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David Hume’s work was crucial in the development of many important social scientific concepts like “the fact/value distinction,” “ideology,” and “economic equilibrium.” Moreover, in a period when the “social sciences” did not yet exist, he envisioned the transformation of the ancient discipline of “moral philosophy” into a “science of man” through the “application of an experimental philosophy to moral subjects” (Hume 1739–1740, p. 4). Such a methodological transformation was essential for the creation of the social sciences.
Hume was born in Edinburgh on April 26, 1711, and he grew up at his family home in the Scottish Borderlands. He studied at the University of Edinburgh, and after rejecting a career as a merchant or a lawyer, he made his way in life as an intellectual and author. He joined a circle of Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, including Adam Smith and Lords Kames and Monboddo, who made Edinburgh the center of their social life. They kept a careful distance both from the Scottish Highlanders to the North—who were prone to violent rebellion against the “powers that be” in London—and the English establishment figures to the South—who were often hostile to ambitious Scots like themselves. Although his philosophical works did not win him fame and fortune, his multivolume History of England (published between 1754 and 1762) did. During his later years, between 1763 and 1768, he broke through the governmental “glass ceiling” for Scots and was appointed to a number of important diplomatic posts, including charge d’affaires in the British Embassy in Paris and under-secretary of state for the Northern Department (which included Scotland). He died in Edinburgh on August 25, 1776.
Hume’s writings spanned the genres from intricate philosophical studies to belletristic essays and historical narratives. In these texts, Hume created concepts and attitudes that pointed social investigations away from the formal, contractualist framework that dominated Enlightenment social thought and toward a dynamic, empirical approach to human nature.
Hume acerbically made a sharp distinction in the discourse concerning human affairs between “the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not” and the propositions connecting subject and predicate with “ought” and “ought not.” He insisted that one could not validly deduce “ought” propositions from those stating facts about human behavior alone, and that once “small attention” was paid to this fallacious reasoning, “all the vulgar systems of morality” would be “subverted” (Hume 1739–1740, p. 302). Indeed, the “is/ought” distinction became a starting point for the social sciences in the next century.
Along with this categorical revision of the social world, Hume cultivated in his readers a healthy skepticism for the application of crude causal categories in “the science of man.” Just as Newton rejected the primacy of contact (push-pull) forces in natural philosophy and introduced relational forces—such as gravitational attraction, which operates instantaneously across huge distances—he also debunked the primacy of mechanical causation in the social realm and called for a deeper appreciation of tendential, correlational forces expressed in sympathy, convention, and habit.
Hume also rejected an atomistic conception of the self. He argued that the notion of a simple unified self is a fictional product of an ingrained “propensity to confound identity with relation.” Hume’s “science of man” guards against this propensity and seeks to uncover the complex relations and forces at play in the formation of a self, thus proposing one of the key research themes of the future social sciences. A century later, his recognition of the importance of fictions in social life was to be developed further with the notion of “ideology.”
Hume also emphasized the importance of the precontractual basis of contractual societies by refusing to take the rational, contracting individual as the starting point of social thought. He noted that “two men, who pull the oars of a boat, do it by an agreement or convention, tho’ they have never given promises to each other” (Hume 1739–1740, p. 315), and his new science gave primacy to this level of social cooperation and convention that makes promises and contracts possible.
Although Hume’s work affected the methodology of the social sciences in general, his discourses on commerce, money, and the balance of trade had a major impact on economic thought, both directly and through his influence on Adam Smith.
Hume also recognized that the rules of property ownership and the use of money are “artificial,” that they must be constructed both in an individual’s life and humanity’s history. Consequently, economic “laws,” such as the quantity theory of money, do not automatically apply, but instead require the development of a state where money has “a universal diffusion and circulation” (Hume 1742–1752, p. 294). Moreover, in a fully monetarized society, Hume, like Isaac Newton, differentiated between steady states and accelerating changes of a system’s basic quantities. Thus, he argued that though, in the long run, the price of commodities will be proportional to the quantity of money, “alterations in the quantity of money … are not immediately attended with proportionable alternations in the prices of commodities” (Hume 1742–1752, p. 288). For example, influxes of money, in some circumstances, can stimulate economic activity.
Hume observed that, in a commercial world, money moves across borders in an autonomous manner that makes mercantilist efforts to prevent a country’s loss of specie (e.g., by prohibiting the export of bullion) nugatory and even counterproductive. As long as a nation “preserves its people and industry,” its money supply will tend almost naturally toward an appropriate equilibrium level, just as “all water, wherever it communicates, remains always at a level” (Hume 1742–1752, p. 312).
Finally, although Hume was one of the first major European philosophers to oppose slavery, he was also one of the first to develop the rudiments of a modern race theory claiming to be based on science. His observations of plantation life in the British West Indies convinced him that wage labor was much more productive than slave labor, and that the threat of unemployment had much more disciplinary power for the free workers than the threat of the whip had for slaves (Hume 1742–1752, p. 390). However, since he also claimed to know of “no ingenious manufactures amongst [Africans], no arts, no sciences,” either in Africa or among the freed African slaves in Europe, he was “apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites” (Hume 1742–1752, p. 208). Thus, he was an influential founder of a biopolitical racism compatible with a regime of waged labor.
In many ways then, Hume is the most “postmodern” of Enlightenment thinkers. An appreciation for his subversive, paradoxical, and militantly secular attitudes and concepts has therefore grown among historians in search of alternative genealogies for the social sciences.
- Baier, Annette. 1991. A Progress of Sentiments: Reflections on Hume’s Treatise. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Berry, Christopher J. 1997. Social Theory of the Scottish Enlightenment. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
- Broadie, Alexander, ed. 2003. The Cambridge Companion to The Scottish Enlightenment. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Deleuze, Gilles. 1991. Empiricism and Subjectivity: An Essay on Hume’s Theory of Human Nature. Trans. Constantin V. Boundas. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Hume, David. 1739–1740. A Treatise of Human Nature. Ed. David Fate Norton and Mary J. Norton. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2000.
- Hume, David. 1742–1752. Essays Moral, Political, and Literary. Eugene F. Miller. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1987.
- Norton, David Fate, ed. 1993. The Cambridge Companion to Hume. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
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