A Treatise of Human Nature is a work of David Hume, which was published in three consecutive parts from 1738 to 1740. Hume was a Scottish philosopher who was increasingly fascinated by the study of human knowledge and mind. In A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume attempts to explore the idea of human knowledge from a philosophical point of view, as well as to argue his opinion on what governs human behavior. The work is divided into three sections. Book I “Of the Understanding” explores the idea of knowledge, claiming that all human knowledge is derived from experience one way or the other. Book II “Of the Passions”, on the other hand, argues that passions and emotions, rather than pure reasoning, are the forces that govern human behavior. The last section, Book III “Of Morals” investigates the nature of morals and high ideas, arguing that they are not necessarily rational and depend on feelings and emotions more than on reasoning.
In the introduction to Book I, Hume claims that all sciences are ultimately dependent on human knowledge, yet the subject of knowledge is rarely addressed adequately by the scholars (xix). He follows the popular notion of empiricism by arguing that experience and observation are essential in most science subjects, as well as in the study of human nature: “as the science of man is the only solid foundation for the other sciences, so the only solid foundation we can give to this science itself must be laid on experience and observation” (Hume xx). This sentence summarizes the entire argument of Book I; Hume claims that all human knowledge is based on experience or in some way derived from it. The author argues that innate ideas no longer exist: “the principle of innate ideas […] has been already refuted, and is now almost universally rejected in the learned world” (Hume 158). Hume also divides people’s perception of the world into two categories, ideas and impressions, where one is dependent on the other: “the ideas I form are exact representations of the impressions I felt; nor is there any circumstance of the one, which is not to be found in the other” (Hume 3). This notion elaborates on the author’s argument about the empirical nature of knowledge: for Hume, impressions are the experiences that form ideas, or knowledge. The author moves to explain that simple ideas are the direct representation of the impressions (Hume 4); complex ideas, on the other hand, may not be a direct product of impressions but rather a result of a chain of processes that followed them (Hume 3).
The notion of impressions continues in the second section of the work, where Hume attempts to differentiate the forces that drive actions of the people. Hume defines most of the passions as the violent type of impressions, such as “love and hatred, grief and joy, pride and humility” (276). These passions are more powerful than the emotions arising from the ‘calm’ impressions, and, therefore, have a stronger influence on one’s actions (Hume 276). The first two parts of Book II are devoted to the exploration of different passions. For instance, Part I examines pride and humility. Hume argues that the opposite passions are usually focused on the same object (277). The object of both pride and humility is self (Hume 277); love and hatred, which are the passions studied in Part II, on the other hand, are attached to another person (Hume 329). To me, an essential part of Book II is its final sections, particularly the author’s discussion of the relationship between reason and passions. Contrary to the popular philosophers of the time who saw reason and passion as being in constant opposition, Hume attempts to eliminate the moral conflict by arguing that “reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will; and secondly, that it can never oppose passion in the direction of the will” (413).
In the final part of the work, Hume continues on the notion of reason and passions by analyzing how these two concepts influence moral ideas. He opposes the views of those who see moral ideas as stemming from reasoning solely and proposes another view, showing how the nature of morality is rather emotional than reason-based. Section II shows how pride, despite being one of the violent passions, can be a motivating force behind great deeds (Hume 595-596). However, the tender passions, such as generosity, fidelity, compassion, and friendship, can also result in moral and benevolent actions (Hume 603-604).
Overall, I found Hume’s work very refreshing in the context of contemporary philosophical thought. With the rise in empirical philosophy, most of the work in the 18th century was based on the principles of logical thinking. Hume’s ideas, on the other hand, are more applicable to the complex nature of human mind and emotions. I found most of the author’s ideas to be still relevant in the modern context, as most of the people still view emotions and reason as two opposing factors, where emotions weaken moral judgment, while reasoning is the preferred way of making ethical evaluations. Hume, on the other hand, opposes this view by stating that passions and emotions are natural and not necessarily contradictory to reason.
Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. Edited by Lewis A. Selby-Bigge, Claredon Press, 1896.