This page contains a list of the eight best books on or by Hume. Finding good introductory philosophy books can be difficult for two reasons. First, searching google for recommendations usually doesn’t bring up anything useful. Second, phrases like “best books on Hume” are ambiguous. One person may be looking for a short, beginner friendly introduction, someone else may want a comprehensive academic overview, a third person may be looking for classic works by Hume. This list tries to account for this ambiguity by recommending different types of books on Hume. Here are the best books on or by Hume in no particular order:
An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding – David Hume
Publisher description: A landmark of Enlightenment thought, Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding is accompanied here by two shorter works that shed light on it: A Letter from a Gentleman to His Friend in Edinburgh, Hume’s response to those accusing him of atheism, of advocating extreme skepticism, and of undermining the foundations of morality; and his Abstract of A Treatise of Human Nature, which anticipates discussions developed in the Enquiry.
In his concise Introduction, Eric Steinberg explores the conditions that led Hume to write the Enquiry and the work’s important relationship to Book I of Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature.
Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion – David Hume
Publisher description: In the posthumously published Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume attacked many of the traditional arguments for the existence of God, expressing the belief that religion is founded on ignorance and irrational fears. Though calm and courteous in tone – at times even tactfully ambiguous – the conversations between Hume’s vividly realized fictional figures form perhaps the most searching case ever mounted against orthodox Christian theological thinking and the ‘deism’ of the time, which pointed to the wonders of creation as conclusive evidence of God’s Design. Hume’s characters debate these issues with extraordinary passion, lucidity and humour, in one of the most compelling philosophical works ever written.
Selected Essays – David Hume
Publisher description: In his writings, David Hume set out to bridge the gap between the learned world of the academy and the marketplace of polite society. This collection, drawing largely on his Essays Mortal, Political, and Literary (1776 edition), comprehensively shows how far he succeeded.
As seen in these selections, Hume embraces a staggering range of social, cultural, political, demographic, and historical concerns, charting the state of civil society, manners, morals, and taste, and the development of political economy in the mid-eighteenth century. These essays represent not only those areas where Hume’s arguments representative of his age, but also where he is strikingly innovative.
A Treatise of Human Nature – David Hume
Publisher description: David Hume’s comprehensive attempt to base philosophy on a new, observationally grounded study of human nature is one of the most important texts in Western philosophy. It is also the focal point of current attempts to understand 18th-century philosophy The Treatise first explains how we form such concepts as cause and effect, external existence, and personal identity, and how we create compelling but unverifiable beliefs in the entities represented by these concepts. It then offers a novel account of the passions, explains freedom and necessity as they apply to human choices and actions, and concludes with a detailed explanation of how we distinguish between virtue and vice.
Hume: A Very Short Introduction – A. J. Ayer
Publisher description: Hume’s “naturalist” approach to a wide variety of philosophical topics resulted in highly original theories about perception, self-identity, causation, morality, politics, and religion, all of which are discussed in this stimulating introduction by A.J. Ayer, himself one of the twentieth century’s most important philosophers. Ayer also gives an account of Hume’s fascinating life and character, and includes generous quotations from Hume’s lucid and often witty writings.
The Philosophy of David Hume – Norman Kemp Smith
Publisher description: Norman Kemp Smith’s The Philosophy of David Hume continues to be unsurpassed in its comprehensive coverage of the ideas and issues of Hume’s Treatise. Now, after years of waiting, this currently out-of-print and highly sought-after classic is being re-issued. This ground-breaking book has long been regarded as a classic study by scholars in the field, yet a new introduction by Don Garrett places the book in its contemporary context, showing Humes’s continuing importance in the field.
Hume: An Intellectual Biography – James A. Harris
Publisher description: This is the first book to provide a comprehensive overview of the entire career of one of Britain’s greatest men of letters. It sets in biographical and historical context all of Hume’s works, from A Treatise of Human Nature to The History of England, bringing to light the major influences on the course of Hume’s intellectual development, and paying careful attention to the differences between the wide variety of literary genres with which Hume experimented. The major events in Hume’s life are fully described, but the main focus is on Hume’s intentions as a philosophical analyst of human nature, politics, commerce, English history, and religion. Careful attention is paid to Hume’s intellectual relations with his contemporaries. The goal is to reveal Hume as a man intensely concerned with the realization of an ideal of open-minded, objective, rigorous, dispassionate dialogue about all the principal questions faced by his age.
The Cambridge Companion to Hume – David Fate Norton & Jacqueline Taylor
Publisher description: Each Cambridge Companion to a philosophical figure is made up of specially commissioned essays by an international team of scholars, providing students and non-specialists with an introduction to a major philosopher. The series aims to dispel the intimidation that readers may feel when faced with the work of a challenging thinker. David Hume is now considered one of the most important philosophers of the Western world. Although best known for his contributions to the theory of knowledge, metaphysics, and philosophy of religion, Hume also influenced developments in the philosophy of mind, psychology, ethics, political and economic theory, political and social history, and aesthetic theory. The fifteen essays in this volume address all aspects of Hume’s thought. The picture of him that emerges is that of a thinker who, though often critical to the point of skepticism, was nonetheless able to build on that skepticism a constructive, viable, and profoundly important view of the world. Also included in this volume are Hume’s two brief autobiographies and a bibliography suited to those beginning their study of Hume. This second edition of one our most popular Companions includes six new essays and a new introduction, and the remaining essays have all been updated or revised.
This list was created by following a method that I’ve found to be useful when searching for introductory philosophy books. It involves:
- browsing required reading lists on university course syllabi
- searching for books using the Open Syllabus Project
- browsing the bibliographies of articles on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- searching for recommendations on philosophy forums
The following sources were used to build this list:
University Course Syllabi:
- Bibliography for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Hume
- Bibliography for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Hume
If you’d like to learn more about Hume, check out:
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