Maarten Maartensz

Philosophy - Hume - A Treatise Of Human Nature
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Introduction: This is the start of my notes to Hume's A Treatise Of Human Nature.

You will find the text of the notes by clicking the downward pointing arrow, or by clicking "Back" at the end of a note, and in the text you get again back to the notes by clicking the downward pointing arrow there, or by clicking on a notes number, that will move you to the note.

These notes and comments are by Maarten Maartensz and were written in 2015. There are also editions of the Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, with my notes, and of the Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, with my notes.

These two were edited and written in 2005. In any case, the principles involved are these:

  • I edited a decent complete html-version of the original work.
  • I wrote my Notes in separate files, in black, with the passages from the complete version in blue.
  • The notes start with new numbers in each section.
The html-edition I use is from Gutenberg, but split into smaller parts, and with corrections by me, that are again based on the printed version I have, which I bought on November 26, 1971, as a Pelican Classic, Edited by Ernest C. Mossner.

My notes all start with "Note" followed by a number, followed by the quotation in blue lettering from Hume's text, that my note comments. Clicking the note number will move you to the note, in another file, in an attached directory. To go back to the text, do Alt-LeftArrow. (There are no Back Notes anymore: Too much work.)

(This will also work if you download the files, as long as you take care that the text of the Treatise is all in one directory, and the text of my notes is in a directory that is attached to that directory, and is called Notes.)

Note 0 : Rara temporum felicitas, ubi sentire quae velis; & quae sentia, dicere licet.

This is the motto from the title page. The full title is this:
Human Nature:
An Attempt to introduce the ex-
perimental Method of Reasoning

This then is followed by the motto, which is by Tacitus, and can ben translated as:
'Seldom are men blessed with times in which they may think what they like, and say what they think.'
I note that the title is quite descriptive of the contents, and that my 1971-note to the motto is this: 'Mostly men are blessed with times in which they like what they think and say what is liked'. Note the first clause - "in which they like what they think" - is roughly the opposite of the original, in part because it is not said who originated the thoughts they like, and therefore so is the second.


Note 1 : If I have the good fortune to meet with success, I shall proceed to the examination of Morals, Politics, and Criticism; which will compleat this Treatise of Human Nature.

In fact, Hume wrote this advertisement for the publication of Book I and Book II of the Treatise, which are about the Understanding and the Passions. He later published Book III on Morals, but he never got to Politics and Criticism, though he did publish some in in his Essays. The main reason is explained in my next note:

Note 2 :
The approbation of the public I consider as the greatest reward of my labours; but am determined to regard its judgment, whatever it be, as my best instruction.

In fact, "A Treatise Of Human Nature" "fell dead-born from the press" (in Hume's own words). There was some - very slight - interest in it, but it was altogether too original and too radical to be taken seriously by most men of his own time. Hume tried again with the Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals and with the Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, and these got considerably more attention, and mostly gave what is in the Treatise, but in less detail and with various things left out. And again, while the originality was admitted, most of Hume's contemporaries, with a few exceptions like Adam Smith, did not take it seriously (while Hume's Histories were taken serious, and provided him with an income).


Note 3 : And indeed were they content with lamenting that ignorance, which we still lie under in the most important questions, that can come before the tribunal of human reason, there are few, who have an acquaintance with the sciences, that would not readily agree with them.

In fact, Hume was an academic skeptic. We will read a lot more about this, but it may be as well to say that by "skeptic" he meant that he doubted much, and by "academic" he meant that in ordinary life he did not doubt much that he considered doubtful when seriously reflecting.

Note 4 : Principles taken upon trust, consequences lamely deduced from them, want of coherence in the parts, and of evidence in the whole, these are every where to be met with in the systems of the most eminent philosophers, and seem to have drawn disgrace upon philosophy itself.

Yes, indeed - at least, that was also my own discovery when I started seriously reading philosopy, when 17-18. And no, initially I had also not expected this.

Note 5 : There is nothing which is not the subject of debate, and in which men of learning are not of contrary opinions.

Yes, indeed - and that is still (more than 250 years later) the case, though the causes are quite diverse. But outside the fundaments of mathematics, physics and chemistry, very few things open to intellectual speculation are settled (though again there are many distinct reasons for this fact, and quite a few of these have more to do with specific interests or specific ignorance than with disagreements about matters of fact).

