David Hume still influences our thinking

A remarkable man came into this world on May 7th, 1711. David Hume was a contemporary and friend of Adam Smith. They would meet together in Edinburgh taverns to discuss their ideas with each other. In the Adam Smith Institute we have the Tassie medallion plaques of each of them next to each other.

We speak of “David Hume the Philosopher,” but in his day he was known as David Hume the Historian.” When he published “A Treatise of Human Nature,” he said of it that “it fell dead-born from the press.” However, his massive 6-volume “History of England” was an instant best-seller and established his fame.

Hume was a thoroughgoing empiricist, maintaining that impressions come to us via the five senses, and that our ideas are derived from them. He was very much concerned with the world of our observation, and preferred natural explanations of things rather than supernatural ones. He argued that it is only habit or instinct that makes us suppose things will be seen to behave as they have done previously, failing to find any causal thread that connects past events to future ones. This is his famous “problem of induction,” solved by Sir Karl Popper in the 20th Century. Popper’s solution is that we conjecture about the future in a leap of the imagination, and then test our theories by real-world experiments.

When we maintain that the free markets and choices of neoliberalism have proved their worth in practice by the observed results they have achieved, there is Hume as well as Smith inspiring that approach. It is what happens in practice that matters. And when we point out that socialism was tested to destruction in the 20th Century, we are referring to the disastrous results it engendered every time. Things have to be grounded and tested in the observed world, not in the fanciful reasonings of theorists.

Hume’s concern with this world rather than any next world set him at odds with the established religion of his day, putting him at risk of severe punishment. As it was, his unorthodoxy caused him to be denied promotion and preferment. He was not one to mince words, as the concluding paragraph of his “Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding” makes clear.

"When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; 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.”