Who was he: David Hume, the Scottish philosopher, was born in Edinburgh on May 7th, 1711. He is known as the most important philosopher to write in English. Hume's work as an historian and essayist was equally important, although there were contemporaries that denounced his work as atheist in nature and filled with skepticism.
David Hume's influence is evident in the economic and moral writings of his friend Adam Smith. Hume is also credited with awakening Immanuel Kant from his "dogmatic sleep" and causing the "scales to fall" from Jeremy Bentham's eyes. Hume was part of what is today called the Scottish Enlightenment, a period in the 1700s when top Scottish and French intellectuals pushed for the idea that the scientific method could perfect society.
While the French Enlightenment was somewhat utilitarian, focused on using the state as the vehicle for immediate social order, the Scottish Enlightenment adopted a more cautious attitude; the idea was that the scientific method could create "the greatest happiness for all." But Scottish intellectuals had something bigger in mind, what Hume called the "science of man." Modern sociology stems from this effort.
Hume was entranced by the new science of top scientists of the era such as Kepler, Bacon and Newton. He attempted to apply the scientific and experimental method to his "new science of man," and thus his results avoided the horrible results of the French Revolution.
One could say that the French Enlightenment justified the horrors of government remolding of society in the name of a scientific illumination. Hume was far more careful and thus his "new science" ended up creating an academic study of man. One was utilitarian (the French approach) and the other was based on scientific enquiry. For this reason, Hume is yet revered while many of the leaders of the French Revolution have been reviled.
Hume's influence has been increasingly apparent. Thomas Henry Huxley and Charles Darwin considered Hume a major influence. Hume's work is considered a precursor to cognitive science and an important exponent of philosophical naturalism, but Hume didn't start his illustrious career as a scholar and philosopher in the typical fashion of those days.
Background: David Hume entered the University of Edinburgh with his older brother when he was twelve and began studying mathematics, literature and history. Hume did study a little ancient and modern philosophy at that time, but his mother was convinced he should become a lawyer. Hume preferred reading classical authors, especially Cicero and Virgil.
In order to satisfy his disdain for the professors at the time, Hume decided to immerse himself in what he called a "New Scene of Thought," and spent ten years reading and writing, which put him on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
Hume's mental state forced him to consider a more active lifestyle. He made a feeble attempt to participate in the world of commerce as a sugar clerk for a Bristol importer, but that experience only reinforced his will to pursue his 'new scene of thought.' Hume moved to France and frugally settled in La Flèche, a quiet village in Anjou where Descartes and Mersenne studied a century before him.
The Jesuit college in the village was the perfect setting for him in terms of baiting the Jesuits with iconoclastic arguments. From those experiences and his intense interest in authors like Dubos, Bayle and Malebranche he began working on his Treatise of Human Nature in 1734. Hume completed the work in 1737 and returned to England that year to prepare the book for publication.
Hume had to castrate his work in order to publish it, so he deleted controversial discussions about miracles and other topics. Two sections of the book, "Of the Understanding" and "Of the Passions," were published anonymously in 1739. Two other sections, "Of Morals" and "Abstract," which talked about the first two books, were published in 1740.
The Treatise was not well received, but it wasn't a disaster. Even with all the deletions, the book stirred enough interest among zealots to fuel David Hume's lifelong reputation as an atheist and skeptic. In 1741 and 1742 Hume published Essays, Moral and Political. When the chair of Ethics and Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh became vacant in 1745 Hume applied but was rejected. Six years later the chair of Logic became available at Edinburgh but Hume was rejected for that post as well. Hume never held an academic post due to his controversial views on religion and other topics.
In 1748, Hume went on a diplomatic mission with St. Clair to Turin and Vienna. While Hume was in Italy, he wrote Philosophical Essays concerning Human Understanding. The work eventually became part of his Essays and Treatise, which are known as An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding today. In 1751, Hume's An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals appeared, and his essays The Political Discourses were published in 1752.
While serving as librarian to the Edinburgh Faculty of Advocates, Hume worked on his project History of England, which was published in six volumes in 1754, 1756, 1759 and 1762. The work became a bestseller, and it finally gave Hume the financial freedom he wanted all his life. In 1763, Hume returned to France and served as private secretary to the ambassador to France, Lord Hertford.
Hume returned to England in 1766. After a year as Under-Secretary of State in London, Hume returned to Edinburgh. In 1769, he built a house in New Town. Although hespent most of his time revising his works for new editions, Hume did find time for social interaction, especially with Nancy Orde, daughter of Chief Baron Orde, the Scottish Exchequer.
David Hume died of intestinal cancer in 1776. Hume is said to have approached death with the same peaceful cheer that he had for life.