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A Critique of Hume’s Account of Personal Identity
There is a commonly held belief that there is such a thing as a ‘self’ that persists throughout one’s life. To say there is a ‘self’ that persists throughout one’s life is simply to say that there is something about a person (call it a feature or quality) that survives from birth, through childhood and adulthood, and on until death, that makes a person the same person over time. But how can anything we might identify as a ‘self’ persist through the many drastic changes that inevitably happen throughout one’s life? When we consider that our physical bodies change dramatically over the course of our lives; that our beliefs, desires, and interests change radically over time; and that our personality’s change and develop as we mature – it would seem almost impossible to ground the self in any one thing that maintains an identity through these changes. After taking these points into consideration, are we still prepared to insist that there is some sort of persisting ‘self’? In this essay, I will argue that there is a ‘self’ that persists through time. First, I will outline the position of David Hume, the most influential critic of this notion of ‘self.’ Second I will critically evaluate Hume’s position. Third, I will put forward my own ideas on ‘self.’
As John Searle remarks, Hume is thought to have had the ‘last word’ on personal identity (p. 279). But with all that has been written on the subject of personal identity, both before and after Hume, it is a strong claim to say that Hume has essentially ‘solved’ the problem of personal identity. So what is Hume’s position on personal identity and why is it generally regarded as satisfying the problem of personal identity? To fully understand Hume’s position on personal identity, it is first necessary to provide a brief background to his general philosophical views.
Hume is a philosopher in the empiricist tradition, and as we will see, his scepticism towards personal identity is grounded in empiricism. Briefly stated, empiricism is the philosophical position that all knowledge about matters of fact comes from sense experience. Central to Humean empiricism is the notion that there are two types of perceptions in the mind: impressions and ideas (p. 300). Impressions are those types of perceptions that are derived from sense experience. For example, as I write, I have a clear and vivid impression of a computer screen in front of me; I also perceive music playing in the background, and the feel of my fingertips on the keypads. These types of perceptions are what Hume calls impressions. Ideas, (or as we might commonly call them, thoughts) on the other hand, are derivedfrom sense impressions. For example, when I imagine what the sensation of pain feels like, I am recalling an instance of pain that I initially received from a sense impression, I am having the idea of pain. Another way to put this is, the impression is the type of perception you have when you are experiencing a sensation, say, pain, and the idea of pain is the memory, or the imagining, or the thought of pain.
On Hume’s account of perception, in order to have an idea of something, one must either have derived this idea directly from an impression, or have combined several ideas into a new idea. For example, I can have the idea of a unicorn, even though I have never had the sense impression of a unicorn. So even though I have never seen a unicorn, I am able to have an idea of a unicorn simply by combining the idea of a horse, and the idea of a horn affixed to the forehead of a horse. In addition to combining ideas, we can also compound, transpose, augment, or diminish ideas (Hume, p. 97). Hume gives the following example of what it would mean to augment an idea: “[t]he idea of God, as meaning an infinitely intelligent, wise, and good Being, arises from reflecting on the operations of our own mind, and augmenting, without limit, those qualities of goodness and wisdom” (p. 98). So we see on Hume’s account that even the most elaborate, abstract, non-empirical entities such as God, and unicorns, are ultimately grounded in sense perceptions, and we are only able to form ideas of these entities by performing the above-mentioned mental functions. Now that we have a brief introduction to the philosophy of Hume, let us look at what Hume says about the ‘self.’
Hume begins his criticism of ‘self’ by reminding us that every idea is derived from an impression. He then goes on to say that if the idea of self is dependent on an impression, that impression must somehow continue throughout one’s entire life, since self is supposed to continue throughout one’s life. However, there is no one impression that we have throughout our lives; our impressions are constantly changing from one minute to the next: one minute I am experiencing pleasure, the next I might be experiencing pain. So, if the notion of ‘self’ needs to rely on a persisting impression, but there is no one impression that persists throughout our lives, there can be no idea of self (p. 299-300).
As we can see from the argument above, Hume is essentially saying that there is no persisting thing that we can properly refer to as ‘self.’ Hume thinks we are simply a collection of perceptions, one minute we are experiencing one sensation, the next minute we are experiencing some other sensation. In fact, Hume describes the mind as a type of theatre, where “…several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations” (p. 301). For Hume, this is all there is to ‘self,’ one perception after another.
