David Hume - An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748)
- Stuart Kelly
- 1 January 2005
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
Only three years after the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie's troops at Culloden, a book was published that shattered the world of philosophy and paved the way for the Scottish Enlightenment. David Hume, then aged 37, recast the opening parts of his Treatise of Human Nature – which in his own words 'fell dead-born from the press' without reaching such distinction as even to excite a murmur among the zealots – as An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.
His aim was simple, if extensive. Hume set out to discover what ideas were, and how the mind used them. His conclusions unsettled centuries of presupposition. The details of his work on scepticism, causation and the non-existence of innate ideas are perhaps too technical to expand on here; however, his notorious section 'On Miracles' which he had excluded from the original Treatise amply shows the cast of his mind. He states that 'no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle' unless 'its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact'. The iconoclastic implications of this incontrovertible assertion become clear by the end of the essay: Christianity was at first attended by miracles, and it requires a similar miracle to believe in it now; 'mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its veracity: and whoever is moved by faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding.'
One cannot judge a philosopher like a multiple choice test, ticking or crossing his propositions. Hume's avowedly rational stance contains the seeds for Kant's critique of reason, and even Kierkegaard's existential theology. The Enquiry, with its knowing irony, brisk sanity and gloriously elegant prose, is more than the sum of its axioms. It is a testament to free-thinking, mental innovation and intellectual bravado.
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