Hume on the Self by Michael Thorne
I find myself both as a man and as myself something most determined and distinctive, at pitch, more distinctive and higher pitched than anything else I see; I find myself with my pleasures and pains … when I consider my self being, my consciousness and feeling of myself, that taste of myself, and I and me above and in all things, which is more distinctive than the taste of ale or alum … and is incommunicable by any means to another man.
—Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Let us begin by painting with a broad brush the empiricist background to Hume’s view of the self. Locke’s representative realism split the world off from the mind, leaving us with only some of our mental contents—our ideas of primary properties—as able to tell us about the world. Berkeley, at least on one reading, made the split total by leveling primary and secondary properties, leaving us with only the mind and its ideas. But, how could a phenomenalist such as Berkeley believe in a non-phenomenal mind? His remarks on the matter are unenlightening: he tacked aut percipere [or to perceive] onto esse est percipi [to be is to be perceived] by means of an underdeveloped theory of our having notions of spirits, the place of which in his idealism is far from clear. Hume, on the other hand, took the invisibility of the self more seriously. Specifically, he took it as reason to doubt that there is, at least in one sense of the word, a self at all.
The first half of this essay is devoted to discussing what the self was for Hume. After considering the possible reasons for his rejection of a certain commonsensical view of the self, I find that he did so because of a striking phenomenological point regarding introspection. I leave the defensibility of this point open, given some phenomenological remarks of my own. I then examine Hume’s positive argument regarding the self: that it is a “bundle of perceptions.” In the second half of the essay, I tackle Hume’s genealogy of our mistaken view of the self, and find this defective in many respects. I end by discussing the wider significance of the self in Hume’s work, and suggest that it might be seen as marking a limit to his ‘experimental method’ in the study of cognition.
It will be illuminating to begin with a negative question. There is a very commonsensical and, in certain respects, Cartesian view of the self which, as we shall see, fits very nicely with much of the First Book of Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature. Why did Hume not hold that view? I shall call it the attractive view; it is this: all our perceptions (ideas and impressions) appear to belong to a subject. When many perceptions occur at the same time, they all appear to belong to one subject; and when perceptions come and go, they appear to begin or cease to belong to one continuing subject. From this manner of appearance we form the idea of a synchronically unitary (‘simple’) and diachronically unitary (‘identical’) substantive self, to which our perceptions belong.
An immediate response to my question is that Hume’s accepting this would contravene his ‘copy principle’, according to which “all our simple ideas in their first appearance are deriv’d from simple impressions, which are correspondent to them, and which they exactly represent” (52). The suggestion is that Hume would not have held the attractive view because it involves an idea that isn’t caused by a resembling impression. Rather, it speaks of an idea that is caused by the manner in which all perceptions appear. Now, we might want to respond that the attractive view doesn’t breach the copy principle because the idea of a substantive self might be complex (i.e., “may be distinguished into parts” (50)), whereas the principle only concerns simple ideas (which “admit of no distinction or separation” (50)). But a complex idea must still be copied from simple perceptions; “all simple ideas and impressions resemble each other; and as the complex are formed from them …” (51). The attractive view, however, held that we form the idea of a substantive self from neither simple nor complex perceptions, but from something altogether different: a manner of appearance.
A better line of response is to show that Hume was happy to say that some ideas arise from manners of appearance. After stressing, in Part I, the importance of the copy principle as a philosophical tool, Hume ironically spends almost all of Part II explaining how some of our most important philosophical ideas—those of space, time and existence—derive more from the manners of appearance of impressions, than from impressions themselves. For instance, the idea of time “is not deriv’d from a particular impression mix’d up with others … but arises altogether from the manner, in which impressions appear to the mind” (85). Many scholars take such claims to straightforwardly contradict the copy principle. I leave that question open. The very fact that Hume made these claims suffices to counter the purported explanation regarding his rejection of the attractive view.
Nor can we say that Hume eschewed the attractive view because the subjective manner of appearance of perceptions is not explicable in non-subjective terms. For Hume makes no attempt to explain spatial or temporal manners of appearance in other terms. “As ’tis from the disposition of visible and tangible objects we receive the idea of space, so from the succession of ideas and impression we form the idea of time” (83). We are told nothing about the “disposition,” but simply gather that it is a spatial one. Similarly, the “succession” mentioned can only be temporal. In the same passage, we read that it’s in “considering the distance betwixt these bodies [that] I acquire the idea of extension” (82), but “distance” is, of course, a spatial term. Hume evidently had no problem with manners of appearance being, in a sense, brute.
