Hume: The science of man and human nature

In the age of the Enlightenment, an effort was made to set the concept of human nature on a scientific footing, but this did not come without contradictions that ended up favouring the discourse of the presumed superiority of the West.

More to the point, from the Scottish Enlightenment there sprang some approaches that called into question some of the central concepts of seventeenth-century natural law, particularly the concepts of the state of nature and the law of nature: these were found to be unscientific, and the emphasisaccordingly fell on the concept of human nature. As we read in the introduction to the Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), Hume’s intent was to establish a rigorous science of man based on observation and experience. This science was to explain the principles of human nature on the basis of a cautious observation of human life, that is, of the way humans behave in company, in business, and in pleasure. On this foundation, Hume thought, a new science could be aspired to that would be as certain as any other science of human understanding and no less useful (Hume [1739-40] 1969, 46), and that would form a solid basis for other sciences closely connected with human nature (logic, morality, critical reasoning, and politics). The focus of investigation thus shifted from humans in the state of nature to humans in society, to the individual as a member of an organized social group. As Edward Keene observes, however, this new interest inevitably also led to a shift in attention from the laws of nature and natural rights, understood as universal, to the differences and contrasts that could be observed between civilized and barbarian peoples. And so, paradoxically, the very interest in investigating human nature on an empirical basis—with a view to uncovering its sameness—drew attention to the differences that existed among peoples according to where they fell in the march of progress towards a common civilization (Keene 2005, 136). This paradox comes through especially clearly in the work of Hume: “It is universally acknowledged,” he asserts, “that there is a great uniformity among the actions of men, in all nations and ages, and that human nature remains still the same, in its principles and operations” (Hume 1894, sec. VIII, pt. I, § 65, p. 83). On this approach, it was history that would inevitably bear out the thesis of the uniformity of human nature. But in fact the argument proceeds a priori (Keene 2005, 150), for Hume does not even consider the possibility of any real difference among peoples. As he puts it:

Should a traveller, returning from a far country, bring us an account of men, wholly different from any with whom we were ever acquainted; men, who were entirely divested of avarice, ambition, or revenge; who knew no pleasure but friendship, generosity, and public spirit; we should immediately, from these circumstances, detect the falsehood, and prove him a liar, with the same certainty as if he had stuffed his narration with stories of centaurs and dragons, miracles and prodigies. (Hume 1894, sec. VIII, § 65. pt. I, p. 84)

We should instead look to “ambition, avarice, self-love, vanity, friendship, generosity, public spirit”: it is these passions, says Hume, that can be observed to drive the actions of people across nations and over time. “Mankind,” in other


Keene 2005, 136. On the idea of human nature in the age of the Enlightenment and the possibility of universalizing the Enlightenment principles on the basis of a uniform human nature, see Berlin (1947) 2013.

Deconstructing the concepts 45 words, “are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular” (ibid., 83).

And yet what empirical analysis brought to light were some undeniable differences that needed to be accounted for. In Hume we find the important distinction between physical causes (as in Montesquieu) and moral causes,[1] to which he gave greater weight in explaining the diversity of peoples. On these bases Hume, disconcertingly for us, came “to suspect the negroes, and in general all the other species of men [...] to be naturally inferior to the whites.” This made for a contradiction that was destined to remain unresolved—a contradiction between the claim that there existed a uniform human nature and the observation that there existed different degrees of development among peoples. And it is against the backdrop of this ambivalence that in the following century the paradigm of Western primacy would be asserted.

  • [1] As Hume put it: “Different reasons are assigned for these national characters-, while some account for them from moral, others from physical causes. By moral causes, I mean all circumstances, which are fitted to work on the mind as motives or reasons, and which render a peculiar set of manners habitual to us. Of this kind are, the nature of the government, the revolutions of public affairs, the plenty or penury in which the people live, the situation of the nation with regard to its neighbours, and such like circumstances. By physical causes, I mean those qualities of the air and climate, which are supposed to work insensibly on the temper, by altering the tone and habit of the body [...]. / That the character of a nation will much depend on moral causes, must be evident to the most superficial observer; since a nation is nothing but a collection of individuals, and the manners of individuals are frequently determined by these causes” (Hume [1772] 1994, 78-79; cf. Keene 2005, 152). 2 Hume (1772) 1994, 86. Even Montesquieu stated: “Those concerned are black from head to toe, and they have such flat noses that it is almost impossible to feel sorry for them. / One cannot get into one’s mind that god, who is a very wise being, should have put a soul, above all a good soul, in a body that was entirely black. / [...] It is impossible for us to assume that these people are men because if we assumed they were men one would begin to believe that we ourselves were not Christians” (Montesquieu [1748] 1989, pt. 3, bk. 15, chap. 5 [“On the Slavery of the Negroes”], p. 250).
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