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David Hume Biography

David Hume produced some of the most striking philosophical investigations into belief and the human mind and was a constantly controversial person during his life.

Short Biography of David Hume

Born in Edinburgh, Hume spent his childhood at Ninewells, the family's modest estate on the Whitadder River in the border lowlands near Berwick. His father died just after David's second birthday, "leaving me, with an elder brother and a sister under the care of our Mother, a woman of singular Merit, who, though young and handsome, devoted herself to the rearing and educating of her Children." (All quotations in this section from Hume's autobiographical essay, "My Own life", reprinted in HL.)

Katherine Falconer Home realized that young David was "uncommonly wake-minded" -- precocious, in her lowland dialect -- so when his brother went up to Edinburgh University, David, not yet twelve, joined him. He studied mathematics and contemporary science, and read widely in history, literature, and ancient and modern philosophy.

Hume's family thought him suited for a career in the law, but he preferred reading classical authors, especially Cicero, whose Offices became his secular substitute for The Whole Duty of Man and his family's strict Calvinism. Pursuing the goal of becoming "a Scholar & Philosopher," he followed a rigorous program of reading and reflection for three years until "there seem'd to be open'd up to me a New Scene of Thought."

The intensity of developing this philosophical vision precipitated a psychological crisis in the isolated scholar. Believing that "a more active scene of life" might improve his condition, Hume made "a very feeble trial" in the world of commerce, as a clerk for a Bristol sugar importer. The crisis passed and he remained intent on articulating his "new scene of thought." He moved to France, where he could live frugally, and settled in La Flèche, a sleepy village in Anjou best known for its Jesuit college. Here, where Descartes and Mersenne studied a century before, Hume read French and other continental authors, especially Malebranche, Dubos, and Bayle; he occasionally baited the Jesuits with iconoclastic arguments; and, between 1734 and 1737, he drafted A Treatise of Human Nature.

Hume returned to England in 1737 to ready his Treatise for the press. To curry favor with Bishop Butler, he "castrated" his manuscript, deleting his controversial discussion of miracles, along with other "nobler parts." Book I (Of the Understanding) and Book II (Of the Passions) was published anonymously in 1739. Book III (Of Morals) appeared in 1740, as well as an anonymous Abstract of the first two books of the Treatise. Although other candidates, especially Adam Smith, have occasionally been proposed as the Abstract's author, scholars now agree that it is Hume's work. The Abstract features a clear, succinct account of "one simple argument" concerning causation and the formation of belief. Hume's elegant summary presages his "recasting" of that argument in the first Enquiry.

The Treatise was no literary sensation but it didn't "fall dead-born from the press," as Hume disappointedly described its reception. Despite his surgical deletions, the Treatise attracted enough of a "murmour among the zealots" to fuel his life-long reputation as an atheist and a sceptic.

Back at Ninewells, Hume published two modestly successful volumes of Essays, Moral and Political in 1741 and 1742. When the Chair of Ethics and Pneumatical ("Mental") Philosophy at Edinburgh became vacant in 1745, Hume hoped to fill it, but his reputation provoked vocal and ultimately successful opposition. Six years later, he stood for the Chair of Logic at Glasgow, only to be turned down again. Hume never held an academic post.

In the wake of the Edinburgh debacle, Hume made the unfortunate decision to accept a position as tutor to the Marquess of Annandale, only to find that the young Marquess was insane and his estate manager dishonest. Hume managed to extricate himself from this situation, and accepted the invitation of his cousin, Lieutenant-General James St. Clair, to be his Secretary ("I wore the uniform of an officer.") on a military expedition against the French in Quebec. Contrary winds delayed St. Clair's fleet until the Ministry canceled the plan, only to spawn a new expedition that ended as an abortive raid on the coastal town of L'Orient in Brittany.

Hume also accompanied St. Clair on an extended diplomatic mission to Vienna and Turin in 1748. While he was in Italy, the Philosophical Essays concerning Human Understanding appeared. A recasting of the central ideas of Book I of the Treatise, the Philosophical Essays were read and reprinted, eventually becoming part of Hume's Essays and Treatises under the title by which they are known today, An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding. In 1751, this Enquiry was joined by a second, An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals. Hume described the second Enquiry, a substantially rewritten version of Book III of the Treatise, as "incomparably the best" of all his works. More essays, the Political Discourses, appeared in 1752, and Hume's correspondence also reveals that a draft of the Dialogues concerning Natural Religion was underway at this time.

An offer to serve as Librarian to the Edinburgh Faculty of Advocates gave Hume the opportunity to work steadily on another project, a History of England, which was published in six volumes in 1754, 1756, 1759, and 1762. His History became a best-seller, finally giving him the financial independence he had long sought.

But even as a librarian, Hume managed to arouse the ire of the "zealots." In 1754, his order for several "indecent Books unworthy of a place in a learned Library" prompted a move for his dismissal, and in 1756, an unsuccessful attempt to excommunicate him. The Library's Trustees canceled his order for the offending volumes, which Hume regarded as a personal insult. Since he needed the Library's resources for his History, Hume did not resign his post; he did turn over his salary to Thomas Blacklock, a blind poet he befriended and sponsored. When research for the History was done in 1757, Hume quickly resigned to make the position available for Adam Ferguson.

Hume's publication of Four Dissertations (1757) was also surrounded by controversy. In 1755, he was ready to publish a volume that included "Of Suicide" and "Of the Immortality of the Soul." He suppressed the controversial essays when his publisher, Andrew Millar, was threatened with legal action, due largely to the machinations of the minor theologian William Warburton. Hume added "Of Tragedy" and "Of the Standard of Taste" to round out the volume, which also included The Natural History of Religion and A Dissertation on the Passions.

In 1763, Hume accepted an invitation from Lord Hertford, the Ambassador to France, to serve as his Private Secretary. During his three years in Paris, Hume became Secretary to the Embassy and eventually its Chargè d'Affaires. He also become the rage of the Parisian salons, enjoying the conversation and company of Diderot, D'Alembert, and d'Holbach, as well as the attentions and affections of the salonnières, especially the Comtesse de Boufflers.

Hume returned to England in 1766, accompanied by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was then fleeing persecution in Switzerland. Their friendship ended quickly and miserably when the paranoid Rousseau became convinced that Hume was masterminding an international conspiracy against him.

After a year (1767-68) as an Under-Secretary of State, Hume returned to Edinburgh to stay. His autumnal years were spent quietly and comfortably, dining and conversing with friends, and revising his works for new editions of his Essays and Treatises, which contained his collected essays, the two Enquiries, A Dissertation on the Passions, and The Natural History of Religion. In 1775, he added an "Advertisement" to these volumes, in which he appeared to disavow the Treatise. Though he regarded this note as "a compleat Answer" to his critics, especially "Dr. Reid and that biggotted, silly fellow, Beattie," subsequent readers have wisely chosen to ignore Hume's admonition to ignore his greatest philosophical work.

Upon finding that he had intestinal cancer, Hume prepared for his death with the same peaceful cheer that characterized his life. He arranged for the posthumous publication of his most controversial work, the Dialogues concerning Natural Religion; it was seen through the press by his nephew and namesake in 1779, three years after his uncle's death.

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