The Constitution of Human Nature

  • Christopher J. Berry
Part of the Archives Internationales D’Histoire des Idees / International Archives of the History of Ideas book series (ARCH, volume 103)


In his anonymous review of his own Treatise of Human Nature, Hume states that the author “purposes to anatomise human nature” (A, 183; cf. T, 263; T, 620; L I, 32) and in the important introduction to the Treatise itself Hume declares, in a striking military metaphor, that the aim of the work is “instead of taking now and then a castle or village on the frontier to march up directly to the capital, or centre of these sciences [logic, morals, criticism, politics] to human nature itself” (T, xx). This is to be accomplished, as the subtitle of the work notifies, by the experimental method, which means “that we are unable to go beyond experience” and “must therefore glean up our experiments in this science [of man] from a cautious observation of human life” (T, xxiii).


Human Nature Human Mind Universal Principle Regular Spring Constant Constituent 
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    Sketches on the History of Man (1774, 3rd Edit.), Vol. 1, p. 148. Cf. similarly Voltaire’s opening comments to his Essai sur les Moeurs (1756).Google Scholar
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    Cf. from the History itself, “History also being a collection of facts which are multiplying without end, is obliged to adopt such arts of abridgement, to retain the more material events, and to drop all the minute circumstances which are only interesting during the time or to the persons engaged in the transaction...What mortal could have the patience to write or read a long detail of such frivolous events as those with which it is filled, or attend to a tedious narrative which would follow through a series of 56 years, the caprices of so mean a prince as Henry II” (HE, 143).Google Scholar
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    As C.N. Stockton has noted Hume’s practice conformed to this principle (‘Economics and the Mechanism of Progress’ in D. Livingston and J. King, Hume: a re-evaluation, p. 297). For example: “This crisis [the Reformation] was now visibly approaching in Scotland; and whoever considers merely the transactions resulting from it, will be inclined to throw the blame equally on both parties; whoever enlarges his view and reflects on the situation will remark the necessary progress of human affairs and the operation of those principles which are inherent in human nature” (HE, 440, my emphasis). Cf. Paul H. Mayer who holds that Hume’s practice in the History reflects a change, indeed “we have some reason for surmising that in the course of his historical investigations he had considerably modified his earlier belief in the uniformity of human nature and we find indications of a historical relativism”, ‘Voltaire and Hume as Historians’ in PLMA (1958), p. 55. But even allowing for the tentativeness of this remark, the relativism that can be seen in Hume is present in his early work (see infra) and thus provides little evidence for modification. In addition, the History itself, as the quotation here demonstrates, can provide material for many interpretations. 6. Hume’s Philosophy of Belief, p. 145–6.Google Scholar
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    Cf. R.F. Anderson, Hume’s First Principles, who takes ‘human nature’ to be the same as the human mind or the ‘self (p. 23) & T.E. Jessop, ‘Some Misunderstandings of Hume’ in Hume, ed. V.C. Chappell who takes ‘human nature’ to be “beliefs, emotions and reactions and the introspec-tively evident processes” (p. 42).Google Scholar
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    Cf. Wertz, JHI, p. 492–3 who after citing some passages from the History (H, 508, 533) fails to see how Hume’s discussion of inconstancy here parallels the discussion in the Treatise and is in fact part of human nature’s constancy so that it does not thus “fall outside the uniformity which Newtonian science and philosophy demand”. This is seen by O. Brunet, Philosophie et Esthétique chez D. Hume, p. 131.Google Scholar
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    For Descartes’ attitude to history see his Discourse de La Méthode (1637), Pt. 1 and for Locke’s doubts as to its reliability see Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690), Bk. 4, Chap. 16, Sect. 11. It is true that in the eighteenth century there did develop a counter-offensive to restore some degree of certitude to history’s findings. See R. Mercier, La Réhabilitation de la Nature Humaine 1700–50, esp. p. 171ff. on Buffier; also see G. Pflug, ‘The Development of Historical Method in the Eighteenth-Century’, HT (Beiheft 11, 1971) 1–23. Hume himself discussed the probabilistic nature of historical knowledge in his examination of miracles (U, 117–141).Google Scholar
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    Cf. Bolingbroke, Letter III. To Blair knowledge of human nature is necessary to fulfil the end of history in order to “account for the conduct of individuals and to give just views of their character”, Lectures, p. 483.Google Scholar
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    Many interpretations of Hume fail to attend to the historically specific situation of his thought. It is defensible to use Hume’s ideas as part of the author’s own argument but it is a mistake to attribute that argument to Hume. H.H. Price is at least clear as to what he is doing (regardless of how the tenor of his comments are taken) “My remarks are addressed to those who write about him as philosophers, not as mere historians of philosophical literature” and Hume’s argument is explicitly to be used as a means to help us understand the world, Hume’s Theory of the External World, pp. 3, 4.Google Scholar
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© Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, The Hague 1982

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  • Christopher J. Berry

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