David Hume (1711 – 1776): How To Be A Philosopher

David Hume is one of my intellectual heroes. I first encountered him in the fall of 1973 in Lucas Hall on the campus of the University of Missouri at St. Louis. The campus was familiar, right up the street from my house, but the ideas I encountered there were from a different world. Anxious to expand my small intellectual world, I eagerly enrolled in a class called, “Major Questions in Philosophy.”

Professor Paul Gomberg, at that time a newly minted Harvard PhD, taught the class with intelligence and enthusiasm. We read Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, Lenin’s The State and Revolution, and Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Wow! Knowledge, the gods, and the state all undermined in sixteen weeks. But it was Hume who made the greatest impression, demolishing the design argument for god’s existence and, more importantly, opening my mind.

It was not only Hume’s philosophy, but his character that I came to respect. He was not only a fearless intellectual, but he enjoyed life too. (I wish that I could have been with Hume and Franklin in the salons of Paris, sipping brandy and flirting with the ladies.) He was a good man who faced death bravely; he was more noble than most of his detractors, past or present. (I encourage anyone interested to read The Life of David Hume, the great biography written by Ernest Campbell Mossner.)

Here is Hume on how to be a good philosopher. It is from the opening pages of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.

Man is a reasonable being; and as such, receives from science his proper food and nourishment: But so narrow are the bounds of human understanding, that little satisfaction can be hoped for in this particular, either from the extent of security or his acquisitions. Man is a sociable, no less than a reasonable being: but neither can he always enjoy company agreeable and amusing, or preserve the proper relish for them. Man is also an active being; and from that disposition, as well as from the various necessities of human life, must submit to business and occupation: but the mind requires some relaxation, and cannot always support its bent to care and industry. It seems, then, that nature has pointed out a mixed kind of life as most suitable to the human race, and secretly admonished them to allow none of these biases to draw too much, so as to incapacitate them for other occupations and entertainments. Indulge your passion for science, says she, but let your science be human, and such as may have a direct reference to action and society. Abstruse thought and profound researches I prohibit, and will severely punish, by the pensive melancholy which they introduce, by the endless uncertainty in which they involve you, and by the cold reception which your pretended discoveries shall meet with, when communicated. Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.

Tomorrow’s post will talk about how the atheist Hume faced death bravely.

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