Hume’s Scepticism: Natural Instincts and Philosophical Reflection

  • Barry Stroud
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives Internationales d’Histoire des Idées book series (ARCH, volume 145)


Philosophy for the Greeks was not confined to abstract theory but was also meant as a guide to the living of a good human life. Hume was steeped in the literature of antiquity. I think there is a close kinship between his conception of philosophy and that ancient conception. It is something we tend to miss when we look back at Hume for our own purposes from here and now. I want to try to bring out the connection by identifying what Hume thought philosophical reflection could reveal about human nature, and what he, therefore, thought the point, or the human good, of philosophical reflection can be. His own direction in philosophy took him closest to that way of life said to have been achieved by certain ancient sceptics.


Human Nature Negative Conclusion Sceptical Argument Philosophical Reflection Common Life 
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    In the end perhaps the best recommendation of scepticism or of any other way of life is to be found not in confirmation of the general facts of human nature on which it is thought to be based, but on the actual lives of its practitioners. If we take Hume’s own life as an expression of his scepticism, Adam Smith’s description of that life is a strong recommendation indeed: “His temper, indeed, seemed to be more happily balanced, if I may be allowed such an expression, than that perhaps of any other man I have ever known. Even in the lowest state of his fortune, his great and necessary frugality never hindered him from exercising ... acts both of charity and generosity.... The extreme gentleness of his nature never weakened either the firmness of his mind, or the steadiness of his resolutions. His constant pleasantry was the genuine effusion of good-nature and good-humor, tempered with delicacy and modesty, and without even the slightest tincture of malignity.... And the gaiety of temper, so agreeable in society ... was in him certainly attended with the most severe application, the most extensive learning, the greatest depth of thought, and a capacity in every respect the most comprehensive. Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit.” (Dialogues, 247–248)Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1996

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  • Barry Stroud

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