A Treatise of Human Nature

A Treatise of Human Nature

A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), David Hume's comprehensive attempt to base philosophy on a new, observationally grounded study of human nature, is one of the most important texts in Western philosophy. It is also the focal point of current attempts to understand 18th-century philosophy. The Treatise first explains how we form such concepts as cause and effect, extern...

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Title:A Treatise of Human Nature
Author:David Hume
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Edition Language:English

A Treatise of Human Nature Reviews

  • Darren

    "I was awoken from my dogmatic slumber." -Kant, on reading Hume.

    In my opinion, this is probably one of the most thoroughly logical and most disturbing books ever written. Hume's use of reason completely dissects that habituation that we call "intuition", and moreover, shows how inductive reasoning is completely without merit. Science goes out the window, and the prospect of having any knowledge of the world leaves with it. The resulting nihilism will send chills down your spine. This is why ever

    "I was awoken from my dogmatic slumber." -Kant, on reading Hume.

    In my opinion, this is probably one of the most thoroughly logical and most disturbing books ever written. Hume's use of reason completely dissects that habituation that we call "intuition", and moreover, shows how inductive reasoning is completely without merit. Science goes out the window, and the prospect of having any knowledge of the world leaves with it. The resulting nihilism will send chills down your spine. This is why everyone hates philosophers, because they assault all those comfortable cushions of assumption on which we base our lives.

    Many people give Kant all the credit for being the most brilliant philosopher, but when you read Hume, you realize that many of Kant's theories where just Hume's ideas turned on their heads. Hume's "veil of perception" was illuminated and developed into Kant's "forms of sensibility" and "categories of the understanding" and became the basis for Kant's "synthetic a priori". While there is no question that Kant was brilliant, I think he gets more credit than deserved just because he came to the rescue of science and provided a (tenuously) logical solution to the problems that Hume observed. Kant's nearly indecipherable language also has a certain snob appeal, while Hume's very straightforward presentation of the problems lead the intelligentsia to regard him as pedestrian. There is a certain "lifting of the nose" observed in those who have read Kant. This laughable attitude merely shows how vain and stupid some people are about what they read, and how they think it reflects their superiority.

    Hume's "Treatise on Human Nature" is a book everyone should read. It is an intellectual roller coaster that will shake the very basis for every truth you think you know. Good fun!!

  • Duffy Pratt

    I just wrote a long review of this book, and Goodreads or the internet ate it. Grrrr... Here are the high points of that review.

    Three years to read this. Of that, almost the full time was stuck on the first two parts of the second book, which seemed both dull and pointless. It ended up that it was just dull, but necessary to understand his ideas on morality.

    First book - Understanding. It blows up the idea that there's a foundation in reason for induction, causation, the persistence of objects, a

    I just wrote a long review of this book, and Goodreads or the internet ate it. Grrrr... Here are the high points of that review.

    Three years to read this. Of that, almost the full time was stuck on the first two parts of the second book, which seemed both dull and pointless. It ended up that it was just dull, but necessary to understand his ideas on morality.

    First book - Understanding. It blows up the idea that there's a foundation in reason for induction, causation, the persistence of objects, and even for the idea of the self. This is radical skepticism at its finest. It's even more amazing that Hume presents these arguments in a way that is cogent, and engaging. There are few writers of philosophy who write better than Hume, and none of them are also systematizers. The systematizers tend to be insufferably dull (Locke) or unreadable and incomprehensible (take your pick, but Heidegger is a good example).

    Second book - the bog. It's about the passions, and it couldn't be less passionately presented. Pride, humility, love, hate. If the first book awoke Kant out of his dogmatic slumbers, I would have thought that the first parts of this book would put him safely back to sleep. The curious thing here was that, after destroying the idea of causation, Hume spends most of this book focusing on causes for the passions.

