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An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. (1748)

Sect. I. Of the different Species of Philosophy

David Hume.

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An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.

David Hume.

Sect. I. Of the different Species of Philosophy
  1. Moral philosophy, or the science of human nature, may be
treated after two different manners; each of which has its peculiar
merit, and may contribute to the entertainment, instruction, and
reformation of mankind. The one considers man chiefly as born for
action; and as influenced in his measures by taste and sentiment;
pursuing one object, and avoiding another, according to the value
which these objects seem to possess, and according to the light in
which they present themselves. As virtue, of all objects, is allowed
to be the most valuable, this species of philosophers paint her in the
most amiable colours; borrowing all helps from poetry and eloquence,
and treating their subject in an easy and obvious manner, and such
as is best fitted to please the imagination, and engage the
affections. They select the most striking observations and instances
from common life; place opposite characters in a proper contrast;
and alluring us into the paths of virtue by the views of glory and
happiness, direct our steps in these paths by the soundest precepts
and most illustrious examples. They make us feel the difference
between vice and virtue; they excite and regulate our sentiments;
and so they can but bend our hearts to the love of probity and true
honour, they think, that they have fully attained the end of all their

  2. The other species of philosophers considers man in the light of a
reasonable rather than an active being, and endeavours to form his
understanding more than cultivate his manners. They regard human
nature as a subject of speculation; and with a narrow scrutiny examine
it, in order to find those principles, which regulate our
understanding, excite our sentiments, and make us approve or blame any
particular object, action, or behaviour. They think it a reproach to
all literature, that philosophy should not yet have fixed, beyond
controversy, the foundation of morals, reasoning, and criticism; and
should for ever talk of truth and falsehood, vice and virtue, beauty
and deformity, without being able to determine the source of these
distinctions. While they attempt this arduous task, they are
deterred by no difficulties; but proceeding from particular
instances to general principles, they still push on their enquiries to
principles more general, and rest not satisfied till they arrive at
those original principles, by which, in every science, all human
curiosity must be bounded. Though their speculations seem abstract,
and even unintelligible to common readers, they aim at the approbation
of the learned and the wise; and think themselves sufficiently
compensated for the labour of their whole lives, if they can
discover some hidden truths, which may contribute to the instruction
of posterity.

  3. It is certain that the easy and obvious philosophy will always,
with the generality of mankind, have the preference above the accurate
and abstruse; and by many will be recommended, not only as more
agreeable, but more useful than the other. It enters more into
common life; moulds the heart and affections; and, by touching those
principles which actuate men, reforms their conduct, and brings them
nearer to that model of perfection which it describes. On the
contrary, the abstruse philosophy, being founded on a turn of mind,
which cannot enter into business and action, vanishes when the
philosopher leaves the shade, and comes into open day; nor can its
principles easily retain any influence over our conduct and behaviour.
The feelings of our heart, the agitation of our passions, the
vehemence of our affections, dissipate all its conclusions, and reduce
the profound philosopher to a mere plebeian.

  4. This also must be confessed, that the most durable, as well as
justest fame, has been acquired by the easy philosophy, and that
abstract reasoners seem hitherto to have enjoyed only a momentary
reputation, from the caprice or ignorance of their own age, but have
not been able to support their renown with more equitable posterity.
It is easy for a profound philosopher to commit a mistake in his
subtile reasonings; and one mistake is the necessary parent of
another, while he pushes on his consequences, and is not deterred from
embracing any conclusion, by its unusual appearance, or its
contradiction to popular opinion. But a philosopher, who purposes only
to represent the common sense of mankind in more beautiful and more
engaging colours, if by accident he falls into error, goes no farther;
but renewing his appeal to common sense, and the natural sentiments of
the mind, returns into the right path, and secures himself from any
dangerous illusions. The fame of Cicero flourishes at present; but
that of Aristotle is utterly decayed. La Bruyere passes the seas,
and still maintains his reputation: But the glory of Malebranche is
confined to his own nation, and to his own age. And Addison,
perhaps, will be read with pleasure, when Locke shall be entirely

