Hume's Theory of the Self

Did Hume succeed in explaining how it is that we come to believe in the existence of a self of which we have no idea?

David Hume’s generally perceived conception of the self is disturbing to many people, in that it is thought that he proposed that there is no self. And, this does seem to be true for part of his career, that he proposed the self as being a collection of separate and not necessarily related impressions and ideas that is only held together by imagination. However, it’s an idea that he struggled with, and we can see why when we look at how he arrived at that temporary conclusion.

Hume noted that the only things that we have direct awareness of are our own mental notions of the world. But, it is only natural and true to think that these mental notions are of something external to the mind in existence. Ideas are mental conceptions that we hold purely internally, impressions have a stronger quality and are generated from perceptions of this external world and are what allow us to then form ideas.

In talking about Hume’s notion of the self we are thinking about whether something does or does not exist. For Hume, correlation and association are about as strong as a connection can be. This is famously noted in his work on causality, where one event perception consistently precedes another event perception. When such things happen in close proximity of time and space our mind ties this correlation together to associate the two events and we therefore assume that a causative relationship exists.

His conception of existence has similar reasoning. If we look at a painting on the wall, part of the perception that is occurring is of time and place. We know the painting exists while we are looking at it because we are perceiving it. When we look away we have no direct perception of the painting, therefore we do not know if it exists or not at that moment. When we look back to where the painting was we see the painting again. We now have a second perception of the painting in the same place with a short amount of temporal difference between the perceptions. This time and place is correlated with the existence of this painting. If we were thinking about other things while looking away from the painting there is no correlation between our thought of the painting and the two perceptions of the painting, therefore it would seem that the painting must have continued to exist separately from both our perception and our thought of the painting while our attention was not directed to the painting. Thus, the apparent continued existence of the painting gives proof of it also being distinct from the perception of the perceiver.

In the case of the self this is more complex because there are more distinct impressions that we get of perceptions of our own impressions and ideas of the things that we associate with our selves. It seems to me that the continued perception of the self has consistent distinct impressions of the first person view, or consciousness, of an external reality and that this could be considered the core of the continued and therefore distinct self. This is similar to Locke’s conception of the self, but for some reason Hume doesn’t use this notion. He rather posits that because the perceptions related to these various parts are closely perceived in time and space, even though they are dynamic and changing, the imagination fills in the gaps and creates the idea of the self, which doesn’t actually exist in reality.

We can use an example to see some of the problems with this. Let’s say the painting isn’t a standard oil paint on canvas painting. Let’s say it looks like a traditional canvas without a frame, where the edges are also painted, but actually it’s a screen. We are looking at this painting on the wall and see a beautiful tree with the sun shining in the background and bright green leaves on display. We look away from the painting. We look back to the painting and see the same tree, but rather than a sunny day the weather is a grey overcast. We look away from the painting again. We look back to the painting and see the same tree with the moon in the background on an illuminated night. We look away again. We look back at the painting and see the tree with brown and withering leaves, laying on the ground, apparently having fallen over.

This painting example is similar to the dynamic self that gives Hume trouble about its existence. There are many distinct aspects of the painting that keep changing, but the perceptions are close enough that our mind can fill in the changes between the distinct impressions, and therefore generate the idea of the painting having a continued identity. More strongly supported are the things that stay consistent and therefore can be assumed to be continued in existence throughout the distinct impressions, such as the shape and size of the painting. Therefore, even if the content of the painting were considered to be a bundle of impressions without a unique identity, the painting could still be considered to have a unique identity based on these other parameters. Whereas most people would term this under a single name and consider it a single entity having distinct and continued existence in either case, I think Hume would struggle with it for the same reasons that he struggled with the existence or non-existence of the self.

There seems to be a contradiction that Hume later realized in his argument for the existence of external objects and the existence of the self. This inconsistency in his conception of the nature of reality and our perception and knowledge of it presents a significant difficulty for his system of thought in that either: his arguments for the existence of external objects will apply to the self and therefore support its existence; or, that external objects could be considered bundles of impressions that the mind falsely imagines to be perceived of as having continued and distinct existence. We have no evidence that he ever reconciled this inconsistency in his work, only that he recognized it.



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