To Err Is Humean

By Kieran SetiyaMay 25, 2021

To Err Is Humean

The Great Guide: What David Hume Can Teach Us About Being Human and Living Well by Julian Baggini

PHILOSOPHY HAS A vexed relationship with the business of self-help. On the one hand, philosophers offer systematic visions of how to live; on the other hand, these visions are meant to be argued with, not deferred to or chosen off the rack. Though it runs deep, this tension has not slowed the flood of titles, published in the last few years, that take a dead philosopher as a guide to life. These books will teach you How to Be a Stoic, How to Be an Epicurean, and How William James Can Save Your Life; you can take The Socrates Express to Aristotle’s Way and go Hiking with Nietzsche.

The latest victim, or beneficiary, of this popular treatment is David Hume, a giant of the Scottish Enlightenment widely regarded as the greatest philosopher to write in English. Hume gave birth to a slew of skeptical problems, about personal identity, substance, and causality; he forged a naturalistic moral theory that gave a central role to human sympathy; and, in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), he wrote what Isaiah Berlin called “perhaps the most remarkable treatise upon this subject ever composed.” Hume was a pioneer in the nascent field of psychology — anticipating such discoveries as the “recency effect,” hyberbolic discounting, the role of heuristics in cognition, and the “fundamental attribution error” — as well as a brilliant essayist who published the best-selling work of history in Britain before Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–’89). (Gibbon called Hume “the Tacitus of Scotland.”) Even a hater like James Boswell, who was horrified by Hume’s irreligion, called him “the greatest Writer in Britain.” In The Great Guide, Julian Baggini offers a bright, engaging, reliable introduction to Hume’s life and work, extracting an extensive list of Humean maxims and aphorisms that make up an appendix to the book.

For all his eminence, Hume is not a likely candidate for such treatment. He played a key role in the split between philosophy and self-help that took place in the 18th century. Hume distinguished the “anatomist” who seeks the “most secret Springs & Principles” of mind or body from the “painter” who “describe[s] the Grace & Beauty of its Actions.” Playing the anatomist in his first great work, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), Hume concluded with a cautionary note: “The anatomist ought never to emulate the painter; nor in his accurate dissections and portraitures of the smaller parts of the human body, pretend to give his figures any graceful and engaging attitude or expression.” The moral philosopher should not try to make virtue more attractive, Hume argued, but to analyze what it is.

When we turn from ethics to metaphysics, the results of doing philosophy are even less auspicious. Near the end of the first book of the Treatise, “Of the Understanding,” Hume wrote: “I am first affrighted and confounded with that forlorn solitude, in which I am plac’d in my philosophy, and fancy myself some strange uncouth monster, who not being able to mingle and unite in society, has been expell’d all human commerce, and left utterly abandon’d and disconsolate.” This is not philosophy as self-help!

And Baggini does not pretend otherwise. He aims to get around these awkward facts by treating Hume more as a model than a mentor: it is Hume’s life that provides our guide, though the life is of course inseparable from the work. Baggini draws inspiration from the eulogy for Hume delivered by his dear friend Adam Smith: “Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit.” Hume was adored by what he would have called his “narrow circle” — though not by the religious folks he scandalized, by the Scottish Kirk that tried (but failed) to excommunicate him, or by the Catholic Church that banned his books. When his eulogy was published, Smith was damned for praising the morals of a heretic or worse.

It’s hard to share the sense of outrage that incited Hume’s contemporaries. Who cares if he was not a Christian? But there’s no way to approach this book without acknowledging an outrage both more current and more complicated. How can we take Hume as a model when we know he was an unrepentant racist? Baggini’s timing is either perfect or perfectly awful. As his book appears, students have petitioned the University of Edinburgh to rename what had been “David Hume Tower,” the tallest building on campus. The University temporarily agreed — the building is now known by its address, 40 George Square — pending a full review. The impetus for the petition comes from a shocking footnote in an essay by Hume that reads, in part:

I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites. There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. […] Not to mention our colonies, there are NEGROE slaves dispersed all over EUROPE, of which none ever discovered any symptom of ingenuity; tho’ low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In JAMAICA, indeed, they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but ’tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.