  The mere philosopher is a character, which is commonly but little
acceptable in the world, as being supposed to contribute nothing
either to the advantage or pleasure of society; while he lives
remote from communication with mankind, and is wrapped up in
principles and notions equally remote from their comprehension. On the
other hand, the mere ignorant is still more despised; nor is
anything deemed a surer sign of an illiberal genius in an age and
nation where the sciences flourish, than to be entirely destitute of
all relish for those noble entertainments. The most perfect
character is supposed to lie between those extremes; retaining an
equal ability and taste for books, company, and business; preserving
in conversation that discernment and delicacy which arise from
polite letters; and in business, that probity and accuracy which are
the natural result of a just philosophy. In order to diffuse and
cultivate so accomplished a character, nothing can be more useful than
compositions of the easy style and manner, which draw not too much
from life, require no deep application or retreat to be
comprehended, and send back the student among mankind full of noble
sentiments and wise precepts, applicable to every exigence of human
life. By means of such compositions, virtue becomes amiable, science
agreeable, company instructive, and retirement entertaining.

  Man is a reasonable being; and as such, receives from science his
proper food and nourishment: But so narrow are the bounds of human
understanding, that little satisfaction can be hoped for in this
particular, either from the extent of security or his acquisitions.
Man is a sociable, no less than a reasonable being: But neither can he
always enjoy company agreeable and amusing, or preserve the proper
relish for them. Man is also an active being; and from that
disposition, as well as from the various necessities of human life,
must submit to business and occupation: But the mind requires some
relaxation, and cannot always support its bent to care and industry.
It seems, then, that nature has pointed out a mixed kind of life as
most suitable to the human race, and secretly admonished them to allow
none of these biasses to draw too much, so as to incapacitate them for
other occupations and entertainments. Indulge your passion for
science, says she, but let your science be human, and such as may have
a direct reference to action and society. Abstruse thought and
profound researches I prohibit, and will severely punish, by the
pensive melancholy which they introduce, by the endless uncertainty in
which they involve you, and by the cold reception which your pretended
discoveries shall meet with, when communicated. Be a philosopher; but,
amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.

  5. Were the generality of mankind contented to prefer the easy
philosophy to the abstract and profound, without throwing any blame or
contempt on the latter, it might not be improper, perhaps, to comply
with this general opinion, and allow every man to enjoy, without
opposition, his own taste and sentiment. But as the matter is often
carried farther, even to the absolute rejecting of all profound
reasonings, or what is commonly called metaphysics, we shall now
proceed to consider what can reasonably be pleaded in their behalf.

  We may begin with observing, that one considerable advantage,
which results from the accurate and abstract philosophy, is, its
subserviency to the easy and humane; which, without the former, can
never attain a sufficient degree of exactness in its sentiments,
precepts, or reasonings. All polite letters are nothing but pictures
of human life in various attitudes and situations; and inspire us with
different sentiments, of praise or blame, admiration or ridicule,
according to the qualities of the object, which they set before us. An
artist must be better qualified to succeed in this undertaking, who,
besides a delicate taste and a quick apprehension, possesses an
accurate knowledge of the internal fabric, the operations of the
understanding, the workings of the passions, and the various species
of sentiment which discriminate vice and virtue. How painful soever
this inward search or enquiry may appear, it becomes, in some measure,
requisite to those, who would describe with success the obvious and
outward appearances of life and manners. The anatomist presents to the
eye the most hideous and disagreeable objects; but his science is
useful to the painter in delineating even a Venus or an Helen. While
the latter employs all the richest colours of his art, and gives his
figures the most graceful and engaging airs; he must still carry his
attention to the inward structure of the human body, the position of
the muscles, the fabric of the bones, and the use and figure of
every part or organ. Accuracy is, in every case, advantageous to
beauty, and just reasoning to delicate sentiment. In vain would we
exalt the one by depreciating the other.

  Besides, we may observe, in every art or profession, even those
which most concern life or action, that a spirit of accuracy,
however acquired, carries all of them nearer their perfection, and
renders them more subservient to the interests of society. And
though a philosopher may live remote from business, the genius of
philosophy, if carefully cultivated by several, must gradually diffuse
itself throughout the whole society, and bestow a similar
correctness on every art and calling. The politician will acquire
greater foresight and subtility, in the subdividing and balancing of
power; the lawyer more method and finer principles in his
reasonings; and the general more regularity in his discipline, and
more caution in his plans and operations. The stability of modern
governments above the ancient, and the accuracy of modern
philosophy, have improved, and probably will still improve, by similar

  6. Were there no advantage to be reaped from these studies, beyond
the gratification of an innocent curiosity, yet ought not even this to
be despised; as being one accession to those few safe and harmless
pleasures, which are bestowed on the human race. The sweetest and most
inoffensive path of life leads through the avenues of science and
learning; and whoever can either remove any obstructions in this
way, or open up any new prospect, ought so far to be esteemed a
benefactor to mankind. And though these researches may appear
painful and fatiguing, it is with some minds as with some bodies,
which being endowed with vigorous and florid health, require severe
exercise, and reap a pleasure from what, to the generality of mankind,
may seem burdensome and laborious. Obscurity, indeed, is painful to
the mind as well as to the eye; but to bring light from obscurity,
by whatever labour, must needs be delightful and rejoicing.

