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A Thought on Terminology

A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence. ― David Hume


David Hume is considered one of the most studied philosophers in the history of modern philosophy. He is known for his ideas on human understanding and it appears that one of his most important contributions (today) is his thoughts on Liberty and Necessity. This essay on free will (or the lack there of) is significant not just because of its content, but its timeless relation to the modern, public sphere.

  • Notes: For context, read David Hume's thoughts on Liberty and Necessity (Section VIII) in "An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding", before reading this article.
  • This article does not wish to solely confront current American politics. The aim is to focus on old ideas in a new world. My wish is for you to think about these things without the stress of our current political environment and to reflect on the benefits to your personal life. In theory, it is the most productive thing you could do.


In Hume's essay "Of Liberty and Necessity", he first confronts the importance of the terminology that we use during conversations and debate. He finds, in short, that the meaning of the words themselves is the source of all controversy. According to Hume, when individuals finally agree on the same terminology, the argument often ends in agreement. He specifically refers to necessity (lack of free will) and liberty (free will) in this case, as the argument of free will has been a timeless discussion.

Hume defines Liberty as "a power of acting or not acting, according to the determinations of the will" (Hume, 63).  Thus, since our will is what influences our decisions, liberty does not preclude necessity. He focuses on the idea that there are constraints and external influences that change (or even determine) our decisions, but it does not mean that we lack free will. I feel this is a good definition for free will and it will make our arguments on the topic less stressful, as we discuss the extent of its meaning and utility.

After reading this, I have not met many people who disagree with this terminology. Although this may just be a coincidence, I find it fascinating as we think about discussions in our everyday life and societal standards. Even if the debate doesn't result in a full agreement, the conversation is far more productive and easier to discover common ground. With all the philosophical conversations I have had in the past, it is interesting that this idea has never come up as one of Hume's.

What do you think about this idea? Do you feel there would be more harmony in society if we had a better understanding of each others' ideas and terminology? What are some terms that currently lack a clear definition? It is important to always remember that your neighbors believe what they believe, as much as you believe what you believe.


Here is an article on other ideas of Hume, and hopefully you find some important ideas you haven't thought about before!


David Hume, “Of Liberty and Necessity” in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Second Edition ed., Hackett, 1997, pp. 53–69.

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