The David Hume Institute was established in 1985 by the economist Sir Alan Peacock “to fill a gap in the market for policy research … which is genuinely independent of government support though anxious to put forward proposals for consideration by governments of all persuasions, which exploits talent and encourages expression of opinions on national and international economic issues which is not metropolitan-based, and which has a firm intellectual foundation in the study of the links between economics and law.”

Sir Alan, who remained active in the Institute after he stepped down as Director, sadly died in 2014, but the Institute has held true to his principles. It commissions research in legal and economic aspects of public policy with a distinctive non-London voice, based in, but not confined to Scotland. The Institute has no political affiliations. Its research, publications, seminars and other activities have been primarily concerned with market approaches to public policy and it has attracted support from Nobel Laureates in economics such as Professors James Buchanan, James Meade and George Stigler. It holds seminars and public lectures and publishes books and a series of Occasional Papers.

Two publications available which chart the history of the Institute:

  • The First Decade – the setting up and first ten years of the Institute
  • Argument Amongst Friends: twenty five years of sceptical enquiry – to mark the 25th anniversary of The David Hume Institute

Complimentary printed copies of these two publications are available on request or can be downloaded from our publications page.

The aims and objectives of the Institute are to promote discourse and research on economic and legal aspects of public policy questions and fulfils these objectives in the following ways:

  • By organising seminars that address topics of current public policy concern and bringing together distinguished and expert speakers and an informed, interested and engaged audience.
  • Through the Occasional Paper series of lectures and articles which are intended to make its results available to a wider audience in a convenient format – now all available as PDF files on this website.
  • The Annual Lecture/Presidential Address is delivered by a distinguished speaker on a topic of current importance.

David Hume (1711—1776)

Hume was one of the most important thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Historian, philosopher, economist, diplomat and essayist, he is best known today for his radical philosophical empiricism and scepticism, but also had a strong influence on economics.

Hume failed in his attempts to start a university career, but took part in various diplomatic and military missions. He wrote The History of England, which became a best-seller and the standard history of its day. His empirical approach places him with John Locke, George Berkeley, and a handful of others as a British Empiricist – those who emphasise the importance of experience and evidence in the formation of ideas.

Philosophical thought

Beginning with A Treatise of Human Nature (published in 1739), Hume strove to create a total naturalistic “science of man” that examined the psychological basis of human nature. In opposition to the rationalists who preceded him, most notably René Descartes, he concluded that desire rather than reason governed human behaviour. He also argued against the existence of innate ideas, concluding that humans have knowledge only of things they directly experience. He argued that inductive reasoning and therefore causality cannot be justified rationally. Our assumptions in favour of these result from custom and constant conjunction rather than logic. He concluded that humans have no actual conception of the self, only of a bundle of sensations associated with the self.

Hume’s compatibilist theory of free will proved extremely influential on subsequent moral philosophy. He was also a sentimentalist who held that ethics are based on feelings rather than abstract moral principles, and expounded the is/ought problem.

Hume has proved extremely influential on subsequent western philosophy, especially on utilitarianism, logical positivism, William James, the philosophy of science, early analytic philosophy, cognitive philosophy, theology and other movements and thinkers. In addition, according to philosopher Jerry Fodor, Hume’s Treatise is “the founding document of cognitive science.” Hume engaged with contemporary intellectual luminaries such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith (who acknowledged Hume’s influence on his economics and political philosophy), also with James Boswell. Immanuel Kant credited Hume with waking him up from his “dogmatic slumbers.”

Influence on economics

Through his discussions on politics, Hume developed many ideas that are prevalent in the field of economics. This includes ideas on private property, inflation, and foreign trade. Referring to his essay “Of the Balance of Trade,” Noble Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman remarked that “David Hume created what I consider the first true economic model.”

In contrast to Locke, Hume believed that private property is not a natural right. Hume argued it is justified because resources are limited. Private property would be an unjustified, “idle ceremonial,” if all goods were unlimited and available freely. Hume also believed in an unequal distribution of property, because perfect equality would destroy the ideas of thrift and industry. Perfect equality would thus lead to impoverishment.