    The book takes off again when Hume gets to the will. He tries to reconcile free will and determinism. I wondered why he bothered. Since causation has no foundation in reason, but rests on human custom and habit, it doesn't seem necessary to me to then try to reconcile it with free will. It can also rest on other customs and habits. If the two seem to contradict each other, I don't understand the big problem. Neither of them has a foundation in reason anyways, so why get troubled over a seeming contradiction. It would have been enough to say they rest on different customs, and people are irrational.

    Third book - Morality. He does a great job of showing that justice is not natural, but an invention of men. He's less good about showing the basis for morality, and this stems from his being less rigorous here than in the first book. For Hume, all perceptions are either ideas or impressions. With causes, he showed that causes are not based on ideas, and also showed that there is no impression that corresponds to a cause. Thus, no causes. He doesn't do the same with moral perceptions. He does show that moral perceptions have no basis in ideas or reasons, and then abruptly concludes that they must be impressions. I think he could pretty easily have argued that there are no moral impressions either. And I'm not sure why he didn't. Perhaps the religious climate at the time precluded him from being as radical a moral skeptic as he was a skeptic when it came to the understanding.

    I also found it odd that he bases all moral judgments on an appreciation of character. He has argued elsewhere quite convincingly that its impossible to know a cause from its effects. But in morality, all of our judgments come from just that process. We only see the effects of a person's character, and never the character itself. That, we only infer from those effects, and that is just what Hume has argued against elsewhere (famously, in his argument that we can know nothing about God from our observation of the world, if indeed God created the world.)

    Finally, even though Hume tries to explain morals to us, it looks like he could not bring himself to show any true moral distinction. At bottom, for him, morality is just another species of pain and pleasure, and he doesn't try to show in what manner it differs from other types of pain and pleasure. Indeed, towards the end of the book, he admits that he can't draw a sharp distinction between morality and other natural attributes, such as intelligence.

    There are many other quibbles I have with this book, but I am dumbfounded that he wrote it when he was in his twenties. It's as well written as I think a book of this type and scope can be. The ideas are truly challenging, even 250 years later. Anyone interested in philosophy or the scientific method should read at least the first book. I'm actually a bit embarrassed that I haven't read the whole thing before. And now I wonder where I should turn next. What would make a suitable encore? (And not Kant, I've already read the Critique.)

  • Gary  Beauregard Bottomley

    The real ‘scandal’ is not what Kant referred to in his 800 page rebuttal to Hume’s belief of skepticism about the real world, or the ‘scandal’ that Heidegger referred to that we were still debating the phenomenal world as such, the real scandal is that more people don’t read books like this one. Hume and this book offer more insights about today’s world and almost everything I see around me seems to want to make me stupid and accept ‘alternative facts’ as real, undermine science and its understa

    The real ‘scandal’ is not what Kant referred to in his 800 page rebuttal to Hume’s belief of skepticism about the real world, or the ‘scandal’ that Heidegger referred to that we were still debating the phenomenal world as such, the real scandal is that more people don’t read books like this one. Hume and this book offer more insights about today’s world and almost everything I see around me seems to want to make me stupid and accept ‘alternative facts’ as real, undermine science and its understanding of itself, and to undermine the distinction between true and false, fact and fiction, thus enabling totalitarianism to replace fairness and equality through appealing to our feelings not our reason. Books like this one are necessary in order for democracy to thrive. Regretfully, I seldom come across recent books that challenge the reader and help awake them from their ‘dogmatic slumber’ or expect the reader to actually think or learn what knowledge is and about the nature of reality.

    Hume makes the foundation of all knowledge (in matter of facts, psychology or morality) as arising from our experiences from our impressions. Hume says all ideas come from our senses; all knowledge gets mediated through our senses and must come before concepts; cause is only a label arising from continuity, regularity, custom and habit for which we mentally construct a relationship; and our sympathy arising from sensibilities create what we label morality.

