By: Arjun Verma
David Hume was one of the most prominent English-speaking philosophers of the Enlightenment. Despite living during the Age of Reason, Hume was skeptical of the traditional ideals of philosophy and formulated a new worldview that was deeply at odds with many of his contemporaries.
Hume believed that desires and passions were what motivated people to act, not reason, famously declaring that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” That’s why Hume was an empiricist, or focused on how we derive knowledge from the material world and how it influences us. He noted that one could not use reason alone to justify actions. For example, saying “murder is bad” could only be explained by someone disliking murder and nothing else. There was nothing that could rationally justify this belief besides our passions.
This is the origin of Hume’s famous is-ought problem or the idea that you cannot derive what you ought to do from what is. This problem has sparked the interest of many philosophers who came after him and tried to bridge the gap between an “is” and an “ought.”
Hume was extremely influential in the philosophical world and inspired others on all ends of the spectrum to either follow in his footsteps or even critique him.
Why is he relevant today?
Hume's ideas of personal identity and the passions can prove instrumental in explaining today's political climate.
For example, his theory that we can only derive knowledge from our experience and the world justifies why so many people are polarized between conflicting viewpoints. When most people are receiving their news and political information from news sources that are biased in one direction, that's the information that they internalize as their worldview. People then want information that coheres with their opinions, which results in a cycle where people become further and further from the political center.
Additionally, Hume explains how our passions will always override our reason. When people are arguing over political or ethical matters, it often seems that there is no possible resolution to their problems. People might all think that they are on the right side of the issue simply because that is what they intuitively believe to be true. If our passions are so influential compared to reason, this would provide an explanation for why it seems like people can never agree with one another.
David Hume may have been skeptical of many of his contemporaries' beliefs, but his ideas are still resonant today in how they influence modern-day politics.
Arjun is a current high school junior. He is a captain of his high school's Lincoln Douglas debate team.
I am an undergraduate student who's fascinated by anything related to philosophy. I hope to show you how philosophy can apply to everyday life! Check out my Youtube Channel, Philosophy in Context.