Hume on Personal Identity

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  • Topic: Perception, Mind, Philosophy of perception
  • Pages : 5 (1534 words )
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  • Published : April 23, 2012
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Hume's view of what constitutes personal identity rests heavily upon his preceding theories concerning the nature of ideas and causation. The most important preceding ideas to take into account are the rejection of causality and necessary connection and his strict empiric stance on the basis of knowledge and the only two types of perception being ideas that are reliant on initial impressions. There will clearly be difficulty in defining and explaining 'the self' when both the notions of causality and substance have been rejected, this results in Hume restricting himself in what he feels he can define as personal identity. Hume does not want to distinguish between the nature of personal identity and the nature of the identity we hold in single objects or ideas. Both are based in initial single impressions which the mind then assembles into a 'chimera' of a more complex idea, constituting it's identity. This for Hume is irrational, as there is no observable or conceivable necessary connection between past, present and future sense data, resulting in the self being strictly and thriftily described by Hume as 'a bundle of perceptions'.

The negative phase (as described by Barry Stroud) concerns the refutation of previous philosophical arguments concerning personal identity. Hume begins by establishing what he believes to be the fallacy of creating an identity of anything, not just the self. It ties in intimately with his idea of perception and causality. He uses the example of an oak tree and our perception of it from a sapling to a fully grown tree some years later, we therefore ascribe it an identity based on our contiguous perception of it. But this, as he argues in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, is a fallacy due to the lack of a rational, observable and or conceivable necessary connection between ones perceptions of the tree in the past and then in the immediate present. Hume proposes that it is not rational to ascribe this tree with persisting identity.

In assessing the notion of personal identity, he first establishes that the self must be something that unifies experience at any given moment and over time, as personal identity is something that is supposed to remain with us throughout our lives. Identity cannot be something that just exists in a single moment, but must exist and remain the same over time. He clearly makes the comparison between personal identity and the identity of single ideas here: “The identity, which we ascribe to the mind of man, is only a fictitious one, and of a like kind with that which we ascribe to vegetables and animal bodies. It cannot, therefore, have a different origin, but must proceed from a like operation of the imagination upon like objects.” (L.1380) As the self for Hume, is an idea, it has it's roots in impressions as they are our only source of knowledge. All ideas are combinations or 'chimeras' of these initial impressions. The word 'chimera' is used by Hume I believe because it expresses the negative notion of fitting together parts that do not belong together, such as different perceptions of an oak tree or the self, which happen to be contiguous and apparently related, but have no necessary connection between them. He reinforces this idea in the appendices of A Treatise on Human Nature with the example of an animal such as an oyster(L.9047), or something with very limited perception, perhaps only to recognise temperature for example. We would not ascribe to this animal any sense of self, then why do we ascribe the sense to ourselves just because we have more complex perceptions? Therefore the initial parameters have not been met of what would constitute 'a self', that is, something that unifies perception uninterrupted and persistently. Instead, if we introspect in search of this elusive 'self' all we find is our immediate perceptions which we cannot rationally link to our past perceptions without making a logical fallacy. This rejection of the more...
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