  But this obscurity in the profound and abstract philosophy, is
objected to, not only as painful and fatiguing, but as the
inevitable source of uncertainty and error. Here indeed lies the
justest and most plausible objection against a considerable part of
metaphysics, that they are not properly a science; but arise either
from the fruitless efforts of human vanity, which would penetrate into
subjects utterly inaccessible to the understanding, or from the
craft of popular superstitions, which, being unable to defend
themselves on fair ground, raise these intangling brambles to cover
and protect their weakness. Chased from the open country, these
robbers fly into the forest, and lie in wait to break in upon every
unguarded avenue of the mind, and overwhelm it with religious fears
and prejudices. The stoutest antagonist, if he remit his watch a
moment, is oppressed. And many, through cowardice and folly, open
the gates to the enemies, and willingly receive them with reverence
and submission, as their legal sovereigns.

  7. But is this a sufficient reason, why philosophers should desist
from such researches, and leave superstition still in possession of
her retreat? Is it not proper to draw an opposite conclusion, and
perceive the necessity of carrying the war into the most secret
recesses of the enemy? In vain do we hope, that men, from frequent
disappointment, will at last abandon such airy sciences, and
discover the proper province of human reason. For, besides, that
many persons find too sensible an interest in perpetually recalling
such topics; besides this, I say, the motive of blind despair can
never reasonably have place in the sciences; since, however
unsuccessful former attempts may have proved, there is still room to
hope, that the industry, good fortune, or improved sagacity of
succeeding generations may reach discoveries unknown to former ages.
Each adventurous genius will still leap at the arduous prize, and find
himself stimulated, rather that discouraged, by the failures of his
predecessors; while he hopes that the glory of achieving so hard an
adventure is reserved for him alone. The only method of freeing
learning, at once, from these abstruse questions, is to enquire
seriously into the nature of human understanding, and show, from an
exact analysis of its powers and capacity, that it is by no means
fitted for such remote and abstruse subjects. We must submit to this
fatigue, in order to live at ease ever after: And must cultivate
true metaphysics with some care, in order to destroy the false and
adulterate. Indolence, which, to some persons, affords a safeguard
against this deceitful philosophy, is, with others, overbalanced by
curiosity; and despair, which, at some moments, prevails, may give
place afterwards to sanguine hopes and expectations. Accurate and just
reasoning is the only catholic remedy, fitted for all persons and
all dispositions; and is alone able to subvert that abstruse
philosophy and metaphysical jargon, which, being mixed up with popular
superstition, renders it in a manner impenetrable to careless
reasoners, and gives it the air of science and wisdom.

  8. Besides this advantage of rejecting, after deliberate enquiry,
the most uncertain and disagreeable part of learning, there are many
positive advantages, which result from an accurate scrutiny into the
powers and faculties of human nature. It is remarkable concerning
the operations of the mind, that, though most intimately present to
us, yet, whenever they become the object of reflexion, they seem
involved in obscurity; nor can the eye readily find those lines and
boundaries, which discriminate and distinguish them. The objects are
too fine to remain long in the same aspect or situation; and must be
apprehended in an instant, by a superior penetration, derived from
nature, and improved by habit and reflexion. It becomes, therefore, no
inconsiderable part of science barely to know the different operations
of the mind, to separate them from each other, to class them under
their proper heads, and to correct all that seeming disorder, in which
they lie involved, when made the object of reflexion and enquiry. This
talk of ordering and distinguishing, which has no merit, when
performed with regard to external bodies, the objects of our senses,
rises in its value, when directed towards the operations of the
mind, in proportion to the difficulty and labour, which we meet with
in performing it. And if we can go no farther than this mental
geography, or delineation of the distinct parts and powers of the
mind, it is at least a satisfaction to go so far; and the more obvious
this science may appear (and it is by no means obvious) the more
contemptible still must the ignorance of it be esteemed, in all
pretenders to learning and philosophy.

