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David Hume (1711 – 1776)

The most influential thinker of the Scottish Enlightenment and one of the greatest philosophers of all time.

David Hume
David Hume by Allan Ramsay, 1766

David Hume was born in 1711 in Edinburgh to a moderately wealthy family from Berwickshire Scotland. His father, Joseph Home, an advocate, died when he was three and Hume was educated by his mother until he left for the University of Edinburgh at the age of eleven.

At Edinburgh he studied Latin and Greek, read widely in history and literature, ancient and modern philosophy, and dabbled in mathematics and natural philosophy.

Rejection of the law

Hume left the University in 1727, aged fifteen, and was encouraged to follow in the family tradition and to consider a career in law. Rejecting this proposal, Hume found that he had, an insurmountable aversion to everything but the pursuits of philosophy and general learning, and instead decided to become a scholar and philosopher and devoted his time to reading and self teaching.

The intensity of his intellectual engagement led to a nervous breakdown in 1729.

Human nature

In 1734, he based himself at La Flèche on the Loire in France and wrote ‘A Treatise of Human Nature’, an attempt to formulate a full-fledged philosophical system. Divided into three books, the Treatise attempts to base philosophy on a new, observationally grounded study of human nature.

The Treatise was not a literary sensation and its lukewarm reception derailed Hume’s plans for additional books devoted to morals, politics, and criticism.

Though Hume rejected it as juvenile at the end of his life, ‘A Treatise of Human Nature’ is now considered one of the most important texts in Western philosophy. It first explains how we form such concepts as cause and effect, external existence and personal identity, and paved the way for the field of cognitive science.

Human knowledge

After an unsuccessful bid to become chair of moral philosophy at Edinburgh in 1744, he led a peripatetic existence and found himself as a firstly a tutor in St. Albans, and then as secretary to General James St Clair, envoy to the courts of Vienna and Turin.

During this time he started his great historical work ‘The History of England’ and wrote ‘Three Essays, Moral and Political’ and ‘Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding’. The latter became known as ‘An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding’ and was an attempt to define the principles of human knowledge and formed the basis for Hume’s doctrine about causality.

Edinburgh calling

Hume returned to Edinburgh and was made keeper of the Advocates’ Library at Edinburgh in 1752. As the “master of 30,000 volumes,” he took the opportunity to finish his English history alongside other writings and, in 1762, was proclaimed by James Boswell, the biographer of Samuel Johnson, as the greatest writer in Britain.

He moved away from Edinburgh again in 1763 to take up the position of secretary to the British embassy in Paris, and then to London in 1766 as Under Secretary of State for the Northern Department. His time away concluded in 1769, when he returned to Edinburgh and lived out the remainder of his life in the company of his friends and his writings.  

He died in 1776 after a long illness and is buried on Calton Hill.

Hume at Edinburgh

2011 marked the tercentenary of Hume's birth and, to celebrate the milestone, the University hosted a year of lectures, exhibitions and activities. The lectures are available online as video and audio files.