Book Review by Roy E. Perry: “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding” by David Hume



Editor’s Note: Roy E. Perry, the self-described “amateur philosopher of Nolensville,” wrote book reviews for “The Tennessean” and “Nashville Banner” for thirty years. He is a regular contributor to “Underground Nashville.”

Rene Descartes (1596-1650), “the father of modern philosophy,” was a rationalist who attempted to attain certainty by discovering “first principles” on which he could establish absolute truth. He believed that by reason alone (human understanding) he could “prove” the existence of God and the immortality of the soul.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was trained in the rationalist tradition, but when he read David Hume’s work, the impact shattered his way of thinking. In the preface to his ‘Prolegomenon,’ Kant stated that reading Hume woke him from his “dogmatic slumbers.” If Hume was right, then metaphysics, as Kant had previously believed it, was impossible, nothing but “sophistry and illusion.” In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant wrote, “I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge [that is, reason and human understanding] in order to make room for faith.”

An empiricist and skeptic, David Hume (1711-1776) was born and died in Edinburgh, Scotland. His magnum opus, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), like Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781), is one of the key texts of the 18th-century Enlightenment. Taking a dim view of miracles, mysticism, and metaphysics, Hume skeptically asserted that empirical proofs of religion (such as the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, and an afterlife) are not possible. In effect, he was saying (to paraphrase Kant), “I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge [that is, reason and human understanding] in order to make room for lack of faith [that is, for skepticism and unbelief].”

In the famous last paragraph of his Enquiry, Hume writes: “When we run over libraries, persuaded of these [empirical and skeptical] principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume: of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance, let us ask: Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and experience? No. Commit it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

Hume clarifies the terms “a priori” (deduction) and “a posteriori” (induction). Deductive reasoning is done “before experience,” such as speculating on how many angels can stand on the head of a pin. Inductive reasoning is done “after experience”; it is the scientific method (forming hypotheses, performing experiments, and observing phenomena). The former process, “abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number” (as in mathematics and geometry), produces certainty. The latter reasoning process produces, at best, only strong probability, based as it is on the assumption of “the uniformity of nature” (that the universe will be the same in the future as it is in the present). Therefore, Hume’s “empiricism” is qualified by its open-ended character.

Hume’s “skepticism” is also qualified. Although technically, Pyrrhonism (or excessive skepticism) cannot be philosophically disproven, Hume recommends the practicality of a “mitigated” or moderate skepticism that acknowledges the importance of common sense and common life.

Hume’s Enquiry is, one might quip, not an easy work for our “human understanding” to grasp. This is especially true of his erudite, but daunting, explications of cause and effect. Another challenging chapter deals with the ages-old dispute between determinism and free will. His controversial and provocative essay, “Of Miracles,” caused howls of protest from those accusing him of atheism, and caused him to be forever excluded from a professional academic career.

The Clarendon Critical Edition of Hume’s Enquiry is recommended. It contains a substantial (55-page) introduction by the editor (Tom L. Beauchamp, Professor of Philosophy at GeorgetownUniversity), who explains the intellectual background to the work and surveys its main themes. This edition also includes detailed explanatory notes on the text, a glossary of terms, a full list of references, and a section of supplementary readings.

For other book reviews by Roy E. Perry, please visit:

David M. (Dave) Carew is writer/editor of “Underground Nashville” and the author of the novels “Everything Means Nothing to Me: A Novel of Underground Nashville” and “Voice from the Gutter,” both now available at and Dave is also a freelance book editor, publicist, seminar and workshop leader, journalist, and advertising / marketing / public relations writer.

Everything Means Nothing to Me: A Novel of Underground Nashville by Dave Carew—which was praised by The Tennessean as “beautiful, haunting, powerful”—is now available in an all-new paperback edition. For more information, please visit:

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Editor’s Note: “Underground Nashville” covers artists, authors, musicians, poets, political figures, and other compelling people and happenings not typically covered by the mainstream Nashville media. It also presents reflections and commentary from an underground/indie perspective, offering “thoughts from the shadows of a great American city.”

Dave Carew




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