To see the real force of Hume’s position on ‘self,’ we need to undertake an experiment conducted by Hume. Upon introspection of your mind what do you see? Do you see a quality or feature of your mind that you identify as ‘self’? When Hume conducts this experiment, this is what he finds:
For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception (p. 300).
This act of introspection provides convincing proof for some that there is no such thing as ‘self.’ I must admit that when I conduct this experiment, all I observe are the thoughts that are currently going through my head: I am experiencing the discomfort of having sat for too long a period, I am feeling the desire to drink a glass of water, I am tired, and so on. One thing I do not see when I look inside is my ‘self.’
So why are we so intent on ascribing an identity to ourselves throughout our lives? That is, why think that I am the same person now, that I was when I was 15, 20, and so on? Hume has a two-part answer to this. The first part of the answer is that we confound identity with relation (p. 302). The second part of the answer is that we mistakenly think there is a persisting self due to the smooth passage from one idea to the next (p. 307). I will begin by discussing the confounding of identity and relation.
To explain how we confound identity and relation, consider the following two examples. Suppose we see a bar of gold sitting on the table. We observe the gold for fifteen minutes. During the fifteen minutes, nothing happens to the bar of gold: it does not move, and nothing has been added or taken away from it. After the fifteen minutes is up, it is clear that there is an identity between the bar of gold at T1 (when we first started observing the bar), and the bar of gold at T2 (when our observation ended). This identity is what we might call a strict identity. Now take a different example. Suppose there is an oak tree planted in your back yard. Suppose we see this oak tree grow over the years into a large oak tree. Is there an identity between the oak tree we planted years ago and the oak tree we now look at? It is clear that there is not the same type of strict identity that existed in the example of the bar of gold. After all, the tree we planted years ago only measured a few feet tall. But the tree we now look at stands at over twenty feet. So there is not a strict identity between the tree at T1 and T2; there is only a relation of parts between the tree at T1 and T2. We ascribe a relation to the tree at T1 and T2 due to the spatio-temporal continuity of the tree throughout its life. In other words we ascribe an identity only because there is a smooth transition from one day to the next where we see a tree growing over time, and thus, we say it is the same tree. But what we ought to say is that a relation exists, not an identity.
Hume’s second answer is related to his above account of identity and relation. Essentially, Hume argues that the type of identity that exists in the example of the oak tree is the same type of identity in personal identity (p. 306-307). Just as we ascribe an identity to the oak tree because of its smooth passage from one day until the next, so too do we assume an identity in persons due to the smooth passage from one thought to the next. As Hume says of personal identity, “…identity is nothing really belonging to these different perceptions, and uniting them together; but it is merely a quality, which we attribute to them, because of the union of their ideas in the imagination, when we reflect upon them” (p.307). In other words, Hume thinks that we suppose that there is such a thing as a persisting self due to the fact that there is continuity from one idea to the next. That is, we can track our changes throughout our mental life from day to day, and this gives us a sense of connectedness that we call ‘self.’
I agree that there is not a strict identity in persons, like that of the bar of gold, but is it true that all there is to personal identity is a smooth transition from one thought to another that falsely leads us into believing in a persisting self? Though Hume’s view has been widely accepted, it does not seem to accord with our intuitions on this subject. I suspect many people feel as though there is a ‘self’ that exists and persists through time. I think if the right types of questions are asked we will see what is wrong with Hume’s account of ‘self.’
One question that needs to be asked is: if we could identify our ‘self’ upon introspection what would it look like? Exactly what type of thing are we looking for when we introspect to locate our ‘self’? Put another way, what would count as a suitable answer to the question “what is ‘self’?” Perhaps we are misguided in our approach if we insist that ‘self’ has to be an impression or an idea in the mind, as Hume argues. After all, not everything in the mind is derived from sense experience. For example, consciousness is part of our mind but it is not dependent on an impression or an idea for its existence. That is, we do not first receive sense impressions of consciousness, and then form ideas of what consciousness is. Consciousness is just a feature of our mind, and perhaps ‘self’ exists as a similar type of feature of the mind.
