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Hume at his best
on 23 December 2005
David Hume was perhaps the leading light in the Empiricist movement in philosophy. Empiricism is seen in distinction from Rationalism, in that it doubts the viability of universal principles (rational or otherwise), and uses sense data as the basis of all knowledge - experience is the source of knowledge. Hume was a skeptic as well as empiricist, and had radical (for the time) atheist ideas that often got in the way of his professional advancement, but given his reliance on experience (and the kinds of experiences he had), his problem with much that was considered conventional was understandable.
Hume's major work, 'A Treatise of Human Nature', was not well received intially - according to Hume, 'it fell dead-born from the press'. Hume reworked the first part of this work in a more popular way for this text, which has become a standard, and perhaps the best introduction to Empiricism.
In a nutshell, the idea of empiricism is that experience teaches, and rules and understanding are derived from this. However, for Hume this wasn't sufficient. Just because billiard balls when striking always behave in a certain manner, or just because the sun always rose in the morning, there was no direct causal connection that could be automatically affirmed - we assume a necessary connection, but how can this be proved?
Hume's ideas impact not only metaphysics, but also epistemology and psychology. Hume develops empiricism to a point that empiricism is practically unsupportable (and it is in this regard that Kant sees this text as a very important piece, and works toward his synthesis of Empiricism and Rationalism). For Hume, empirical thought requires skepticism, but leaves it unresolved as far as what one then needs to accept with regard to reason and understanding. According to scholar Eric Steinberg, 'A view that pervades nearly all of Hume's philosophical writings is that both ancient and modern philosophers have been guilty of optimistic and exaggerated claims for the power of human reason.'
Some have seen Hume as presenting a fundamental mistrust of daily belief while recognising that we cannot escape from some sort of framework; others have seen Hume as working toward a more naturalist paradigm of human understanding. In fact, Hume is open to a number of different interpretations, and these different interpretations have been taken up by subsequent philosphers to develop areas of synthetic philosophical ideas, as well as further developments more directly out of Empiricism (such as Phenomenology).
This is in fact a rather short book, a mere 100 pages or so in many editions. As a primer for understanding Hume, the British Empiricists (who include Hobbes, Locke, and Berkeley), as well as the major philosphical concerns of the eighteenth century, this is a great text with which to start.