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David Hume: An Intellectual Biography

  • Dr James Harris, University of St. Andrews, Fellowship Award

David Hume was one of the greatest philosophers of the 18th century. In fact he is often said to be the most important of all British philosophers. He made contributions of lasting significance to central areas of philosophy, and his ideas remain at the centre of debates in epistemology, metaphysics, the philosophy of science, and ethics. But Hume was not only a philosopher. He was also a political theorist, a pioneering economist, and the author of a history of England that shaped the British historical imagination for a hundred years.

Much has been written about all aspects of Hume's legacy, and his life has been written many times. No one, however, has constructed a detailed account of the entirety of Hume's intellectual development, from the early Treatise of Human Nature to his final work, The History of England from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution of 1688. A new book by Dr James Harris, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of St. Andrews, attempts to do just that. In the first ever intellectual biography of Hume, Dr Harris will bring together the great Scottish philosopher’s diverse writings into one coherent narrative.

Dr. Harris is doing much of his research in the National Library of Scotland, a library with unparalleled holdings not only of Hume's works, including what remains of his papers and manuscripts, but also of the enormously varied range of eighteenth-century texts that constitute the background of Hume's contributions to philosophy, political thought, economics, and history. Through radio interviews, book festivals, school visits, and other means of public engagement, Dr Harris hopes his book will bring Hume to a wide, non-academic audience.

"Philosophy is not part of most British people's school experience", Dr Harris says, "and this means that many people in Britain have no idea what a rich philosophical heritage they have. I would like to use my book on Hume as a way of increasing awareness of the British philosophical tradition. Hume believed that philosophical thinking had a role to play in society at large. His achievement was to show that philosophy does not have to be a purely academic discipline with no points of contact with the concerns of everyday life."

Dr Harris’s intellectual biography of David Hume has been commissioned by Cambridge University Press as part of a series of intellectual biographies of philosophers. It will be completed with the support of an AHRC Fellowship award.