Hume revised and republished this passage; this version — its final form — reflects his considered opinion. While there was no anti-racist movement in Britain when Hume wrote, not everyone shared his views; he was racist even for his time. Nor was he an innocent bystander. As Baggini notes, “Hume went along with a request to encourage his patron, Lord Hertford, to buy a plantation in Grenada that he must have known was worked by slaves.” What’s more, Hume’s footnote had an impact. It was mentioned sympathetically by Immanuel Kant in Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (1764), and taken up by “scientific” racists throughout the 19th century.

A question raised by Baggini’s book is what to do with facts like these. He takes a trenchant line, stressing the anachronism of the charge against Hume — as the distinguished historian Tom Devine has done in berating the university’s decision — without denying its truth. “We can’t just dismiss the unacceptable prejudices of the past as unimportant,” Baggini writes:

However, the idea that racist, sexist, or otherwise bigoted views automatically disqualify a historical figure from admiration is misguided. Anyone who cannot bring themselves to admire such a historical figure betrays a profound lack of understanding about just how socially conditioned all our minds are, even the greatest. Because the prejudice seems so self-evidently wrong to us now, many of us just cannot imagine how anyone could fail to see this without being depraved.

It’s possible that some who signed the petition believe, anachronistically, that Hume was “depraved,” or that he was to blame for being a racist. More likely, they believe that culpability is irrelevant: the offense of a building named for a white supremacist does not depend on whether he had an excuse.

This is not to say that I agree with the petition or the process. Renaming the building, even temporarily, is not a neutral move. Through a cognitive mechanism Hume might have surmised, it creates an “anchoring effect,” a default position that will likely tilt deliberation. Still, Baggini goes too far in Hume’s defense when he compares him to “a newspaper columnist today, [holding] forth on a wide range of views, not all of which they [have] given extensive, deep thought. Race was one such subject for Hume.” I wish that were true, but Hume’s reputation rests on his astute observation of human nature, and the footnote appears in an anthropological essay, “Of National Characters” (1748; rev. 1777), where it functions as a limit on the claim that differences in human nature flow from social circumstance. Hume was not a columnist writing on an unfamiliar topic, but a social scientist sharing his “expert” view.

So, what are we to say? I don’t know what to do about the name for a building that looks, according to Baggini, “more like an oversized social housing block than […] a place of learning.” But I don’t find the question of whether to admire Hume or not especially fruitful. We should admire him in some respects and not in others. The issue takes us back to Hume’s analogy. The anatomist’s knowledge may be useful, even necessary, for the painter; thus, moral philosophy is a resource for the self-help guide. But virtue is neither of these things: it’s the subject of the painting, or the model. And it’s not clear why the painter, or pathologist, must himself be pretty. Baggini makes a point of Hume’s obesity, his double chin, his vacant stare — a challenge to the portraitist. (Hume would not dissent: he told one correspondent that he felt shame when he saw his own bulk in the mirror.) If we follow Hume’s analogy, the upshot is that genius in moral philosophy, even as a guide, is one thing, moral virtue another. If the analogy is right, we should not expect our intellectual heroes to be saints. Having met Hume in Turin, a keen observer wrote: “[H]is face was broad and fat, his Mouth wide […] and the Corpulence of his whole Person was far better fitted to communicate the Idea of a Turtle-eating Alderman, than of a refined Philosopher. […] [W]isdom, most certainly, never disguised herself before in so uncouth a garb.” Instead of gazing at Hume’s analogical body, we should scrutinize his mind.


