An Enquiry on Human Understanding

David Hume (1711-1776)

As much as I have loved David Hume’s Essays, I find his treatises, such as his Enquiry on Human Understanding (EHU), recondite to the point of abject exhaustion. To unjustly over-simplify, EHU might be congealed into his observation, which time has rendered axiomatic, “The most lively thought is still inferior to the dullest sensation,” and he defines sensations as “sentiments”. Hume distinguishes between two species of perceptions of the mind, dividing them according to their different degrees of force: (1) thoughts or ideas and (2) impressions. Like Locke, Hume believes that the creative power of the mind amounts to little more than the faculty of compounding, transposing, augmenting or diminishing the materials afforded us by the senses and experience. In sum, all of our ideas are merely copies of our impressions. From such premises, Hume delves into increasingly abstruse concepts of the mind.

The more we examine his Enquiry on Human Understanding, the more confounded we become. To understand Hume, we must consider the milieu in which he lived. David Hume, from Edinburgh, the most renowned of all Scottish philosophers, lived in a day when witches were burned at the stake, along with those who questioned their preachers in public. It was literally life-threatening to be a skeptic, but Hume was unabashedly and bravely so and was condemned and discredited all of his life by the leaders of all faiths and was repeatedly blocked from receiving professorships in philosophy that he deserved much more than his peers. (The eminent Bertrand Russell received similar treatment some 200 years later, not to mention a legion of others in between, while other prominent sages, e.g. Voltaire, had sufficient sense to bite their tongues and soften their views to the acceptable levels that their societies permitted.) Immanuel Kant, like Voltaire, who espoused a belief in God (if for no other reason than to avoid disrepute), publicly praised Hume’s works. Today (along with the more delicate and socially-correct Voltaire), Messrs. Hume and Kant stand as the greatest philosophers of the 18th Century, despite the endless disparagement of religious leaders. To fail to read Hume is simply to ignore philosophy, i.e., the love of knowledge, wisdom, and the five major fields into which that august topic is commonly defined: ethics, esthetics, logic, metaphysics and politics (the ideal form of government).

Whenever we discuss a great, such as Hume, we must revisit some of the same ground: Hume is best known for his Treatise of Human Nature, various Essays, and his scholarly History of England. His Enquiry on Human Understanding analyses the human mind, belief systems, superstitions and the like. One can read between his lines his acute sensitivity to censors and judges who might imprison him on some false pretense. His concepts, then, must be circumlocutive, strained, and euphuistic. He creates verbal structures to support propositions that science long ago proved to be the case. Then, too, he salts his weightier logic with profundities. Like Francis Bacon, he holds that “[in the long run] there be no such thing as Chance in the world…there is certainly a probability.” He asserts that “[O]ur ideas are nothing but copies of our impressions…things that we have antecedently felt…” He believes that “our Creator” must suffer “the same guilt” as man for man’s moral turpitude, as our Creator is “the ultimate cause and author” of man and, hence, man’s actions, including the “free will” or “free thought” of which man is capable. He views biblical miracles as devoid of any evidence that would even “amount to a probability, much less a proof.” Human testimony is hardly proof. Religion, in the final analysis, is predicated on blind faith, and reason has nothing to do with it. He believes that the Creator gave man the power to reason, and reason man must.

We must remember that he wrote almost 300 years ago, and to an audience that had often read little more than a bible. Today, the brilliant Hume is a hard read. His short essays on various topics are more pleasurable.