How Enlightened was the Enlightenment?

Billericay 2018 Week 6:

Human Nature in David Hume and Adam Smith



Summary for students

Imagining other home page


1. The ‘British Enlightenment’:


Gertrude Himmelfarb (2004) argues that the British Enlightenment was different to the French, since the British were more concerned with moral philosophy (than with science and more abstract ideas about the power of reason etc).


As Pope (1688 – 1744) put it: ‘The proper study of mankind is man’ and: it is better ‘to adjust the true nature and measures of right and wrong’ than the distance and movements of the planets.


On the other hand, Anthony Pagden (2013) includes Italian and French thinkers i.e. Vico and Buffon in his account of those who were concerned with a new approach to morality. Pagden calls his chapter on these thinkers ‘A science of man’ to indicate that Enlightenment thinkers were trying to understand human nature in a new, more rigorous way. Most of these thinkers also rejected the older school of thought which based human affairs on ‘natural laws’. (Russell 1946 makes much of this transition).


2. Predecessors to David Hume and Adam Smith:

The Earl of Shaftesbury wrote in 1699 An Inquiry Concerning Virtue or Merit: virtue comes from a ‘moral sense’ the ‘sense of right and wrong’ – not from religion, self-interest, sensation or reason.  We also had a ‘natural affection’ which he saw as ‘social affection’ virtuous man is motivated by ‘a natural affection for his kind’. Locke was wrong, he argued, to believe that moral sense was learned: this would make it determined by ‘fashion and culture’… (and relative!).


Himmelfarb notes (p33):

“‘Benevolence’, ‘compassion’, sympathy’, ‘fellow-feeling’, a ‘natural affection for others’ … was the basis of the social ethic that informed British philosophical and moral discourse for the whole of the eighteenth century…. They all agreed that [the moral sense] (or something very like it) was the natural, necessary, and universal attribute of man, of rich and poor alike, the educated and uneducated, the enlightened and unenlightened. They also agreed that it was a corollary of reason and interest, but prior to and independent of both.”


On the other hand, Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees 1705 tried to refute Shaftesbury by arguing that: self-love is the primary motivation of all men, and it can be reduced to pleasure and pain. Fellow feeling and condolence for others was a spurious passion (and one which afflicted the weakest minds the most…) - ‘what we call evil in this world, moral as well as natural, is the grand principle that makes us sociable creatures.’


Smith dismissed these views as ‘licentious’ and ‘wholly pernicious’ – Mandeville was also attacked by Berkeley, Francis Hutcheson, Edward Gibbon…


Francis Hutcheson in 1726 wrote: An Inquiry Concerning the Original of Our ideas of Virtue or Moral Good – he defended Shaftesbury’s ideas (especially the ‘moral sense’) against Mandeville. He was in fact the first to use the expression: “The greatest happiness for the greatest numbers’ NB it was not Helvetius or Bentham! And it was not the same idea as theirs, because for utilitarians it derives from rational calculations of utility.


Hutcheson argued that fellow-feeling cannot come from self-love, because it involves feeling others’ pain. It was ‘antecedent to reason or instruction’ (Himmelfarb p 32). Reason alone cannot guide us – we need our senses in situations where the problem is self-preservation, and we need our moral sense when we need to ‘direct our actions for the good of the whole’.


3. David Hume.

3.1 Life and work

It was widely felt (e.g. by Rousseau) that human beings had learned more about the world in the last hundred years than in the preceding millennium, but they knew precious little about themselves.


1740 Hume published his Treatise of Human Nature. Pagden says this ‘changed the nature and the future direction of what we now call the philosophy of mind. He felt that it had got little attention – except that he was denied a chair at Edinburgh in 1745, and another (in logic) at Glasgow six years later. (His dismissal of miracles was not popular!). So he re-wrote it in 1748 as ‘Enquiry concerning Human Understanding’ and then in 1751 published ‘Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals’.


After his death in 1776, his ‘Dialogues concerning Natural Religion’ were published, undermining all the then most attractive arguments for the existence of God (Brian Magee 1998/2010).


He therefore held no academic post (few Enlightenment thinkers did, apart from Kant), but worked as a librarian to the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh, and made a living from selling his books (‘no mean feat’ says Pagden in an age where there was no copyright and royalties didn’t exist).


