©2000 NewFoundations

The Educational Theory of David Hume 1711 - 1776

Analyst: James M. Cox



I. Theory of Value:

The goals of education seem to be unimportant to Hume but learning is important. Education produces beliefs which are not associated with impressions. Since they are not associated with impressions, they are to be doubted and questioned as "real". Since they are beliefs, and not causally related to impressions, what is learned through education (what is known is given to a knower) form no part of reality. Reality is formed by the philosophic mind, not the metaphysical one. The metaphysical mind is too disordered, lacking "force and settled order" (Passmore, 1952). Later in his writing, Hume stops referring to education and resorts to discussing "the harmony between the course of nature and the succession of our ideas" that allows reality and experience to triumph over superstition and metaphysics (Passmore, 1952). Thus, the goal of "education" is to base ones beliefs in experience and impressions a posteriori (inductively), not on a priori arguments which are propositions based in reason and deduction.

II. Theory of Knowledge:

Knowledge is that which we know to concern content, which are universal, and the opposite of which are inconceivable (Kemp Smith, 1941). This is opposed to that of which we are aware through sense perceptions or ideas which are more pure and less likely to be caused by something else. Beliefs are those things that the mind has as independently existing including many physical objects and the self (Kemp Smith, 1941).

Memories are those repeated impressions that retain their first vivacity. When that first vivacity is lost, it is no longer a memory, but an imagination. Memory has no power of variation and the purpose of memory is to preserve the order and position of the impression. Memory must be an exact repeat of the past (Kemp Smith, 1941). This is why memory is so troubling to Hume. It cannot he guaranteed.

III. Theory of Human Nature:

All of our beliefs and actions are the products of custom or habit. Our feelings and sentiments exert influence over our volitions and actions. Since there is a human need to believe in causal relationships, we, then, further believe that our feelings have the power to result in actions. In other words, our feelings and sentiments produce our actions with some degree of causal necessity. This is similar to our habitual expectation that the future will resemble the past as illustrated in our conviction that the rotation of the earth will cause the sun to rise (one of Hume's favorite illustrations). "Reason is, and ought to be, only the slave of the passions," Hume believed. Therefore, all human actions follow naturally from human feelings without interference from human reason (Kemerling, 1997).

We do not have an impression of the self. No matter how we try to notice the mental operations "in my mind", we cannot be aware of "I". We do experience a succession of separate and individual ideas associated with each other by relations of resemblance and causality. The persistent self and the immortal soul are philosophical fiction (Kemerling, 1997).

Hume's theory of our beliefs based on cause and effect is corroborated by the belief-forming mechanisms of animals. They do not reason abstractly, yet they form beliefs based on cause and effect like humans do. Hume afforded a far higher status to animals than did others of his time (Mattey, 1996).

IV. Theory of Learning:

Again, impressions are the direct, vivid and forceful products of immediate experience. Ideas are feeble copies of these original impressions. Since every idea must, therefore be pulled from an impression, we must inquire into the source of our ideas and the impressions from which they are derived. Now, each idea and impression is separable from each other, any connection that we make is the result of an association that we manufacture ourselves. Our mental links are classified as resemblance (this animal looks like that animal), contiguity (this object is next to that object), or cause and effect (when I do this, that happens). Experience gives us the ideas and the awareness of the associations between them. Relations of ideas are formed wholly in the mind. They have no external reference. Matters of fact are beliefs that claim to report the nature of the existence of things. They are contingent (Kemerling, 1997). This is the basis for Hume's distinction between a priori and a posteriori knowledge. He concludes that mathematical and logical knowledge rely on the relation of ideas so they are uncontroversial, but uninformative. More controversial matters of science rely on matters of fact. They are the basis of genuine information. In order to learn, we must suppose that our past experiences bear some relevance to present and future cases. But although we do indeed believe that the future will be like the past, the truth of that belief is not self-evident. It is always possible for nature to change, so inferences from the past to future are never rationally certain. So, all beliefs in matters of fact are fundamentally non-rational. Again, Hume used the example of the sun rising to illustrate this principle. Our observations include that the sun rises due to the rotation of the earth. This is all based on past experience. While we are confident that

the sun will again rise we are not justified in our confidence by a reference to the past. So, it is irrational to believe that the sun will rise tomorrow (Kemerling, 1997).

V. Theory of Transmission:

If we accept Hume's Theory of Testimony, we cannot be taught by another. For only causal inference informs us of existences and objects which we do not see or feel. This carries us beyond the narrow range of immediate sensory experience (Passmore, 1952). For us to learn, we need to have the impression and then, when we make comparisons or connections to other objects, we must ask the nature of the connections and be skeptical about our ability to make correct connections. Any curriculum to be taught would be based in experience and inquiry as to the nature of our ability to make judgments about the experiences.

VI. Theory of Society:

This is not an area that Hume theorizes on to any extent. In his essay on the origin of government, he looks at man as being naturally inclined to establish a political society. This society or government has no other purpose than the distribution of justice. While a perfect society would be pure liberty, the need for authority inhibits liberty to some extent and that is a price we have to pay. However, we are to guard liberty, which works to perfect society, much more carefully than we do the authority which gives society its structure. I found no mention of institutions that provide education, but Hume was living in the 18th century and was hired as a private tutor and rejected as a professor by Universities.

VII. Theory of Opportunity:

I found no reference to Hume's theory of who should be schooled. Of course, if we think like Hume, all should be skeptics about what is taught, so maybe we should only teach ourselves. To be Humean is to take no system as final, nothing as ultimate as the spirit of enquiry (Passmore, 1952).

VIII. Theory of Consensus:

Since any discussion of consensus implies that there is an agreement, it must be questioned what is being agreed upon and how. All impressions and, therefore, ideas are to be questioned and it would be unthinkable to believe that any two people could agree on issues that are based on perception that, according to Hume's philosophy, must be questioned. I could not determine in rather extensive reading, where Hume even suggests that consensus is possible.

Finally, Hume recommends that, in practice, his pure skepticism is difficult to practice and, therefore, makes an argument for what he calls mitigated (less harsh) skepticism at the risk of succumbing to dogmatism, or the assertion of unjustified judgements that are not based in matters of fact or relations of ideas. According to Hume, "If we take in our hand any volume of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance, let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion" (Uzgalis, 1996).


Fogelin, R. (1985). Hume's skepticism in the Treatise of Human Nature. London: Routledge and Kegan, Ltd.

Kemerling, G. (1997). Modern philosophy (On-line). http://www.newberty.edu/acad/philhume.htm.

Kemp Smith, N. (1964) The philosophy of David Hume. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd.

Mattey, G. (1996). Hume http://www.philosophy.ucdavis.edu/phi023/humelec.htm

McCosh, 1 (1875). The scottish philosophy. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy http://www.utm.edu:80/research/iep/text/mccosh/mc.19.htm.

Passmore, J. (1952). Hume's intentions. New York: Basic Books, Inc.

Stroud, B. (1977). Hume. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, Ltd.

Uzgalis, W. (1996). David Hume http://www.orst.edu/instruct/pW302/philosophers/hume.html.