Note 6 : The most trivial question escapes not our controversy, and in the most momentous we are not able to give any certain decision. Disputes are multiplied, as if every thing was uncertain; and these disputes are managed with the greatest warmth, as if every thing was certain.

Yes, but here we also may subtract a lot: Most disputants in most questions that I have seen are incompetent either because they lack knowledge, or lack intelligence, or because they have a specific moral interest in the outcome of the disputes.

Note 7 : Amidst all this bustle it is not reason, which carries the prize, but eloquence; and no man needs ever despair of gaining proselytes to the most extravagant hypothesis, who has art enough to represent it in any favourable colours. The victory is not gained by the men at arms, who manage the pike and the sword; but by the trumpeters, drummers, and musicians of the army.

Yes, and that is generally the case, quite simply because there are very few real geniuses, while almost everyone who is not a real genius will judge most matters not with an independent regard for truth, as with a personal regard for specific advantages (such as a nice job, more income, higher status etc.)

Note 8 : From hence in my opinion arises that common prejudice against metaphysical reasonings of all kinds, even amongst those, who profess themselves scholars, and have a just value for every other part of literature.

I agree with the opinion but less with its derivation: To me it seems "metaphysical reasonings" are not much liked because they pose the most general questions; because the answers are far from certain; and because few men have an urge or a need to ask and seriously consider these very general questions.

Note 9 :
For if truth be at all within the reach of human capacity, it is certain it must lie very deep and abstruse: and to hope we shall arrive at it without pains, while the greatest geniuses have failed with the utmost pains, must certainly be esteemed sufficiently vain and presumptuous. I pretend to no such advantage in the philosophy I am going to unfold, and would esteem it a strong presumption against it, were it so very easy and obvious.

In fact, it seems Hume's idea was that provable truth with regards to metaphysical principles was very difficult, and mostly impossible.

Note 10 : It is evident, that all the sciences have a relation, greater or less, to human nature: and that however wide any of them may seem to run from it, they still return back by one passage or another. Even Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, and Natural Religion, are in some measure dependent on the science of MAN; since they lie under the cognizance of men, and are judged of by their powers and faculties.

This seems very vague to me (and yes, I know the title of the book): The point is not so much whether human knowledge or human belief (there is a science of the false beliefs men adopt as well, I would argue) are "
dependent on the science of MAN" -   but much rather: to which extent and in which ways.

Note 11 :
And these improvements are the more to be hoped for in natural religion, as it is not content with instructing us in the nature of superior powers, but carries its views farther, to their disposition towards us, and our duties towards them; and consequently we ourselves are not only the beings, that reason, but also one of the objects, concerning which we reason.

Hume did not have much sympathy for religion. Then again, it is quite true that we are "not only the beings, that reason, but also one of the objects, concerning which we reason", but this is in part (the greatest part also) because we can use language, and language is one of the things Hume does not seem to have thought much about.

Note 12 :
The sole end of logic is to explain the principles and operations of our reasoning faculty, and the nature of our ideas: morals and criticism regard our tastes and sentiments: and politics consider men as united in society, and dependent on each other. In these four sciences of Logic, Morals, Criticism, and Politics, is comprehended almost everything, which it can any way import us to be acquainted with, or which can tend either to the improvement or ornament of the human mind.

This seems to me still mostly correct, though "
the human mind" also is praised for knowing at least one real science well. Also, with regards to "logic" I ask whether Hume can admit of our having a "reasoning faculty" - but this question will be clarified later.

Note 13 :
There is no question of importance, whose decision is not comprised in the science of man; and there is none, which can be decided with any certainty, before we become acquainted with that science. In pretending, therefore, to explain the principles of human nature, we in effect propose a compleat system of the sciences, built on a foundation almost entirely new, and the only one upon which they can stand with any security.

But then what is "
the science of man"? Psychology? Sociology? Anthropology? Or Language or Linguistics, perhaps, seeing that no non-human animal speaks as men do? Indeed, my questions are anachronistic, but Hume also was not very clear, and in fact it seems as if he meant by "the science of man" mostly the specific empirical epistemology that he designed himself, and will expound in his Treatise.

Note 14 : And as the science of man is the only solid foundation for the other sciences, so the only solid foundation we can give to this science itself must be laid on experience and observation.

