David Hume: Empiricism, Skepticism, and the Limits of Reason


David Hume (1711-1776) was a Scottish philosopher, historian, and economist, and a leading figure of the Enlightenment. A staunch empiricist, Hume sought to ground philosophy in the principles of observation and experience. Deeply skeptical of traditional metaphysics and rationalism, he critiqued notions of reason and causality and aimed to undermine the philosophical basis of religious belief.

Aims and Methods

Hume continued the empirical approach begun by John Locke, aiming to apply the methods of natural science to the study of the mind. He sought to:

  • Analyze the Mind: Hume sought to identify the basic materials of the mind—its fundamental constituents and operations.
  • Critique Reason: Hume questioned the ability of reason alone to provide certainty about the external world or metaphysical concepts.
  • Examine Causality: He famously argued against a necessary connection between cause and effect, suggesting that causality is based on habit and custom rather than pure reason.
  • Address Skepticism: Hume acknowledged the limits of human knowledge and advocated for a mitigated form of skepticism.
  • Challenge Superstition and Religious Belief: Hume sought to debunk superstitious beliefs and undermine the role of faith and dogma in intellectual inquiry.

Key concepts

  • Impressions: Direct, vivid sensory experiences that form the basis of our knowledge.
  • Ideas: Less vivid mental copies or representations of impressions.
  • Association of Ideas: Hume identified principles by which the mind connects ideas, including resemblance, contiguity, and cause and effect.
  • Causality: The relationship between events where one (the cause) precedes and seemingly produces the other (the effect). Hume argued that the concept of causality relies on habitual expectation rather than true knowledge.
  • Belief: A mental state, based on ideas and experience, rather than pure reason.


Hume's philosophy was highly influential, shaping subsequent thinking in epistemology, metaphysics, and philosophy of religion. His work had a profound impact on thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, the logical positivists, and contemporary philosophers studying the nature of knowledge, belief, and causality.