He wanted to reach as many people as possible among ‘the elegant part of Mankind, who are not immers’d in the animal life’. He further divided the ‘elegant part’ into the ‘learned’ and the ‘conversible’ (the average educated, intelligent but non-specialist reader).  In the past, he felt, all learning had been ‘shut up in colleges and cells’ – so it had lost touch with the real world. The ‘conversible’ too, had become cut off from refined conversation and were amused by ‘gossiping stories and idle remarks.’


By the end of the century Hume’s works had become the most widely read and influential philosophical works in Europe. Kant said he had been aroused from his dogmatic slumber by Hume. ‘Hume remains the single most influential proponent of a secular ethics based on a ‘science of man’ the Enlightenment ever produced.’ (p 128)


3.2 ‘Mitigated scepticism’ and a science of man:

He starts with an empiricist premise, that it is only from experience that our knowledge of the existence of anything outside ourselves can be ultimately derived, whether the experience be our own or someone else’s’ (Magee). We cannot know that a material world exists externally to, and independently of, ourselves.


This is for Hume a point about knowledge: we deal in hopeful probabilities, not in certainties. He even argued that while we can be aware of our experiences, we cannot experience an experiencing self – I am just a bundle of sensations.


For Hume all knowledge (science, natural sciences etc) has ‘a relation to human nature [and must therefore ‘in some measure depend on the science of Man.’ We must start by trying to understand human nature before we can move on to further knowledge.


‘There is no question of importance, whose decision is not compriz’d in the science of man; and there is none, which can be decided with any certainty, before we become acquainted with that science.’


We should not waste time trying to understand ‘primary causes’ (as the theologians did) – we can only learn from experience or ‘secondary causes’. We cannot experience God, so we have no evidence for His existence.

This echoes Alexander Pope’s:

‘What can we reason, but from what we know?

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,

The proper study of mankind is Man.’


Hume has no time for ‘theories of everything’ says Magee.


He also says that causality itself cannot be ‘observed’ – though we can observe two events one following the other, and this, says Magee, raises a deep problem for science, but Hume doesn’t stop at this point (an unmitigated sceptic).


3.3 ‘Reason is the slave of the passions’

Our aims in life are not chosen by our intellects, but by our desires, emotions, passions, tastes – feelings of every sort. Hence ‘Reason is the slave of the passions’


Choices we make as we go through life will be based on our feelings, together with assumptions about connections between events, our experiences and those of others. This is part of what he means by ‘custom’ (see below). Without ‘custom’ we would have no knowledge of the world (‘that fire burns… or that turnips are fit to eat’ as Paden puts it). ‘Custom, then, is the great guide of human life.’


The ancient writers had drawn up ‘schemes of virtue and happiness’ without basing them on human nature. Studying human nature means, then, studying everyday lives, habits and customs – also the records of events. We cannot carry out experiments on people, but all this evidence really comprises ‘collections of experiments’ by which the political or moral philosopher ‘fixes the principles of his science’.


We are thus in fact observers of our selves – but at least what we observe is the product of our own behaviour. (Unlike in the natural sciences).


(Pagden compares this approach to Hobbes, Leibniz and Spinoza – and especially to Giambattista Vico, whose writings appeared between 1725 and 1744. Thus he makes less of the distinction that Himmelfarb makes between the British and the European Enlightenments).


Hume’s Treatise was ‘An attempt to introduce the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects. ‘Moral’ here is broader than how we use the word – it is derived from ‘mores’ in Latin, and includes customs and manners. We need to study those things which lead us to have a particular set of mores/manners: government, public affairs, ‘the plight or penury in which the people live, the situation of a nation with regard to its neighbours’ etc.


Since this is the antithesis of ‘vast, organised systems of belief (Magee), ‘we should hold our opinions and expectations diffidently, knowing them to be fallible, and should respect those of others.’ He believed that a ‘disinterested benevolence’ was an essential quality of human nature (disinterested = divorced from personal relations and affections). He believed in a ‘sentiment’, a ‘moral sense’, a ‘moral taste’ common to all men. (Himmelfarb p 34).


Thus, based on investigation and systematic observation we could derive a rational grasp of our shared world – or ‘enlightenment’.