  Nor can there remain any suspicion, that this science is uncertain
and chimerical; unless we should entertain such a scepticism as is
entirely subversive of all speculation, and even action. It cannot
be doubted, that the mind is endowed with several powers and
faculties, that these powers are distinct from each other, that what
is really distinct to the immediate perception may be distinguished by
reflexion; and consequently, that there is a truth and falsehood in
all propositions on this subject, and a truth and falsehood, which lie
not beyond the compass of human understanding. There are many
obvious distinctions of this kind, such as those between the will
and understanding, the imagination and passions, which fall within the
comprehension of every human creature; and the finer and more
philosophical distinctions are no less real and certain, though more
difficult to be comprehended. Some instances, especially late ones, of
success in these enquiries, may give us a juster notion of the
certainty and solidity of this branch of learning. And shall we esteem
it worthy the labour of a philosopher to give us a true system of
the planets, and adjust the position and order of those remote bodies;
while we affect to overlook those, who, with so much success,
delineate the parts of the mind, in which we are so intimately

  9. But may we not hope, that philosophy, if cultivated with care,
and encouraged by the attention of the public, may carry its
researches still farther, and discover, at least in some degree, the
secret springs and principles, by which the human mind is actuated
in its operations? Astronomers had long contented themselves with
proving, from the phaenomena, the true motions, order, and magnitude
of the heavenly bodies: Till a philosopher, at last, arose, who seems,
from the happiest reasoning, to have also determined the laws and
forces, by which the revolutions of the planets are governed and
directed. The like has been performed with regard to other parts of
nature. And there is no reason to despair of equal success in our
enquiries concerning the mental powers and economy, if prosecuted with
equal capacity and caution. It is probable, that one operation and
principle of the mind depends on another; which, again, may be
resolved into one more general and universal: And how far these
researches may possibly be carried, it will be difficult for us,
before, or even after, a careful trial, exactly to determine. This
is certain, that attempts of this kind are every day made even by
those who philosophize the most negligently: And nothing can be more
requisite than to enter upon the enterprize with thorough care and
attention; that, if it lie within the compass of human
understanding, it may at last be happily achieved; if not, it may,
however, be rejected with some confidence and security. This last
conclusion, surely, is not desirable; nor ought it to be embraced
too rashly. For how much must we diminish from the beauty and value of
this species of philosophy, upon such a supposition? Moralists have
hitherto been accustomed, when they considered the vast multitude
and diversity of those actions that excite our approbation or dislike,
to search for some common principle, on which this variety of
sentiments might depend. And though they have sometimes carried the
matter too far, by their passion for some one general principle; it
must, however, be confessed, that they are excusable in expecting to
find some general principles, into which all the vices and virtues
were justly to be resolved. The like has been the endeavour of
critics, logicians, and even politicians: Nor have their attempts been
wholly unsuccessful; though perhaps longer time, greater accuracy, and
more ardent application may bring these sciences still nearer their
perfection. To throw up at once all pretensions of this kind may
justly be deemed more rash, precipitate, and dogmatical, than even the
boldest and most affirmative philosophy, that has ever attempted to
impose its crude dictates and principles on mankind.

  10. What though these reasonings concerning human nature seem
abstract, and of difficult comprehension? This affords no
presumption of their falsehood. On the contrary, it seems
impossible, that what has hitherto escaped so many wise and profound
philosophers can be very obvious and easy. And whatever pains these
researches may cost us, we may think ourselves sufficiently
rewarded, not only in point of profit but of pleasure, if, by that
means, we can make any addition to our stock of knowledge, in subjects
of such unspeakable importance.

  But as, after all, the abstractedness of these speculations is no
recommendation, but rather a disadvantage to them, and as this
difficulty may perhaps be surmounted by care and art, and the avoiding
of all unnecessary detail, we have, in the following enquiry,
attempted to throw some light upon subjects, from which uncertainty
has hitherto deterred the wise, and obscurity the ignorant. Happy,
if we can unite the boundaries of the different species of philosophy,
by reconciling profound enquiry with clearness, and truth with
novelty! And still more happy, if, reasoning in this easy manner, we
can undermine the foundations of an abstruse philosophy, which seems
to have hitherto served only as a shelter to superstition, and a cover
to absurdity and error!

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