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

In: Early Science and Medicine
Author: Tamás Demeter1
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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.

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