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Hume on the Passions

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 March 2012

Stephen Buckle*
Australian Catholic University, Sydney


Hume's account of the passions is largely neglected because the author's purposes tend to be missed. The passions were accepted by early modern philosophers, of whatever persuasion, as the mental effects of bodily processes. The dualist and the materialist differed over whether reason is a higher power able to judge and control them: thus Descartes affirms, whereas Hobbes denies, this possibility. Hume's account lines up firmly behind Hobbes. Although he shies away from Hobbes's dogmatic physiological claims, he affirms all the key elements of the psychology Hobbes based on them: the nature of the will, the compatibility of freedom and necessity, the subservience of reason to passion, and the motivating power of pleasure and pain. Hume's account is thus best regarded as implicitly materialist. It is not, however, merely disinterested analysis: it aims at criticism of orthodox religious values. The passions are not threats to morality, but virtuous or vicious according to their pleasurable or painful nature. Thus the status of pride and humility is reversed. Hume's account of the passions underpins a rejection of orthodox religious morals, and endorses the values of antiquity – of pagan virtue.

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 2012

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1 The only notable book-length study of the passions is Árdal, Páll S., Passion and Value in Hume's Treatise (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1989)Google Scholar.

2 Textual references, by paragraph number, are to Hume, David, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. Norton, D. F. and Norton, M. J. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007), 2 VolsGoogle Scholar; Volume 1 (Text).

3 Annette Baier captures this mood by dismissing the work in just these terms: Baier, Annette C., ‘Hume's Post-Impressionism’, in her Death and Character: Further Reflections on Hume (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 245Google Scholar. She adds: ‘Not even Stephen Buckle has tried to show A Dissertation on the Passions to be an interesting or enlightened work.’

4 Hume, David, A Dissertation on the Passions and The Natural History of Religion, ed. Beauchamp, T. L. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007)Google Scholar; Dissertation, 6.19.

5 Spinoza, Benedict de, Ethics, ed. and trans. Parkinson, G. H. R. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)Google Scholar, Pt 3, Preface.

6 Descartes, René, The Passions of the Soul, 1.1; in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, trans. Cottingham, J., Stoothoff, R. and Murdoch, D. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, I, 328.

7 Descartes, Passions, 1.21; Ibid., I, 336.

8 Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, Second and Sixth Meditations; Ibid., II, 19, 22, 51, 59.

9 Descartes, Passions, 1.21; Ibid., I, 336.

10 Descartes, Passions, 1.50; Ibid., I, 348.

11 The unorthodox Cartesian, Nicolas Malebranche, is perhaps the best example. His major work, The Search after Truth, offers a physiology of the passions, and then follows this account with an account of the rational method that must rule us if we are to arrive at the truth: Malebranche, Nicolas, The Search after Truth, trans. Lennon, Thomas M. and Olscamp, Paul J. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)Google Scholar, Books 5 and 6. Spinoza is an exception to this rule, since his dual-aspect theory is an attempt to avoid dualism, while still preserving a space for rational independence from the ‘servitude’ implied by the passions: Spinoza, Ethics, Parts 4 and 5.

12 Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan, ed. Curley, E. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1994)Google Scholar, Ch. 6, title.

13 Ibid., 6.1.

14 Ibid., 6.2.

15 Ibid., 6.53.

16 Ibid., 21.4.

17 See Chappell, Vere (ed.), Hobbes and Bramhall on Liberty and Necessity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)Google Scholar.

18 Hobbes, Leviathan, 6.53; 5.2; 6.2; 8.16.

19 Ibid., 6.7, 10.

20 Note that ‘specious’ here means attractive, not (as in its current use) deceptively attractive.

21 The explanation is never actually given, but, as the exposition will make clear, the reason is – startlingly – that, unlike the passions, the will is not a cause of action.

22 Locke, John, An Essay concerning Human Understanding, ed. Nidditch, Peter H. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975)Google Scholar, 2.8.11.

