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A Treatise of Human Nature is a book by Scottish philosopher David Hume, first published in 1739–1740.

The full title of the Treatise is 'A Treatise of Human Nature: Being an Attempt to introduce the experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects'. It contains the following sections:

  • Book 1: "Of the Understanding" - A treatment of everything from the origin of our ideas to how they are to be divided. Important statements of Skepticism.
  • Book 2: "Of the Passions" - A treatment of emotions and free will.
  • Book 3: "Of Morals" - A treatment of moral ideas, justice, obligations, benevolence.



Hume wrote A Treatise of Human Nature in France at the age of twenty-six. Although many scholars today consider the Treatise to be Hume's most important work and one of the most important books in the history of philosophy, the public in Britain did not at first agree. Hume himself described the (lack of) public reaction to the publication of the Treatise by writing that the book "fell dead-born from the press."[1]

Hume intended to see whether the Treatise met with success and, if so, to complete it with books devoted to morals, politics, and criticism.[2] It did not meet with success, and so was not completed.

After deciding that the Treatise had problems of style rather than of content, he reworked some of the material for more popular consumption in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). It did not prove extremely successful either, but more so than the Treatise. He later also "cast anew" Book 3 of the Treatise as An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), which Hume wrote is "of all my writings, historical, philosophical, or literary, incomparably the best."[3]

The Treatise is now in the public domain. Books 1 and 2 were originally published in 1739, while Book 3 was published in 1740.[4]



Of the Understanding

This book is a treatment of everything from the origin of our ideas to how they are to be divided. It includes important statements of Skepticism and Hume's experimental method. Part 1 deals with the nature of ideas. Part 2 deals with the ideas of space and time. Part 3 deals with knowledge and probability. Part 4 deals with skeptical and other systems of philosophy, including a discussion of the soul and personal identity.

The Nature of Ideas

In this part, first David Hume divides all perception into ideas and impressions. He then argues that the simple impressions that come through the senses are the cause of their corresponding simple ideas, and from simple ideas forms complex ideas, either restricted to the same order of the corresponding complex impressions (which are memories) or re-arranged in a new form (which is imagination). Descartes claimed that the only cause to the idea of God must be God himself, but according to Hume, God is a complex idea formed from simple ideas caused by simple impressions. Therefore, the idea of God neither requires God nor proves His existence.

Then Hume argues that general ideas are nothing but particular ideas attached to a certain word that gives it a wider application and makes it recall other individuals that are similar to it, for example we first see a particular man, then have an idea of this particular man, attach a word to this idea and then recall it when we see something similar (another man). Hume defends this view by 3 arguments - one of them is that the mind cannot think of a certain quality without the degree of that quality, such as a line without a length attached to it. Hence all ideas must have their particular degrees of qualities that therefore must be particular.

According to Hume it is through thinking of the resemblance of something with something else different in other aspects, for example we can consider the color of something only by thinking of the resemblance it has with something else of a different shape. Hume gives the example of a white marble globe and a black marble globe, one can think of the distinct shape by thinking of the resemblance between these two marble globes.

The Ideas of Space and Time

In this section, Hume first argues that our ideas and impressions of space and time aren't infinitely divisible, one of the arguments is that the capacity of the mind is limited therefore it cannot perceive an object with an infinite amount of parts, so it cannot be infinitely divisible, the same for impressions and the proof is that if someone moves a piece of paper with a spot of ink on it until it disappears, the moment before it does, it represents the smallest indivisible impression.

Then Hume argues that space and time themselves aren't infinitely divisible, and the argument is that if time was infinitely divisible there could be two moments coexisting which is against the definition of time, there must be an indivisible part of time, and from the concept of motion the same can be said of space.

As Hume showed before, no simple idea can come before a simple impression, and applying this to space, what impression can cause the idea of space? It must be an external idea according to Hume (unlike Kant who says the idea of space is given a priori), but the senses convey to us only colored points and rays of light, so the idea of extension is nothing but the copy of these colored points and the manner of their appearances. The idea of time is derived from the succession of the two forms or perception, ideas and impressions (again unlike Kant who considered space and time conditions of experience and not derived from experience but given a priori), the argument for that is that we feel time flowing differently if our ideas and impressions flow in the mind differently. Another argument for this is that the parts of time can never coexist so an unchanging object since it contains only coexistent impressions can never give us the notion of time, therefore time must be derived from changing objects, and can never be separated from the succession of them.

Hume then argues that if time cannot be derived from an unchanging object therefore it cannot be applied to such an object, the rest of this part is the answer to objections to Hume's views about space and time.

