Current Misunderstandings of Hume’s Teaching

  • Norman Kemp Smith


ALL who have more than a merely casual acquaintance with Hume’s philosophical works will probably agree that, contrary to first impressions, he is an extremely difficult writer. The difficulty is not so much in regard to his arguments taken singly, which are in the main admirably lucid, but in regard to their bearing upon one another, and upon the central positions which they are intended to support. With repeated reading, and the collation of widely separate sections, questions by no means easy of answer multiply on our hands.


Human Nature Analytic Thinking Causal Action Animal Spirit Ordinary Experience 
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  1. 1.
    Selby-Bigge, Introduction to Hume’s Enquiries (1894 edition), p. vii.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Enquiry I, 4 (30–1). Laird (Hume’s Philosophy of Human Nature [1932], p. 119) argues that Hume has no right to profess belief in secret causes, and cites, as evidence that Hume had himself come to recognise this, a sentence in his essay (published in 1748) Of National Characters : “It is a maxim in all philosophy, that causes which do not appear, are to be considered as not existing ” (G. I l l , p. 249). Hume’s immediately following sentence shows, however, that he is referring not to secret causes but only to the empirically known ‘physical causes’ (cf. op. cit. pp. 246, 251–2) air, food, and climate. “If we run over the globe, or revolve the annals of history, we shall discover every where signs of a sympathy or contagion of manners, none of the influence of air or climate.” What Hume is saying is that where known causes have none of their usual discernible effects, we have no right to assume their presence — least of all when there are other known causes which do account for the phenomena under investigation.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Norman Kemp Smith 1941

Authors and Affiliations

  • Norman Kemp Smith
    • 1
  1. 1.University of EdinburghUK

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