Philosophical Review: David Hume


David Hume (1711–1776) was a Scottish philosopher well-known for his empirical, skeptical and naturalist system of views. Hume’s empiricism is characterized by theory of impressions and ideas. In his central work, “A Treatise of Human Nature,” he outlines the way ideas are acquired. The philosopher asserts that insights are gained from experience, whereby experience may be understood to mean consciousness and reflective understanding of the mind (Dicker 5). From this basic definition, Hume formulates his numerous propositions.


In the field of epistemology, he had issues with the concept regarding personal identity and purported that there is no long-lasting ‘self’ that endures forever. He rejected the accepted notions about causality and pointed out that our understanding of the association regarding cause and effect are influenced by the patterns of thinking instead of the perceptions of casual forces operating in our environment. Hume conceptualized the notions of space and time, personal identity, free will, and causation (Quine 90). As outlined in the “Treatise,” Hume identifies three main issues. The first one is that humans are incapable of acquiring complete knowledge of some essential philosophical sentiments in question. Next, he undertakes to justify that understanding provides us with limited perception of that sentiments. And finally, he shows how the misconstrued outlook of those sentiments is founded in the imagination. He also persuades others to dismiss such erroneous concepts (Dicker 8).


In discussing the above epistemology section, Hume undertakes a two-way tact of making skeptical propositions while in the same time providing supportive philosophies regarding fundamental beliefs. Towards the end of the book, skepticism appears to be elevated, and there are even several inconsistencies in some of his philosophical ideas. Hume talks of three of such contradictions of which he regrets. He portrays his disappointments by realizing that nature compelled him to abandon his theoretical speculations and revert to the normal activities of life (Fieser). However, over time Hume changed his ideas regarding these contradictions. Therefore, as concerning skepticism, the primary purpose is that even our well-thought philosophies about human mind and body are susceptible to contradictions (Dicker 11). The issues of skepticism are again observed in the concluding part of the enquiry but to lesser extent.

On Morality

Hume was an ardent opponent of concepts of morality as set by systems in the society. He disagreed with earlier prominent philosophers like Clarke who claimed that reason is the central tool that defines morality. Hume also dismisses the rationalists’ concept that represents a good person by considering the degree to which they control their passions and engage reason instead. He argues that moral values cannot be supported by reason alone. Clarke proposed that human actions should be governed by reason rather than passion, and in the event that the passions are high one should instigate reason to curtail them. Hume refutes this argument and claims that “reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will” (Schmitter). Hume believes that reasoning is a pathway or a link between different ideas and for it to provoke actions, there must be an inherent desire on the background.

Theory of Passions

In his works, the “Treatise,” and “A Dissertation on the Passions,” Hume lays down his theory of the passions in which, like other thinkers, he tried to classify emotions and attempted to explain the mental mechanisms which promote them. Hume examines emotions as general perceptions and subdivides them into either violent or calm. The perceptions of the mind are also divided into two groups: impressions and ideas. He considered impressions as such that permeate strongly into the soul, while ideas are superficial images of impressions that appear as a result of reasoning. While impressions are vivid, ideas are vague. Impressions can also be categorized into two types: those of sense, which he considers original, and those of reflection, taken as a secondary impression. Original impressions constitute all five senses including pain and pleasure. Secondary impressions constitute sentiments and passions. Hume points out that sense impressions are those that occur by themselves having no recognized cause, while secondary passions emanate from the sense passions (Schmitter).

Hume asserts that passion implies an impression of reflection. In his “Treatise,” the philosopher segregates the blanket grouping of passions into violent and calm. However, in his other works, Hume uses the notion of passion for characterizing violent passions only (“Theories of Emotions” n.p). Hume emphasizes that violent passions do not translate to strong nor do calm passion refers to weak. Instead, he undertakes to differentiate between direct and indirect passions. While direct passions arise promptly as a result of good or evil, the indirect ones are motivated by other factors, especially the encroachment of various ideas.

Hume is mainly interested in evaluating the human reasoning which prompts them to act, and asserts that passions are the propelling force that defines actions without which there would be no impetus to undertake a deed (Theories of Emotions n.p.).

Philosophy of Religion

This philosophy circles around the question of the existence of God. This question prompts another one, that if there is God, then what is his nature? The final question considered is to what extent God is relevant in our lives.

For a long time, there have been debates to justify the existence of God. Not all scope of religious philosophy is based on Christianity, and many Muslim and Jewish philosophers have impacted towards this cause. Even Aristotle and Plato played a role in its development. Like many of other philosophers, Hume approaches religious issues skeptically. Over the years, proponents of religions maintained a low profile for fear of being persecuted by religious authorities. Hume also was careful in matters of religious doctrines and perpetuated his theory in a concealed manner that required listeners’ to derive meaning (Fieser).

In the period of Enlightenment, there were two significant stances regarding Christianity: natural religion and revealed religion. The former involves deducing the existence of God by logical proofs. On the other hand, revealed religion involves the understanding of the nature of God through revelation and mainly through the Bible In his works, Hume sharply criticizes both forms of religion (The Open University n.p). In his “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding” he states that experience is the foundation of any human testament rather than testimony of an alleged miracle. No matter how much one is convinced regarding some miracle, it cannot override the experience emanating through the natural laws (Morris and Brown).

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