David Hume lived from 26 April 1711 to 25 August 1776. The introduction to his entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes that he is generally regarded as the most important philosopher ever to write in English. His four main philosophical works were: A Treatise of Human Nature: Being an Attempt to introduce the experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects. (1739–40); An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748); An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751); and the posthumously published Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (1779). He also wrote a variety of other books, ranging in scope from history to autobiography.
David Hume was born in Edinburgh, though for periods of his childhood he spent time at the family home at Ninewells, near Chirnside in Berwickshire. At the age of twelve he began his studies at Edinburgh University: this was two years younger than would have been considered to be the norm at the time.
Hume's parents wanted him to become a lawyer, but he immersed himself in the books of the classical philosophers. As far as Hume was concerned, the university was an opportunity to learn rather than an opportunity to be taught. He told a friend at the time: "There is nothing to be learned from a professor, which is not to be met with in books."
In 1734 Hume moved to Bristol to earn a living as a clerk for a sugar importer, but only stayed for a few months before going to La Flèche, a village in Anjou best known for its Jesuit college where Descartes and Mersenne studied a century before. Hume spent four years there, during which time he wrote A Treatise of Human Nature. Many modern scholars believe this to be Hume's most important work, and one of the most important books in the history of philosophy. But at the time the book-buying public disagreed. As Hume himself said, the book "fell dead-born from the press, without reaching such distinction as even to excite a murmur among the zealots. But being naturally of a cheerful and sanguine temper, I soon recovered from the blow and prosecuted with great ardour my studies in the country". Even his efforts to promote the book by writing an anonymous pamphlet trying to popularise the ideas contained within it had little effect.
In 1744 Hume applied for the Chair of Ethics and Pneumatics (what we would probably call psychology today) at Edinburgh University: he was rejected. He then saw out the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745/6 by privately tutoring the Marquise of Annandale.
Hume published An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding in 1748. This resulted in his being charged with heresy (a charge against which his successful defence was to restate his atheism). But the controversy probably meant he was not selected as Chair of Logic at Glasgow University (a post that instead went to his good friend Adam Smith), or for a number of other prestigious posts for which he applied. Hume never held an academic post. Instead he became the Librarian at the Faculty of Advocates, a lowly-paid post that at least ensured he could work on his The History of Great Britain from the Saxon Kingdoms to the Glorious Revolution. This comprised a million words and took fifteen years to write, being published in six volumes between 1754 and 1762. It was well received and a commercial success.
From 1763 to 1765 Hume was employed as the Private Secretary to Lord Hertford, the British Ambassador to France, where he encountered Voltaire and Rousseau. In 1767 he held a government post in London, as Under Secretary of State for the Northern Department, but in 1768 he returned to Edinburgh.
In about 1770 the German philosopher Immanuel Kant credited Hume with awakening him from "dogmatic slumbers", and Hume's importance as a philosopher began to be recognised in the final years of his life. After his death in 1776, Hume was entombed on the east side of Calton Hill overlooking Edinburgh's New Town.