Hume and the Historicity of Human Nature

This paper urges a reconsideration of Hume’s role in the philosophy of history. It begins by challenging the common perception of Hume as a proto-positivist hoping to draw from history a mechanical causal account of the unchanging human nature. It draws attention instead to his grasp of historical contingency, the sui generis nature of the social world, and the complexity of the relationships of recognition and identity-formation which structure its operation. The paper goes on to examine Hume’s position in the light of the idea of the historicity of human nature. It is argued that Hume could be perfectly comfortable with the idea of changes in human nature as well as with the contextual dependence of terms in which human nature comes to define and redefine itself over time. What Hume cannot countenance is the prospect of a radical discontinuity within human nature, the potential significance of which is downplayed by his methodological reliance, qua a historian, on critical common sense and the moralistic vocabulary of folk psychology associated with it.