    Hume will define reason as that which discovers truth from falsity through our relational experiences and non-contradictory ideas based on those experiences. Yes, Hume makes reason the slave to the passions, but he realizes we live in a world with other people and we have to function in the world with a set of rules so that we must act as if justice and injustice have meaning because it is functional to believe that. Reason is an ultimate good for Hume and it comes from experiences.

    I read Kant before I read this book. That was sort of a mistake because Kant’s first Critique is a reaction to Hume’s skepticism and denial that all beginning things must have a cause, and Hume’s denial of cause and effect, and empiricism as the sole determiner of knowledge. Kant will famously say, ‘thought without content is empty, and intuitions without concepts are blind’. Meaning, it takes experiences and our concepts together to give us knowledge about the real world, ourselves and the moral as opposed to Hume’s argument that all knowledge comes about through experience alone.

    Hume will say that our morality comes from our sympathies arising from our sentiments. He’ll say, our passions are a result of how we perceive our pains and pleasures and their expectations. ‘The World at War’ TV show from the 1970s taught me that ‘sympathy is in the dictionary between shit and syphilis’ and in my opinion that’s where it belongs and therefore I tend to think of morality differently than Hume. Hume is big on ‘character’ that which makes us who we are that comes from outside of us as opposed to an individual’s personality as authentically acquired from the self. (Matter of fact, I would say that most readers will ignore his chastity and other statements about ‘the fairer sex’ because they are just silly and ring false to all but the sexist or misogynist among us).

    Hume understands how we are trapped in a Bayesian universe through our experiences. Yesterday’s experiences are determined by the priors weighted by the expectation times the weight of the experience itself. Hume explicitly speaks about the nearer in time the event is to us the more weight we give things. He doesn’t mention Thomas Bayes but he does understand how our feelings come from our experiences get affected through our perceptions weighted by our expectations.

    Going from the particular to the general (the inductive to the deductive) creates science and sometimes ‘all swans are white’ will not be true and will need a correction since science can never know itself as certain. Hume actually gives a shout out to Rev. Berkerley in this book because of the problems of induction. That surprised me because Berkerley is the ultimate idealist and Hume is essentially the opposite, an empiricist. After having read this book, I understand how the two mesh together.

    I found Hume a fun read. He’s abstract but not abstruse like Hegel. He has big ideas and doesn’t get bogged down in the particulars like Kant. He’s also more coherent than Schopenhauer (who incidentally, an idealist like Rev. Berkerley, seemed to fully appreciate Hume). Hume is probably today’s most favorite philosopher among philosophers because he writes clearly and everybody is able to find something they like within him (or as I sometimes think: ‘we’re all logical empiricist on first blush’ and love to quote Bertrand Russell or Karl Popper when appropriate!). I don’t mean this as an insult, but Hume writes clearly and understandably and can be equally understood by non-philosophers of which I am.

  • Miles

    David Hume’s

    is not a breezy book. From the first page, it plunged me into a fervid mode of double-layered analysis in which my struggle to comprehend the text was mirrored by efforts to track my personal reactions to whatever content I was able to wrest from it. Early on, my attempts felt futile––understanding occluded by my intellectual limitations and relative lack of outside support. My experience improved as I pressed on, however. Slowly, mysteriously, sentences a

    David Hume’s

    is not a breezy book. From the first page, it plunged me into a fervid mode of double-layered analysis in which my struggle to comprehend the text was mirrored by efforts to track my personal reactions to whatever content I was able to wrest from it. Early on, my attempts felt futile––understanding occluded by my intellectual limitations and relative lack of outside support. My experience improved as I pressed on, however. Slowly, mysteriously, sentences and paragraphs began congealing into coherent expressions. From time to time, the text would open to me like an unfurling flower, or an exquisite sunrise glimpsed after an unreasonably early tumble out of bed.

    Eventually, I came to a predictable conclusion: David Hume was brilliant.

