A Treatise of Human Nature

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A philosophical work by Hume, written in France 1734–7, published in three volumes in London 1739–40. The work was recast as three separate and simpler works published between 1748 and 1757; An Enquiry (originally Philosophical Essays) Concerning Human Understanding, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, and A Dissertation on the Passions.

Hume's work has been traditionally depicted as the culmination of one of two philosophical traditions. His contemporary critic T. Reid established the common view that Hume was heir to a tradition set by Locke and Berkeley, whereas Kemp Smith (1941) saw him as heir to Hutcheson. Current research emphasizes his debt to Cicero, Descartes, and Boyle.

Hume saw the disputes of philosophers as centred upon the conflicting roles of reason and instinct or sentiment, and tried to define these roles for metaphysics in Book I of the Treatise and for the passions and morals in Books II–III. He agreed with Locke, against Descartes, that there are no innate ideas, and that all the data of reason stem from experience, and derived from Descartes the thesis that whatever may be conceived distinctly may be distinct. He argued that reason has insufficient data in experience to form adequate ideas of the external world, distance, bodily identity, causality, the self, and other minds, and that any beliefs we form about these must fall short of knowledge.

Compensating for the inadequate data of experience and unaided reason are certain ‘natural instincts’ by which the imagination forges its own links between distinct ideas. Through association we project on to the world a sense of the continuity and externality of bodies and of cause and effect. ‘Philosophical decisions’ are the reflections of common life, corrected by reason, sense, and natural instinct.

In regard to morals, Hume again argued for an accommodation between reason and experience on the one hand and sentiment on the other (in so far as moral distinctions are felt, not judged). In so far as there is a common structure of human nature, there is general consensus as to the motives and acts that are accounted morally virtuous and vicious.

Subjects: literature.

Reference entries

David Hume (1711—1776) philosopher and historian