4. Adam Smith 1723 – 1790,

4.1 Smith’s ethics:

Sabine comments that the philosophy of Adam Smith’s time, as with Locke 100 yrs before, was an odd mixture of empiricism (the basis of scientific method: we find out about the world by observing its behaviour) and a belief in natural law/natural rights, which must be God-given): for Smith, "natural law (God's law)" could be seen in the empirical regularities at work in society.  Later thinkers would undermine ‘natural law’ as an idea.


A key idea of writers such as Adam Smith, (and Shaftesbury and others), was that we all have an innate moral sense – a ‘sympathy’ as Smith put it, which allows us to imagine what others are feeling, and which then brings us to feel with - to sympathise with - them, and hence to condemn whatever is making them suffer and praise what is making them happy etc.


This was a step on from Locke and Newton, for Locke – while believing in innate reason, did not believe in an innate moral sense. Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding 1690 stated there were no ‘innate practical principles’ ( = moral principles). For Locke, education was essential to bring about moral awareness. Presumably this position was based on his views on learning, which are empiricist: the senses are the main route to our learning…


NB. Note particularly that Smith is talking of feelings, not of rationality. Gertrude Himmelfarb stresses this point (p 137 - 8), linking Smith and his fellow members of the Scottish Enlightenment to the later romantic movement.


She also quotes Smith’s words: ‘it is by the imagination (my emphasis) only that we can form any conception of what are his [the unfortunate’s] sensations.’

Moreover, there is an aesthetic side to this, since those for whom ‘the beauty of order, of art and contrivance’ is important are those who will support those institutions that promoted the ‘public welfare’.


In his ethics: “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” 1759 he tackled questions of: the individual & society, conflict and co-operation, self-interest and altruism. 


The opening words (Extract TMS 1) contain a statement of his view on the ability of humans to feel pity, compassion, benevolence, sympathy.


Extract TMS 1. “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others and render their happiness necessary unto him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others when we either see it or are made to conceive it in a lively manner… By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation… we enter, as it were, into his body and become in some measure the same person with him.” (Opening words of TMS)


Note the role of the imagination here:

‘it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his  sensations.’


Note also that we do not imagine ourselves feeling the suffering etc of the other, but we ‘become in some measure the same person with him’ – so sympathy is not a selfish/self-centred principle (a man might also sympathise with a woman’s pain in childbirth…). Also, he says that we have an ‘immediate sense and feeling’ – we do not come to it as a result of reasoning. 


He argued that there must be an element of perceived common interest for any

society to function, and that we acquire our moral sense from being in society, being with others (see later, on Rousseau).


TMS 2.       Were it possible that a human creature could grow up to manhood in some solitary place, without any communication with his own species, he could no more think of his own character, of the propriety or demerit of his own sentiments and conduct, of the beauty or deformity of his own mind, than of the beauty or deformity of his own face. All these are objects which he cannot easily see... and with regard to which he is provided with no mirror which can present them to his view.  Bring him into society, and he is immediately provided with the mirror which he wanted before.  [from Raphael, D.D.: Adam Smith, Fontana 1985]


TMS 3.       We suppose ourselves the spectators of our own behaviour, and endeavour to imagine what effect it would, in this light, produce upon us.  This is the only looking-glass by which we can, in some measure, with the eyes of other people, scrutinize the propriety of our own conduct. [TMS I iii (iii) (?)]




4.2 How are ethical standards formed? [see:  Cole and Strauss, Cropsey]


There are four steps in the formation of ethics and social standards:


1. self-judgment

2. imagining effects of our actions on others

3. imagining others' perceptions/assessments of our actions

4. social code and sanctions


To pass to stages 2 and 3 we make use of the idea of an ‘impartial observer’ - so it is not just a question of thinking ‘how would we feel?’ – since that might lead to ‘distortions’ in our judgment of others’ feelings.


In other words, the basis of morality is sympathy not abstract reason (but S & C: only rationality can promote freedom...) Here there is a strong contrast with Kant.


Smith is therefore attempting to ground ethics in a ‘scientific’, humanist approach: ethics must be derived from "man as man." This, it can be argued (S & C), represents a ‘democratisation of morality’ - as against earlier formulations e.g. Plato: philosophers discover the ethical ‘truth’; and the Christian view: God reveals the truth.


