Argumenta – Journal of Analytic Philosophy

In this essay, I discuss David Hume’s reasoning on free will as he presents it in A Treatise of Human Nature and An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding. I proceed by showing how Hume’s compatibilist solution acquires meaning in the light of his sentimentally based science of human nature, which conceives human beings as reasonable, social, and active creatures. Within Hume’s empiricist, naturalistic, and sceptical approach, we deal only with perceptions and never with things themselves, and human experience is structured in a causal order which allows us to organise both the way we experience the world and our existence in relation to that of others. In such a scenario, the question of free will depends on human practices, such as the attribution of responsibility, which follow a causal order and are not affected by metaphysical doubts about the loss of responsibility if determinism were true. I argue that Hume traces responsibility back to the expression of feelings for or against particular characters; people become the object of judgements of responsibility in so far as, through their actions, they show that they possess characters of a certain kind which reflect a whole series of dispositions and traits, empirically verifiable and causally explainable, acquired over time. I conclude by highlighting how free will may represent a problem on a practical level once moral or religious issues come into play and why this is not so for Hume.

In this essay, I offer an exegesis of David Hume’s notion of free will. I take the relevant sections of A Treatise of Human Nature and An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding—that is, T 2.3.1-2 and EHU 8—and go through the arguments there presented to exemplify Hume’s position and how he defends it. Although my intentions are primarily reconstructive, I shall suggest, as a possible interpretation, that his assertions on free will can only be fully appreciated against the background of his ambition to…


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