I first read David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding while in college and while I enjoyed it at the time I have to admit that like much of my college reading it fell from my memory. That is until I read The Authentic Adam Smith, where Hume was an influential minor character, and I heard that this weekend was to be the 300th anniversary of Hume’s birth.
Born May 7, 1711 Hume was a Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist, known as an empiricist and a skeptic. He is often considered one of the most important thinkers in the history of Western philosophy. His short work, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding,
the weakness that we have in our abilities to understand the world around us, what is referred to in the title as human understanding.
Above all Hume believed we lived through our emotions and passions, not necessarily through reason. In fact he theorized reason could only act as an arbiter of passion. “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” In this view he moved away from the Aristotlean ideal that had made up much of the philosophy of antiquity, the middle ages and the Renaissance.
Whereas classicists such as Plato believed that ideas had a life of their own independent from the observer, Hume thought just the opposite. “Beauty is no quality in things themselves: it exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.”
As I mentioned above he was very influential on Adam Smith and the two of them became the foundation for a unique Scottish enlightenment movement that still influences philosophical thought to this day. His views however, were not always welcomed by the establishment, either academic, religious of political. his inate skepticism made him target many long held beliefs. “I have written on all sorts of subjects . . . yet I have no enemies; except indeed all the Whigs, all the Tories, and all the Christians.”
In the end, while his views can be debated and argued against, what can not be denied is the influence he had on modern thought, and on this his 300 anniversary it seems appropriate to at least acknowledge that impact.