The Riddle of Hume's Treatise: Skepticism, Naturalism, and Irreligion

The Riddle of Hume's Treatise: Skepticism, Naturalism, and Irreligion

The Riddle of Hume's Treatise: Skepticism, Naturalism, and Irreligion

The Riddle of Hume's Treatise: Skepticism, Naturalism, and Irreligion


Although it is widely recognized that David Hume's "A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40)" belongs among the greatest works of philosophy, there is little agreement about the correct way to interpret his fundamental intentions. It is an established orthodoxy among almost all commentators that skepticism and naturalism are the two dominant themes in this work. The difficulty has been, however, that Hume's skeptical arguments and commitments appear to undermine and discredit his naturalistic ambition to contribute to "the science of man". This schism appears to leave his entire project broken-backed.

The solution to this riddle depends on challenging another, closely related, point of orthodoxy: namely, that before Hume published the Treatise he removed almost all material concerned with problems of religion. Russell argues, contrary to this view, that irreligious aims and objectives are fundamental to the Treatise and account for its underlying unity and coherence. It is Hume's basic anti-Christian aims and objectives that serve to shape and direct both his skeptical and naturalistic commitments. When Hume's arguments are viewed from this perspective we can solve, not only puzzles arising from his discussion of various specific issues, we can also explain the intimate and intricate connections that hold his entire project together.

This "irreligious" interpretation provides a comprehensive fresh account of the nature of Hume's fundamental aims and ambitions in the Treatise. It also presents a radically different picture of the way in which HUme's project was rooted in the debates and controversies of his own time, placing the Treatise in an irreligious or anti-Chrisitan philosophical tradition that includes Hobbes, Spinoza and freethinking followers. Considered in these terms, Hume's Treatise constitutes the crowning achievement of the Radical Enlightenment.


The whole is a riddle, an enigma, an inexplicable mystery.

Hume, Natural History of Religion

A Treatise of Human Nature (1739–40) is widely regarded as the greatest and most influential of David Hume’s philosophical works and perhaps the greatest and most influential work in English-speaking philosophy. Ironically enough, however, despite Hume’s considerable reputation as one of the most important philosophical critics of religion, it is also generally agreed that the Treatise has little or nothing of a direct or substantial nature to do with problems of religion. According to the orthodox view, Hume originally intended to include some irreligious material in the Treatise but decided to “castrate” his work before it was published, removing a number of sections that might cause “offence.” Hume’s major contributions to issues of religion, it is said, are all to be found in his later writings—most notably his posthumous Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779). Contrary to this view, I argue in this book that it is irreligious aims and objectives that are fundamental to the Treatise and account for its underlying unity and coherence.

Almost all commentators over the past two and a half centuries have agreed that Hume’s intentions in the Treatise should be interpreted in terms of two general themes: skepticism and naturalism. Although both these themes are relevant to issues of religion in ways Hume subsequently developed and brought to light in his later works, neither the skepticism nor the naturalism of the Treatise are understood to have any particular relevance for issues of religion. With respect to skepticism, Hume is understood to advance a variety of radical, Pyrrhonian principles and doctrines throughout his work. These are supposed to undermine and discredit systematically our common sense beliefs about the world. On the other hand, with respect to naturalism, Hume is understood to aim at being “the Newton of the moral sciences” by way of introducing the “experimental method” to the study of human nature. It is evident, however, that although both these themes surface in various ways throughout the Treatise, they stand in considerable tension in relation to each other. More specifically, Hume’s strong skeptical commitments appear to discredit and undercut his naturalist ambitions with respect to the project of “the science of man.” This core tension constitutes a deep riddle lying at the heart of the Treatise. Any acceptable interpretation of this work must aim to solve it.

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