Hume’s philosophic writings are to be read with great caution.
His pages, especially those of the Treatise, are so full of matter, he
says so many different things in so many different ways and different
connexions, and with so much indifference to what he has said before,
that it is very hard to say positively that he taught, or did not teach,
this or that particular doctrine. He applies the same principles to such
a great variety of subjects that it is not surprising that many verbal,
and some real inconsistencies can be found in his statements.
true especially in case of Hume's 'Treatise of Human Nature', that he
later disowned, of which more below. In any case: Those who have read
the Treatise with some attention and intelligence will have found many
inconsistencies in it.
ambitious rather than shy of saying the same thing in different ways,
and at the same time he is often slovenly and indifferent about his
words and formulae. This makes it easy to find all philosophies in Hume,
or, by setting up one statement against another, none at all. Of
Professor Green’s criticism of Hume it is impossible to speak, here in
Oxford, without the greatest respect. Apart from its philosophic
importance, it is always serious and legitimate; but it is also
impossible not to feel that it would have been quite as important and a
good deal shorter, if it had contained fewer of the verbal victories
which are so easily won over Hume.
it, but Greene has been dead a long time now, in 2005 as I write this,
and is not considered as important as he was, in 1893, in Oxford. In any
case, the possibility of criticizing many inconsistencies in the
Treatise may well have been Hume's main reason to disown the book later.
In the posthumous edition of his Collected Essays
of 1777, the Advertisement, on which so much stress has been laid, first
appeared. It is printed at the beginning of this reprint, and declares
the author’s desire that ‘the following pieces may alone be regarded as
containing his philosophical sentiments and principles.’
Here is a
link to the Advertisement.
This declaration has not only been
taken seriously by some writers, but they have even complied with it and
duly ignored the Treatise. By others it has been treated as an
interesting indication of the character of a man who had long ago given
up philosophy, who always had a passion for applause, and little respect
or generosity for his own failures. By Mr. Grose the Advertisement is
regarded as ‘the posthumous utterance of a splenetic invalid,’ and Mr.
Green’s elaborate criticism is directed almost entirely against the
There is what seems to be a good
edition of the Treatise in Pelican Classics. It
is a considerably thicker book than both the Enquiries together.
The Treatise, as was noticed at the time of its
publication, is full of egoisms. Even in this severe work, together with
a genuine ardour and enthusiasm, there is an occasional note of
insincerity, arrogance or wantonness which strikes the serious student
painfully. The following pages will perhaps show that Hume, in
re-casting the Treatise into its new form, displayed the less admirable
sides of his temper rather freely.
I take it
these sentiments of Selby-Bigge are mostly Victorian. In any case, I
have never been "painfully" struck by Hume's "insincerity, arrogance or
And apart from what one thinks of
Hume's personal character or style of writing, it should be noted that
he was conscious of being an innovator in philosophy and a radical
critic of both the religion and the philosophy of his own and preceding
In the second place, it is undeniable
that Hume’s own judgement on the style of his earlier work was quite
correct. The Treatise was ill-proportioned, incoherent, ill-expressed.
There are ambiguities and obscurities of expression in important
passages which are most exasperating. Instead of the easy language,
familiar and yet precise, of the Enquiries, we have an amount of verbal
vagueness and slovenliness for which it is hard to excuse even ‘a
solitary Scotchman.’ How far the difference between the two works is
merely one of style is considered below, but whether it be due to matter
or manner, it remains that the Enquiries are an easy book and the
Treatise a very hard one. In the Treatise he revels in minutiae, in
difficulties, in paradoxes: he heaps questions upon himself, and
complicates argument by argument: he is pedantic and captious. In the
Enquiry he ignores much with which he had formerly vexed his own and his
readers’ souls, and like a man of the world takes the line of least
resistance (except as touching the ‘zealots’). He gives us elegance,
lucidity and proportion.
careful reader should judge this for himself. I merely report that I
read the Treatise when 21, and that I agree more with Selby-Bigge than I
disagree: I did find many unclarities and inconsistencies.
Causation. In the account of causation Hume passes over the very
interesting and fundamental question raised in the Treatise of the
position of cause in the fabric of our knowledge. On p. 78 of the
Treatise (Bk. I, iii, § 3; cf. p. 157), he asks why a cause is always
necessary, and concludes that there is no reason for the presumption
that everything must have a cause.
interesting for many reasons, one of which is that in physics "the
presumption that everything must have a cause" has been given up with
the rise of quantum-mechanics. It is an interesting fact that Einstein
Thus the omission of the chapter on the rules by
which to judge of cause and effect and the sacrifice of contiguity are
both part of the same policy: succession cannot be got rid of
altogether, and this, it is true, is a philosophical relation (Treatise,
p. 14), but it is one which is a matter of perception rather than
reasoning (Treatise, p. 73), and is not one which raises much
discussion—we seldom have much difficulty in discovering whether A or B
came first, and you cannot strictly say that B was more consequent on A than C was, or vice versa.
interesting fact is that with Einstein's theory of relativity succession
has become problematical.