Another question that might get us closer to the notion of self is: when we introspect, what is doing the looking? That is, if all we are is a bundle of perceptions what is it that is doing the perceiving? Might not this perceiving thing be the ‘self’?If so, this might explain why we do not see the self when we introspect. AsSearle points out, “[i]norder to understand my visual perceptions, I have to understand them as occurring from a point of view, but the point of view itself is not something that I see or otherwise perceive” (p. 297). We might also remind ourselves of what happens when one looks through a set of binoculars: one does not see the binoculars as part of one’s visual field, yet, nonetheless the binoculars still exist. The analogy here, of course, is that it is the ‘self’ that perceives things, but just as we do not see the binoculars when looking through their lenses, likewise we do not perceive the ‘self’ when we perceive things. So just because we do not perceive the ‘self’ during our perceiving does not mean there is no such thing as self.
Hume would not likely be satisfied with this type of response, for he strongly believed that if the notion of self were to exist it would have to be derived from sense impressions. Hume provided one more example in the appendix to the Treatise that is meant to strengthen his point of view even more, and I think for those already convinced by Hume, it solidifies their position; however, I think this example shows the inadequacy of his position. Hume says:
Suppose the mind to be reduc’d even below the life of an oyster. Suppose it to haveonly one perception, as of thirst or hunger. Consider it in that situation. Do you conceive any thing but merely that perception? Have you any notion of self or substance? If not, the addition of other perceptions can never give you that notion (p. 676).
Hume’s point here is that the human mind is only made up of impressions, and everything else in the mind is derived from these impression, but if we admit that an oyster, with one impression, cannot have a sense of self (which I think we must admit), why think having many impressions would somehow enable one to have an idea of self?
But I think when we consider how complex the human mind is we see that Hume’s notion of perception is quite inadequate. I do not think our minds are made up of impressions and ideas only. As humans we have an awareness, or a sense of familiarity with our consciousness that goes beyond mere perceptions and ideas. By this, I mean that not only do we have an abundance of thoughts, one after another, but we also view these thoughts from a particular point of view. Let me give an example to help clarify what I mean.
Two people might view the same object, say, a work of art, but they will likely think about it differently from one another. Now on Hume’s account of perception, both people would be having the same sense impression (i.e., both are looking at the same object) and the image of the object is presumably being represented similarly in each person’s mind. But each person may see, or understand, or think about the painting in a different way. That is, each person will analyze or interpret the work from his or her own viewpoint. Each person looking at the object will think about the work from a unique perspective, and it will likely have a different meaning for each person. Let me clarify what I mean.
Let us suppose that the picture being viewed is one of a farmhouse in the country. I might look at the picture and be reminded of my grandparent’s farmhouse that I visited as a child. You, on the other hand, having been raised in the city and never having visited the countryside, will not view this painting from the same perspective as I. So we might say that your-self and my-self will see this painting from two different points of view. So even though we are receiving the same sense data, we are translating this impression into different ideas about this painting: I am having my thoughts of my childhood, you are having your thoughts of maybe what it’s like to live in the country. We each have a unique understanding of the work: I do not see what you see when I look at the work, and you do not see what I see, we are each seeing it from our own point of view. Essentially, what ‘self’ is then, I would argue, is that unique perspective that you bring to bear on your perceptions. My-self differs from your-self in that we can each view the same thing, yet see it from two different perspectives. That is, we each see the same picture, but you have your thoughts that are unique to you, and I have my thoughts that are unique to me, and this is what ‘self’ is, the viewpoint from which we analyze things.
Searle says something similar to what I have tried to express above. Searle says, “[w]e tend to feel that each of us is presented to himself or herself in a special way, and that these first-person experiences are essential to our identity…” (p. 283). I think what Searle is saying here is that we each have a familiarity with our inner mental life, that we each have a feeling of what it’s like to be us. So I think there is more to a person than just a bundle of perceptions. I think each person upon introspection will find that they have a unique sense of what it means to be him or herself. We each see the world from a unique point of view, and over time we come to get a sense of familiarity with this perspective. So we might say that there is a self that persists over time because we always have this unique viewpoint from which we see the world.
In summary, what I have argued here is that there is a ‘self’ that persists over time. The self is that unique perspective, or point of view that one brings to bear on his or her perceptions. This view is in direct conflict with that of Hume, who argued that all there is to ‘self’ is one perception after another. I began by outlining Hume’s position on personal identity. Then I gave reasons for thinking there was more to ‘self’ than what Hume allowed. Finally, I presented my own notion of self.
David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. Ernest C. Mossner, (England: Penguin,
––––––An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, ed. Tom L. Beauchamp,
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
John R. Searle, Mind: A Brief Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).