But in raising this question of the precise nature of the subjective manner of appearance, we approach the correct reason for Hume’s rejection of the attractive view. Manners of appearance are, of course, phenomenal; and that something appears in a certain manner is a phenomenological fact. Hume’s point was, quite simply, that the purported phenomenological fact embedded in the attractive view—that perceptions appear to belong to a synchronically and diachronically unified subject—is false. Despite the murkiness of the notion of belonging, we can plausibly say that a necessary condition on the purported fact’s obtaining is that a substantive self appears, along with perceptions. This condition is just what Hume famously denies:
[W]hen I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other … I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception (300).
This phenomenological point—that trying to observe a substantive self results in the observation only of perceptions—is a profound one. Kripke, in his discernment of Wittgenstein making the same point, explains it thus:
[W]here Descartes would have said that I am certain that “I have a tickle,” the only thing Hume is aware of is the tickle itself. The self—the Cartesian ego—is an entity which is wholly mysterious. We are aware of no such entity that ‘has’ the tickle … we are only aware of the tickle.
He later notes how the phenomenological point can be demonstrated by translating all first-person perception-sentences into ones which lack the first-person pronoun: “I have a tickle” becomes “there is a tickle;” “I think of Kate” becomes “there is a thought of Kate.” So, the reason Hume shuns the attractive view is that the appearance it is committed to simply does not occur.
I want to ask two questions about the phenomenological point: What kind of truth does Hume take it to be? And is it, indeed, true? Regarding the first, there is much to suggest that Hume takes it to be an empirical truth, i.e. a truth about how things stand in the world, known by experience. He says that the impression from which our idea of a substantive self might be copied would have to “continue invariably the same, thro’ the whole course of our lives” (299). Since no impression does this, there is no copied idea. But the empirical fact that the hunt for the “unchanging kernel” fails, it smacks of contingency, which doesn’t seem right. Could the self-searcher have succeeded? A remark of Hume’s suggests not:
From what impression could this idea [of self] be deriv’d? This question ’tis impossible to answer without a manifest contradiction and absurdity; … self or person is not any one impression, but that to which our several impressions and ideas are suppos’d to have a reference (299).
Here the non-phenomenal nature of the self comes across as something of a conceptual truth, the negation of which would be an “absurdity.” Suppose I introspect, and claim to have found a perception of a substantive self, “P.” If there were a substantive self, “P” would “have a reference” to it, which we can take as roughly meaning that “P” would belong to it. “P” would then be a very strange kind of perception; it would be of its “owner.” But Hume rejects the self-to-perception relation of “ownership” (or “reference,” “inhesion”) as unintelligible, saying that the question, “What [do] they mean by … inhesion? … we have found impossible to be answer’d with regard to matter and body: … in the case of mind, it labours under all the same difficulties” (281). So, the phenomenological point is, on this reading, much less of a contingency than it might appear.
Now, to our second question: is the phenomenological point true? The only honest response that I can give to this question is to suspend judgment. At times, I am compelled to say that we turn out, upon close inspection, to be radically more sparsely furnished, inside, than we tend to think. Yet, at other times, I cannot help but agree with thoughts such as those so deftly expressed by Gerard Manley Hopkins in this work’s epigraph. The phenomenology of introspection—that is to say, how things seem to me when I try to observe a substantive self—becomes so slippery and entangled, that any conclusion falls out of reach. To borrow from Hume, “I find myself involv’d in such a labyrinth” that picking a side in the Humean-Cartesian battle seems impossible (675). Indeed, the fact that in self-searching, the very nature of how things seem to one is unclear, probably goes some way (though certainly not the whole way) to explaining Hume’s second thoughts on his view, expressed in his Appendix. I shall return to this in the conclusion.
An idea of a substantive self would derive from an impression of such a thing, or (as on the attractive view) it appearing that perceptions belong to such a thing. The phenomenal point rules both out, so we have no idea of a self, “after the manner it is here explain’d” (299). How does Hume conclude that there is no such thing from there being no such idea? One way starts with his view of language, which in this essay I assume to be true. When “we talk of self or substance, we must have an idea annex’d to these terms” (675). Since no idea of a substantive self is annexed to the term “self,” it would be “unintelligible” to say that there is a self in that sense (675). There is no substantive self in the same way that there is no floogle.
That is Hume’s negative view. But how does Hume argue for his positive theory that the self is nothing but a “bundle of perceptions” related by causation and resemblance? Here we might borrow from Garrett, who sees the argument as being something like this:
1. There is no idea of a substantive self.
2. “All our perceptions are distinct. They are, therefore, distinguishable, and separable, and may be conceiv’d
as separately existent, and may exist separately” (676).
3. Only perceptions appear when one tries to observe the self.
(C) The self is “nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with
inconceivable rapidity, and are in perpetual flux and movement” (300).
