David Hume (1711–1776)
David Hume was born David Home on April 26, 1711, in Edinburgh,
Scotland. Hume‟s father, lawyer Joseph Home, died in 1713, and Hume‟s
mother, Katherine, raised their three children alone. The boy‟s family had a
comfortable life and a moderate income, enough to provide him with a good
education. He left home at age twelve to study law at the University of
Although Hume‟s earliest letters reveal that he took religion seriously, he
developed a stronger interest in philosophy and literature while a student at
Edinburgh. In 1729, Hume left Edinburgh to pursue a self-directed
education. He worked briefly for a sugar merchant in England and left for
France in 1734, where he wrote his first book, A Treatise of Human Nature.
When he returned to Britain, he anonymously published three of the five
volumes of the Treatise: Books I and II in 1739 and book III in 1740—a
remarkable accomplishment for a twenty-nine-year-old. Many scholars
today believe that the Treatise is Hume‟s masterpiece, but it was not well
received by the English public. The book was not widely reviewed and failed
to arouse the public debate Hume hoped for.
In 1741 and 1742, Hume published his two-volume Essays, Moral and
Political, which met with better success than the Treatise. Hume decided
that the problem with his Treatise was its style, not its content, so he
reworked it into several smaller publications. Two of these publications
became major works: An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and
An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. This time, Hume caused a
stir by advocating a system of morality based on utility, or usefulness,
instead of God‟s authority. His newfound success encouraged him to seek a
department chair position at the University of Edinburgh, but the town
council rejected him because of his antireligious philosophy. The new books
established Hume as the founder of the moral theory of utility and inspired
the utilitarian movement, but they also made him known as an atheist, and
he was rejected from yet another chair position at the University of
In 1752, Hume became a librarian for the College of Advocates in
Edinburgh, where he wrote and published his six-volume History of
England. Although it was not a philosophical work in the strictest sense,
Hume felt that History was the next step in his philosophical evolution. He
described the series as the practical application of his ideas about politics.
During this period he also published Four Dissertations: The Natural
History of Religion, Of the Passions, Of Tragedy, Of the Standard of Taste.
These works aroused controversy in the religious community before they
became public. Early copies were passed around, and someone of influence
threatened to prosecute Hume‟s publisher if the book was distributed as it
was. Hume deleted two essays and removed some particularly offensive
passages, then published the book to moderate success. But the larger
success of History of England restored Hume‟s reputation and provided
him with the income he needed to live comfortably.
In 1763, Hume left the library and returned to the world of politics,
accompanying Lord Hertford, the British ambassador to France, as his
personal secretary. Hume was a controversial figure in England, but
Enlightenment Paris received him warmly. In 1766, Hume returned to
London as under-secretary of state, bringing along the persecuted writer
Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Despite the generosity of his good-natured host,
Rousseau eventually grew paranoid and bitter over his enemies‟ public
attacks against him, and he broke with Hume in 1767. Rousseau wrote a
public pamphlet accusing Hume of plotting against him while he was
Hume‟s guest. Hume effectively cleared his own name by publishing a
response that explained the reasons for their dispute.
Another secretary appointment took Hume away from England for a year,
but in 1768, he retired to Edinburgh, where he spent his remaining years
revising his works and socializing. He died from a painful internal disorder
on April 26, 1776, at age sixty-five. After his death, several of his
unpublished works appeared in print. The first was the short autobiography
My Own Life, in which he finally acknowledges that he had authored the
Treatise and which aroused immediate religious controversy because of his
professed happiness as an atheist. In 1779, Hume‟s Dialogues Concerning
Natural Religion appeared after being suppressed for years by his closest
friends. Again, the response was mixed. Admirers of Hume considered it a
masterful work, whereas critics railed against its hostility to religion. In
1782, Hume‟s last two suppressed essays, Of Suicide and Of the
Immortality of the Soul, appeared to overwhelmingly negative criticism.
Hume is widely regarded as the third and most radical of the British
empiricists, after John Locke and George Berkeley. Like Locke and
Berkeley, Hume argued that all knowledge results from our experiences and
is not received from God or innate to our minds. This kind of empiricism
led to today‟s “scientific method,” which holds that knowledge should be
based on observations rather than intuition or faith. Radical empiricism
went further, arguing that our knowledge is nothing more than the sum of
our experiences. Unlike Locke and Berkeley, Hume removed God from the
equation completely and argued forcefully against the possibility of his
existence as his contemporaries envisioned it.
