David Hume was a philosopher in Edinburgh in the 18th century. He is one of those incredibly complex characters whose influence has such a profound importance in so many subjects. His works are incredibly difficult to understand and even harder to simplify. As a free walking tour guide in Edinburgh, Hume’s home, I often find myself struggling to convey the importance of a man that I do not fully understand in only a few minutes to my guests in an entertaining way. In this blog post we are going to attempt to delve into the main aspects of Hume and his works in the simplest way possible.
David Hume was a very sceptical or pessimistic man. This does not mean he was overly negative, it meant he did not believe things easily and required some sort of proof in order to accept them. In short, he questioned everything from superstitious notions like good and bad luck to theology and religion. The irony that rubbing the shiny toe on his statue in Edinburgh brings good luck is a favourite joke amongst our walking tour guides.
Empiricism VS Rationalism
Empiricism is scepticism put into a philosophical theory. Put as simply as possible, it is the belief that our understanding of the world around us comes from how we experience the world around us. Before Empiricism, Rationalism was more popular amongst the intellectual world. Rationalism is the belief that our understanding of the world around us comes from how our brain interprets the world around us. A Rationalist is happy to sit in a room and think about the universe. Whatever he concludes must be true if it makes sense. An Empiricist must test everything in order to accept it.
This emphasis on experience (how we see, feel, hear, etc.) VS just rational thought had huge implications on the intellectual world, particularly when it came to science. For example, a Rationalist might deduce that the heavier an object is, the faster it will fall. This seems to make logical sense. However an Empiricist won’t accept this as truth until they have seen it happen. It was Galileo that dropped two balls of different weights from The Leaning Tower of Pisa and saw that they did, in fact, fall at exactly the same speed. Empiricism had won over Rationalism.
The new importance that Hume and others had placed on experiment as apposed to hypothesis had huge implications in an Enlightenment Scotland in the 18th century. With a large proportion of the Scottish population receiving tertiary education, scientific experiment was now being done on an industrial scale. It was this industrial experimentation that has largely led us to the modern world we live in today.
Hume’s Impact on Empiricism
Hume is not the founder of the theory of Empiricism. That honour belongs to John Locke. Hume did, however, have a big impact on the subject.
Where John Locke in Hume’s opinion did not take Empiricism far enough, Hume applied it to everything. This lead to controversial subjects arising like the existence of God or, more famously, the existence of morality.
The Hume Guillotine – Empiricism meets Morality
Now that we have the simple topics out of the way (for Hume that is, not us mortals), we will now attempt to understand the dilemma that Hume came across when faced with the question of morality. This led to his famous Is-Ought Problem, better known as “The Hume Guillotine”.
Although we don’t recommend that you read it (it’s quite heavy), here is Hume’s Is-Ought Problem as he put it.
In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.
Heavy, right? For us too and we’ve spent hours debating this in our office and are still not sure we understand him. Here’s our best shot.
Hume is basically saying that all models of morality he reads about connect is statements (statements on fact) to ought statements (statements on morality) too easily and without explanation. He says that these statements actually have no logical connection. The Hume Guillotine is the severing of an is statement from an ought statement.
Here is the easiest example we could find.
Mankind evolved eating meat (the is statement), so we ought to eat meat (the ought statement).
This argues that it is natural for mankind to eat meat and so we should do it. Seems logical! However vegetarians might dispute its morality for equally logical reasons.
Let’s get a little darker with our next example shall we?
When someone dies their loved ones get sad (the is statement), so we ought not to kill people (the ought statement).
An even less arguable point right? However military powers, people in favour of the death penalty, people whom are pro-choice or even a lion might disagree. All of them for different reasons! Some of us know how Thanos felt about it.
There’s just too much to argue here. Hume saw himself as a moral man, however he saw morality itself as just a symptom of human nature and society itself, not fact.
In conclusion, David Hume’s works are much too complicated to summarise into a short blog post! We do, however, hope that we have made his more famous theories easier to comprehend. Come join a free walking tour of Edinburgh with us to explore the man’s life, works and anecdotes.