In what may be a gentle provocation, Baggini builds his biography of Hume on a tour of the places the philosopher passed through. “Philosophy, especially in the English-speaking world,” he writes, “tends to treat ideas and arguments as though they were timeless and placeless.” But Hume was formed by social circumstance: the rural Scotland in which he was raised, the University of Edinburgh during his teenage years, and the Jesuit college at La Flèche in France. Baggini visits these sites, along with later haunts, seeking out salons in Paris, learned societies in Edinburgh, and the houses where Hume lived. He is mostly disappointed: bored by La Flèche, unable to find the salons, and piqued by the demolition of Hume’s house in Edinburgh’s New Town. Baggini’s quest does turn up one gem: the gilded Hôtel de Brancas — now the residence of the president of the National Assembly — where Hume stayed on a visit to Paris. And his vivid photographs of Humean locations, scattered through the book, bring Hume’s own journey back to life.

Born to a comfortably well-off family in Edinburgh on April 26, 1711, Hume grew up in the nearby countryside and went to the University of Edinburgh as a tween. By his own account, he didn’t profit much: “There is nothing to be learnt from a Professor,” he wrote, “which is not to be met with in Books.” Taking no degree, Hume embarked on a course of self-instruction that led him in and out of melancholy on the way to La Flèche, where much of the Treatise was written. It was less of a success than he had hoped. With some hyperbole, Hume mourned that it “fell dead-born from the press.” His subsequent essays were more popular. Hume was famous for the six-volume History of England (1754–’61) on which he spent eight years.

Despite his growing reputation, Hume’s irreligion was an obstacle to academic life. He was turned down for the delightfully named Chair of Ethics and Pneumatical Philosophy at Edinburgh in 1745, as well as for the Chair in Logic at Glasgow six years later. Meanwhile, he penned his wildly popular history of England, was fêted in Paris, had an unfortunate run-in with a paranoid Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and succumbed to what was likely colon cancer, on August 25, 1776. Throughout all this, Hume maintained his sense of humor. Remembering Hume’s dinner parties, the Reverend Alexander Carlyle wrote: “For innocent mirth and agreeable raillery I never knew his match.”

Baggini drops key elements of Hume’s thought into apt locations. Thus, we learn about the contrast between Humean and Cartesian skepticism at the college of La Flèche, whose most illustrious alumnus was René Descartes. Hume criticized Descartes’s “antecedent skepticism,” which lays the burden of proof on the anti-skeptic, and is thus unanswerable. The skeptic of Hume’s Treatise does not begin with “hyperbolic doubt” but shows that reason “subverts itself” by its own lights, leaving “not the lowest degree of evidence in any proposition.” Yet Hume was not a skeptic in the ordinary sense, since he accepted common-sense beliefs as they rushed back into his mind in everyday life. Baggini quotes the pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce: “Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.”

What Baggini does not emphasize is how badly Hume has been misread, on this point as on others. Appallingly, almost every doctrine named for Hume is one he did not hold: “Humean skepticism” (the rejection of ordinary inductive reasoning); the “Humean theory of motivation” (that we are driven by desire, not belief); the “Humean conception of practical reason” (that it’s purely instrumental, a matter of putting means to ends); “Hume’s law” (that there’s no legitimate inference from “is” to “ought”); the “Humean theory of causation” (as nothing but constant conjunction); and more. All of these are theses Hume denied. (Perhaps the moral is: Don’t name things after Hume.) Baggini does not mention these misreadings, but he almost always avoids them. Thus, when we learn about Hume’s theory of moral judgment — in the aftermath of his squabble with Rousseau — Baggini is right to resist any hint of skepticism:

Hume compares our moral sense with our five senses. “Vice and virtue,” he says, “may be compar’d to sounds, colours, heat and cold, which, according to modern philosophy, are not qualities in objects, but perceptions in the mind.” But of course whether we perceive something as hot or cold, red or blue, does depend on the nature of the objects themselves.

For Hume, the fact that justice is a virtue is no less objective than the fact that grass is green. Despite conventional wisdom, Hume does not put morality at risk.

