David Hume: Life, Works, and Character

Early Life and Education

David Hume (born May 7, 1711 – August 25, 1776) was a Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist central to the Scottish Enlightenment. Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, Hume showed intellectual promise from a young age. He entered the University of Edinburgh at the exceptionally early age of twelve, possibly as young as ten. Initially attracted to law, he abandoned it, claiming he found "an insurmountable aversion to everything but the pursuits of Philosophy and general Learning."

Philosophical Influences and "A Treatise of Human Nature"

Though inspired by figures like Isaac Newton, Hume developed philosophical inclinations that opposed rationalists like René Descartes. Instead, he was deeply influenced by empiricists such as John Locke. Following a period of intense philosophical contemplation, Hume penned his first major work, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40).

His ambition was to create a total "science of man" based on empirical observation of human psychology. Yet, despite its profound ideas, the Treatise was largely ignored upon publication. Hume himself later reflected on this failure, writing "it fell dead-born from the press without reaching so much as the distinction of a murmur amongst the zealots."

Career Obstacles and Later Success

The controversial ideas within his early works fueled religious opposition, hampering his attempts to secure university professorships. Hume resorted to serving as a tutor, then as a librarian, tasks which offered enough income while maintaining sufficient time for philosophical endeavors.

During the 1750s, after revisions and the publication of further works including his Political Discourses (1752) and his multi-volume History of England (1754-62), Hume achieved the literary fame he had long sought. These publications earned him greater respect and the financial means for a comfortable life.

Hume, and the Philosophes

In 1763, Hume accepted the position of secretary to the British Embassy in Paris. His philosophical works made him a respected figure among the French philosophes such as Denis Diderot and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This social acclaim was cut short when a public falling out with Rousseau ended with accusations of paranoia from Hume.


Hume returned to Edinburgh in 1769, spending his remaining years there in comfortable semi-retirement. He died in 1776 after battling what may have been colon or liver cancer. Though not universally popular during his lifetime, Hume's work profoundly influenced thinkers like Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, and Jeremy Bentham. Today, he is widely held as one of the most important figures in the history of Western philosophy.