Scottish Philosopher David Hume – Ideas Influencing the Declaration of Independence and Constitution

For twenty some years I recorded 10 volumes of Daily Notes that rehearsed events of the day.  Recently by happenstance my wife was perusing Vol. I.  Curiosity aroused I read the opened page and found this Daily Note:  “Did some banking and now plan to try t0 understand David’s Hume’s attack on rationalism and induction”   (3/17/1983 –  p.34)  This Note recalled my awareness of the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume that came  six decades prior when taking a sequence of graduate courses in the History of Philosophy.  I recall my appreciation as a young student finding Hume refreshingly radical.  What caught my attention was  Hume’s stance in the debate regarding knowledge and its relationship with rationalism and empiricism. Experience and the evidences of the senses, in Hume’s view, is the basis for belief and drawing of conclusions.  Western philosophy had been dominated, as I had become aware, with Platonic ideas.  Justification for knowledge, Platonism argued, is by reason rather than the senses. Eternal truths, or Forms, we discover by reason,  “they are eternal, necessary, and unchanging”.  Knowledge is based on the foundation of Innate Ideas inborn in the mind and not received from experience. The occasion for the referenced Daily Note was teaching a course in Problems of Philosophy when wrestling with Hume’s thought first encountered thirty years prior. David Hume is an important figure in the history of philosophy and the Scottish Enlightenment.

Recent  reading included Arthur Herman’s:  How the Scots Invented the Modern World,  a history of the Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th century.  Divided into two parts the narrative rehearses sequentially the leading contributors to the Enlightenment followed by the spread of those ideas to the Western world.   Herman stresses the impact of the Enlightenment ideas of democracy and literacy that sparked the American Revolution and framing of the American Constitution.  Scottish Philosopher David Hume served as harbinger  for an American worldview supporting government committed to freedom, justice, and equity.  Hume had faith in social progress while recognizing its limitations that civil society was moving from slavery to freedom.  “Freedom (however) is always ambiguous.”   The experimental method of reasoning led Hume  into moral subjects such as justice, obligations, and benevolence.   True liberty involves not only individual rights but also personal obligations.  Hume concludes:  “liberty is the perfection of civil society  . . . . . (but) authority must be acknowledged as essential to its very existence.”




Published by profbartling1

Retired professor Concordia University, St. Paul, Mn. Taught mainly American History. Also taught in other areas of history, philosophy, and theology,

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