David Hume: Biography and Work

Philosophy is that discipline that, since antiquity, has tried to solve the mysteries that surround our life, our world and the reasons for our existence. Before we knew the sciences, humanity tried to answer certain questions in very different ways. First, myths came, ideas about creation and, later, with the birth of philosophy, more or less objective reasoning began to be given.

This first philosophy used to look for a reason to our existence and to the nature of the world; I tried to answer what arche is. The passage of time and advances derived the philosophy towards different branches and, later, towards different disciplines. Philosophy is, therefore, prior to psychology. For this reason, philosophers have been the ones who, since antiquity, have investigated the way of perceiving reality in human beings.

In this sense, one of the great philosophers who contributed to this investigation was David Hume. This author highlighted the importance of learning, habits and the lack of innate primordial knowledge. Obviously, this position was very influential in the philosophy of the moment and, a century later, when psychology was already more or less consolidated and differentiated, it also influenced it.

To understand Hume’s philosophy, it is important to emphasize his background. Thus, in the Renaissance, two opposing philosophical currents linked to knowledge emerged. One of them was rationalism, a theory that defended that the human being is born possessing certain truths considered universal, from which reality is interpreted.

At the opposite extreme, the other current is situated: empiricism. Empiricism defended that, only, it is learned through experience, since we do not possess knowledge that is considered innate. At this point, one of the maximum representatives of this current was, without a doubt, David Hume. Throughout this article, we will discover the keys of his thought, his life and his work.

David Hume: his life

He was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in the year 1711. He came from a wealthy family; his father was a lawyer, although he died when Hume was still a child. For this reason, he was expected to also study law, following in his father’s footsteps. David Hume studied at the College of Edinburgh, having as his teachers disciples of Isaac Newton.

Subsequently, he went to the University of Edinburgh to study laws according to the wishes of his family. However, he abandoned these studies because he did not like them. Subsequently, he moved to Bristol in order to try to make his way in the trade. But after suffering a crisis, he expressed the following feeling: “insurmountable aversion to everything, except the studies of philosophy and knowledge in general.”

Years later, he traveled to France, where he lived between 1735 and 1737. First, in Reims and, later, in the current Sarthe, formerly known as La Flèche. In these localities, he wrote the Treaty of human nature, a work he published on his return to London and in which he already shows the germ of his later philosophy. However, the publication was a failure, which led to his return to Scotland.

While residing in Edinburgh, he published, in 1742, the first part of his work Moral and Political Essays; with which he obtained, unlike what happened with his first work, considerable success. Later, he held various positions: he was preceptor of the Marquis of Annandale, secretary of General St. Clair and librarian of the Edinburgh Bar Association.

In the year 1763, he joined the embassy of Paris thanks to the help of Lord Hertford. It was in this city that he established a relationship with D’Alembert, Diderot and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His stay in the French capital lasted until 1769, at which time he decided to return permanently to Edinburgh to devote himself to writing until his death in 1776.

“The beauty of things exists in the spirit of those who contemplate them.”

-David Hume-

To know the thinking of David Hume, the first thing we have to do is go to his work and try to define the empiricist theory that he always defended. Empiricism is based on a series of principles:

There is no innate knowledge

Human beings are not born with previous thought patterns and knowledge that dictate how we should interpret reality

The experiences can be internal or external, that is, they can come from one’s own reflection and knowledge of our inner life or, on the contrary, from the sensations and perceptions of the world. For the empiricists, there is no prior to the experience, we know through the sensible world; the mind is like a tabula rasa, a blank paper on which progressively acquired knowledge will be written.

These ideas, very present in Hume, follow in the wake of other empiricist authors such as John Locke. However, they differ in the limits of experience; while Locke believed that one could access knowledge of realities beyond the sensible, Hume pointed out that, taking into account the very nature of experience, knowledge would be reduced to our perceptions.

There are two types of knowledge

According to Hume, there are two types of knowledge: on the one hand, the impressions, that is, the thoughts that arise as a result of experiences that we live through the senses; on the other, we find ideas, which are abstract and ambiguous, because they do not arise through physical sensations.

Everything comes from perception; the impressions would be the immediate knowledge consequence of the perception. Therefore, ideas would be derived from impressions and, as a consequence, more complex. Hume also talks about the concept of imagination, which is capable of modifying ideas.

There are two types of differentiated statements

David Hume distinguishes between the probable statements derived from a fact, which may or may not occur, in a specific space and time. For example, by saying “any day the Sun may not come out”. Every day the Sun rises and we know it because it is knowledge acquired through habit, perception and conviction. On the other hand, it speaks of the demonstratives that, due to their logical structure, can be demonstrated without problems, for example: 4 + 4 = 8.

And both are the ones that make our habits are built, which will define our way of living even if they are not exactly the same as what reality establishes. These fundamental principles were reflected in his main works: Treatise on human nature, Essays on morality and politics and Research on human understanding.

David Hume and psychology

In short, David Hume is one of the most important authors of the current known as empiricism. An author whose contribution to philosophy was fundamental to understand and improve this current. The Theory of Knowledge is one of the branches of philosophy most linked to psychology, therefore, it is not surprising that an author like Hume has greatly influenced psychology.

For David Hume, as for the current psychology, we are not born with thoughts and emotions, but they are acquired and developed from the experiences that each person lives. Therefore, it discards all kinds of innatism and reinforces the idea of ​​human learning. Undoubtedly, an author who invites us to reflect on our perceptions and our way of understanding the world.