    His brilliance is easy to miss, though, especially for a modern reader. Despite the fact that science has validated many of Hume’s core ideas, there are still lots of barriers that make it difficult for a 21st-century mind to grok Hume’s 18th-century philosophy. The most confounding of these barriers are Hume’s Baroque style and his outdated methods of inquiry.

    Hume was a product of the

    so clarity and brevity were absent from his intellectual toolkit. This text is rife with rambling repetition, and generally conforms to the taxonomic model of philosophy, wherein the author lays out a massive network of terms and provides definitions of varying consistency for each. Hume’s arguments are generally difficult to suss out in the moment, even if they come together after many paragraphs and pages. This can make it tough to fruitfully compare passages from different sections of the text.

    Hume’s writing often gives the impression that he’s trying to do a chemistry experiment, or math problem, using inherently fuzzy terms:

    "Ideas never admit of a total union, but are endow’d with a kind of impenetrability, by which they exclude each other, and are capable of forming a compound by their conjunction, not by their mixture. On the other hand, impressions and passions are susceptible of an entire union; and like colours, may be blended so perfectly together, that each of them may lose itself, and contribute only to vary that uniform impression, which arises from the whole." (260)

    This passage is easy enough to grasp if read carefully, but it also brings up questions that admit no satisfactory answer, like “

    can impressions and passions be mixed, but ideas can’t?” and “what’s the significant difference between ‘compound’ and ‘mixture’ here?” We have to shrug and concede,

    His conceptual system is peculiar to his way of seeing the world, which makes it at least somewhat arbitrary; it can’t be submitted for verification against any objective standard (or it couldn’t in Hume’s day, because no such standard(s) existed). This doesn’t mean Hume is right or wrong about anything in particular, but it does mean we have to accept certain insupportable assertions if we want a shot at hearing him out. The good news is that, ultimately, his message is well worth a listen.

    The other big obstacle is the radical difference between “empiricism” as it was understood in the 18th-century and “empiricism” as we use it today. Modern empirical analysis is characterized by data-based scientific inquiry, or other forms of externally-directed information gathering when tackling topics that defy quantification. In Hume’s day, being an empiricist simply meant

    rather than building some abstract conceptual system and trying to cram the world into your prefigured notions of it. Seems obvious today, but back then it was a huge shift in philosophical thought.

    The way this cashes out is that

    is full of thought experiments masquerading as empirical knowledge. These “experiments” passed muster in Hume’s time, but would never be treated as “empirical findings” today. So while Hume is certainly a step up from the non-empiricists that came before him, he still anchors a lot of his arguments using imagined results of imagined scenarios. Additionally, he was trying to explain perception and morality long before neuroscience, psychology, or evolutionary theory. Given these enormous handicaps, it’s amazing he got as much right as he did.

    And oh, he did! This maw of verbal detritus contains insights that were novel to 18th-century readers, some of which represent mysteries still unsolved by modern philosophy and science. The first of these is a genuine skepticism. Unlike many of his dogmatic predecessors, Hume is comfortable admitting when he doesn’t know something. In fact, he thinks admitting that we don’t know (and perhaps

    know) certain things is a critical part of inquiry.

    Hume develops his skeptical outlook primarily through a series of discursive critiques of how humans perceive cause-and-effect relationships. I found his skepticism most enlightening, however, when applied to his thoughts on personal identity. Toward the end of Book I, he identifies a question that still baffles academics and researchers today: How does the human brain/body construct a consistent notion of personal identity from memories and sense perceptions?

