David Hume: Publish or Perish

Think you’re having a hard time getting published? Then you and David Hume have something in common. The 18th century Scottish literatus, who is arguably the greatest English-language philosopher to have ever lived, struggled to have his magnum opus, A Treatise of Human Nature, published and read.

His solution: publish an anonymous abstract of his work that served as a sort of self-promotion and a way to ameliorate the daunting length of his tome.

Hume influenced such luminaries as Adam Smith, Jeremey Bentham, and Immanuel Kant, the latter of whom credited the Scot with having woken him from his dogmatic slumber. Still, in his own life, Hume’s Treatise was a monumental failure. Dozens of copies were sold in bulk for pennies simply to rid the publishers of the excess.

Never one to mince words, Hume declared elegiacally “Never literary Attempt was more unfortunate than my Treatise of human Nature. It fell dead-born from the Press.”

Of his Treatise, Hume modestly declares, “Thro’ this whole book, there are great pretensions to new discoveries in philosophy; but if any thing can entitle the author to so glorious a name as that of an inventor, ‘tis the use he makes of the principle of the association of ideas.”

[My] Treatise ... fell dead-born from the Press.

The focus of his project is on ideas, but these are only adjunctive to the human mind itself. His principle concern is a study of human nature; from that vantage we can better understand logic, politics, science, and philosophy. “There is no question of importance, whose decision is not compriz’d in the science of man; and there is none, which can be decided with any certainty, before we become acquainted with that science.”

Hume’s work would influence metaphysics, epistemology, moral and political philosophy, psychology, economics, and many other areas of intellectual pursuit. Still, the ramifications of the dismal reception to his first and most influential work, published when he was only 26-years-old, haunted him to the end of his life.