Hume and Buddhism

Sunday, September 20th, 2015

Alison Gopnik tells an oddly personal tale, almost Lovecraftian, about fighting for her sanity while poring over dusty tomes from obscure archives:

In 1734, in scotland, a 23-year-old was falling apart.

As a teenager, he’d thought he had glimpsed a new way of thinking and living, and ever since, he’d been trying to work it out and convey it to others in a great book. The effort was literally driving him mad. His heart raced and his stomach churned. He couldn’t concentrate. Most of all, he just couldn’t get himself to write his book. His doctors diagnosed vapors, weak spirits, and “the Disease of the Learned.” Today, with different terminology but no more insight, we would say he was suffering from anxiety and depression. The doctors told him not to read so much and prescribed antihysteric pills, horseback riding, and claret—the Prozac, yoga, and meditation of their day.

The young man’s name was David Hume. Somehow, during the next three years, he managed not only to recover but also, remarkably, to write his book. Even more remarkably, it turned out to be one of the greatest books in the history of philosophy: A Treatise of Human Nature.

In his Treatise, Hume rejected the traditional religious and philosophical accounts of human nature. Instead, he took Newton as a model and announced a new science of the mind, based on observation and experiment. That new science led him to radical new conclusions. He argued that there was no soul, no coherent self, no “I.” “When I enter most intimately into what I call myself,” he wrote in the Treatise, “I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.”


But here’s Hume’s really great idea: Ultimately, the metaphysical foundations don’t matter. Experience is enough all by itself. What do you lose when you give up God or “reality” or even “I”? The moon is still just as bright; you can still predict that a falling glass will break, and you can still act to catch it; you can still feel compassion for the suffering of others. Science and work and morality remain intact. Go back to your backgammon game after your skeptical crisis, Hume wrote, and it will be exactly the same game.

In fact, if you let yourself think this way, your life might actually get better. Give up the prospect of life after death, and you will finally really appreciate life before it. Give up metaphysics, and you can concentrate on physics. Give up the idea of your precious, unique, irreplaceable self, and you might actually be more sympathetic to other people.

How did Hume come up with these ideas, so profoundly at odds with the Western philosophy and religion of his day? What turned the neurotic Presbyterian teenager into the great founder of the European Enlightenment?

In my shabby room, as I read Buddhist philosophy, I began to notice something that others had noticed before me. Some of the ideas in Buddhist philosophy sounded a lot like what I had read in Hume’s Treatise. But this was crazy. Surely in the 1730s, few people in Europe knew about Buddhist philosophy.

Still, as I read, I kept finding parallels. The Buddha doubted the existence of an omnipotent, benevolent God. In his doctrine of “emptiness,” he suggested that we have no real evidence for the existence of the outside world. He said that our sense of self is an illusion, too. The Buddhist sage Nagasena elaborated on this idea. The self, he said, is like a chariot. A chariot has no transcendent essence; it’s just a collection of wheels and frame and handle. Similarly, the self has no transcendent essence; it’s just a collection of perceptions and emotions.

“I never can catch myself at any time without a perception.”

That sure sounded like Buddhist philosophy to me — except, of course, that Hume couldn’t have known anything about Buddhist philosophy.

Or could he have?

Read the whole thing.


  1. A Boy and His Dog says:

    The facts of the article were interesting, and Hume’s insights are sadly under-appreciated today, but it’s unfortunate to see him wrapped up in such a narcissistic, dubious narrative.

  2. Graham says:

    Hmm. Just stumbled onto this one while trying hopelessly to find another older entry.

    Interesting. I’m no expert on Hume, the Enlightenment, Buddhism, or Existentialism, so just a few questions this entry poses for me:

    1. Does this make Hume a forerunner of the existentialists? Is that a thing? Or was he too different to say that?

    2. Hume claims that a lot of things are left intact following the revelations he posits. Including ‘morality’. Some kind of morality perhaps. But most kinds we are familiar with rely on ascribing some kind of more-than-physical reality to humans and some kind of more-than-naturally-occurring definition to human rights, and indeed some kind of discrete identity to ourselves and others. In what way is morality therefore left intact? If anything, it would be reduced to a purely transactional set of power relations.

    3. This is the existentialist bit for me. I’ve been trying for some time to generate meaning for myself in existentialist mode. It’s not working. Even when it seems to succeed, at the base of it is some older meaning, and if it isn’t eternal life or the soul, then it’s identity, or accomplishment, or community, or kinship, or culture. All of which, strictly, are also not really real in any non-transient sense.

    Clearly I’m reading too much into him. I’ve not heard him described this way. But it sounds like Hume constitutes Enlightenment man’s declaration of war on the idea of meaning.

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