Hume developed his analysis of personal identity in response to Locke’s theory of personal identity. Locke has distinguished between person and human being to address moral accountability. According to Locke, personal identity consists of sameness in consciousness. For Hume, person identity is more of finding reason on the existence of person or self. Hume introduces the topic of self and personal identity in Book 1 of the Treatise in a section titled “Of Personal Identity” (T 1.4.6; SBN 251–63). Hume’s personal identity is pointing to mind and not to body. Despite exemplary analysis, Hume considered his theory of personal identity as a philosophical failure.
In this article, we will explore Hume’s analysis of self, person, consciousness, and objectives related to identifying a person in a practical sense.
Hume addresses through the treatise, the following questions-
(1) What, if any, kind of self-do we find when we introspect? (T 126.96.36.199–4; SBN 251–53)
(2) How do we form beliefs in personal identity over time? (T 188.8.131.52–21; SBN 253–62)
(3) What makes me the person I am? (T 184.108.40.206–5, 220.127.116.11, 2.1.2–11; SBN 252–53, 261; SBN 275–324)
(4) What psychological mechanisms govern the self? (T 18.104.22.168–20, 2.1.2–6, 2.1.11; SBN 260–62, 277–94, 316–24)
In the opening paragraph of section V (Treatise book 1), Hume submits that humans are always concerned for the “self”. We are confirmed that self exists because we continuously encounter it in some or the other forms. Our strong passion and intention to life is confirmation to the existence of self. Descartes has claimed that self exists because we could think of it. In his famous dictum, “I think, therefore I am” Descartes has provided his complete philosophy on self. We consider self by reflection. Kant has explained well the functioning of reflection. Kant believes that our understanding from ‘particular’ to ‘general’ is a reflection. In contrast, the understanding from ‘general’ to ‘particular’ is called perception. For example, we perceive the sun and understand it as a solar object only when we are aware of the mode of its perception i.e., eye sight. We know self only when we are sure that the perception, observation, memory, intuition does exist. The traditional views on self suggest that self is impossible to exist because it is continuously changing. The moment we understand a part of self, it vanishes like it never existed at first. The traditional philosophy on self could be compared to the flowing water which never remained the same. Hume believes that there is not a perfect impression of which we could relate the idea of self, and hence we must conclude that there is no such idea of self. The self (like mind) doesn’t have permanent and continuous existence. The Self ceases to exist in sound sleep, lack of perceptions, and death. Hume concludes that self or mind is the bundle of changing perceptions.
Hume’s pointed out mistake in giving personal identity to self –
It is only by mistake that we ascribe identity to changing objects.
The close relations between objects drive us to pass from the existence of one object to another. For example, the existence of memory concludes the existence of mind, the existence of mind concludes the existence of consciousness, and the existence of consciousness concludes the existence of self.
Hume’s construction of self in Book 1
According to the first person view, one is associated with an enduring body. Hume’s first- person point of view explains the psychological conditions for the existence of a person. Hume identifies human-being with body in first person and human-being with mind in second person. Hume has considered personal identity more to thoughts or imaginations rather than passions or concerns. The identity of self with thoughts is related to the past and the identity of self with passions is related to the future scope in defining the purpose of self.
Hume claims that identity is merely a quality which we attribute to different perceptions. (T 22.214.171.124; SBN 259–60) It is a set of beliefs which we collect on resemblance, contiguity and causation (T 126.96.36.199; SBN 260). Hume presumes that stability in the concept of self is achieved when another person also starts observing us the way we personally observe ourselves. For example, Reena assumes that she is fat but other people feel that she is healthy. In such cases, the fat characteristic is not applicable in defining the features of Reena’s self.
Perfect identity – uninterrupted and invariable gives perfect identity to an object
Three things can contribute to our attributions of perfect personal identity –
Resemblance- Memory secures the identity by the idea of relating the new perceptions to an already perceived object. Memory gives the idea that humans are a temporarily extended being. For Hume, the existence of self is possible due to the existence of memory. Hume has objected to Locke theory suggesting that we can extend our identity beyond memory.
Continuity- On noticing different perception and its relations, a person concludes that perception is ever flowing. It is only in a state of deep sleep that a person fails to secure continuity in a perception. Hume challenges the concept of self during deep sleep.
Causation – the chain of cause and effects contribute to the existence of self or person.
Hume claims that two persons A and B are the same if they have the same mind.
For example, a person is a doctor and a married woman. At home, a person obeys her home duty and at the workplace, she obeys her profession. She doesn’t bring two personalities together. Does this mean that there are two identities in a single body?
Now suppose that there are twins who are exactly the copy of one other carrying exactly the same features. Does it mean they both have the same identity?
No, Hume claims that a person can have two personalities without losing one’s identity. A person, if carries a different set of minds in house and workplace doesn’t make it a two different person. A person carrying similar features also doesn’t mean they are the same.
Though the idea speaks with clarity, we could see some linguistic confusion in the statements of Hume in using “same”. Terrence Penelhum, professor who thoroughly studied Hume also argues that Hume has started with improper analysis of identity.
Hume justifies sameness as follows-
Logically the same but containing many parts.
Logically the same but are not pairs of contradictories.
Terence Penelhum argues Humes mistakes in ordinary use of term “same”
*The first point makes it clear that Hume mistaken for the two different terms of “unity” and “identity”.
*In the second point, Hume has made an error for believing “likeness” to “sameness”. For example, Hume may mean that ‘s’ size dress and ‘l’ size dress are logically similar and not contradictory, and so they reflect the sameness in a dress. However, we understand that ‘s’ size and ‘l’ size does not make a dress same but alike.
It was never an easy task to define and analyze personal identity. From Eastern philosophy to western interpretations, philosophers have badly failed to comprehend personal identity. The bigger mistake than studying personal identity is jumping straight into the theory of consciousness which is complex and vast. It is no doubt obvious that we could make many linguistic errors in learning about consciousness. Therefore, it makes sense to understand the person and its identity through various perspectives and then reach to study subtle principles like consciousness.
Hume and self-identity by Carlos Emilio Garcia Duque, Universidad de Caldas, Colombia
Penelhum, Terence, “Hume on Personal Identity”, The Philosophical Review 64 (1955), 571–589; reprinted in V. C. Chappell, ed., Hume (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966), 213–239.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Boeker, Ruth. “Locke and Hume on Personal Identity: Moral and Religious Differences.” Hume Studies, vol. 41, no. 2, 2015, pp. 105–35. Crossref, doi:10.1353/hms.2015.0006.
Cite this source here (MLA 8th edition)
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