The Rise of Modern Philosophy

By Anthony Kenny | Go to book overview
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Hume to Hegel


Shortly after Berkeley, in Dublin, gave the world his empiricist metaphysics, there was born in Edinburgh a philosopher who was to take empiricist principles to an anti-metaphysical extreme, David Hume. Hume was born in 1711 into a junior branch of a noble Scottish family. As the younger son of a mother widowed early he had to make his own way in the world. Between twelve and fifteen he studied literature and philosophy at Edinburgh University, falling in love, he tells us, with both subjects. He then set out to prepare himself for a legal profession, but soon gave up because, in his own words, he found 'an insurmountable Aversion to anything but the pursuits of Philosophy and General Learning'.

Despite this, he did attempt a commercial career with a sugar firm in Bristol; but four months of clerking there convinced him that a life in business was not for him. He decided to live frugally on his small inheritance, and went across to France where life in a country town need not be expensive. From 1734–7 he lived at La Flèche in Anjou, where Descartes had been educated at the Jesuit college. Making use of the college library, Hume wrote his first work, a substantial Treatise of Human Nature.

On returning to England he found some difficulty in getting this work published, and when it appeared he was disappointed by its reception. 'Never Literary Attempt was more unfortunate than my Treatise,' he wrote in his autobiography. 'It fell dead-born from the Press.' After his death, however, it was to achieve enormous fame. German idealists in the eighteenth century and British idealists in the nineteenth took it as the target of their criticisms of empiricism: they detested it, but at the same time they revered


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The Rise of Modern Philosophy


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