Of the Passions

This book is a treatment of emotions and free will. Part 1 deals with pride and humility. Part 2 deals with love and hatred. Part 3 deals with the will and direct passions.

Of Morals

This book is a treatment of moral ideas, justice, obligations, benevolence. Part 1 deals with virtue and vice in general. Part 2 deals with justice. Part 3 deals with other virtues, such as benevolence.

Section I: On Virtue and Vice

According to Hume, vice and virtue could not be explained in terms of conformity and unconformity to reason, as the classical tradition claimed. Reason, in fact, is an inactive principle in itself and is not responsible for final ends. On the other hand, through reason, men can discover what is true and false and not what is right and wrong. Therefore, the distinction between moral good and evil cannot be made by reason. Morality, according to Hume, is not susceptible of demonstration, as it depends on men's perceptions and appetites, that are subjective. What distinguishes a virtue from a vice is the impression that it generates. If the impression is agreeable, then it will be virtue; if it is uneasy, then it will be a vice. It follows that, in Hume's moral philosophy, there is no room for eternal and immutable standards in morality.

Section II: On Justice

Being natural and unnatural applies both for vices and virtues. In fact, not all kinds of virtues are natural. Justice, for example, is not a natural virtue. Justice emerges from the circumstances and from the necessity of mankind. Rules of justice are artificial and are made up by education and human convention. By providing conjunction of forces, partition of employment, mutual succour, society turns out to be advantageous. Men become aware of the advantages of the society also in relation to the preservation of their goods and stipulate a convention. Once this convention has taken force, the concepts of justice/injustice - property/rights/obligation start taking consistency.

The origin of justice is strictly connected with property. It follows that justice does not derive from public interest, as it is not an immediate concern for human beings; justice is not founded on reason, but on the impressions of men, caused by artifice. In fact, a single act of justice is contrary to public and private interest, if taken singularly, but the scheme is overall beneficial both for the society and for the individual. The idea of virtue is often associated with justice and the idea of vice with injustice (Plato, Aristotle etc.). At the beginning, men are induced to follow justice for a matter of private interest. Sympathy with public interest is the source of moral approbation. Public esteem for justice increases our own esteem towards it.

Section III: On the Rule of Property

Why are particular goods assigned to particular persons? The criterion stability-utility is not good enough, as it could be claimed for more than one person at the same time. Such principle grounds on the belief that everyone continues to enjoy what he is at present possessor of. But, in the long run, every injustice would be authorized and rewarded. This criterion can work well for a society to get settled, but after that, other circumstances should be taken under consideration: 1. Occupation coincides with first possession and, as it has been shown, is quite controversional at the longer term 2. Long Possession, when time gives title of property of an object 3. Accession, when objects are linked in an intimate manner with other objects that are already in somebody's property and are inferior to them (such as: fruits of the tree, but not fishes-sea) 4. Succession, which is a natural right: men's possession should pass to those that are dearest to them.

Section IV: Transference of Property by Consent

Sometimes, the above-mentioned rules do not sort out all the inconveniences that derives from possession. Possession and property should always remain stable except when the possessor agrees to transfer part of his/her property to another person. The exchange and commerce of goods is based on this assumption.

Section V: Of the Obligations of Promises

The rule of morality is not natural. In fact, a promise would not be intelligible and would not have moral obligation before human convention had not established it. A promise does not generate naturally an obligation. The obligation is there only when it is established by convention (same as justice). Promises are human inventions that are founded on the necessity and interest of the society. Self-interest is the first motive behind the performance of the promise.

Section VI: Some more Reflections on Justice and Injustice

There are three fundamental laws of justice: 1. stability of possession 2. transference by consent 3. performance of promises

Society is absolutely necessary for men and these three laws are necessary for the support of the society, but they are artificial and created by men.

There are some arguments that can support this statement.

- Justice is defined as the constant and perpetual will of giving everybody his/her due. This presupposes the right of property to be antecedent to justice, but it is a fallace opinion. As a matter of fact, property is not a quality of the object, but it is the relation of the object with a rational human being. It is the external relation of the object that causes property. The concept of justice is linked with the concept of property.

- Rights, obligations and property do not admit gradation (either all or nothing). Justice and injustice are not susceptible of degree, therefore they are not naturally virtuous or vicious.

- Mind is most often determined by present motives, not by general rules.

Moreover, the distinction between justice and injustice lays on two different foundation: self-interest, as it is impossible to live in society without rules; morality, the interest is common to all mankind and all men receive a pleasure from things going in accordance to justice. The sense of honor and duty are other artifices that derive from this relation.

