David Hume and his Philosophy of Life

I was reading an article recently by Julian Baggini titled “Hume the humane.” The subtitle of his article reads “Hume believed we were nothing more or less than human: that’s why he’s the amiable, modest, generous philosopher we need now.” In the article, Baggini claims that despite the skepticism of Hume, his philosophy of life “can and should be the basis for a complete approach to life,” because, “it is built on the skeptical foundations of a brutally honest assessment of human nature.”


If you are not familiar with David Hume, he was a Scottish philosopher of the eighteenth century. He is considered by many as a typical representative of the Anglo-Saxon philosophy — not in the sense of looking at their answers as the best or valid ones — but in that broad meaning that is easier for a native English speaking person to understand his questions. Hume’s way of thinking provokes discussions and offers new or original answers in philosophy. Baggini explains in his article how before becoming a philosopher he was a historian. Some of Hume’s most known works are: “A Treatise of Human Nature” and “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.” His way of thinking cannot be considered particularly accurate or correct when it comes to how we see human beings by claiming that we do not have immortal souls and discarding an immaterial mind. Besides, for Hume, we do not have a human essence. His writings and philosophy have been fruitful with many people such as Baggini.


Hume denied the existence of God with his works. There are many details about his last days and his death, and there was not the slightest testimony that resembled some repentance in his denials of the faith. Hume was a coherent materialist who even until death he affirmed that no one could believe something that was not evident to the senses. His life, then, and his death, were those of an atheist without fissures; an intelligent, kind and sociable man but alien to all faith, and especially to the faith that implied that God speaks or does miracles.


Hume’s writings are of the rationalist type, but there is an excellent paradox behind this thought. His rationalism is not idolatry of the human being’s capacity to know, and in this, it differs from the enthusiasm of the French Enlightenment, which came to speak of the “goddess” reason. Hume is radical in his critique of what can be known. For Hume, what is known is the sensible, and nothing more. In particular, the notions of “cause” and “effect” are unsustainable for him. What we call “cause” is simply the result of habit: we have become accustomed to seeing something after an “X” event comes the “Y” event as a result, and that is why we talk about “X” being the cause of “Y.” Similarly, for Hume, we attribute the reactions to perceptions — also casually — to a source that would be the subject, but that association is ours and says nothing about the necessary unity of a center of activity.


Hence, the denial of the real character of the law of causality and the existence of the subject makes impossible any intelligent discourse on the world and the human being. It is debatable — and it has been much discussed — what is intended by a critique that wants to demolish everything, even reaching the insane. It is even stranger when one sees that Hume, as a human being, worked and lived with the same or greater conviction than any other adult and informed human being, in matters of daily life or social exchange.


The truth is that Hume is incoherent. In his writings, he denies the possibility of miracles in the name of the laws of nature, but it is absurd to claim such a thing because his philosophical position cannot deny causality and claim that there are laws. If these laws are simply observed regularities, to which we have become accustomed to, they have no power to serve as absolute and permanent facts, how can one sustain such an affirmation if causality is only an observed regularity?


The negation of the subject or effect is even more absurd. What is the meaning of killing someone? Is it to dissolve a center of probable agglutination of perception and reactions to perceptions? Can society impose a penalty — which can be very serious and burdensome — to something that we do not know if it exists to eliminate another something that we also do now know if it exists? What social fabric could be born from this theory if the very existence of its threads is denied? Should we base our philosophy of life on someone who does not know if this exists?


The usefulness of Hume’s criticism is that it forces us to think about the ultimate rational foundations of the world and man. It is not surprising that Hume’s enemies are classical metaphysics and Christian ethics. He does not write to say particularly enlightening things but by way of denunciation, by way of questioning and reduction to the absurd the psychological and moral certainties he knew in his time. For the same reason, Hume always looked with distrust at atheists convinced upon reasons. According to Hume, if it is so arduous and practically impossible to find certainty about the world as known and about man as cognoscente, the atheist who denies God, sins of pride similar to the one who is convinced that he does exist.


It can be said then that, regarding his life, Hume was a convinced atheist; as for his works, he was instead an agnostic, with an extreme tendency to deny everything that belongs to the faith. The style of his criticism could serve atheists, but only if they do not take this criticism seriously, because an atheist who wanted to follow Hume would have to remain in doubt if there is a Divinity, instead he should be very sure that he does not exist.


In reality, Hume refutes himself, and we do not need any particular skill to see his severe internal contradictions. The seriousness of his philosophy of life and his view on society can be summarized into the following: devoid of a connection with the truth, and ethics reduced to mannerisms, customs, subjective preferences, which lead to pure relativism.