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A Resource Guide for Philosophy Students

Created by Jennifer Leslie Torgerson, MA

This page last modified: April 23, 2013

copyright, 1997 - present



School of Athens


David Hume





Frederick Copleston, S.J., A History of Philosophy: Book Two. (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1985 [1944]).

David Hume. An Enquiry Concerning the Principle of Morals. Editor, J. B. Schneedwind. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1983).

________, Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principle of Morals. Third Edition, revised by P. H. Nidditch. (Oxford, UK: Open University Book Set Clarendon Press, 1995 [1902]).

Smith, and Grene. Philosophers Speak For Themselves. (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1957).


The works of Hume

A Treatise on Human Nature (written between 1734-37), which becomes the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, in 1751.

Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751).

Four Dissertations (one concerning Natural History of Religion) published in 1757.

History of England under the House of Tudor (1759).

History of England from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Accession of Henry VII (1761).

(bio. from Philosophers Speak For Themselves, Smith, and Grene). Hume was born in Edinburgh in 1711, and was brought up in the Ninewalls, in the rigid Calvinism of the Scottish church, and received his formal education at the University of Edinburgh. He read extensively in modern, and to some degree in ancient philosophers, and Hume devoted his entire life to philosophy. Three years retirement in France enabled him to finish Treatise on Human Nature, which appeared in 1739, and as Hume said it was "deadborn from the Press." Later in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume tried to restate his doctrine in a more acceptable form. Hume died in Edinburgh in 1776.

In Hume's Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (IV (i)), he makes a distinction between "matters of fact" and "relations between ideas". This is known as Hume's fork.

Logical proof only applies to the latter sphere, or "relations between ideas". For example: relations between ideas are as such "2+2=4" and "if A is larger than B, and B is larger than C, then A is larger than C". But matter of fact about existence can only be demonstrated empirically: for example "this cat is larger than that cat" and "New York is larger than Chicago" are propositions which can only be demonstrated by experience, and NOT by studying the terms involved. Relations between ideas do not grant the actuality of these ideas in reality, in fact they have nothing to do with experience, or empirical proof.

As Hume puts it "there is an evident absurdity in pretending to demonstrate a matter of fact, or to prove it by any by any arguments a priori . Nothing is demonstrable unless the contrary implies a contradiction. Nothing that is distinctly conceivable implies a contradiction. Whatever we can conceive as existent, we can also conceive of as nonexistent. There is no being whose non-existence implies a contradiction. Consequently there is no being whose existence is demonstrable." from: Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

This distinction is substantially the same as that of truths of reason and truths of fact in Leibniz earlier. But it is its aggressive employment in Hume that makes Hume's version the classical anticipation of logical positivism's challenge to choose between, on the one hand, analytic, a priori, and logically necessary, and on the other hand, synthetic, a posteriori, and contingent.

Hume's Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding had many sides, but its aim was to discover, in Locke's words, "what objects of our understanding were, or were not, fitted to deal with." In one aspect it is one great work in a succession beginning with Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and continuing in Kant's A Critique of Pure Reason. Like Kant, Hume sees himself as conducting a anti-Copernican counter revolution. Copernicus had knocked the Earth, and by implication man, from the center of the universe. Hume's study of human nature was to put man at the center of every map of knowledge.

Hume's Impressions and Ideas:

Impressions: sensations or immediate feelings as those of pleasure and pain, what he calls Impressions of Reflection.

Ideas: fainter copies of impressions in imagination.

It is Hume's cardinal principle that all true and real of the world (simple) ideas can be traced to (simple) impressions as their source.

(the following material from Philosophers Speak For Themselves, introduction to Hume)

"Carrying to its extreme, moreover, as Berkeley did, the concept of ideas as particular and separate images, Hume agrees with Berkeley in denying the existence of the abstract ideas. Hume likewise applies the same criticism to mind, that Berkeley only leveled at matter.

For applying to the idea of substance the principles of tracing all ideas to corresponding impressions, Hume finds no such impression to legitimate the idea; and Hume therefore abandons both substances, mental as well as corporeal (or physical).

According to the definition of knowledge that Hume inherited, knowledge consists of a system of ideas whose informational value is absolutely certain for all men at all times. According to another aspect of the Lockian tradition, however, all our ideas must be validated by reference to experience. Equally, according to this tradition as Hume understood it, our ideas (or for Hume impressions) are separate little bits of perception that can always be extracted from complex ideas they compose- just as the bits of a mosaic fit together, yet are separable from the picture they form. But how out of the separate which are the only legitimate contents of knowledge do we get the ideal system of more than mosaic unity that is defined as knowledge? How, in other words, can generalization from the atoms of experience give us a secure superstructure of knowledge both rationally certain and empirically derived?