Section VII: On the Origin of Government

Men are governed by their own interest and they tend to give advantage to their particular interest over common good. The remedy to this situation should proceed from te consent of men. But, since men cannot change their nature, the solution should be sought in the circumstances. Justice should become the nearest interest at least for few people, who would have a direct interest in the execution of justice. Kings, civil magistrates, governors, in a word, government is the remedy. Thanks to government, men can taste the mutual assistance that society provides. Bridges, harbours, streets are built. Even if they are beyond the immediate interest of any man, taken singularly, they are for the common good.

Section VIII: On the Source of Allegiance

Government is a very advantageous invention, as it overlooks on the implementation of the three laws. When men understand the advantage of having a government, they would convene together, choose their magistrates and promise them obedience. However, the act of promising obedience is something that has happened at the beginning and is the original source of the first obligation towards the government. But after that, the obligation towards the government is based on self-interest, in particular: a)to preserve peace and order in the society and b) to preserve mutual trust and confidence in the offices of life. Civil duties detach from promises and acquire an independent authority. The moral obligation to submit to the government is not based on consent. As a matter of fact, the government has authority also on those who never consented to it. It follows that the moral obligation derives from the fact that everyone submit to its authority. Promise can definitely reinforce the obligation to obedience, but it is not the source of authority.

Section IX: Of the Measures of Allegiance

The social contract theory wanted to establish a noble principle: the submission to the government admits exceptions and tyranny - that is against consent - is sufficient to free the subject from all kinds of allegiance. According to this theory, men are in origin in a state of liberty and decide to give up their liberties in exchange of protection and security and when this condition is not fulfilled, they are at liberty to break their contract. The concept is that whoever has taken authority over people should produce some advantages for them, otherwise he/she should be expected that the obedience would be sooner than later withdrawn. Hume argues that the conclusion is right, but the principle in itself is erroneous. By employing different premises, Hume will try to reach the same conclusions and provide an alternative to the traditional social contract theory. Based on his assumptions, the obligation does not derive from the promise, but from the motive that spurred men to conclude the agreement, that is, their self-interest in security and protection. The obligation towards the government ceases when the interest ceases. Therefore, the obedience to the authority should not be passive: government is a man's invention for his self-interest and the interest of the society. When the governor removes the interest, he also removes the natural obligation of obedience. It follows that men may lawfully resist the government without committing injustice.

Section X: Of the Object of Allegiance

The doctrine of resistance should only be applied in very few cases and when the advantages of subverting a government outweight the disadvantages. This must be an exception to the common rule, which bids that government are owed obedience. What makes a governor lawful depends on the source of the authority: - long possession, which gives authority to almost all government of the world; - present possession, as long as it preserves peace and public interest; - conquest, see above; - succession, when the monarch dies and his heirs comes to the throne; - positive laws, when the authority holder is determined by positive law (fundamental law)

Section XI: Laws of Nations

Once civil governments have been established, there arises a new set of duties among neighbouring countries, that is, the laws of nations. The three fundamental rules of justice (stability of possession, performance of promises and transfer of possession by consent) are valid for every man, including for kings and governors, but their system of morals is freer than for the individual. It has the same extent, but not the same force. In fact, it could be broken in case this would result into a benefit for the kingdom. The interest in keeping the laws of justice is not so strong as for individuals, therefore the moral obligation will be weaker, too.

Section XII: On Chastity and Modesty

The difference in force but not in extent between the obligation of kings and individual is explained by the following example: chastity and modesty are agreeable characteristics both for men and women, but they are more expedient for women, as their interest is greater than men's. The moral obligation of women is greater than men's.

See also


  1. ^ Hume, David (1776) My Own Life, Appendix A of Ernest Campbell Mossner, The Life of David Hume, University of Texas Press, 1954, p. 612.
  2. ^ Before the Introduction, Hume inserted an "Advertisement," or warning. It read as follows:

    My design in the present work is sufficiently explain'd in the introduction. The reader must only observe, that all the subjects I have there plann'd out to myself, are not treated of in these two volumes. The subjects of the understanding and passions make a compleat chain of reasoning by themselves; and I was willing to take advantage of this natural division, in order to try the taste of the public. If I have the good fortune to meet with success, I shall proceed to the examination of morals, politics, and criticism; which will compleat this Treatise of human nature.

  3. ^ Hume, David (1776) My Own Life, URL = <>
  4. ^ Norton, David Fate (2000) "Editor's Introduction," A Treatise of Human Nature, D.F. and M.J. Norton (eds.), p. 19.

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