Study Guide

David Hume Biography

Basic Information

Name

I was born David Home, but I changed my name to David Hume in 1731. There is absolutely no basis to the rumor that I had originally attempted to change my name to "Home Boy."

Nickname

"Le Bon David" (my affectionate nickname among French intellectuals, who clearly had insight into a person's character; in fact, I appreciated the sentiment so much that I seriously considered moving permanently to Paris); "The Skeptical Scotsman" (my moniker during my brief, unsuccessful boxing career; actually, I boxed only because I loved hearing the ring introduction: "In this corner, hailing from Edinburgh, David 'The Skeptical Scotsman' Huuuuuuummmmmme"); "You #$%^!!!#*" (that's what Rousseau used to call me—in public!—during our little fights).

Sex

Male

Home town

I was born in 1711 in Edinburgh, Scotland, but spent my childhood in the Scottish countryside. I moved around a fair amount as an adult, traveling extensively around Europe and living for periods in England and France. When I retired, I went back to good old Edinburgh.

Work & Education

Occupation

My family imagined a career in law for me, but I only had one ambition: to be a writer. Yes, I knew I was destined to write philosophy, but my ambition was always to be loved and admired for my beautiful, sparkling, lovely prose.

My dreams have pretty much been fulfilled, but not quite in the way I imagined. Although I completed my first book of philosophy when I was 26 (and I've written a lot more philosophy since), my reputation was originally made as an historian, due to my multi-volume work The History of England.

In any case, I have done a lot of other things besides write books. I put in a brief stint in my early years as a clerk for a sugar importer, then shortly afterwards worked as a tutor for a marquis. The latter gig didn't last long, because the man was crazy. I mean literally insane. In the clinical sense, that is.

I also served in a noncombatant role for the British military, spent three years as a librarian, then spent another three years working for the British Embassy in Paris, and finally worked as Under-Secretary of State for a year.

One thing I never did was hold an academic position. In fact, I was turned down... twice—first by Edinburgh and later by Glasgow. It seems my atheism and skepticism made me unsuitable for a job in academia.

Education

I taught myself the basics but then went to the university at Edinburgh to brush up on the details. Oh, I was 11-years-old at the time. No biggie. I didn't get a degree—why bother? Instead, I went on to study the classics—and virtually everything else—on my own.

Beliefs

Political views

As in many areas of my life, my political views defy easy categorization. My emphasis on the importance of political stability and the rule of law would seem to mark me as conservative. What, after all, is more conservative than a healthy respect for tradition and the existing political order? But I have also been known to defend freedom of the press and to express sympathy not with monarchy, but with the principles of democracy. This makes me seem a bit more of a liberal.

I think I expressed it best when I wrote, "My views of things are more conformable to Whig principles; my representations of persons to Tory prejudices" (source). For those of you on the other side of the pond, Whigs are conservatives and Tories liberals (sort of—it's complicated). Basically, I like aspects of both sides.

In any case, I like to think that my contributions to political and economic theory are more significant than my own private political beliefs. And I must confess that these contributions are quite substantial. Among many other things, I am (arguably) the founder of the whole notion of political science, and I was a pioneer in the field of economics, as well.

Religious views

Ah, religion—this has always gotten me into trouble. Now, you must understand that I was never looking for trouble. But somehow everything that I wanted to say on this subject—everything that became apparent to me after long, careful examination—was always viewed as so controversial.

The root of the problem goes back, as it almost always does, to childhood. I was raised as a strict Calvinist, in a strictly Calvinistic society. And all this talk about the miseries of human life and the hopelessness of attaining earthly happiness just did not sit well with my temperament. Look, I am a cheerful, fun-loving guy; I am living proof that earthly happiness is attainable.

But it's not just a matter of temperament. It's the arguments around religion that always got under my skin. So I pointed out some of the fallacies people let fly when they get on religion. I showed the problems with the whole idea of religious miracles; I noted how unreliable and changeable religious beliefs tend to be; I demolished the systematic arguments that had attempted to establish God's existence. And even though that last argument only got made in a book published after I died, the word was out: Hume's an atheist.

Was I? Maybe "atheist" is too strong a word; I think it would be better to say that I was just highly skeptical when it came to the subject of religion.

But of course none of these details mattered to my detractors. All too many people just assumed I'm an enemy of religion and wanted me to suffer the consequences. Result: I was unable ever to gain an academic post, despite my eminent qualifications. A publisher also withdrew two of my essays because of their supposedly controversial nature. And then the clerics decided I was immoral—an accusation that particularly stung, since I prided myself on the uprightness of my character. The Church of Scotland apparently even considered bringing charges of "infidelity" against me. And on and on.

I can't say none of this bothers me. But I content myself with the knowledge that no one has yet proven me wrong. That's more than my critics can say.

Activities & Interests

Likes

Provoking zealots of all stripes
Fame
Witty conversation
Food and drink, regardless of quality
The French
French women
Classical, English, French, and Italian Literature
Having a good character
Having my good character admired by all
Leaving others in a state of uneasy perplexity

Dislikes

My married mistress's other boyfriend
The Prince de Conti (see previous entry)
Religious dogmatists
Extreme rationalism
Head-in-the-clouds philosophers
Being unappreciated
People who wait expectantly at my deathbed, ready for my last-minute religious conversion (a specialty dislike that emerged only in the very last period of my life)
The Church of Scotland (see previous entry)

Interests

Metaphysics
Morality
Aesthetics
Religion
History

Groups

British Empiricists
Moral Sense Theorists
Non-Rational Aesthetic Theorists
Forerunners of Analytic Philosophy
The School of Scottish Skeptics
Artful Atheists
Great Philosophers Who Are Genuinely Nice Guys (Hume is possibly the only member)

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