But, it is not clear how the conclusion (C) follows at all. It needs some more support. Something similar to what Garrett calls “reductive empiricism” might help; this is the view that “a particular state of affairs [should be] defined in terms of a state of affairs that is more commonly regarded only as evidence for it.” What I have in mind is this:
4. The self is what I observe when I try to observe the self.
The argument would then be:
When I try to observe the self, I find no idea of a substantive self (1), but observe only perceptions (3), which are capable of independent existence (2). Since the self is what I observe when I try to observe the self (4), this bundle of possibly-independently-existing perceptions is the self (C).
The defensibility of this argument is compromised by its reliance on the phenomenological point: claim (3) is the point itself, and claim (1) is supported by the point plus Hume’s view of language. Given what was said earlier, I cannot fully endorse these premises. From a more exegetical point of view, however, the argument has merit in raising a question regarding (C), namely: why did Hume want to reduce the self to what is observed in introspection, rather than eliminate it? If the common thought that the self is substantive lacks empirical support, why not dispense with the self altogether? Why introduce the unusual thought that the self is a bundle? The answer is that elimination is ruled out by what Hume wants to say about the passions in the Second Book. There we read that “‘Tis always self, which is the object of pride and humility” (332). Indeed, if we see these two central passions as akin to self-love and self-loathing, the need for an analyst of emotion such as Hume to have a self of some kind in their conceptual toolkit becomes clear. This explains the reductive premise (C).
I want to turn now to the explanatory side of Hume’s view of the self; that is, to his answer to the question: “What then gives us so great a propensity to ascribe an identity to these successive perceptions” which form a self (301)? But first, a word about Hume’s general approach here. What he has to say is related to his overarching theory that the mind has a “great propensity to spread itself on external objects” (217); except in this case it is more a matter of its spreading itself on itself. This point might seem to count against bundle theory, but it needn’t. There is no reason to suppose that one perception in a bundle can’t perform the “mental act” of projecting unity onto the entirety of that bundle, so long as we see that, as Stroud points out, “for me to perform … ‘mental acts’ … is just for a certain perception to occur in my mind.” This ties in with the aforementioned point that we can drop the first-person pronoun in sentences about perceptions (including sentences about what we want to call “mental acts”). “I project unity onto a bundle” becomes “there is the projection of unity onto a bundle.” Stroud’s point can also be used to quell Chisholm’s worries about who it is that, entering into what he calls himself, finds nothing but perceptions: the failure to find a self is just the failure of a certain perception to occur.
Now, to Hume’s account itself. The relevant passages are messy, and many interpretations are possible, but given Hume’s evident belief that the mechanism behind our forming a “fiction” of a substantive self is the same as that behind our forming a “fiction” of substance, I run together what he says about both. Take a series of distinct objects, which are related by at least one of the following principles: causation; resemblance; teleological unity (the parts combine “to some common end” (305)); functional unity (the parts have “a mutual dependence on, and connexion with each other” (305)). Because the consideration of such a series and the consideration of one (unchanging) continuing thing “are almost the same to the feeling,” the imagination is apt to mistake the series for one (unchanging) continuing thing (302).
However, if we think of two objects in the series remote from one another, reason enters the picture and tells us that they are distinct. Here, we try to have our cake and eat it, too. We invent something called a substance, “continuing the same under very considerable alterations” (269). The substance is one (unchanging) continuing thing, so the imagination is satisfied; but change occurs on the level of the substance’s ‘form’, so reason is also satisfied. We can tell the same story regarding the substantive self, replacing objects with perceptions, which are related by causation and resemblance. In both cases, we “run into the notion of … self, and substance, to disguise the variation” among perceptions and objects, respectively (302).
One challenge to the defensibility of this view comes from its obscurity. It looks like Hume ends up saying that, because our perceptions are appropriately related, the imagination tends to blur them all together. That is patently false. What is confusing is that Hume agrees: “the identity, which we attribute to the human mind … is not able to run the several distinct perceptions into one” (307). An interpretation of the role of the imagination that avoids the result that Hume contradicts himself is, I admit, beyond me.
Another defect in Hume’s account is to be found in the claim that “We have a distinct idea of an object, that remains invariable and uninterrupted thro’ a suppos’d variation of time; and this we call that of identity,” which we confuse with the idea of closely related diversity (301). But our having such an idea clashes with Hume’s rather Berkeleyan view of time, according to which “time cannot make its appearance to the mind alone, or attended with a steady unchangeable object, but is always discover’d by some perceivable succession of changeable objects” (84).
