Part of a Series on the Philosophy of History
Today is the 311th anniversary of the birth of David Hume (07 May 1711 NS; 26 April 1711 OS to 25 August 1776), who was born on this date in 1711.
Hume is remembered today as the greatest of the Anglophone philosophers; in his own time Hume’s philosophical efforts were unrewarded (he famously said that his first great philosophical work “fell dead-born from the press”), but he did achieve success as an historian. Despite the decline of interest in Hume as an historian that has occurred in parallel with the growth of his reputation as a philosopher, Hume’s influence upon both history and philosophy of history has been profound. The article on Philosophy of History on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has this to say on Hume’s influence on Anglo-American philosophy of history:
“David Hume’s empiricism cast a dominant key for almost all subsequent Anglo-American philosophy, and this influence extends to the interpretation of human behavior and the human sciences. Hume wrote a widely read history of England (1754–1762). His interpretation of history was based on the assumption of ordinary actions, motives, and causes, with no sympathy for theological interpretations of the past. His philosophical view of history was premised on the idea that explanations of the past can be based on the assumption of a fixed human nature.”
Among Enlightenment philosophers and historians, there is an enduring interest in human nature and its role in history, but the Enlightenment conception of human nature does not exhaust the range of human experience. Despite its narrowness, the Enlightenment conception of a fixed human nature is robust and continues to influence our thinking today, even when, if not especially when, it is explicitly rejected.
We should not, however, over-simplify the Enlightenment conception of human nature; this was essentially the same conception of human nature that was held by the Founding Fathers of the US and is embodied in the founding documents of the nation. This is a conception of human nature that is complex and conflicted. In Hume’s History of England, in describing the Crusades, he wrote:
“After a siege of five weeks, they took Jerusalem by assault; and, impelled by a mixture of military and religious rage, they put the numerous garrison and inhabitants to the sword without distinction. Neither arms defended the valiant, nor submission the timorous: No age or sex was spared: Infants on the breast were pierced by the same blow with their mothers, who implored for mercy: Even a multitude, to the number of ten thousand persons, who had surrendered themselves prisoners, and were promised quarter, were butchered in cool blood by those ferocious conquerors. The streets of Jerusalem were covered with dead bodies; and the triumphant warriors, after every enemy was subdued and slaughtered, immediately turned themselves, with the sentiments of humiliation and contrition, towards the holy sepulchre. They threw aside their arms, still streaming with blood: They advanced with reclined bodies, and naked feet and heads to that sacred monument: They sung anthems to their Saviour, who had there purchased their salvation by his death and agony: And their devotion, enlivened by the presence of the place where he had suffered, so overcame their fury, that they dissolved in tears, and bore the appearance of every soft and tender sentiment. So inconsistent is human nature with itself! And so easily does the most effeminate superstition ally, both with the most heroic courage, and with the fiercest barbarity!” (Vol. I, Chapter VI)
Part of Hume’s empiricism and naturalism can be derived from this conception of human nature; another aspect is his critique and rejection of miracles, which was and continues to be quite influential. Section 10 of Hume’s An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding is titled “Of Miracles,” which includes this following:
“Upon the whole, then, it appears, that no testimony for any kind of miracle has ever amounted to a probability, much less to a proof; and that, even supposing it amounted to a proof, it would be opposed by another proof; derived from the very nature of the fact, which it would endeavour to establish. It is experience only, which gives authority to human testimony; and it is the same experience, which assures us of the laws of nature. When, therefore, these two kinds of experience are contrary, we have nothing to do but substract the one from the other, and embrace an opinion, either on one side or the other, with that assurance which arises from the remainder. But according to the principle here explained, this substraction, with regard to all popular religions, amounts to an entire annihilation; and therefore we may establish it as a maxim, that no human testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle, and make it a just foundation for any such system of religion.”
This is not the entirety of Hume’s critique of miracles, but it is enough to give a flavor of his reasoning on miracles. If there are no miracles, then the kind of providential history we find in Saint Augustine and Bossuet must be false, and we must proceed by understanding history in terms of human motivations and exertion, and we understand human beings by understanding human nature. Thus the belief in a fixed, universal human nature and the rejection of miracles are mutually dependent theses in Hume’s implicit philosophy of history.