There are, of course, relations between ideas which do attain certainty, namely the propositions of arithmetic. That is, however, because these propositions make no assertions about real connections among real things. They assert only relations between ideas implicit in those ideas themselves, regardless of the question whether such things as ideas represent as the ideas represent actually exist or no.

But when the mind asserts as representative of the real world, relations between ideas not necessarily contained in the ideas themselves, the situation becomes problematic. Can such assertions be justified? Or as Hume put the question, specifically in terms of one relation cause and effect but his problem is ultimately that of empirical generalizations; as such, causal generalizations being the most important instance of this type.

Hume's negative answer is notorious. The fundamental idea in the relation of causality is that of necessary connection. Hume looks everywhere for the external impression from which such an idea originates. He fails to find any. Ergo, the idea is illusory, the notion of causality, like that of substance, cannot be empircally validated, and so on rational demands, must go. So must the ideas of substance, self, and all other ideas whether they be matters of fact or relations between ideas.  Such is Hume's skepticism. [...]

This does not mean that we throw out the propositions of science and common sense. Nature, says Hume, has by an uncontrollable necessity determined us to judge as well as breathe and feel. Hume's view is ultimately not no belief, but belief based on habit and imagination rather than rational grounds."

So, maybe Hume is not a nihilist, but what else would the denial of both mental and physical substance leave? Nothing? Hume certainly does not appeal to spiritual substance! Not even the awe he has for Nature can be justified by simple impressions.

Hume's position is a type of phenomenalism. Phenomena is that which appears. The phenomenalist says that substance and causality are no more than bundles of perception. Therefore there is no rational knowledge beyond what is disclosed by the phenomena of perceptions. Mind is no more than a bundle of perceptions.

Kant attributes "awakening from his dogmatic slumber" to the stimulus of Hume's arguments on causality; and it is possible that Kant met Hume's arguments in the common sense philosopher's, James Beattie (1735-1803), re-statement of Hume's arguments.

Hume's Criticism of the Cosmological argument for the existence of God and the Teleological argument for the existence of God

* to see the arguments again click here

Hume's criticisms of Cosmological argument for the existence of God

(1)  Matters of fact cannot be demonstrated a priori

Hume claimed the cosmological argument form was a priori.  Usually the individuals who employ the cosmological argument format begin their argument with sensible things (phenomena or empirical evidence) and conclude that God is the cause of what they observe.  Perhaps.  But we do not have an impression of God.  Nor do we have a distinct impression of cause.  We cannot be sure of the existence of anything according to Hume:  not the self, much less God.  To claim that God is the cause of the phenomena we experience is to, in Hume's opinion, to have accepted a claim a priori, or without impressions.  Necessary existence had no meaning to Hume.  Perhaps Hume misunderstood the argument, as some contend.  But perhaps he has made an important observation.

(2)  What ever we can conceive of as existing we can conceive of as not existing

Hume did not thing that there was a being the existence of which is necessary.  Every being according to Hume is merely possible.  Therefore, it is possible for all things to be and not be, meaning that there isn't an eternal being.  

(3)  Perhaps the universe is the necessary being?

ANYTHING you can conceive of as existing, you can conceive of as not existing, and this includes the universe according to Hume.

(4)  Why does motion need a beginning necessarily?

Hume asks why does motion need to be caused, or why couldn't it be eternal?  Since there is not an impression of the first cause or of the beginning of motion, this a priori statement is weakened.  If there can be a conception of the unmoved mover, there too can be the conception of perpetual motion (and no unmoved mover).

Hume's criticism of the Teleological argument for the existence of God

 (1) The argument is a weak analogy

The universe is not identical with a well ordered, well designed organism. The typical claim of the teleological argument for the existence of God is that there is a purpose to all things and that things are ordered to an end.  God is the creator of the universe, much like a watchmaker makes a watch.  All things which appear to be orderly must have had an orderer.  Hume points out other weak analogies, and then concludes that a priori, or necessary statements go too far.  A priori judgements cannot be said to always be true with certainty, since things are always changing and there is not an impression of the future state of affairs from with to draw such certainty.  The future state of affairs is probable, and hence there can be no truly necessary statement, since what ever can be conceived to be, can also be conceived as not being.

(2)  The argument commits the fallacy of composition

The fallacy of composition is committed when one assumes that what is true of the parts is also true of the how.  Just because you see order or purpose in some objects of nature, it does not follow that the entire universe is too ordered to an end.

Hume makes a distinction between the ectypal and the archetypal

Hume thinks that what we really want are ectypal concepts, not archetypal.  But even ectypal concepts are not able to be verified, since we cannot truly know the existence of anything.



ideas copied form REAL objects

that which the objects are copied from

(remember Plato?)

Hume does not think that our ideas can have any effect on the physical world, or that the power of mind cannot control body.  He does not think that "mind over matter" is possible.  

Hume thinks he has made a triumph for skepticism.

He too has realized that to obtain truth, one needs to see the non-self.