David Hume (1711-1776) is often regarded as the most distinguished philosopher writing in English – though he was born in Edinburgh and was a key figure of the ‘Scottish enlightenment’ with James Boswell (the biographer) and Adam Smith (the economist). It is surprising how much of his thought, which was revolutionary at the time, has an affinity with Buddhist insights and ideas. Again, for brevity’s sake, I’ll highlight the main points of inter-connection.
It could be argued that, following Plato, western philosophers concentrated on logic and intellect as the primary attributes of human beings – indeed many felt that human nature is a blank page upon which the intellect can inscribe its values, beliefs and habits. Hume broke with this way of thinking in that he pointed out that, instead of a blank page, human nature comes already imbued with particular passions – for instance, self-love, resentment at injuries and sexual desires – and that these passions have an impact on everything we do – including philosophy. Developing the ability to perceive the passions at work and to learn how to stand back from them is a prerequisite of wisdom and equanimity. [Note Buddhist echoes]
Hume acknowledged the importance of the passions because he perceived them at work in his own character and through his reading of history. In this sense, Hume was an empiricist – his thinking was based on experience, rather than abstract theorising. Observation of his own thinking and feeling, and of the world around him, was the main tool used by Hume in developing his ideas and values. Hume was a sceptic and considered all human knowledge as being provisional, subject to revision in the light of fresh experience. He is very critical of grand metaphysical systems and considers dogmatism as a dangerous trait – leading as it often does to intolerance, tunnel-vision and fanaticism. He doubts the usefulness of religions, as he considers them to be grounded in unverifiable abstraction and superstition. ‘Superstitions’, he once said, ‘are dangerous, whereas the beliefs of philosophers are at worst ridiculous.’ [Again, note Buddhist overtones]
One other area of overlap between Buddhism and Hume’s thinking is his approach to the ‘self’. In Bryan Magee’s words: Hume ‘pointed out that although we take it for granted that we have selves, and that we are continuous selves, we cannot actually locate this self in observation or experience. When we introspect, what we encounter are thoughts, feelings, memories, emotions and so on, but we do not encounter some other entity, a self, that has those thoughts, feelings, etc.’ This may be a startling realisation, but it is something recognised by both Hume and the Buddha. Hume goes on to suggest that our belief in a continuity of identity in all objects and other people is very puzzling, because every time we blink, or turn away, or move away from an object or person, they disappear. And yet when next we meet them, we assume they are the same! Hume has no answer to this puzzle – but there is a connection here with the Buddhist concepts of anatta (non-self) and sunyata (emptiness), both grounded in impermanence and ceaseless change (anicca).
Contemporary French philosophers referred to Hume as ‘le bon David.’ His friend, Adam Smith, once said Hume came as near to perfection as any human being possibly could. Dying from a protracted bowel disorder, Hume was visited by James Boswell who expected to find a disturbed and fearful man. Instead, Boswell was disturbed to find Hume to be as cheerful and equanimous as usual.
The Great Philosophers: An Introduction to Western Philosophy by Bryan Magee, BBC Books, 1987.