Hume’s critique of miracles (along with some other ideas of Hume) was picked up by Edward Gibbon, who, for example, tells the story of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge without mentioning any supernaturalistic elements (like the famous vision before the battle attributed to Constantine the Great). Echoes of Hume on miracles can be found in the following passage from Gibbon:
“The miracles of the primitive church, after obtaining the sanction of ages, have been lately attacked in a very free and ingenious inquiry, which, though it has met with the most favorable reception from the public, appears to have excited a general scandal among the divines of our own as well as of the other Protestant churches of Europe. Our different sentiments on this subject will be much less influenced by any particular arguments, than by our habits of study and reflection; and, above all, by the degree of evidence which we have accustomed ourselves to require for the proof of a miraculous event. The duty of an historian does not call upon him to interpose his private judgment in this nice and important controversy; but he ought not to dissemble the difficulty of adopting such a theory as may reconcile the interest of religion with that of reason, of making a proper application of that theory, and of defining with precision the limits of that happy period, exempt from error and from deceit, to which we might be disposed to extend the gift of supernatural powers. From the first of the fathers to the last of the popes, a succession of bishops, of saints, of martyrs, and of miracles, is continued without interruption; and the progress of superstition was so gradual, and almost imperceptible, that we know not in what particular link we should break the chain of tradition. Every age bears testimony to the wonderful events by which it was distinguished, and its testimony appears no less weighty and respectable than that of the preceding generation, till we are insensibly led on to accuse our own inconsistency, if in the eighth or in the twelfth century we deny to the venerable Bede, or to the holy Bernard, the same degree of confidence which, in the second century, we had so liberally granted to Justin or to Irenæus. If the truth of any of those miracles is appreciated by their apparent use and propriety, every age had unbelievers to convince, heretics to confute, and idolatrous nations to convert; and sufficient motives might always be produced to justify the interposition of Heaven.” (Chapter XV: Progress Of The Christian Religion. — Part IV.)
In her David Hume: Reason in History, Claudia M. Schmidt noted that, “Hume does not provide us with a specific work concerning the philosophy or methodology of history.” (p. 379) Nevertheless, Schmidt shows us how Hume’s history is bound up with this philosophy, and vice versa:
“In the Treatise and the First Enquiry, Hume introduces historical inquiry as a type of causal reasoning in which we judge the probability that an event has occurred in the past by reasoning from evidence that we encounter in the present. This evidence may be conveyed, in whole or in part, through oral reports, extending back to a supposed witness of the event. However, in these cases the historical facts are often ‘disguised by every successive narration,’ as a result of feeble memories, exaggeration, or even carelessness, until the report contains little or no resemblance to the original event.” (p. 379)
Schmidt also recognizes the constitutive role that Hume’s conception of human nature plays in his history:
“…Hume is seeking to account for the actions of historical individuals as effects of their passions and beliefs, characters, and circumstances. In so doing he is applying the principle, regarded by Sabine as a discovery of the nineteenth century, that history is ‘peopled by actual human beings, with human desires and purposes,’ and that the historian’s task includes re-creating the men and women of the past, entering into their feelings and desires, and explaining their actions to posterity.” (p. 400)
Hume’s own self-understanding of the role history in human knowledge is given exposition in a brief essay, “Of the Study of History”
“…history is not only a valuable part of knowledge, but opens the door to many other parts, and affords materials to most of the sciences. And indeed, if we consider the shortness of human life, and our limited knowledge, even of what passes in our own time, we must be sensible that we should be for ever children in understanding, were it not for this invention, which extends our experience to all past ages, and to the most distant nations; making them contribute as much to our improvement in wisdom, as if they had actually lain under our observation. A man acquainted with history may, in some respect, be said to have lived from the beginning of the world, and to have been making continual additions to his stock of knowledge in every century.”
Someone who has “lived from the beginning of the world” and who has continually added to their stock of knowledge through the ages might be regarded as a kind of thought experiment. We can ask how such an individual might perceive history and human action historically, and, Hume implies, this is the perspective that history provides us.