1740s, Books, Non-Fiction

An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) by David Hume

I have always encountered Hume in quotes and summaries. At some point, it to the point where I felt weird that I hadn’t ever actually read any David Hume, one of the most referenced/cited philosophers of his age and arguably one of the most important ever. (The same could be said of Spinoza, whom I have also never read properly, though I’ve read books that were, in part, about Spinoza, which is something I cannot say for Hume.) I don’t remember which book it was that steered me towards this book, but it’s fortunately very short.

One reason that’s fortunate is that it’s been a very, very long time since I’ve read 18th century philosophy and I’ve really lost my edge. I used to have no idea why people found this stuff so hard to read, because I read it all the time. But I now empathize, because the language is flowery, wordy and sometimes hilariously indirect..

Hume’s position was pretty radical for its day, though it was hardly unprecedented. I studied normative political philosophy, so I am not the person to give you a rundown of the roots of his skepticism, but he hardly invented it. (He does refer to some of his antecedents.) But his position was incredibly necessary, even if it’s not entirely correct. He’s more right when it comes to how individual humans know rather than in how societies can know. He seems to not realize the power of the scientific method, or maybe he deliberately discounts it and I somehow missed it. Anyway, the important thing is that there was a lot of flowery philosophy (both before and after Hume) that needed this kind of radical critique. After reading this book, readers likely approached all other theories with a lot less credulity.

Hume takes some risky positions for his day. Others had already advanced some of these critiques of, say, religion, but it was still a pretty risky thing to do (as far as I know). To avoid that Hume pretends he believes in god which comes across to a modern person as a bit of a joke (and undercuts his argument, in my opinion). But I do understand that these books are written in history and Hume could only do what he thought was safe.

The most elaborate and annoying contrivance is when his “friend” puts forward an argument as Epicurus so Hume can “debate” him. It’s an annoying device that doesn’t fit the rest of the book and I kind of doubt the friend exists. I think that Hume for some reason believed that this particular line of argument wouldn’t have been acceptable coming from him.

I also find Hume’s attempt at the end to make himself seem less skeptical to be not exactly convincing. To me. the message of the book is that we really know less than we do. But he hedges at the end. Now, I am not familiar with some of the people he is criticizing so it’s possible I would actually agree with some of these criticisms, but it does seem a little much at times for a man who is basically a skeptic to be saying “well, but I’m not that skeptical.” It reminds me a little bit of Locke denying morals to atheists. It feels like a bit of an arbitrary place to stop.

But, on the whole, I think it’s pretty clear why this book is viewed as so important in English philosophy. Few people have laid out these objections to how we know in such a short piece. And these objections present a real challenge for philosophers (particularly logicians) who want to make grand claims about the world. If you’ve ever read philosophy (especially what we might call “pre scientific” philosophy) you know that there is a lot of elaborate bullshit based on nothing but thought experiments. Hume’s book forces you to think about how the sausage is made. If you read this, or a similar work of skepticism, you will hopefully be less likely to just accept the more outlandish claims of essentialists and other philosophers who think they can “know” or “prove” things that just appeared in their brains.


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