How do I learn about human nature

Summary of A treatise on human nature

The empiricism

Empiricism, which developed as a philosophical trend in England in the 17th century, assumes that all knowledge is based on experience. In contrast to rationalism with its main representatives Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz, empiricism denies that there can be knowledge "a priori", i.e. independent of experience. Empiricism wanted to sweep Platonic-Aristotelian metaphysics out of the house of philosophy. A modern, enlightening and modern philosophy should emerge. Eternal truths and transcendence (= everything that lies outside of perception, such as the hereafter) were questioned by most empiricists, because sensory perception itself became the whole truth. The empiricists saw everything flowing, in the flow of sensory stimuli - there was little room for iron laws.

The main trailblazers for Hume were John Locke and George Berkeley. Locke had put empiricism - for its part based on the theories of Francis Bacon - with his essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) on systematic feet. His famous saying that the soul of a child is "tabula rasa" made clear his belief that all knowledge can only be gained through experience. Berkeley was even more radical: his maxim was "esse est percipi - to be is to be perceived". Conversely, this means that nothing exists that is not perceived. However, unlike Hume, Berkeley brought God into play, who is supposed to ensure that all people have similar perceptions.


After a period of depression, Hume left Scotland in 1734 to get to know the "active life". After a stay in Bristol, he fulfilled his great wish to go to France. In Reims he studied the works of his role models Locke and Berkeley again and then moved on to the country. In La Flèche, a small village on the Loir River, Hume spent two years writing the treatise on human nature. When he finished the first part, he stumbled upon some internal contradictions of empiricism. Frustrated by this realization and ready to burn his whole book, he left his desk and plunged into life again: "I eat, play trick track, talk, have fun with my friends. If I (...) then to them When speculations return, they seem so cold, exaggerated and ridiculous to me that I cannot take heart to get involved in them, "he wrote in the final section of the first volume. But Hume calmed down when he held the proofs (and the handsome fee of £ 50) in his hands. In January 1739 the treatise appeared anonymously with the Latin motto: "Rare happiness of the times when you can think what you want and say what you think". Hume returned to Scotland in anticipation. Here he set about making the third volume, which deals with morality. In the philosophy professor Francis Hutcheson, Hume found an advocate and sponsor who recommended the third part to a publisher for printing. The volume was published in London in November 1740.

Impact history

"Never has a literary undertaking been more unfortunate than my treatise. As a stillbirth he fell out of the press and did not even attract so much attention to at least arouse quiet grumbling among the zealots." This is how Hume comments on the inclusion of the treatise many years after its publication. The sales figures were pathetic. The first edition of 1000 copies was sold - but it took a whopping 77 years. The treatise was hardly taken into account when it was first published, only occasionally given minor references. Then - after almost a year - the journal The History of the Works of the Learned published a page-long review of the work, probably written by the later Archbishop of Gloucester, William Warburton (Hume called him "Europe's most disgusting writer" in one of his letters) , which amounted to a total dismantling. Slain by orthodox rhetoric, hardly any other author dared to judge the book positively. No benevolent review appeared in any major medium during Hume's lifetime. It happened to Hume as he himself foresaw in the treatise: "I would like to look for protection and warmth in the crowd, but I cannot make up my mind, disfigured as I am, to have intercourse. (...) I have the enmity of everyone Metaphysicians, logicians, mathematicians and even theologians evoked over me. "

But there were others who could do something with Hume's work: It inspired his friend Adam Smith to write his moral writings, and it also influenced Immanuel Kant. Karl Popper developed his own epistemology in opposition to Hume. The philosophical constructivists consider him their forerunner. In general, Hume's treatise is now regarded as an important work of English philosophy and the Bible of the skeptics.