A Treatise of Human Nature

A Treatise of Human Nature

"A Treatise of Human Nature" is a book by Scottish philosopher David Hume, first published in 17391740.

The full title of the "Treatise" is 'A Treatise of Human Nature: Being an Attempt to introduce the experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects'. It contains the following sections:
* Book 1: "Of the Understanding" - A treatment of everything from the origin of our ideas to how they are to be divided. Important statements of Scepticism.
* Book 2: "Of the Passions" - A treatment of emotions and free will.
* Book 3: "Of Morals" - A treatment of moral ideas, justice, obligations, benevolence.


Hume wrote "A Treatise of Human Nature" in France at the age of twenty-six. Although many scholars today consider the "Treatise" to be Hume's most important work and one of the most important books in the history of philosophy, the public in Britain did not at first agree. Hume himself described the (lack of) public reaction to the publication of the "Treatise" by writing that the book "fell dead-born from the press." [Hume, David (1776) "My Own Life", Appendix A of Ernest Campbell Mossner, "The Life of David Hume", University of Texas Press, 1954, p. 612.]

Hume intended to see whether the "Treatise" met with success and, if so, to complete it with books devoted to morals, politics, and criticism. [Before the Introduction, Hume inserted an "Advertisement," or warning. It read as follows:

My design in the present work is sufficiently explain'd in the "introduction". The reader must only observe, that all the subjects I have there plann'd out to myself, are not treated of in these two volumes. The subjects of the "understanding" and "passions" make a compleat chain of reasoning by themselves; and I was willing to take advantage of this natural division, in order to try the taste of the public. If I have the good fortune to meet with success, I shall proceed to the examination of "morals", "politics", and "criticism"; which will compleat this "Treatise of human nature".
] It did not meet with success, and so was not completed.

After deciding that the "Treatise" had problems of style rather than of content, he reworked some of the material for more popular consumption in "An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding" (1748). It did not prove extremely successful either, but more so than the "Treatise". He later also "cast anew" Book 3 of the "Treatise" as "An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals" (1751), which Hume wrote is "of all my writings, historical, philosophical, or literary, incomparably the best." [Hume, David (1776) "My Own Life", URL = < [http://socserv.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/hume/humelife http://socserv.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/hume/humelife] .>]

The "Treatise" is now in the public domain. Books 1 and 2 were originally published in 1739, while Book 3 was published in 1740. [Norton, David Fate (2000) "Editor's Introduction," "A Treatise of Human Nature", D.F. and M.J. Norton (eds.), p. 19.]


Of the Understanding

This book is a treatment of everything from the origin of our ideas to how they are to be divided. It includes important statements of Scepticism and Hume's experimental method. Part 1 deals with the nature of ideas. Part 2 deals with the ideas of space and time. Part 3 deals with knowledge and probability. Part 4 deals with skeptical and other systems of philosophy, including a discussion of the soul and personal identity.

The Nature of Ideas

In this part, first David Hume divides all perception into ideas and impressions. He then argues that the simple impressions that come through the senses are the cause of their corresponding simple ideas, and from simple ideas forms complex ideas, either restricted to the same order of the corresponding complex impressions (which are memories) or re-arranged in a new form (which is imagination). Descartes claimed that the only cause to the idea of God must be God himself, but according to Hume, God is a complex idea formed from simple ideas caused by simple impressions. Therefore, the idea of God neither requires God nor proves his existence.

Then Hume argues that general ideas are nothing but particular ideas attached to a certain word that gives it a wider application and makes it recall other individuals that are similar to it, for example we first see a particular man, then have an idea of this particular man, attach a word to this idea and then recall it when we see something similar (another man). Hume defends this view by 3 arguments - one of them is that the mind cannot think of a certain quality without the degree of that quality, such as a line without a length attached to it. Hence all ideas must have their particular degrees of qualities that therefore must be particular.

But if this was true, how then can the distinction of reason (Thinking of the shape of something only or its color only) be possible? According to Hume it is through thinking of the resemblance of something with something else different in other aspects, for example we can consider the color of something only by thinking of the resemblance it has with something else of a different shape. Hume gives the example of a white marble globe and a black marble globe, one can think of the distinct shape by thinking of the resemblance between these two marble globes.

The Ideas of Space and Time

In this section, Hume first argues that our ideas and impressions of space and time aren't infinitely divisible, one of the arguments is that the capacity of the mind is limited therefore it cannot perceive an object with an infinite amount of parts, so it cannot be infinitely divisible, the same for impressions and the proof is that if someone moves a piece of paper with a spot of ink on it until it disappears, the moment before it does, it represents the smallest indivisible impression.

Then Hume argues that space and time themselves aren't infinitely divisible, and the argument is that if time was infinitely divisible there could be two moments coexisting which is against the definition of time, there must be an indivisible part of time, and from the concept of motion the same can be said of space (Max Plank might have confirmed that the Plank size and the Plank time are the indivisible parts of space and time).

As Hume showed before, no simple idea can come before a simple impression, and applying this to space, what impression can cause the idea of space?It must be an external idea according to Hume (unlike Kant who says the idea of space is given a priori), but the senses convey to us only colored points and rays of light, so the idea of extension is nothing but the copy of these colored points and the manner of their appearances.The idea of time is derived from the succession of the two forms or perception, ideas and impressions (again unlike Kant who considered space and time conditions of experience and not derived from experience but given a priori), the argument for that is that we feel time flowing differently if our ideas and impressions flow in the mind differently.Another argument for this is that the parts of time can never coexist so an unchanging object since it contains only coexistent impressions can never give us the notion of time, therefore time must be derived from changing objects, and can never be separated from the succession of them.

Hume then argues that if time cannot be derived from an unchanging object therefore it cannot be applied to such an object, the rest of this part is the answer to objections to Hume's views about space and time.

Of the Passions

This book is a treatment of emotions and free will. Part 1 deals with pride and humility. Part 2 deals with love and hatred. Part 3 deals with the will and direct passions.

Of Morals

This book is a treatment of moral ideas, justice, obligations, benevolence. Part 1 deals with virtue and vice in general. Part 2 deals with justice. Part 3 deals with other virtues, such as benevolence.


ee also

*Science of man
*Hume's Law

External links

*gutenberg|no=4705|name=A Treatise of Human Nature
* [http://etext.library.adelaide.edu.au/h/hume/david/h92t/ A Treatise of Human Nature] , web edition published by [http://etext.library.adelaide.edu.au/ eBooks@Adelaide]
* [http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/f_hume.html A Treatise of Human Nature] Jonathan Bennett's reformatted and annotated version, for easier reading. Pdf from [http://www.earlymoderntexts.com EarlyModernTexts.com]

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