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David Hume (1711-1776) was a Scottish philosopher and a key British Empiricist. He created a philosophy of humans with their emotions and not their reason as driving  their behavior; thus, his ethics are based on human feelings rather than abstract moral principles. “Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous.”

David Hume S

David Hume, Scottish philosopher

Quotations for David Hume from: web, Wikiquotes, A Treatise on Human Nature (1739-40), ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge (1888),

Every step I take is with hesitation, and every new reflection makes me dread an error and absurdity in my reasoning.

A mental world, or universe of ideas, requires a cause as much as does a material world, or universe of objects.

What peculiar privilege has this little agitation of the brain which we call thought, that we must thus make it the model of the whole universe?

A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence

I never knew anyone, that examined and deliberated about nonsense who did not believe it before the end of his inquiries.

That the sun will not rise tomorrow is no less intelligible a proposition, and implies no more contradiction, than the affirmation, that it will rise.

Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous.

Scholastic learning and polemical divinity retarded the growth of all true knowledge.

The richest genius, like the most fertile soil, when uncultivated, shoots up into the rankest weeds; and instead of vines and olives for the pleasure and use of man, produces, to its slothful owner, the most abundant crop of poisons.

The life of a man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster.

For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception. When my perceptions are remov’d for any time, as by sound sleep; so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist. And were all my perceptions remov’d by death, and cou’d I neither think, nor feel, nor see, nor love, nor hate after the dissolution of my body, I shou’d be entirely annihilated, nor do I conceive what is farther requisite to make me a perfect non-entity. If any one upon serious and unprejudic’d reflexion, thinks he has a different notion of himself, I must confess I can reason no longer with him. All I can allow him is, that he may be in the right as well as I, and that we are essentially different in this particular. He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and continu’d, which he calls himself; tho’ I am certain there is no such principle in me… But setting aside some metaphysicians of this kind, I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.

In reality, all arguments from experience are founded on the similarity which we discover among natural objects, and by which we are induced to expect effects similar to those which we have found to follow from such objects. And though none but a fool or madman will ever pretend to dispute the authority of experience, or to reject that great guide of human life, it may surely be allowed a philosopher to have so much curiosity at least as to examine the principle of human nature, which gives this mighty authority to experience, and makes us draw advantage from that similarity which nature has placed among different objects. From causes which appear similar we expect similar effects. This is the sum of our experimental conclusions.

All probable arguments are built on the supposition, that there is this conformity betwixt the future and the past, and therefore can never prove it. This conformity is a matter of fact, and if it must be proved, will admit of no proof but from experience. But our experience in the past can be a proof of nothing for the future, but upon a supposition, that there is a resemblance betwixt them. This therefore is a point, which can admit of no proof at all, and which we take for granted without any proof.

To consider the matter aright, reason is nothing but a wonderful and unintelligible instinct in our souls, which carries us along a certain train of ideas, and endows them with particular qualities, according to their particular situations and relations. This instinct, ’tis true, arises from past observation and experience; but can anyone give the ultimate reason, why past experience and observation produces such an effect, any more than why nature alone should produce it?


We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable

In preparing this post on David Hume I discovered something, tangential but profoundly important, that I was only vaguely aware of. I knew that Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence was copy-edited by Ben Franklin and Samuel Adams but I didn’t know the most critical line in it was modified by Franklin. Nearly all of that document was written by Jefferson, but Franklin’s modification in the first line totally changed the character of the Declaration, and thus of the United States, and thus the whole world.

Jefferson had written, We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable,” which sounds good, but Franklin boldly struck out those offending words and replaced them with “We hold these truths to be self evident,” and in doing so changed the whole tenor of the document from a religious one with a challengeable statement, “sacred and undeniable” to a far more philosophically rigorous statement, “self evident”. There was no toadying to any religion but a clear call to man’s inherent ability to think for himself.

The idea of self-evidence is like an axiom in geometry; it is a basic observable truth from which useful things may be rationally constructed. These ideas, if not the exact words, came from Franklin’s conversations with his close friend David Hume and others in the Lunar Society and from the writings of John Locke.

It is strange how such a change of those few words could have had such an impact, but 237 years later these words are still very much self evident throughout the entire world. Those words may never have been uttered by David Hume, but without him they might never have been uttered by anyone.

“Nothing appears more surprising to those, who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers.”

David Hume and Charles Scamahorn - Probaway

Charles Scamahorn Escaping from Hume’s tomb. Edinburgh, Scotland

It is easy for us modern Americans to forget the intellectually dangerous world into which Hume was born. It was only 13 years earlier, in his birth place, Edinburgh, Scotland, that Thomas Aikenhead was executed for blasphemy. He was hung a short walk from Hume’s monument. Listen to this fascinating indictment.