David Hume, His Theory of Knowledge and Morality


A man who wants a philosophy by which to live, may be compared to a man who wants a house to inhabit or a ship in which to make a voyage; and like them he requires in his expert advisers two different capacities, the creative capacity to produce a satisfying design, and the critical capacity to ensure the adequacy of the scantlings and the soundness of the materials and fastenings.

Hume is emphatically a philosopher of the critical kind. And his advice is essentially wholesome. What he tells us to do is to examine our own nature, and the character and limitations of our reason. We shall then not be tempted to adopt any pretentious systems of philosophy, designs specifying materials which are not to be found in human nature, towers and pinnacles for which we cannot provide support, and a general lofty magnificence which is not in accordance with the requirements of our nature, but serves only to gratify an unjustifiable intellectual pride.

To drop the metaphor and quote Hume's own words, "Philosophical decisions", he tells us in the penultimate section of the "Enquiry concerning the Human Understanding", "are nothing but the reflections of common life, methodised and corrected . . ."; we "will never be tempted to go beyond common life, so long as we consider the imperfection of those faculties which we employ, their narrow reach, and their inaccurate operations. While we cannot give a satisfactory reason why we believe, after a thousand experiments, that a stone will fall or fire burn; can we ever satisfy ourselves concerning any determination, which we may form, with regard to the origin of worlds, the situation of nature, from, and to eternity? . . ."

Additional information

Publisher: Place of publication:
  • London
Publication year:
  • 1951


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