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:
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.
- 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.
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.)
ubi sentire quae velis; & quae sentia, dicere licet.
This is the motto from the title
page. The full title is this:
Attempt to introduce the ex-
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
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
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 2 : The approbation of the public
I consider as
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
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
taken serious, and provided him with an income).
: 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
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.
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 :
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).
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.
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.)
8 : From
hence in my
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.)
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.)
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
mind" nor a valid
explanation of "external bodies" or else such explanations must somehow go beyond
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.
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
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.)
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
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
make an argument that to test any possible empirical
one has to go beyond the experience one has
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
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.
Feb 10, 2015.
Last: Feb 17, 2015.