    "How few of our past actions are there of which we have any memory? Who can tell me, for instance, what were his thoughts and actions on the first of January 1715, the 11th of March 1719, and the 3rd of August 1733? Or will he affirm, because he has entirely forgot the incidents of these days, that the present self is not the same person with the self of that time; and by that means overturn all the most establish’d notions of personal identity? In this view, therefore, memory does not so much

    as

    personal identity, by shewing us the relation of cause and effect among our different perceptions…Identity depends on the relations of ideas; and these relations produce identity, by means of that easy transition they occasion. But as the relations, and the easiness of the transition may diminish by insensible degrees, we have no just standard, by which we can decide any dispute concerning the time, when they acquire or lose a title to the name of identity. All the disputes concerning the identity of connected objects are merely verbal, except so far as the relation of parts gives rise to some fiction or imaginary principle of union.” (187, emphasis his)

    Without a shred of hard data, Hume understood that personal identity is nothing more than an “imaginary principle of union” generated by the brain’s ability to simulate an “easy transition” between disparate perceptions and memories. Even more remarkable is his willingness to admit that he can’t think of a suitable way to resolve the tension between our

    of being unified beings and the

    that we’re anything but:

    "When I enter most intimately into what I call

    I always stumble on some particular perception or other…I never catch

    at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception. When my perceptions are remov’d for any time, as by sound sleep; so long am I insensible of

    and may truly be said not to exist. And were all my perceptions remov’d by death, and cou’d neither think, nor feel, nor see, nor love, nor hate after the dissolution of my body, I shou’d be entirely annihilated, nor do I conceive what is farther requisite to make me a perfect non-entity. If any one, upon serious and unprejudic’d reflexion thinks he has a different notion of

    I must confess I can reason no longer with him…He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and continu’d, which he calls

    tho’ I am certain there is no such principle in me." (180, emphasis his)

    Hume doesn’t invent some baseless explanation for why human identity isn’t paradoxical, or claim that identity is the product of some metaphysical substance (soul). Nor does he turn to religious solutions (all things are possible…because God!). He runs into a difficult problem, scopes it out as best he can, admits his failure to provide a solution, and contents himself with confronting the mystery. This mixture of brilliance and humility is hard to come by even today, when these matters are much better understood (even if the paradox of identity remains as churlish as ever).

    Hume was also ahead of the curve in his evaluation of free will, which he correctly identifies as nothing more than our internal feeling of freedom: “By the

    I mean nothing but

    ” (284, emphasis his). That Hume does not seek to exempt the will from the constraints of a strictly causal universe again situates him closer to modern thinkers than those of his own time.

    Since Hume saw humans as part of the natural world rather than an exception to it, it may come as no surprise that he locates human emotion and intelligence on a continuum with animals. This position could be a direct (or indirect) reaction to 17th-century biologists who

    despite the subject’s obvious anguish. Hume encouraged the reader to “take a general survey of the universe, and observe the force of sympathy thro’ the whole animal creation, and the easy communication of sentiments from one thinking being to another” (258). This attitude no doubt helped pave the way for the

    ––still a contentious matter today.

    Hume is perhaps most famous for his correct assertion that the body also generates and limits our capacity for rational thought, and that reason is subject to the whims of emotion (passion). His observance that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them” has proved more valid than not, although our understanding of this relationship has come a long way in the intervening centuries (295). We now know that reason can’t exist without emotion (at least not in humans), but also that we have the capacity to override our emotions given sufficient motivation and favorable circumstances. It’s less like a master/slave relationship and more like two dancing partners with different skill sets and no clear leader.

    If he favors the passions overmuch, Hume at least has good reasons for doing so (ironic, right?). For Hume, the passions provide the foundation not just for reason, but for morality as well. Morality is embodied––our moral judgments are rooted in sentiments of pleasure and pain that become abstracted and institutionalized via individual habit and social custom. This process is enabled by the same phenomenon that binds us to other humans and animals: sympathy:

    "No quality of human nature is more remarkable, both in itself and in its consequences, than that propensity we have to sympathize with others, and to receive by communication their inclinations and sentiments, however different from, or even contrary to our own." (225)

    To avoid the sometimes irksome distinction between sympathy and empathy, let’s use a different term: fellow feeling. Fellow feeling, for Hume, describes how our internal emotions naturally imitate the emotions of those around us (this general phenomenon has been validated by the discovery of

    ).

