In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Hume's Political Thought

  • Introduction
  • Hume Contextualized
  • Toleration
  • Social Contracts
  • Jurisprudence
  • Sympathy and the Passions
  • Enthusiasm and Factionalism
  • Hume’s Influence on Early American Political Thought
  • Hume and Conservatism
  • Liberty
  • Society and the People

Political Science Hume's Political Thought
Marc Hanvelt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 October 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0135


David Hume (b. 1711–d. 1776) was one of the central figures of the Scottish Enlightenment. He lived and wrote during a period in which the political discourse of Scotland, and of Great Britain more widely, was often centered on questions of fundamental political import. The legacy of 17th-century English and Scottish political conflicts, in particular those between supporters of the divine right of kings and supporters of more popular forms of rule that had led to the English Civil War, the execution of a king (Charles I), and the overthrow of another (James II), loomed large over Hume’s world. The Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and in 1745, the latter of which led to the brief capture of Edinburgh, made clear that those conflicts were far from having been settled and relegated to the pages of history. The place of religion and religious extremism in politics was still of fundamental concern. It was only in 1696 that Thomas Aikenhead, a twenty-year old student in Edinburgh, became the last person in Scotland to be hanged for blasphemy. Less extreme, though far more prevalent, the virulent party politics of the day raised questions about the causes and political effects of factionalism. In his own time, Hume was known primarily as a historian. His entry in the catalogue of the British Library lists him as such. However, throughout his career as a philosopher, historian, and essayist, Hume maintained a clear and consistent interest in a whole series of political questions. These included, but were not limited to, questions about factionalism, about religious and political extremism (what Hume termed “enthusiasm”), about religious toleration, about the origins and foundations of government, about political authority, liberty, commerce, justice, and many other topics that are of central concern to political theorists. Generally speaking, his answers to these questions emphasize an empirically grounded understanding of human nature as an essential foundation for understanding politics; the political importance of opinion, habits, and conventions; political moderation; and the limits of reason and the role of the passions in morals and politics. Hume developed his political thought most explicitly in his political essays, in his History of England, and in the discussions of justice and allegiance to government that appeared first in Book 3 of A Treatise of Human Nature, then again in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. Those interested in Hume’s political thought may also want to consult An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume’s shorter works on religion (The Natural History of Religion and Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion), and his correspondence. Hume was a prolific correspondent. His collected letters contain many discussions of political topics that will be of great interest to a student of Hume’s political thought.

Editions of Hume’s Writings

Until the late 1990s, the standard editions of A Treatise of Human Nature, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals were Hume 1978 (cited under A Treatise of Human Nature) and Hume 1975 (cited under An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals), commonly referred to as the Selbe-Bigge and Nidditch editions. Between 1998 and 2000, Oxford University Press released new student editions of the Treatise and the Enquiries. Hume 2000 (cited under A Treatise of Human Nature), Hume 1998, and Hume 1999 (both cited under An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals) did not entirely displace the Selby-Bigge and Nidditch editions but took their place alongside them as standard editions of these texts. In the secondary literature, you will regularly see both sets of editions cited. More recently, Oxford University Press has released The Clarendon Editions of the Works of David Hume. These editions offer the most extensive critical and interpretive content of any of the editions. In addition to the Treatise and the Enquiries, Oxford also released a Clarendon Edition of the Dissertation on the Passions and The Natural History of Religion. The standard edition of Hume’s essays is Hume 1987 (cited under Essays Moral, Political, and Literary): the Liberty Classics edition of Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary. The only currently available print edition of Hume’s History of England is also published by Liberty Classics. Both editions are very affordable. Finally, two collections of Hume’s correspondence have recently been reprinted by Oxford University Press as Hume 2011a and Hume 2011b; a third collection, Hume 2014, supplements these two (all cited under Hume’s Correspondence).

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