A Treatise of Human Nature is the first work ever published by David Hume, a man who revolutionized our understanding of philosophy. Hume was an advocate of the skeptical school of philosophy and a key figure in the Scottish Enlightenment. He looks at the nature of human experience and cognition, showing that philosophy and reason can only be reflections of our nature. The naturalistic science of man that Hume expresses in this work forms the foundation for all later philosophical inquiry. Kant gave Hume credit for "awakening [him] from his dogmatic slumber". With this influence alone, Hume initiated the clearest critique of reason that Western civilization has produced in the history of philosophy.
Hume's work formed the psychological foundation for modern psychology. He showed the limits and proper application of reason in human life. He also examined the passions and morality, showing how they arise in human experience and how they are connected to both reason and action. In essence, A Treatise of Human Nature is a thorough, well-considered, and inspired examination of human psychology and the implications that the structure of our thought and experience has on our knowledge.
The full narration of Hume's text is preceded by a summary, which includes a biography, background information on the work, and an overview of the material covered.
The summary also includes a synopsis and analysis of the text as well as an examination of its historical context, its social impact, and the criticisms it evoked. This work is suitable for students of philosophy or psychology or for anyone interested in coming to a deeper understanding of the nature of the mind.
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What Formed The Foundation of Modern Philosophy!
I was drawn to this work for a few reasons. The first is that it is credited with being the foundation of modern psychology. Behaviorist psychology in particular examines humanity from the point of view of pain and pleasure, showing how the things we are drawn to and those we shy away from form our behavior. Hume set the stage for this perspective by demonstrating the influence of the passions upon motivation, exploring how we are drawn to things we desire and averse to the things that cause us pain. The second reason came from Kant. Immanuel Kant is one of the most revolutionary philosophers in the Western tradition, and he credited Hume with putting him on the track of his philosophy: recognizing the qualities of mind that shape our perception of the universe. Finally, a fair portion of the book is dedicated to our understanding of space and time, and the quantum view of these subjects, like that of Robert Lanza in Biocentrism, is fascinating to me.
The first thing that stood out to me was the language. Hume’s work may be brilliant, but it bears the hallmarks of his era. The language of the 18th Century seems a bit unwieldy to me, a bit drawn out and cumbersome. Despite this, it is colorful, showing a number of issues with science and certainty in metaphors and demonstrations. I especially like that Hume shows the relation of all of the sciences to the understanding of humanity. It is human beings who engage in these sciences, after all. Whatever conditions and shapes human understanding will be reflected in all sciences and all branches of learning. This seems like a pretty solid approach, and I’m surprised it took so many centuries for philosophy to reach this conclusion. I’m actually thankful for the summary, which lays out a number of these concepts in simple language, making it easier to follow Hume’s later expression.
Hume begins with an in-depth examination of the nature of ideas, showing them to be an internal representation of impressions we receive through the senses. He also makes a division between simple and complex ideas, showing simple ideas to be a representation of simple impressions. He believes complex ideas to be compounds of simple ideas. This basically means that all our ideas arise from initial impressions, from experience. This was one of the features that ran contrary to idealism, the perspective that the mind is the source of all ideas and that experience itself was not to be trusted when seeking certain knowledge.
Hume makes a number of other divisions in this exploration: memory and imagination, the ways in which ideas are associated, and the means by which ideas are related in our understanding. He also explores the nature of modes and substances, and of abstract ideas. This part is a bit abstract, but in essence points out that any concept we have of the substance of things around us is a complex concept, a collection of specific sense impressions that are associated within our experience. He then shows that all abstract ideas are extensions of particular ideas, like the specific idea of a triangle that can be extended to different sizes and circumstances.
This leads then to the portion on space and time. Once again, I was thrown off a bit by Hume’s language, and once again, I was glad of the summary to clarify the intention of his argument. Hume begins with a discussion of infinite divisibility, the capacity to divide a line or any specific thing infinitely. In essence, he claims that this is a complex idea based in our capacity to divide anything a number of times, and our extension of this concept to the infinitely large and small. However, there comes a point where something is too small to be perceived and experienced. Similarly, once something becomes large enough, we can no longer directly perceive further enlargement.
This is then applied to time, showing that while we have a notion that we can divide time infinitely, our experience is more like a collection of finite moments. Past a certain point, these moments become too small to be accessible to experience. Furthermore, we can perceive a succession of impressions, like a series of notes on a flute. This can give us an idea and impression of time, but time is not an additional impression to the experience of each note. Time is also suggested by change, which is an experience of successive impressions in which what we experience is different each time. The takeaway from this is that time isn’t something we experience. We experience a succession of impressions, and some character of consciousness turns this into a perception of time. Time is a condition of perception, a quality of thought rather than any solid experience of the world.
One key implication of this perspective of time is in the realm of causality. Causality is based in the relation between cause and effect. But since all we observe are a series of impressions, nothing in our experience can establish a causal effect with certainty. In fact, nothing experiential can be proven with any certainty. It may be probably true that the sun will rise, as we have an impression of so many sunrises following the night, but although this probability approaches certainty, it is not certain. Nothing in previous experience can determine anything of our future experience with true certainty. It’s a bit of a mind-bender, but it follows from his logic pretty clearly.
Although this has covered a fair bit of ground, Hume is just beginning. He explores the nature of identity, finding it to be a collection of impressions, another quality of consciousness. This is really cool, as it reflects some of the more Eastern concepts on the nature of self. He also thoroughly explores the nature of passion and emotions. This part is very interesting as well, as he comes to the conclusion that the proper place of reason is as a servant to the passions, a conclusion that few philosophers before him had taken into account. All in all, I found it a profound work, and it’s shifted the way I look at quite a few aspects of thought and experience.
- Philosopher King