Hume’s Impressions

  • R. J. Butler
Part of the Royal Institute of Philosophy Lectures book series (RIPL)


It is a pleasure to read Hume, and to watch him explore recalcitrant problems with agility of mind and grace of style. Ironically these twin abilities have worked against each other from the beginning, in the first place because in the matter of writing Hume was an innovator — nobody before him had so successfully albeit unwittingly adapted French syntax to the writing of English-and-Scottish — and in the second place because on the grace of his style subtleties of thought flow past his readers, who then accuse him of obscurity. So abstruse were his writings to his contemporaries that he failed to achieve the literary recognition for which he craved; and even today, long after the elegance of his style has been received, it is said by Passmore that Hume in contrast to Berkeley ‘was a philosophical puppy-dog, picking up and worrying one problem after another, always leaving his teeth-marks in it, but casting it aside when it threatened to become wearisome.’1 Similarly Selby-Bigge says in his introduction to the Enquiries:

His pages, especially those of the Treatise, are so full of matter, he says so many things in so many different ways and different connexions, and with so much indifference to what he has said before, that it is very hard to say positively that he taught, or did not teach, this or that particular doctrine. He applies the same principles to such a great variety of subjects that it is not surprising that many verbal, and some real inconsistencies can be found in his statements. He is ambitious rather than shy of saying the same thing in different ways, and at the same time he is often slovenly and indifferent about his words and formulae. This makes it easy to find all philosophies in Hume, or, by setting up one statement against another, none at all.1


Intentional Object Conceptual Content Reasoning Faculty White Marble Violent Emotion 
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  1. 1.
    J. A. Passmore, Hume’s Intentions (Cambridge, 1952) pp. 87–8.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    B. Russell, The Problems of Philosophy (London, 1912) pp. 95–6.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    G. E. Moore, Some Main Problems of Philosophy (London, 1953) pp. 104–6.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    C. D. Broad, The Mind and Its Place in Nature (London, 1923) pp. 233–4.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    H. H. Price, Hume’s Theory of the External World, (Oxford, 1940) pp. 15 ff.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    H. H. Price, Perception (London, 1934) p. 19.Google Scholar
  7. 1.
    N. Kemp Smith, The Philosophy of David Hume (Oxford, 1941) p. 209.Google Scholar
  8. 1.
    J. Bennett, Locke, Berkeley, Hume (Oxford, 1971) p. 224.Google Scholar

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© Royal Institute of Philosophy 1976

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  • R. J. Butler

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