Hume put Edinburgh at the heart of the Enlightenment and his work has influenced key figures throughout history.
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David Hume was born in Edinburgh in 1711, attended the University of Edinburgh from 1723, and died in the city in 1776, having achieved worldwide fame as an historian and philosopher. He is generally recognised as the greatest philosopher ever to write in English.
His works have influenced philosophers, scientists, authors and politicians throughout the past 300 years and remain at the centre of philosophical disputes in the 21st century.
Among the key historical figures who have been influenced by David Hume are:
The inventor and Founding Father of the United States was close friends with Hume, staying with him in Edinburgh on more than one occasion and exchanging witty letters comparing their scientific and philosophical work.
The great German philosopher acknowledged his debt to Hume in the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, writing:
I freely admit that the remembrance of David Hume was the very thing that many years ago first interrupted my dogmatic slumber and gave a completely different direction to my researches...
Hume and Rousseau were initially great admirers of each other’s work, with the philosopher helping the Swiss-French writer secure asylum in England when forced to flee France. But the relationship dissolved into acrimony when the paranoid Rousseau accused Hume of plotting against him.
Einstein is famous for perceptive insights that changed physics forever. What is less known is how he arrived at them: “I studied [Hume] with fervour and admiration shortly before the discovery of relativity. It is very well possible that without these philosophical studies I would not have arrived at the solution.”
The founder of psychoanalysis was a devotee of Hume. Freud’s book Totem and Taboo was influenced by Hume’s ideas about the animation of the inanimate - the human desire to ascribe a personality to objects.
Hume’s father died when he was two years old, and he was brought up by his mother, who came from a family of lawyers.
At the age of 12 he was offered a place at the University of Edinburgh. When he left a few years later, he was encouraged to pursue a career in law.
Hume, however, had other ideas. Avoiding the law, he instead decided to continue his own education, realising that his strengths lay in more philosophical directions. In his own words, he had "an insurmountable aversion to everything but the pursuits of philosophy and general learning".
Over the following decades one focus of Hume’s work was formulating arguments against superstition.
An atheist and unmitigated skeptic, his ideas were not popular with religious leaders. He argued, for example, that religion is not the key to understanding the universe, instead that religion itself is a reflection of human psychology.
In time, Hume’s ideas established him as one of the great philosophers of the Enlightenment.
This article was published on May 6, 2011