'A Treatise of Human Nature: Being an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects'
By David Hume (Author)
Hume's introduction presents the idea of placing all science and philosophy on a novel foundation: namely, an empirical investigation into human psychology. He begins by acknowledging "that common prejudice against metaphysical reasonings [i.e., any complicated and difficult argumentation]", a prejudice formed in reaction to "the present imperfect condition of the sciences" (including the endless scholarly disputes and the inordinate influence of "eloquence" over reason). But since the truth "must lie very deep and abstruse" where "the greatest geniuses" have not found it, careful reasoning is still needed. All sciences, Hume continues, ultimately depend on "the science of man": knowledge of "the extent and force of human understanding,... the nature of the ideas we employ, and... the operations we perform in our reasonings" is needed to make real intellectual progress. So Hume hopes "to explain the principles of human nature", thereby "propos[ing] a compleat system of the sciences, built on a foundation almost entirely new, and the only one upon which they can stand with any security." But an a priori psychology would be hopeless: the science of man must be pursued by the experimental methods of the natural sciences. This means we must rest content with well-confirmed empirical generalizations, forever ignorant of "the ultimate original qualities of human nature". And in the absence of controlled experiments, we are left to "glean up our experiments in this science from a cautious observation of human life, and take them as they appear in the common course of the world, by men's behaviour in company, in affairs, and in their pleasures."
Book 1: "Of the Understanding" – An investigation into human cognition. Important statements of Skepticism.
Book 2: "Of the Passions" – A treatment of emotions and free will.
Book 3: "Of Morals" – A treatment of moral ideas, justice, obligations, benevolence.
One of the most influential British philosophers, the Scot, David Hume was at once historian, economist and philosopher and was known for both his skepticism and empiricism. As one of the main figures of the school of empiricism in England, Hume restricted knowledge to experience of ideas and impressions whose ultimate source cannot be verified. His early years were spent in Edinburgh, but like Locke, he journeyed later in life to France where he wrote one of his most famous works, A Treatise on Human Nature, expounding a full philosophical system which, however, he later repudiated as being a work of youth. He returned to England and in 1741 and 1742 wrote essays on moral and political philosophy and soon thereafter his most famous works, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and An Enquiry Concerning the Principle of Morals. He also wrote a history of England and carried out disputes with Rousseau. Hume is known in the later history of philosophy for his radical denial of the possibility of any deductive science and also of causality. He claimed, somewhat like the Ash'arite theologians in Islam, that the impression upon the mind of one event followed by another event gives rise to the idea of causality. However, in contrast to the Ash'arites who saw the Will of Allah as the bond which relates what appears to us as cause and effect, Hume did not believe in any relationship between what we call cause and what we call effect except habitual association in the mind which we identify as causality. He claimed that causality is simply based on belief and cannot be proven by either empirical observation or reason. The influence of Hume was primarily on those who claimed that philosophy is an inductive science of human nature and that man is created of sensitive and practical sentiments rather than reason. It was this aspect of Hume's thought that would influence Immanuel Kant, Auguste Comte, John Stuart Mill as well as other British philosophers such as the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham. In the last few decades, Hume has been highly praised in Anglo-Saxon philosophy by the positivists who appreciate his anti-metaphysical position and his refutation of all deductive philosophy.
(Seyyed Hossein Nasr)