where you can learn more about David Hume, his theories, his written works, his impact on philosophy, expert lectures, and interviews.

David Hume from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
A detailed breakdown of Hume’s life, influence as an Enlightenment figure, and philosophical ideas.

Hume’s Moral Philosophy from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
An explanation of Hume’s position in ethics, specifically his empiricist theory of the mind that asserts (1) Reason alone cannot be a motive to the will, but rather is the “slave of the passions” (2) Moral distinctions are not derived from reason (3) Moral distinctions are derived from the moral sentiments: feelings of approval and disapproval felt by spectators who contemplate a character trait or action (4) While some virtues and vices are natural, others, including justice, are artificial

David Hume from Britannica.com
A biographical account of Hume’s life from his early days in Edinburgh to his influence as a philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist.

David Hume 1711-1776 from Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
A peer-reviewed commentary on David Hume’s unique position in intellectual thought, including his epistemic understanding of the self and notions of personal identity, and how this broadly translated into his political and scholarly influence in the 18th century that has endured years after his death.

Hume Texts Online from David Hume.org
A robust, accessible online collection of David Hume’s essays, treatises, dissertations, and books (both acknowledged and originally anonymous, published in his time and posthumously).

Western Philosophy: David Hume from The School of Life
A detailed breakdown of Hume’s philosophical positions and an elementary explanation of the crux of Hume’s most significant contribution to the ideas of human nature: people are more influenced by our feelings than by reason.

David Hume: Causation from Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
A peer-reviewed commentary on Hume’s position on the notion of causation and how it relates to everyday occurrences and his (Hume) own empirical standards for knowledge.

David Hume from EconLib
A brief overview of Hume’s contributions to economic thought in addition to or in tandem with his treatments of philosophy, history, and politics.

A Very Brief Summary of David Hume UWPlatt.edu
A short entry that focuses on David Hume’s position in the tradition of British empiricism and his ethical theory on moral distinctions being rooted in emotion as opposed to the previous, long-held belief that they’re based in reason.

A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume from Project Gutenberg
A free, open-access e-book copy of Hume’s seminal text on empiricism, skepticism, and naturalism.

A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), Section VI: Of Personal Identity from Web MN State.edu
A public domain copy of the “Section VI: Of Personal Identity” from Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature.

David Hume’s Life and Works from Hume Society
A detailed, succinct overview of Hume’s life and works, his relationship to contemporaries such as Adam Smith, his time spent working on A Treatise of Human Nature, Essays Concerning Understanding, and The History of Great Britain, and years in Paris and Edinburgh up until his death.

David Hume from the Online Liberty Library
A brief biography of Hume’s life and works, and includes a list of quotes, books and titles (with links to epub, pdf, and kindle formats for reading), and associated movements.

David Hume from Oregon State University.edu
A one-page blog post from a “Great Philosophers” series discussing Hume’s impact on the theory of knowledge, ethics, and the philosophy of religion. Includes an explanation of Hume’s account of the mind by identifying the ways in which ideas might be related to one another i.e. resemblance, contiguity, and cause and effect.

David Hume’s Treatment of the Mind from BU.edu
A relatively short but comprehensive paper that critically examines Hume’s argument against the knowledge/existence of substantival mind.

David Hume from Oxford Reference.com
A quick reference/overview of Hume’s status as a philosopher, historian, and economist.

David Hume at 300 from Philosophy Now
A retrospective analyzing the life and legacy of David Hume, from his biography to the crux of his major works, in honour of his 300th year.

David Hume from the New World Encyclopedia
An encyclopedic entry on David Hume with an in-depth contents list.

David Hume from the Encyclopedia of Scientonomy
An encyclopedic entry on David Hume’s life, major contributions, historical context, and criticism specific to the science of human nature and scientific methodology applied to his philosophical approach.

David Hume (1711-1776) from National Records of Scotland
An overview of Hume’s life and his legacy as an enlightenment figure in Scotland. It likewise includes images/scans of original documents related to his life uploaded to the online archive, including his last will and testament.

Hume: Empiricist Naturalism from Philosophy Pages
A quick overview of Hume’s life followed by more in-depth analysis of Hume’s ideas, specifically his notions regarding matters of fact, rationality, skepticism, necessary connection among people and experience, our relation to the self, and the external world at large.

David Hume from Open Learn.edu
A free, open-access course on the philosophy of David Hume, including learning outcomes, quizzes/examinations, lectures on enlightenment and romanticism, Hume’s intellectual background, opinions on death, life, suicide, how his views were received, and the philosophy of religion and everyday life (to name a few).

Hume, David (1711-1776) from Encyclopedia.com
An encyclopedic entry on Hume’s life, his impact on secularism, his notable works, and a breakdown of the elements of Hume’s science of human nature (objects, perception, the copy principle and theory of origins, natural and philosophical relations, and associations) as well as Hume’s rejection of abstract ideas and how this interacts with his treatment of space and time.

Commentary on David Hume from Lumen Learning’s Epistemology chapter
A short summary of the central themes of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, and Hume’s relationship to Kant’s criticism and the later appreciation of logical positivists.

David Hume from Essays Moral, Political, and Literary (1742-1754) from University of Pennsylvania.edu
An open-access copy of Hume’s Essay X: Of Superstition and Enthusiasm from Essays Moral, Political, and Literary.

Hume on the Importance of Humanity by Jaqueline Taylor from Cairn Info
A comprehensive commentary that details Hume’s perspective on humanity and sympathy, more specifically humanity as a sympathy-engendered response to the tendencies of character, in his body of work.

Words of Wisdom, Intro to Philosophy: David Hume from Minnesota Libraries Publishing Project
A short summary of David Hume’s legacy and role as a sentimentalist, his notions of what is vs. what ought, followed by Hume’s introductory text on “the General Principle of Morals”.