Baggini’s Hume exhibits a “core Humean virtue we come back to again and again: modesty. […] Hume was cautious in his thinking, and advocated caution in others.” Baggini speculates that this is why he “has not ‘crossed over’ from academic preeminence to public acclaim. […] His ideas are far too sensible to shock [and] not obviously radical enough to capture our attention.” There is something to this thought: among the radical views attributed to Hume are many he did not hold. But some of them he did. According to Baggini, “Hume’s account of personal identity is a good example of the kind of modest reasoning he commended.” Yet Hume’s theory of the self is shocking: that you and I do not exist as substances with properties at all. This theory is the product of a flawed conception of the mind as a shoal of image-like “impressions” and “ideas” that leaves Hume with no purchase on phenomena such as belief. Hume thinks of beliefs as “lively” ideas, as though believing it will rain is having an unusually vivid dream of showers. Belief is a relation between a subject and what is believed — a relation that makes sense only if there is a subject to relate to.

Equally shocking is “Hume’s fork” — exceptional in being well named — on which all reasoning concerns “relations of ideas” or empirical facts. This doctrine finds expression in one of Hume’s more colorful declarations:

If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics […] let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

Hume may have been sensible, then, but he was also radical. I said it was hard to recover the outrage that incited Hume’s contemporaries, but imagine reading passages like this, from Hume’s The Natural History of Religion (1757), as a traditional Christian:

Examine the religious principles, which have, in fact, prevailed in the world. You will scarcely be persuaded, that they are anything but sick men’s dreams: Or per­haps will regard them more as the playsome whimsies of monkeys in human shape than the serious, positive, dogmatical asseverations of a being, who dignifies himself with the name of rational.

The Hume that emerges from Baggini’s book is paradoxical: a modest guy who calls the “Love of literary Fame” his “ruling Passion”; a cautious thinker whose conclusions are routinely wild; an open mind who jokingly advocates book-burning.

With all his errors, moral and intellectual, what is to be learned from Hume today? It’s a capacious question. We can learn from Hume’s racism — if only, as Baggini notes, that “the greatest minds […] have prejudices, weaknesses, and blind spots.” And there is still a lot to learn from Hume’s critique of religion, his naturalistic moral theory, and his belief in our continuity with the rest of nature. But perhaps the most neglected lesson is that, for Hume, the study of human nature points not toward empirical psychology but to the study of history that occupied his middle years. Contemporary philosophers often flirt with psychological research, even going so far as to run studies of their own. They rarely read Hume’s histories or make use of history at all. But as Hume knew, there are limits to controlled experiment when it comes to human beings. Our only re­course is to “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.” For Hume, The History of England flowed from the Treatise of Human Nature; it was not independent of it. Thus, he would write, in a 1741 essay on the study of history:

And indeed, if we consider the shortness of human life, and our limited knowledge, even of what passes in our own time, we must be sensible that we should be for ever children in understanding, were it not for this invention, which extends our experience to all past ages, and to the most distant nations. […] A man acquainted with history may, in some respect, be said to have lived from the beginning of the world …

Of all the misreadings of Hume, the one that sidelines history for experiment may be the most regrettable. Hume was a faulty anthropologist, but he wasn’t wrong that philosophical anthropology, informed by history, is essential to the discipline. It’s a woefully neglected field.

Baggini’s book approaches Hume the way that Hume approached the kings and queens of England: with sympathy and balance. “Mr. Hume, in his History, is neither parliamentarian, nor royalist, nor Anglican, nor Presbyterian,” Voltaire affirmed in 1764, “he is simply judicial.” If Baggini is a painter, he’s an honest one, more Rembrandt van Rijn than Allan Ramsay (the artist responsible for a flattering portrait of the young David Hume in a bright red-orange turban). But he knows his anatomy, too, as well as his history and geography. The result is a scene from life in which the central figure fascinates, whether we admire him or not. As a monument to Hume, Baggini’s book is less contentious than a tower block — and more edifying.


Kieran Setiya teaches philosophy at MIT. He is the author of Midlife: A Philosophical Guide (2017) and is working on a book about philosophy and adversity.

LARB Contributor

Kieran Setiya teaches philosophy at MIT. He is the author of Midlife: A Philosophical Guide (2017), Life Is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way (2022), and a Substack newsletter, Under the Net.


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