Intensive course: Intensive Seminar for Nordic-Baltic Philosophy Symposia Master’s Students: Passions and Morals in David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature

(this is for archive purposes only. The course was effectively held in 2016.)

2-6 May 2016,

Tallinn University, School of Humanities, Narva mnt 25: rooms TBA

5 ECTS credits


This course will be taught by Mikael M. Karlsson (University of Iceland) and Henry Alexander Henrysson (University of Iceland). Teachers from other institutions will assist with the assessment and may join in the seminars.

Course description

The central aim of this course is to get students to become intimate with the account of passions and morals presented by the Scottish philosopher, David Hume (1711-1776), in his classic work, A Treatise of Human Nature, and to equip them to analyze and interpret this account and to form their own understanding of its significance.

Hume is one of the principal “British Empiricists”. He was indeed a Scottish philosopher and certainly an empiricist. But Hume was arguably as much an inspiration to Nietzsche and to later phenomenologists as he was to the more aggressively empiricist philosophers of the so called “analytic” tradition. In this course, an attempt will be made to reveal Hume’s pivotal importance to the development of 19th- and 20th-century philosophy—moral and political theory in particular—as well as his wider influence.

Hume wrote many other important works besides the Treatise, including works in which he treats of the “passions”—motivating emotions—and of morals; and in some of the other works Hume is often thought to have taken importantly different (and some think better) positions than in the Treatise. But most Hume scholars focus upon the Treatise and take the positions developed there as the purest examples of Hume’s thought.

Hume’s Treatise is divided into three books: Book I is entitled “Of the Understanding”, Book II “Of the Passions” and Book III “Of Morals”. The theses of Books II and III—the two Books of relevance to this course—have been highly influential, not only in the development of later philosophy, but in various other fields, where Humean perspectives, and even some of Hume’s original arguments, retain considerable influence to this day.

The approach of this course will be to focus intensively upon cultivating the abilities of the students to penetrate, understand, and formulate their own reasoned interpretations of a work of this nature. Even though Books II and III of the Treatise comprise only a part (though a large part) of the work, the readings and discussions in this course will necessarily be selective because the entirety of these Books cannot be comprehensively covered in a five-day course, even one taught on a very intensive basis. Since the selection will still amount to a substantial amount of reading, and the objective is to work closely with the text of the Treatise itself as opposed to secondary scholarship, the selections from Hume’s text will constitute the principal readings. Along the way, students will be advised about relevant works of secondary scholarship.

This five-day, Master’s level, intensive course will include 12 hours of lectures on the core material, which the students will be expected to have read in advance, and interactive seminars in which groups of four students will take responsibility for analyzing and interpreting important sections of text and leading focused, thematic discussions in interactive sessions of two hours each, attended by the entire student group, with all teachers present. Assuming the planned number of students (24), there will be six such seminars.

An in-depth study of Books II and III of Hume’s Treatise will acquaint students with a large part of one of the foundational works of modern Western philosophy. Students should learn how to analyze and interpret a significant philosophical text, be well-equipped to find their way into the secondary literature on Hume, to follow a number of contemporary debates related to Hume’s thoughts, and to contribute to them. This course should provide a good foundation for any student who aims to pursue academic philosophy or to use Hume’s philosophy in some other connection, for example psychology, sociology, history, political science and economics, all of which have fallen to some significant degree under Humean influence.


The schedule of teaching and seminar sessions looks, at the present time, like this (and will probably not change:

Sunday 01.05 Monday


Tuesday 03.05 Wednesday 04.05 Thursday 05.06 Friday


Saturday 07.05
10:00-11:00 Lecture 1 Lecture 3 Lecture 5 Seminar 5
11:00-12:00 Lecture 1 Lecture 3 Lecture 5 Seminar 5
13:00-14:00 Introduction Lecture 2 Lecture 4 Lecture 6 Seminar 6
14:00-15:00 Introduction Lecture 2 Lecture 4 Lecture 6 Seminar 6
16:00-17:00 Seminar 1 Seminar 2 Seminar 3 Seminar 4
17:00-18:00 Seminar 1 Seminar 2 Seminar 3 Seminar 4


This means that students must arrive at Tallinn in time to participate in the introductory sessions that begin at 13:00 on Monday, May 2 and should, if possible, not plan to leave Tallinn prior to Saturday, May 7. All students are expected to attend all sessions. The lectures will also be attended by students from Tallinn University, who will be taking a longer course on Hume’s Treatise.


Assessment will be based upon active participation in the seminars, both in the role of discussion leaders and general participants (50%) and a written essay (50%) that must be submitted no later than one month after the final working day of the course. The topic of the essay will be closely related to the matters discussed in the course, and each student must have a specific, approved essay topic by the last working day of the course. The active presence in the lectures will be assumed, and a student’s grade may be lowered for failure to meet this expectation.

Students will be expected to do the considerable advance reading, which is necessary if a work of the magnitude of Hume’s Treatise is to be well appreciated during a one-week course! All assigned reading will come from Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature, which should be read in English, since the work was written in English and our course will be taught in English. The Treatise can be found online, and read and downloaded for free. However, students are strongly advised to have a print edition available to hand, and the Penguin Classics paperback edition (edited by Ernest Mossner) is recommended, in case you do not already have a copy of this classic work. The Penguin paperback is available through on-line booksellers.

The overall organisation and implementation of this course, as well as its potential to attract students from the participating institutions, builds upon the successful experience of previous courses (2013-14, 2014-15) of the Nordic-Baltic Philosophy Symposia.

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