In a similar vein, Himmelfarb makes much of the ‘implicitly democratic

character’ of Smith’s political economy (p 67)… after all, she points out, the

labourer is the source of value. Moreover, whilst the market mechanism works on

the basis of self-interest, he acknowledged that too much self-interest leads to

selfishness, which in society is prevented by family ties, neighbours etc; these

factors don't work in the economy. He even says that the self-interest that drives

the market (the desire to own more, out of fear of being poor and envy of the rich)

is a "corruption of our natural sentiments"


4.3 Smith’s view of human nature was somewhat egalitarian: ‘The difference in natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of… By nature a philosopher is not in genius and disposition half so different from a street porter as a mastiff is from a greyhound, or a greyhound from a spaniel’ (p 69) - in this Himmelfarb believes Smith to be very different to the French philosophes, who were, as I have suggested, explicitly elitist.


Finally, it is worth saying that in Smith’s view, since feelings of sympathy are natural, there is no need for the state to try to enforce them (he was opposed to the ‘civic humanist’ tradition (e.g. Rousseau) where the kind of society you live in is crucial to determine whether you are moral or not.


5. Discussion:


That this discussion of the inter-relationship between thinking and feeling is an ongoing one, see the obituary (Guardian Weds 9th Nov 2011) of the philosopher Peter Goldie, who wrote: The Emotions: A Philosophical Exploration (2000).

(died 2011 age 64).


He didn’t accept either ‘feeling theories’, because they tended to make emotions self-enclosed, and not take into account people, actions and events; but also disliked cognitive approaches – because while emotions might be a matter of judging people and events (i.e. ‘outward-directed’), that doesn’t account for their ‘visceralness.’ You could be aware (make a judgment) that someone is loveable without feeling love for them.

He proposed a neo-cognitive approach of ‘feeling towards’ – ‘thinking with feeling.’ Emotions are directed towards the object of your thought, but they act more quickly – as in immediate practical response of e.g. repulsion at rotten meat (evolutionary benefit here). A nod to David Hume as well... 

Emotions should not be simply assessed as rational or irrational, but judged according to their appropriateness and proportionality in specific situations [Adam Smith?]

Nor should they be seen primarily in terms of beliefs and desires, - since we need to know what they are like to the person experiencing them.

Often they can make sense only as parts of a whole life – part of the narrative we glean about others and tell ourselves about our own life.

He tried to make sense of topics – grief, jealousy, other emotions, artistic response – which philosophers tend to over-intellectualise.

See: Emotions: A Philosophical Exploration, 2000.  The Mess Inside: Narrative, Emotion and the Mind (sent for publication 2011).



For recent evidence that we are not the rational creatures that we might like to think, see the book by Daniel Kahneman’: Thinking, Fast and Slow (Allen Lane, 2011). He shows, for example, that confidence (a feeling) can lead us to make logical mistakes, or mistakes in dealing with statistics. The best example of this is the 2008 financial crisis that struck America and Europe!!


Footnote on the emotions:


(a) Jules Evans, Centre for the History of the Emotions, Queen Mary, U of L. Also author of: Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations.

Article in Guardian 31.01.13: (article)


We have since end 19th century prided ourselves on our ‘stoicism’ – though the real Stoics believed it was important to understand the feelings, acknowledge them, not repress them. They believed in talking about their feelings, much (says Evans) as CBT does now.


Darwin was crucial in shaping modern attitudes, alongside imperialism, and science... in promoting a racial hierarchy and arguing that ‘savages weep copiously from very slight causes’ while ‘Englishmen rarely cry, except under the pressure of the acutest grief.’ Likewise, men were less emotional than women, and the upper classes less than the lower...


Nowadays cancer specialists (Dr Lindsay Forbes, in British Journal of cancer) argue that a ‘stiff upper lip’ can lead to cancer: especially if we don’t acknowledge symptoms early. Note also the contrast with modern Toryism, where Dr Phillip Lee (GP and MP) suggests the NHS is buckling under the strain of the hypochondriac baby-boomers who lack the ‘stoicism’ of their parents!!! [See also pp4augustineandaquinas, point 1.3 on Stoics)



Bryan Magee: The Story of Philosophy, Penguin 2016

Russell: A History of Western Philosophy, Unwin 1946

Gertrude Himmelfarb: The Roads to Modernity, Vintage, 2004

Anthony Pagden: The Enlightenment and why it still matters, OUP, 2013

Daniel Kahneman’: Thinking, Fast and Slow, Allen Lane, 2011