It will be noted that in the Enquiry, § 60, Hume interjects a
curious little explanation of his first definition: ‘We may define a
cause to be an object followed by another, and when all the objects
similar to the first are followed by objects similar to the second,
or, in other words, where if the first object had not been, the second
never had existed.’ The words in italics can hardly be regarded as a
paraphrase or equivalent of the main definition, and must be added to
the rather large collection of unassimilated dicta which so much
occupied Professor Green.
indeed is curious, for the second definition, unlike the first, uses
modal terms, and there surely is a considerable difference between "for
all x if Ax then Bx" and "for all x, if Ax would not be true then Bx
would not be true". (Consider: "If this is a cow, this
and "If this would not be a cow, this would not produce milk". The latter
but not the former implies cows are the only animals that produce milk.)
Miracles, providence, and a future
state. §§ x and xi of the Enquiry, in which these subjects are
treated, belong to Hume’s applied philosophy, and, important and
interesting as they are in themselves, they do not add anything to his
general speculative position. Their insertion in the Enquiry is due
doubtless rather to other considerations than to a simple desire to
illustrate or draw corollaries from the philosophical principles laid
down in the original work.
This may be so, but surely it is
interesting to see what manner of more practical and everyday
applications of his general principles a philosopher supplies, and also
these applications are interesting if disturbing to religious zealots.
In the Enquiry Hume merely confines
himself to asserting the opposition between the vulgar belief, based on
instinct and natural propensity, in external objects on the one side,
and the conclusions of philosophy, that we know nothing but perceptions
in the mind, on the other side.
no doubt Hume's belief, but I don't think it is true, and will argue so
when dealing with his text. Here I merely mention that there two
questions of principle are involved:
A. Which of the two explanations, supposing neither can be refuted, is a
better explanation, or has more support?
B. If "we know nothing but perceptions in the mind" then surely this
involves the admission that both you and me have perceptions in the
mind, and we differ. Now: What about your perceptions, from my point of
view - noting that I do not have them, and grant them to you on a
similar principle as I grant the existence of external reality?
A considerable part of the discussion on the
immateriality of the soul (Treatise, § v), may appear to us antiquated,
just as it may fairly have appeared to Hume too dry for a popular work,
and not absolutely necessary to his system. But it is not too much to
say on the whole, that the omissions in § 12 of the Enquiry are alone
amply sufficient to render it quite impossible to comply with Hume’s
wish and treat the Enquiry as representing the whole of his philosophic
but provide once more a link to Hume's "Advertisement" with which the
text of the Enquiries start. It seems fair to conclude that Hume did not
know how to resolve many of the problems and difficulties he dealt with
in the Treatise in a manner that was both intellectually and
stylistically satisfying to him.
The psychology of sympathy,
which occupies so much space in Bk. II, and on which so much depends in
Bk. III of the Treatise, is almost entirely ignored in the Enquiry. How
it is possible to find room for sympathy in so atomistic or
individualistic a psychology as Hume’s, is one of the most interesting
questions which are raised by his system. How I can not only know but
enter into the feelings of another person, when I can only know my own
feelings, is indeed a problem worthy of grave consideration.
true that the notion of sympathy is important both for morals and for
human understanding in general, and it is interesting to remark that
Schopenhauer made sympathy the fundament of this ethics.
Selby-Bigge's question is a bit
misleading, though: Even supposing that it were philosophically true we
all live, think and feel solipstistically, then still it is a fact that
children are not raised on that presumption, and few believe in
Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals.
Hume has recorded his own opinion that the Enquiry concerning the
Principles of Morals was, of all his writings, ‘historical,
philosophical, or literary, incomparably the best.’
well be so, but it should be noted that Hume's treatment here is not
quite consistent with the more skeptical positions taken in the Enquiry
concerning Human Understanding, notably about causation and the self.
With these passages we may compare,
observing the caution inculcated at the beginning of this Introduction,
§ 250 of the Enquiry, where speaking of self-love, he says, ‘The obvious
appearance of things . . . must be admitted till some hypothesis be
discovered which, by penetrating deeper into human nature, may prove the
former affections to be nothing but modifications of the latter. All
attempts of this kind have hitherto proved fruitless, and seem to have
proceeded entirely from that love of simplicity which has been the
source of so much false reasoning in philosophy.’ (Cf. § 9,
‘Philosophers have sometimes carried the matter too far by their passion
for some one general principle.’)
seems to me to be correct. See the previous note.