David Hume’s view on personal identity

Jackson asked:

What is Hume’s view on personal identity?

Answer by Craig Skinner

This can be summed up in three short quotes. I will give these, and say a little about each.

1. ‘The essence of the mind…equally unknown to us with that of external bodies’ (‘A Treatise of Human Nature’, 1739, Introduction, para. 8).

2. ‘When I enter most intimately into what I call myself I always stumble on some particular perception or other….and never can observe anything but the perception’ (Treatise, 1.4.6. para. 3).

3. ‘My hopes vanish when I come to explain the principles that unite our successive perceptions…..all our distinct perceptions are distinct existences, and that the mind never perceives any real connexion among distinct existences’ (Treatise, Appendix, para 20/21).

Two preliminary points. First, Hume uses ‘person’, ‘mind’ and ‘self’ interchangeably. Secondly, by ‘perception’, Hume means what we now call ‘experience’.

Now, to the quotes.

1. Here, Hume expresses his trademark epistemological scepticism. He feels that, speaking philosophically, we know a deal less than we often think we do. For example, as regards the existence of a stand-alone external world as the explanation of our successive sensations, he ‘feigns no hypothesis’, and again, whereas we commonly suppose that we observe a connection between cause and effect, what we actually observe is only regularity or ‘constant conjunction’. In reality, the true basis for our succession of sensations, and the connexion between cause and effect (if any), are unknown to us.

For Hume, the only knowledge we can rely on in philosophy is empirical knowledge, and, for him, this is derived from impression-based ideas. And so, coming to the self, what are the ideas we can rely on ?. The second quote deals with this.

2. On ‘looking inwardly’ I am aware only of a bundle of perceptions (experiences). An accurate view, I feel. It is sometimes called the ‘bundle theory of the self’. But some have gone too far, claiming Hume held there is only a bundle, nothing else, no ‘self’ which unites the bundle. This ‘no ownership’ view, or ‘illusory self’ view (which I think is incoherent) was first misattributed to Hume by his contemporary Thomas Reid, and still runs. To be fair, Hume contributes to this: when considering our everyday natural assumption of an enduring self, he describes this as a ‘fiction’ of the mind. But Hume clearly thought that every experience was experienced ie an experience requires an experiencer or subject of experience. It is just that, on Hume’s view, we have no knowledge of the nature of this subject of experience or self. Clearly, the self might be an enduring entity, the same from day to day, its persistence depending either on a persistent immaterial substance (soul), or on continuity of consciousness/memory (Lockean view). Or the self might be a momentary entity, replaced next instant by a new momentary self, so that I am a series of transient selves, as Buddhism holds. But Hume offers no view on this, holding only that we don’t know.

3. Why do Hume’s ‘hopes vanish’? It is because he can’t, using only his impression-certified notion of legitimate knowledge, assume anything about the self beyond the evident fact of bundles of experience, and the logical fact that an experience entails a subject of experience (but there could. logically, be a separate subject for every single experience, there is no evident connexion between them). This approach, he realizes, is fine for, say, causation: he need assume nothing other than constant conjunction. But as regards the mind, he has throughout his philosophical writings assumed a structure to the mind, continuity of memory for instance which obviously does connect our successive bundles of experience. Who for instance is this ‘I’ of quote 2 which does the entering and stumbling. In short, Hume has gone beyond what his own philosophical lights allow him to do. I feel he may have realized something of the self-referential features and puzzles of self and consciousness.

In conclusion Hume’s view on personal identity is in keeping with his sceptical approach, although he ultimately realizes he has in fact gone further than this strict approach allows, and that indeed he must do so.

Even today, argument rages as to what Hume’s view on personal identity really was. I have mentioned the Reid-inspired ‘no-ownership’ view of self, often attributed (wrongly I believe) to Hume. And there are views other than those I have expressed as to why Hume said his ‘hopes vanish’.

Best read Hume yourself and make up your own mind.


4 thoughts on “David Hume’s view on personal identity

  1. So Professor, what aproach do you think Hume believed in more so? the avocado approach or the artichoke approach?

  2. Hume’s philosophical thinking that an experience requires an experiencer
    or subject of experience or self.To treat causation as constant conjunction
    is akin to the view held by indian school of thought Kshanika Vijnana Vada
    ( Ephemeral knowledge approach ) which says that whatever exists is the
    succession of mental currents and nothing more.They do not adhere,they do not form a unit,one is chasing the other,like wavws in the ocean,never
    complete,never formimg one unit whole.The fact is as Advait philosophy holds that in spite of this continuous change in mind,there is in us something that is unchangeable,which makes our ideas of things appear
    unchangeable.When rays of light coming from different quarters fall upon
    a screen,or a wall that is not changeable,then and then alone it is possible
    for them to form a unity ,to form one complete whole.Where is this unity in
    the human organs ,falling upon which ,as it were,the various ideas will come
    to unity and become whole ? This certainly cannot be the mind itself,seeing
    that it also changes.Therefore,there must be something which is neither the
    body,nor the mind,something which changes not,something permanent,
    upon which all our ideas ,our sensations fall to form a unity and a complete whole.And this is the rael soul.the Atman of man .This unchangeable something cannot be cannot be of material substance.Therefore it is
    spiritual ,that is to say,it is not matter,it is indestructible,unchangeable.

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