This is clearly a prejudgment, though probably not a prejudice: It anticipates on what Hume thought he had established in the Treatise. (At this point he has not proved nor even considered that men may have innate ideas; may derive knowledge or principles of knowledge from language or mathematics; may be able to logically derive many things from the ideas they have, without much or any observation; nor how we may know that other men (with other experiences and observations, presumably) are like ourselves, etc. etc.)

Note 15 : So true it is, that however other nations may rival us in poetry, and excel us in some other agreeable arts, the improvements in reason and philosophy can only be owing to a land of toleration and of liberty.

That is to say: England, Scotland or - most probably - Great Britain. Or that is at least what Hume suggests. (Incidentally, people were still hanged or killed in worse ways in the 18th Century for not believing as the majority surrounding them did, or at least pretended to do. And see the motto.)

Note 16 : For to me it seems evident, that the essence of the mind being equally unknown to us with that of external bodies, it must be equally impossible to form any notion of its powers and qualities otherwise than from careful and exact experiments, and the observation of those particular effects, which result from its different circumstances and situations. And though we must endeavour to render all our principles as universal as possible, by tracing up our experiments to the utmost, and explaining all effects from the simplest and fewest causes, it is still certain we cannot go beyond experience; and any hypothesis, that pretends to discover the ultimate original qualities of human nature, ought at first to be rejected as presumptuous and chimerical.

This leads to some problems. First, if "
the essence of the mind [is] equally unknown to us with that of external bodies" it would seem to follow that either there is no "essence of the mind" nor a valid explanation of "external bodies" or else such explanations must somehow go beyond what human beings may experience (as did - already in Hume's time - microscopes, or mathematical assumptions). Second, this makes it - at least - a bit doubtful whether "we cannot go beyond experience", though I agree that if this is done, such assumptions (say: of the self, or of the infinite divisibility of any straight line) need to be tested in experience.

But more of this later.

Note 17 : For nothing is more certain, than that despair has almost the same effect upon us with enjoyment, and that we are no sooner acquainted with the impossibility of satisfying any desire, than the desire itself vanishes.

No, not in my case: I do have desires that cannot be satisfied in this life, but which are not less real as desires, even though I know they are not satisfiable. (Also, it seems most men of good will desire that human society will be peaceful and plentifully supplied with many things also if they themselves are dead.)

Note 18 : When we see, that we have arrived at the utmost extent of human reason, we sit down contented, though we be perfectly satisfied in the main of our ignorance, and perceive that we can give no reason for our most general and most refined principles, beside our experience of their reality; which is the reason of the mere vulgar, and what it required no study at first to have discovered for the most particular and most extraordinary phaenomenon.

This is - for the most part: there are some discoveries and new principles - the position Hume will arrive at. That is, we do not and cannot have knowledge of the kind that most men believe they possess (of causes, of selfs, and of inductions, for example).

Note 19 : But if this impossibility of explaining ultimate principles should be esteemed a defect in the science of man, I will venture to affirm, that it is a defect common to it with all the sciences, and all the arts, in which we can employ ourselves, whether they be such as are cultivated in the schools of the philosophers, or practised in the shops of the meanest artizans. None of them can go beyond experience, or establish any principles which are not founded on that authority.

The first part of this quotation refers back to the previous quotation, and in effect says
(again) that (1) much of the knowledge that most men (of Hume's time) believed they possessed is not knowledge (but mere - false - belief) and (2) this is also not a weakness but a strength, since it is humanly impossible to find and give a foundation for such knowledge.

I will leave that for the moment (more later), but I object against "
None of them can go beyond experience, or establish any principles which are not founded on that authority": Everyone goes "beyond experience" in some things (such as expecting that most of one's faculties and ideas will exist in three minutes, as will one's children, if one has them - and I am not talking of its justification here), and indeed one can make an argument that to test any possible empirical hypothesis one has to go beyond the experience one has (for that does not  cover either the outcome nor many of the circumstances of the test, since both of these are in the future).

More of this later.

Note 20 :
We must therefore glean up our experiments in this science from a cautious observation of human life, and take them as they appear in the common course of the world, by men's behaviour in company, in affairs, and in their pleasures.

This seems a correct approach, but it also seems to show that Hume thought less of psychology and psychological experiments (both of which were not born when he died) than of general experience.


First: Feb 10, 2015.
Last: Feb 17, 2015.