Of the three pre-eminent Restoration and eighteenth-century British empiricist philosophers, English, Anglo-Irish, and Scottish respectively – John Locke (1632–1704), George Berkeley (1685–1753), and David Hume (1711–1776) – only Hume composed an autobiography, the exceedingly brief and ironically self-effacing, ‘My Own Life’, which he wrote during his final illness in 1776 and left to his friend, Adam Smith, to send to his publisher with instructions that it be printed with all future editions of his works. Smith was attacked by the pious for his part in the publication of Hume's autobiography, which Hume himself described in disarming fashion as his own funeral oration: ‘I cannot say there is no vanity in making this funeral oration of myself, but I hope it is not a misplaced one’ (Hume 1987, xli). Hume's serenity and calm resignation in the face of his mortal illness provoked incredulity and indignation from believers, notably Samuel Johnson, over his untroubled rejection of the existence of an afterlife. But each of these philosophers, Hume especially, projects in his formal philosophical writings various forms of autobiographical presence. That is to say, in each of their works we can speak to varying degrees of their insertion of a dramatised ‘self’ as part of the philosophical narrative. Each of them in his own entirely distinctive way is an empiricist, so that it is rhetorically and logically inevitable that each speaks of his own experiences in the world, taking them of course as typical, indeed universal, common to all thoughtful or indeed sentient individuals. In so doing, these philosophers implicitly articulate an inevitable and almost paradoxical turn in autobiography: the autobiographer seeks to project a distinctive individuality but necessarily finds a general if not universal selfhood in his or her personal story. Or at least there is generally a balance in autobiography between the unique and the typical.
Naturally, the philosophers’ autobiographical ‘revelations’ (if we can call them that) or self-dramatisations are shaped by the necessities of philosophical argumentation; the person in each case is to some extent a rhetorical persona, a stand-in for a generalised or universalised human entity. However, we know a good deal about each of these men and about their lives and personalities, mostly from epistolary exchanges between them and their friends.