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David Hume and the Human Condition

One of the radical ideas which is much in evidence in the eighteenth century is naturalism – with its assumption that human beings are entirely natural entities. This stands in opposition to a traditional view which holds that humanity is somehow unique: that man is created in God’s own image (Genesis 1:1).

This gives rise to the notion that God watches out for – has a providential care for – what he has created, but has a particular providential concern for humanity (Section 11 of David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding is entitled ‘Of a Particular Providence and of a Future State’) (Hume, 1999).

For many traditional philosophers, it was man’s endowment with reason which led to his having one foot in heaven (his animal body also gives him one foot on earth). Hume’s tacit rejection of this is clear when he suggests ‘an analogy among all the operations of nature, in every situation and every age; whether the rotting of a turnip, the generation of an animal, [or] the structure of human thought’ (Hume, 1993, p.120). The comparison of human reason to ‘the rotting of a turnip’ will have enraged many of Hume’s theologically-minded critics. Hume was adept at such polemical comparison: in his essay ‘Of Suicide’ he famously suggests that ‘the life of man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster’ (Hume, 1985, p.583).

Associated with human reason is human freedom of the will. The traditional notion was of human beings being able both to deliberate about what they ought to do, and then to make themselves act upon the results of this deliberation, employing what is sometimes referred to as ‘agent causal’ powers. Here again humans were thought to be unique, as non-human animals were thought to be mere wantons – entirely dictated to by their biological needs and drives, and hence incapable of, for example, moral agency, which would require agent causation.

Hume’s account of what it is to be free is consistent with his naturalism – and so again it challenges the traditional ‘human uniqueness’ thesis. To be free, for Hume, is simply to do what we want to do. This may seem a very simple account for an eminent philosopher to advance – but it has important implications. If both the desires that we have, and the actions that we perform, are determined (and so beyond our own control), then we have no agent causal powers. If, however, there is a correspondence between what we want to do and what we actually do, then we will experience, on such occasions, ‘freedom’. Agent causation, which the twenty first century philosopher Daniel Dennett insists is ‘a rather mysterious doctrine’, drops out of the picture. (Dennett, 1984, p.76). Of course, animals too can experience doing what they want to do – so that freedom for an animal is just the same as freedom for us.

So the long-standing thesis of human uniqueness is challenged in the eighteenth century, and Hume is one of the principal challengers.       

Dr John Gordon- Course Organiser The Scottish Enlightenment in Context


Dennett, D., 1984. Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Having. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Hume, D., 1985. Of Suicide. In Essays Moral, Political, and Literary. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

Hume, D., 1993. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. In J.C.A. Gaskin, ed. David Hume: Principal Writings on Religion including Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and The Natural History of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hume, D., 1999. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Oxford: Oxford University Press.