A Chemistry of Human Nature: Chemical Imagery in Hume’s Treatise

In: Early Science and Medicine

David Hume’s ‘science of man’ is frequently interpreted as an enterprise inspired in crucial respects by Newton’s Principia. However, a closer look at Hume’s central concepts and methodological commitment suggests that his Treatise of Human Nature is much more congruent with the research traditions that arose in the wake of Newton’s Opticks. In this paper I argue that the label Hume frequently attached to his project, ‘anatomy of the mind,’ is a metaphor that, considered in itself, seems to be expressing a commitment to the study of human nature in analogy with organic living nature. In this vein, Hume’s anatomy relies on conceptual and methodological resources derived from a chemical and physiological perspective on the natural cognitive and affective functioning of human beings. Since the idea of natural functioning provides various options for deriving normative considerations, Hume’s account can be seen as a middle-range theory that connects the discourses of organic nature and normative morality.


  • 3

     Richard Olson, “The Human Sciences,” in The Cambridge History of Science. Volume 4. Eighteenth-Century Science, ed. Roy Porter (Cambridge, 2008), 436-462, 436; Barry Stroud, Hume (London, 1977), 5; Roy Porter, “Medical Science and Human Science in the Enlightenment,” in Inventing Human Science, eds. Christopher Fox, Roy Porter and Robert Wokler (Berkeley, 1995), 53-87, 67; Theodore M. Porter, “Objects and Genres of Social Inquiry from the Enlightenment to 1890,” in Cambridge History ofScience. Volume 7.The Modern Social Sciences, eds. Theodore M. Porter and Dorothy Ross (Cambridge, 2003), 13-39, 33; Terence Penelhum, Themes in Hume (Oxford, 2000), 43.

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  • 4

     See e.g. Miren Boehm, “Filling in the Gaps in Hume’s Vacuum,” Hume Studies 38 (2012), 79-99; Schliesser, “Hume’s Attack on Newton’s Philosophy.”

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  • 5

     I.B. Cohen, “Newton and the Social Sciences, with Special Reference to Economics, Or, The Case of the Missing Paradigm,” in Natural Images in Economic Thought, ed. Philip Mirowski (Cambridge, 1994), 55-90.

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  • 8

     See e.g. Andrew Cunningham, “Sydenham vs. Newton: The Edinburgh Fever Dispute of the 1690s between Andrew Brown and Archibald Pitcairne,” Medical History, Supplement No. 1 (1981), 71-98; John P. Wright, “Metaphysics and Physiology: Mind, Body, and the Animal Economy in Eighteenth-Century Scotland,” in Studies in the Philosophy of the ScottishEnlightenment, ed. M.A. Stewart(Oxford, 1990), 251-301; Roger R. Emerson, “The Founding of the Edinburgh Medical School,” Journal of the History of Medicine and the Allied Sciences, 59 (2004), 183-218.

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  • 9

     See e.g. Schoefield, Mechanism and Materialism, 3-4.

  • 13

     See e.g. Alan Shapiro, “Experiment and Mathematics in Newton’s Theory of Color,” Physics Today 37/9 (1984), 34-42.

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     See especially Alan Shapiro, “Newton’s ‘Experimental Philosophy’,” 2002 , accessed on 30/9/2015. See also ibid., “Newton’s ‘Experimental Philosophy’,” Early Science and Medicine, 9 (2004), 185-217.

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  • 15

     See e.g. Thackray, Atoms and Powers, 121; Arthur Donovan, Philosophical Chemistry in the Scottish Enlightenment (Edinburgh, 1975), passim; Henry Guerlac, “Joseph Black and Fixed Air: Part II,” Isis, 48.4 (1957), 433-56, 445; David B. Wilson, “Enlightenment Scotland’s Philosophico-Chemical Physics,” in Between Leibniz, Newton, and Kant, ed. Wolfgang Lefèvre (Dordrecht, 2001), 129-45, 131.

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  • 18

     See e.g. Schaffer, “The Glorious Revolution and Medicine,” 175-81; Reill, Vitalizing Nature, 33-41.

  • 19

     See e.g. Tamás Demeter, “Post-Mechanical Explanation in the Natural and Moral Sciences: The Language of Nature and Human Nature in David Hume and William Cullen,” Jahrbuch für Europäische Wissenschaftskultur,6 (2012), 139-58.

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  • 24

     See Donovan, Philosophical Chemistry, 97-9. The distinction is widespread across Europe, not only in Scotland. Beside Cullen, Stahl, Macquer and Show also rely on it. See Georgette Taylor, “Unification achieved. William Cullen’s Theory of Heat and Phlogiston as an Example of his Philosophical Chemistry,” British Journal for the History of Science, 39 (2006), 477-501, 487; Mi Gyung Kim, Affinity, That Elusive Dream: A Genealogy of the Chemical Revolution (Cambridge, MA, 2003), 210.

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  • 27

     Owen, Hume’s Reason, 79.

  • 28

     See Demeter, “Enlarging the Bounds,” 177-8.

  • 31

     See e.g. Schoefield, Mechanism and Materialism, 215-6. See also W.A. Smeaton, “E.F. Geoffroy Was Not a Newtonian Chemist,” Ambix,18 (1971), 212-4; Lawrence Principe, “A Revolution Nobody Noticed? Changes in Early Eighteenth-Century Chymistry,” in New Narratives in Eighteenth-Century Chemistry, ed. Lawrence Principe (Dordrecht, 2007), 1-22, 6; Kim, Affinity, 142. It also seems clear that Geoffroy’s achievement emerged in a Newtonian context, see e.g. J.B. Shank, The Newton Wars and the Beginning of the French Enlightenment (Chicago, 2008), 115-7; and that it was put to Newtonian use in the eighteenth century, see e.g. Kim, Affinity, 208-11. See also Georgette Taylor, Variations on a Theme: Patterns of Congruence and Divergence among 18th Century Chemical Affinity Theories (PhD thesis, University of London, 2006), 44-8. It is worth noting that in 1704 Geoffroy began preparing a French translation/précis of the first edition of Newton’s Opticks: between August 1706 and June 1707 he read sections to members of the Académie; the audience included Malebranche, Varignon and Fontenelle. See R.A. Hall, “Newton in France: A New View,” History of Science, 13 (1975), 233-50.

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  • 33

     See e.g. Wilson, Seeking Nature’s Logic, 80-3.

  • 34

     See Donovan, Philosophical Chemistry in the Scottish Enlightenment, 129-31.

  • 36

     See Demeter, “Hume’s Experimental Method” and “Hume’s Copernican Turn,” in The Making of Copernicus: Early Modern Transformation of the Scientist and His Science, eds. Wolfgang Neuber, Thomas Rahn and Claus Zittel (Leiden, 2015), 88-109. See also Hazony, “Newtonian Explanatory Reduction.”

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  • 40

     See Kim, Affinity, 209-10; Donovan, Philosophical Chemistry in the Scottish Enlightenment, 97-9.

  • 41

     See e.g. Alan Shapiro, “Skating on the Edge: Newton’s Investigation of Chromatic Dispersion and Achromatic Prisms and Lenses,” in Wrong for the Right Reasons, eds. Jed Z. Buchwald and Allan Franklin (Dordrecht, 2005), 99-125; Niccolò Guicciardini, “The Role of Musical Analogies in Newton’s Optical and Cosmological Work,” Journal for the History of Ideas, 74 (2013), 45-67.

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  • 50

     Hsueh Qu, “Prescription, Description, and Hume’s Experimental Method,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 279-301 (2016); this recent paper approaches the issue in epistemological terms, but its reading seems to be in agreement with the present line of argument.

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