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Hume’s birthday

So you may have noticed, David Hume turns 300 today. I reckon he looks a lot younger than that, almost modern. There’s an interesting discussion on the History of Philosophy of Science list about whether Hume is the greatest English language philosopher, as the Stanford article claims. Influence and importance are highly local to the state of philosophy at a time. From his death in 1776 until about a century later, Hume was not widely regarded as a significant philosopher. Locke, Hobbes and Berkeley were much more generally discussed.

Hume was revived by T. H. Green and his colleague T. H. Grose, who published a collected works, and by T. H. Huxley, who published a book. It seems the “T H” stood for “Towards Hume” in the 1870s. I have a first edition of Hume’s collected Essays edited by Green and Grose, and a third edition of Huxley’s Hume.

What I like about Hume’s philosophy is that when you try to think of something he may have left out or incompletely discussed, you find that he hasn’t. He is one of the most complete philosophers in English. But he was far more than that – he was a historian, a psychologist, a politician and something of a cause celebre at the time, for being not orthodox enough. He was regarded simultaneously in Edinburgh as an atheist (he wasn’t) and as a secular saint.

I think Locke is more important, but Hume is perhaps the most influential English language philosopher on modern philosophy, in large part because of the influence of Kant who famously wrote that Hume woke him from his dogmatic slumbers. Through Kant’s discussion, modern analytic philosophy was born. Whether his influence will continue into the future is a moot point. I think that it is time we revived induction, contrary to Hume’s argument, and a number of philosophers, such as Pat Churchland, are trying to overcome the is-ought distinction in ethics. Still, he is a critical turning point in philosophy, and will be regarded as that for as long as there is scholarship.


  1. TomS TomS

    When starting to think of his competition, my first thoughts were of some medievals (Roger Bacon, Scotus, Ockham), but then I noticed “English language philosophers”. Is Wittgenstein excluded? ISTM that the most well-known names, such as Francis Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, Mill, Spencer and Russell, do not present any competition. And I’d say that it is impossible to judge the long-term lasting power of any contemporary philosopher. The only one that I can think of as having a chance would be Peirce.

    • Bob O'H Bob O'H

      Surely Wilkins will outlast them all.

      • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

        If anyone refers to anything I have written at my death I will be very surprised. Mostly because being dead I am able to be surprised.

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