Hume excelled as a moral philosopher, historian, and economist. He was
the leader of the Scottish Enlightenment, a movement that took place in the
fifty years between 1740 and 1790. This period was a very stable one in
Scottish history, free of the civil strife and turmoil of earlier eras, and it
gave rise to a remarkable number of notable intellectuals. The French
Enlightenment had already spread throughout continental Europe and was
beginning to influence Scottish academics, including Hume. Although they
shared the French spirit, the Scottish philosophers practiced extreme
skepticism and identified more strongly with utilitarianism, which posits
that actions should be measured by their effect on the greater good of the
world, not their consequences for the individual.
Despite Hume‟s nay-saying contemporaries, his theories of the “evolution”
of ethics, institutions, and social conventions proved highly influential for
later philosophers. Attention to his works grew after the great philosopher
Immanuel Kant credited Hume with awakening him from “dogmatic
OF THE STANDARD OF TASTE
David Hume proposed his theory of aesthetics in his treatise „of the
standard of taste‟ which encompasses his views about the standards which
govern art critics in their judgment on art. This document is Hume‟s final
word on art criticism.
He describes the different aspects that qualify humans to be art critics.
Hume speaks on the behaviors that allow men to judge art.
He starts off by making the point that:
“The difference among men is really greater than at first sight it
Hume is making the point that besides from judging blatantly good and bad
works, men have very different views on art.
He strongly believes that all men are not fit to judge art.
“Thus, though the principles of taste be universal, and nearly, if
not entirely the same in all men; yet few are qualified to give
judgment on any work, or establish their own sentiment as the
standard of beauty” (43).
There are many reasons, which Hume illustrates, as to why all men are not
properly capable of judging art.
Hume describes the aspect of prejudice which is naturally found in humans.
Different critics may have varying predilections and inclinations toward the
same work of art. Their judgments may vary. But this variation in
judgments puts one‟s mind to work as to who is right and who is wrong?
Next he says that in order to judge a work, one must allow:
“nothing to enter into his consideration, but the very object
which is submitted to his examination” (42).
By this line, Hume requests the complete concentration of critics while
examining a work of art.
In addition Hume adds that in order to judge art one must have the
opportunity to compare the work to other works.
“A man who has no opportunity of comparing the different kinds
of beauty, is indeed totally unqualified to pronounce an opinion”
In order to judge art properly, one must not be any normal human, but
someone who understands the correct way to be an art critic. “There is
one, and but one” opinion of art “that is just and true” (38).
Even critics are sometimes responsible for making wrong judgments, but
they can always work to purify their judgments through constant practice
A true critic is easily distinguished among the myriad of men because of his
soundness of mind and the superiority of his critical faculties over those of
the mediocre critics.
Hume says that there are some general principles for judging art, but there
can be some exceptions sometimes. Our internal organs direct our
emotions and feelings which in turn direct our judgment on art. There can
be many and frequent defects in the internal organs owing to which our
judgment may be partial or inaccurate. Art is a source of pleasure and
delight for its admirers but there can be certain exceptions in which the
effects of art on some individuals will vary and it may not provide them any
pleasure or delight at all.
True art critics have the delicacy of imagination which is required to
examine and accurately judge art. Maybe the people who are unable to
perceive the beauty of some work of art are ill equipped and lack this
delicacy of imagination.
Hume illustrates delicacy in an example from Don Quixote, of a man with
an exceptional sense of taste. That example leads him to formulate the
Where the organs are so fine, as to allow nothing to escape them; and at the
same time so exact as to perceive every ingredient in the composition: this
we call delicacy of taste, where we employ these terms in the literal or
This essay reflects Hume‟s ideas about literary criticism. His theory for the
most part is compelling and attracts the attention of the readers but it
definitely has some aspects which are not agreed upon and are a topic of
constant discussion among other literary critics.
In David Hume‟s own words:
“Though men of delicate taste be rare, they are easily to be
distinguished in society, by the soundness of their
understanding and the superiority of their faculties above the
rest of mankind”.