    Hume posits that our natural inclination is to satisfy our self-interest, but under ideal conditions we learn to situate our self-interest within the context of the greater good:

    "After men have found by experience, that their selfishness and confin’d generosity, acting at their liberty, totally incapacitate them for society; and at the same time have observ’d, that society is necessary to the satisfaction of those very passions, they are naturally induc’d to lay themselves under the restraint of such rules, as may render their commerce more safe and commodious." (354)

    This is the seed of what evolutionary theorists call

    . Further, the influence of fellow feeling reaches all the way into our conceptualizations of social justice:

    "Every thing, which gives uneasiness in human actions, upon the general survey, is call’d Vice, and whatever produces satisfaction, in the same manner, is denominated Virtue; this is the reason why the sense of moral good and evil follows upon justice and injustice. And tho’ this sense, in the present case, be deriv’d only from contemplating the actions of others, yet we fail not to extend it ever to our own actions. The

    reaches beyond those instances, from which it arose; while at the same time we naturally sympathize with others in the sentiments they entertain of us.

    establishment

    sympathy

    moral approbation,

    ." (355, emphasis his)

    The significance of Hume’s tireless efforts to bring human sentiment to the forefront of philosophical discourse cannot be overstated. It is because of such thinkers that, centuries later, we have a rich and mutable scientific and philosophical discourse about how we should conduct ourselves

    , my favorite philosopher and a great champion of embodied rationality, owes much to texts like this one.

    All great philosophical texts leave us with at least one great unanswered question. The question I find most relevant from this text is how societies can help individuals strike a balance between our natural self-interest and the common good, taking advantage of any many

    as possible. As Hume explains, we have trouble foregoing immediate pleasures in favor of the general interest of society, which feels far more remote:

    "As it is impossible to change or correct any thing material in our nature, the utmost we can do is to change our circumstances and situation, and render the observance of the laws of justice our nearest interest, and their violation our most remote…Here then is the origin of civil government and society. Men are not able radically to cure, either in themselves or others, that narrowness of soul, which makes them prefer the present to the remote. They cannot change their natures. All they can do is to change their situation, and render the observance of justice the immediate interest of some particular persons, and its violation their more remote." (382-3)

    While I don’t think it’s impossible to change human nature in an absolute sense, Hume is correct that actual progress almost always comes from changing the

    in which human commerce and decisions occur. The general goal is clear: the more we provide people with the time and tools to explore a broad horizon of possible actions and futures, the better off we’ll all be.

    How to do this?

    "I must plead the privilege of a sceptic, and confess, that this difficulty is too hard for my understanding. I pretend not, however, to pronounce it absolutely insuperable. Others, perhaps, or myself, upon more mature reflexions, may discover some hypothesis, that will reconcile those contradictions." (452)

    This review was originally published on my blog,

    .

  • Jimmy

    Fuck! Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.

    Thanks a lot, man! You and your fancy book just had to go and wake Immanuel Kant from his "dogmatic slumber", didn't you? And every single fucking time I pick up a philosophical tome like

    I have to be reminded of how lazy I am for not thoroughly reading through all of the British empiricists. Don't get me wrong, from what I've read of yours, you seem like a very precise philosopher, but now I have to read you with scorn. Look at what yo

    Fuck! Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.

    Thanks a lot, man! You and your fancy book just had to go and wake Immanuel Kant from his "dogmatic slumber", didn't you? And every single fucking time I pick up a philosophical tome like

    I have to be reminded of how lazy I am for not thoroughly reading through all of the British empiricists. Don't get me wrong, from what I've read of yours, you seem like a very precise philosopher, but now I have to read you with scorn. Look at what you're doing to me. None of my Goodreads friends are going to want to play with me anymore. "Hey, it's Jimmy's page, that pretentious dickhead who really thinks he can try reading five books at once, what an asshole."

    This isn't my fault David, it's yours. You and your fuckin age o reason!

    I'm sorry, I love you.

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