Might it be that time must “make its appearance” via change, but, once we have an idea of it, we can, in some sense, apply it to unchanging objects? But we read that a “man in a sound sleep, or occupy’d with one thought, is insensible of time” (84). If occupation with one idea (the thought) entails insensitivity of time, so should occupation with an impression. How Hume supposes we gather the idea of perfect, changeless identity, I cannot fathom.
This leads us to a wider question about Hume’s view of identity: why does he think it precludes change? Penelhum states the simple fact that, at least following ordinary thought and language, things can survive change, and takes Hume’s disagreement with this to compromise his entire account of identity-ascription. But why did Hume think of identity in such a strange way?
One tentative answer is this: it is natural to credit Hume with the view that when it looks like the world divides into different objects whose identity-conditions allow them to survive particular changes, this is in fact a projection of the mind. A lump of clay can survive remoulding; a statue can’t. This is because we have concepts like lump and statue that are concepts of things with certain identity-conditions, which we project onto the world. But Humean naturalism tells us to see our set of concepts as simply the way in which a group of advanced animals cut up the world; a way that is entirely dependent on the habits, sentiments, etc., of such animals. The upshot is that our concepts don’t correspond to things in the world, like real lumps and real statues, which would be there with their identity-conditions whether we had the concepts or not. Now, it might be that Hume, at least in his discussion of identity, wants to do something rather out of character and talk about the world as it is, not as we project it to be. But this he can only do by shrugging off the unprivileged conceptual scheme. He must now restrict his talk to that of basic ontological units, “objects,” whose identity-conditions are so bare—they may not change—that he runs no risk of conceptual projection. In sum, “identity” meaning invariable sameness might be the result of recognising that a picture of the world as containing things which can survive these changes and not those, is infected by one’s conceptual framework.
The evaluative issue regarding Hume’s view of identity is now much more complicated. We cannot follow Penelhum in trying to rebut Hume by simply pointing out our ordinary notion of change-allowing identity. A proper rebuttal must engage with questions over whether reality has non-projected joints at which we carve—though, its pursuit would lead me too far astray.
Let us take stock of what we have found so far. Hume rejected the attractive view neither because of the copy principle nor because of the bruteness of the subjective perceptual manner of appearance, but because of the phenomenological point. He might have considered this a conceptual truth; considered on purely phenomenological grounds, however, it is far from secure. By his theory of language Hume got from our having no idea of a substantive self to there being none. Because he needed a concept of self to explain the passions, he forewent elimination of the self and argued, from the phenomenological point, that it reduces to a bundle of perceptions. Hume’s explanation for our mistakenly thinking the self to be substantive doesn’t fall prey to the objection that mental acts such as projection cannot occur in bundles. But the account is unclear as to whether we imaginatively blur perceptions into one, and it suffers from the fact that Hume’s view of time seems to preclude our having an idea of identity. We cannot, however, fault Hume on his conception of identity as change-preventing, unless we are prepared to discuss the wider metaphysical issues on which that view rests.
As one final point, I want to suggest that one of the reasons Hume was so perturbed by the question of the self is that it challenged the methodology of the Treatise. Hume wants, according to his subtitle, to “introduce the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects,” and it becomes apparent in the text that the “experiments” of moral philosophy consist of gazing inwards. On the assumption that one has special access to the Cartesian inner realm, this is epistemologically unproblematic. Hume clearly held such an assumption:
For since all actions and sensations of the mind are known to us by consciousness, they must necessarily appear in every particular what they are, and be what they appear. Every thing that enters the mind, being in reality a perception, ’tis impossible any thing shou’d to feeling appear different. This were to suppose, that even where we are most intimately conscious, we might be mistaken (240 ff.).
But, as I said above, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I am not sure what I find. If Hume experienced anything like that, then he would have seen that sometimes, after consulting the place of which we are supposedly “most intimately conscious,” we are left none the wiser as to how things stand there. What this means is that the epistemological foundation for the “science of man”—that one can know about the mind simply by looking at it—turns out to be shaky. Sometimes one doesn’t even know how it looks.
Chisholm, R. M.. “On the Observability of the Self.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 30, 1 (1969): 7-21.
Garrett, Don. Cognition and Commitment in Hume’s Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “Comments on the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola.” Collected in The Poems
and Prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Edited by W. H. Gardner. London: Penguin, 1953.
Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. London: Penguin, 1985.
Kripke, Saul. Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language. Oxford: Blackwell, 1982.
Penelhum, Terence. “Hume on Personal Identity.” Collected in Hume: a Collection of Critical Essays. Edited by V.
C. Chappell. London: Macmillan, 1970, 213-39.
Stroud, Barry. Hume. London: Routledge, 1977.