The best David Hume books

Many authors have picked their favorite books about David Hume and why they recommend each book.

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A Treatise of Human Nature

By David Hume,

Book cover of A Treatise of Human Nature

When I wrote Rationality, I mentioned Hume 32 times. He didn’t think of everything, but he explained an astonishing range of topics related to rationality, including causation versus correlation, is versus ought, and individual versus collective self-interest. His follow-up, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, explained why we shouldn’t believe in miracles. He explored all of these topics with clarity and wit, putting modern academic writing to shame.

Who am I?

I’m a Harvard professor of psychology and a cognitive scientist who’s interested in all aspects of language, mind, and human nature. I grew up in Montreal, but have lived most of my adult life in the Boston area, bouncing back and forth between Harvard and MIT except for stints in California as a professor at Stanford and sabbatical visitor in Santa Barbara and now, Berkeley. I alternate between books on language (how it works, what it reveals about human nature, what makes for clear and stylish writing) and books on the human mind and human condition (how the mind works, why violence has declined, how progress can take place).


I wrote...

Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters

By Steven Pinker,

Book cover of Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters

What is my book about?

How can a species that developed vaccines for Covid-19 in less than a year produce so much fake news, medical quackery, and conspiracy theorizing?

I reject the cliché that humans are just cavemen out of time, saddled with biases, fallacies, and illusions. Instead, we think in ways that are sensible in the low-tech contexts in which we spend most of our lives, but fail to take advantage of the powerful tools of reasoning our best thinkers have discovered over the millennia: logic, critical thinking, probability, correlation, and causation, and optimal ways to update beliefs and commit to choices individually and with others. These tools are not a standard part of our educational curricula and have never been presented clearly and entertainingly in a single book—at least until I had a go at it in this book.

Fact, Fiction, and Forecast

By Nelson Goodman,

Book cover of Fact, Fiction, and Forecast

The philosophical key to getting yourself estranged from the everyday is the famous ‘problem of induction’, which goes back to the philosopher David Hume, and asks why we expect things to carry on in the same way: might my garden be a fiery pit next time I open the front door? 

Nelson Goodman invented a new version of the problem – ‘the new riddle of induction’. This book might come across as a bit technical, but the general drift of the new riddle is that every bit of evidence and experience we have for the grass being green is also a bit of evidence and experience for it being ‘grue’ – roughly ‘green every time I’ve seen it but blue tomorrow;’ think about it!  You can extend this argument as much as you like, and Goodman takes us through the counterpart colour ‘bleen’. Goodman thinks our expectations of stability are…


Who am I?

The big question that was the basis of my career was ‘When someone says “hello” to you, how do you know you should say “hello” back?’ Ever since I heard that question as a young student, I have been trying to understand the answer. The question has taken me through philosophy, sociology, and the most exciting, detailed studies of scientific research. What more could one want in terms of an interesting life?  I hope that if you read Gravity’s Kiss, you’ll see that it is answering a philosophical question as well as a scientific question.


I wrote...

Gravity's Kiss: The Detection of Gravitational Waves

By Harry Collins,

Book cover of Gravity's Kiss: The Detection of Gravitational Waves

What is my book about?

This is a real-time account over the half-year it took to confirm the discovery of the first gravitational wave. It is the climax of my 45-year immersion in the field and follows my 3 previous books on the development of the field and its controversies. But I study the detailed workings of science as exemplars of the way we make our reality.

So, these studies of this remarkable process of discovery, with all its larger-than-life characters, heartbreaks, and events that are stranger than fiction, are set in the context of my Changing Order: Replication and Induction in Scientific Practice and The Golem: What You Should Know About Science, which cover a series of cases. My recommendations refer to this wider, more philosophical, perspective, from which it grew.

Capital of the Mind

By James Buchan,

Book cover of Capital of the Mind: How Edinburgh Changed the World

Edinburgh, the principal centre of the Scottish Enlightenment (though flanked by Glasgow and Aberdeen), saw an extraordinary concentration of creative intellectuals who met to debate the principles of society, history, economics, and philosophy. They included David Hume, who made epoch-making contributions to all these subjects, and Adam Smith, who after giving up his chair at Glasgow lived nearby at Kirkcaldy writing The Wealth of Nations. Buchan not only recreates the intellectual atmosphere but shows how the failure of the 1745 Rebellion prompted Scotland to become a rapidly modernizing society.


Who am I?

In 2021 I retired as Schwarz-Taylor Professor of German at Oxford. For many years I had been interested not only in German literature but in European literature and culture more broadly, particularly in the eighteenth century. Oxford is a centre of Enlightenment research, being the site of the Voltaire Foundation, where a team of scholars has just finished editing the complete works of Voltaire. When in 2013 I was asked to write a book on the Enlightenment, I realized that I had ideal resources to hand – though I also benefited from a year’s leave spent at Göttingen, the best place in Germany to study the eighteenth century. 


I wrote...

The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness, 1680-1790

By Ritchie Robertson,

Book cover of The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness, 1680-1790

What is my book about?

The Enlightenment is still often thought of as ‘the age of reason’. But it also placed a new value on emotion, sensibility, sympathy. It was held together by the belief that happiness could be attained, not or not only in heaven, but on this earth, and that the conditions of human life could be improved and people could be freed from unnecessary fears. 

These endeavours did not concern only white men in wigs. As the reading public was growing rapidly, Enlightened thought spread widely. It was not confined to philosophers. My book draws heavily on literature to document a change in sensibility and a new readiness to imagine the experiences of others. Sympathy led to the liberation of serfs in Europe and slaves outside Europe, and to denunciations of European colonialism. 

The Scottish Enlightenment

By Alexander Broadie,

Book cover of The Scottish Enlightenment: The Historical Age of the Historical Nation

I think understanding the intellectual background to a historical period is always important, and I was introduced to the Scottish Enlightenment at West Virginia Wesleyan College through this book. I have since had the pleasure to meet and work with Alexander Broadie while at Glasgow, and he is a kind, generous, and supportive scholar.

The Scottish Enlightenment covers the significant breakthroughs in the thought of the movement, and the contributions of the characters behind it such as David Hume and Adam Smith. The importance of studying history, morality in civil society, religion, and art. The Enlightenment laid the groundwork for our modern society, so how could anyone not study it?


Who am I?

I dropped out of law school to pursue a PhD in music at the University of Glasgow and to write the history of the flute in Scotland. Essentially, I wanted to know that if Scotland was a leader in Enlightenment thought, and if there were hundreds of publications with flute on the title page, and since the flute was the most popular amateur instrument in the eighteenth century, why was nothing written about the flute. I obsessively read Scottish mythology as a child, and was always drawn to the stereotypical wild misty landscapes of Scotland without knowing much about it. 


I wrote...

The Flute in Scotland from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century

By Elizabeth Ford,

Book cover of The Flute in Scotland from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century

What is my book about?

This is the first (and only) book devoted to the flute in Scottish music history. It explores the rich history of the flute in Scottish musical life through people who played it, made it, and offers in depth analysis of surviving flute manuscripts.

This might sound dry, but it has pictures, and has been called “required reading” and “groundbreaking.” I suspect this is because the common misconception is that no one in Scotland played flute, that flute in traditional music is an Irish thing. I debunk that, along with the other myth about ladies not playing flute. The flute’s use in Scottish music gets moved much earlier than previously thought along the way. 


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