Philosophy.—Although the majority of eighteenth-century writers disliked speculative thought and resolutely turned away from it, yet the age produced some remarkable philosophical works, which are still discussed, and which have powerfully affected later thought. David Hume (1711-1776) is the greatest metaphysician of the century. He took for his starting point the conclusions of a contemporary philosopher, George Berkeley (1685-1753).
Berkeley had said that ideas are the only real existing entities, that matter is merely another term for the ideas in the Mind of the Infinite and has no existence outside of mind. He maintained that if every quality should be taken away from matter, no matter would remain; e.g., if color, sweetness, sourness, form, and all other qualities should be taken away from an apple, there would be no apple. Now, a quality is a mental representation based on a sensation, and this quality varies as the sensation varies; in other words, the object is not a stable immutable thing. It is only a thing as I perceive it. Berkeley’s idealistic position was taken to crush atheistic materialism.
Hume attempted to rear on Berkeley’s position an impregnable citadel of skepticism. He accepted Berkeley’s conclusion that we know nothing of matter, and then attempted to show that inferences based on ideas might be equally illusory. Hume attacked the validity of the reasoning process itself. He endeavored to show that there is no such thing as cause and effect in either the mental or the material world.
Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (1739-1740), in which these views are stated, is one of the world’s epoch-making works in philosophy. Its conclusion startled the great German metaphysician Kant and roused him to action. The questions thus raised by Hume have never been answered to the satisfaction of all philosophers.
Hume’s skepticism is the most thoroughgoing that the world has ever seen; for he attacks the certainty of our knowledge of both mind and matter. But he dryly remarks that his own doubts disappear when he leaves his study. He avoids a runaway horse and inquires of a friend the way to a certain house in Edinburgh, relying as much on the evidence of his eyes and on the directions of his friend as if these philosophic doubts had never been raised.
Historical Prose.—In carefully elaborated and highly finished works of history, the eighteenth century surpasses its predecessors. The History of England by David Hume, the philosopher, is the first work of the kind to add to the history of politics and the affairs of state an account of the people and their manners. This History is distinguished for its polished ease and clearness. Unfortunately, the work is written from a partisan point of view. Hume was a Tory, and took the side of the Stuarts against the Puritans. He sometimes misrepresented facts if they did not uphold his views. His History is consequently read more to-day as a literary classic than as an authority.