23 Here we also see why the will is not ‘properly speaking … comprehended among the passions’ (T the will has been reduced to the feeling of the action, caused by the passion; the passion, in contrast, is the feeling of an impulse, and so the feeling that corresponds to the cause of the action. In other words, will, like reason, has been subordinated to passion.

24 Descartes, Passions, 1.1; op. cit., I, 328. See also Spinoza, Ethics, Pt 4: ‘We are passive in so far as we are a part of Nature’ (Prop. 2); ‘The force and growth of each passion and its perseverance in existence is defined … by the power of an external cause …’ (Prop. 5).

25 Locke also argued for the compatibility of causation and liberty: Essay, 2.21. This is one of several ways in which his theory is friendly to materialism; but he did not accept the full range of Hobbesian elements listed here.

26 Locke's discussion of personal identity is motivated, in part, by mortalist questions: Essay, 2.27.

27 Clarke, Samuel, A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God (1705)Google Scholar; in Clarke, , A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God and Other Writings, ed. Vailati, Ezio (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)Google Scholar. The sub-title of Clarke's work is apposite, given the thesis of this paper. It runs: ‘More particularly in answer to Mr Hobbes, Spinoza, and their followers’; in Demonstration, 3.

28 Clarke, Samuel, ‘The Difference Between Living after the Flesh and Spirit’, in Sermons on Several Subjects, 7th edn. (London, 1749)Google Scholar, VIII, 19. Quoted by Wright, John P., Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 216CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

29 Hayes, William, The Passions. An Ode for Music (Oxford, 1750Google Scholar; libretto William Collins), Schola Cantorum Basiliensis (San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain: Glossa Music, 2010).

30 Plato, Republic, 435b–444e.

31 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1115a7–1117b22.

32 Thus, for example, Malebranche, who observes that ‘the pleasures and impulses of the passions involve us in error with regard to the good … they must be resisted continuously’: op. cit. note 11, 357.

33 Spinoza, Ethics, Pt 3, Preface. I have substituted ‘passion’ for ‘emotion’ in Parkinson's translation of this passage. The Latin term affectus implies the passivity that defines a feeling as a passion, and so is more appropriately translated as ‘passion’. Doing so also brings out the commonalities with Hobbes's and Hume's treatment of passions.

34 Allestree, Richard, The Practice of the Christian Graces, or, The Whole Duty of Man (London, 1658)Google Scholar; quoted in Hume, Treatise, Vol. 2 (Editorial Material), 831.

35 Boswell, James, Life of Johnson, ed. Chapman, R. W. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 529Google Scholar.

36 James Boswell, Edinburgh Journals; quoted in Graham, Roderick, The Great Infidel: A Life of David Hume (East Linton, Scotland: Tuckwell Press, 2004), 350Google Scholar.

37 The case of anger is particularly significant. Plato treated anger as the mark of the noble (but not philosophical) soul: Republic, 439e–441c. See also Braund, Susanna and Most, Glenn W. (ed.), Ancient Anger: Perspectives from Homer to Galen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)Google Scholar.

38 Hume to Hutcheson, 17th September 1739; in The Letters of David Hume, ed. Greig, J. Y. T. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932)Google Scholar, I, 34. Cf. Cicero, , De Officiis, trans. Miller, Walter (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1913)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, I.15, 61–64, 89–96, etc.

39 Russell, Paul, The Riddle of Hume's Treatise: Skepticism, Naturalism, and Irreligion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Russell's focus is on the main sections of Books 1 and 3, and so treats the passions only in passing. Similarly, despite emphasising the Hobbesian connection, he thinks of it mainly in terms of the plan of the book and of irreligious intentions. For an account that focuses on the shared materialist themes, see Buckle, Stephen, ‘Hume's Sceptical Materialism’, Philosophy 82 (2007), 553–78CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

40 I would like to thank Annette Baier for the provocation; and also Max Deutscher, for having introduced me, many years ago, to Hume's treatment of the passions.