Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, October 23, 2010

HUME: Of Personal Identity

Sometimes philosophers say outrageous things. For example, David Hume points out that There are some philosophers who imagine we are every moment intimately conscious of what we call our “self”…no proof can be derived from any fact of which we are so intimately conscious; nor is there anything of which we can be certain if we doubt this. Well, duh. That’s just common sense. We all know our own selves better than we know anything else in the world. But then Hume turns outrageous and throws us a curve ball when he says For my part, when 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. Say what? Hume is saying he never sees “himself” but only some image from his past or something he’s done; but there’s nothing he can point to and say definitively, that’s me right there. All he can find are a bunch of different memories. There’s just a bunch of different stuff going on in his mind and they’re all distinct and different experiences. There’s no separate“self” that he can call “me”. Is Hume serious? Yes, he is. And it’s not just his own personal mind that’s like that. Yours is too. And so is mine. In Hume’s opinion Mankind is nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions. How can this be? Well, Hume explains, we confuse Identity with Relation. Here we go, it’s philosophy time. This will get a little bumpy so hang on. Hume defines Identity as an object that remains invariable and uninterrupted through time. That’s what our “self” is supposed to be when we claim to have a personal identity: stay the same. When that object is “me” I need to ask the question: does “me” stay the same for any considerable time? If I’m honest I would have to say, sort of. Think about it. Well, maybe “me” doesn’t stay totally the same all the time. Think about it some more. Well, actually my mind does change a lot; not only daily but almost from moment to moment. Now you can see what Hume is driving at. We’ve been confusing Identity with Relation. A Relation is several different objects existing in succession and connected together… Our thoughts aren’t what give us an Identity (an object that remains invariable or stays the same). Our thoughts are only Relations (several different objects existing together). Relation isn’t the same thing as Identity, although they seem like the same thing. That’s because we’re fooling ourselves. Hume points out that Relation facilitates the transition of the mind from one object to another and renders its passage as smooth as if it contemplated one continued object. …Our propensity to confuse identity with relation is so great that we are apt to imagine something unknown and mysterious (a “self”) connecting the parts… We see the Relations between our thoughts and actions and think they all belong to one complete Identity, but they don’t. I call my Identity “me” or my “self.” In reality, there’s no such thing. There are only distinct thoughts coexisting in my mind. And Hume says that Every distinct perception which enters into the composition of the mind is a distinct existence…but we suppose the whole train of perceptions to be united by identity. Therefore, Hume concludes, The identity which we ascribe to the mind of man is only a fictitious one… This conclusion is logically sound but still doesn’t seem right. It just feels wrong somehow. For one thing, even Hume assumes he has a personal identity when he says that when “I” try to enter into myself “I” can never observe anything but impressions. Who is this “I” if it’s not the Personal Identity of David Hume? Maybe I’m misunderstanding his philosophy. And even Hume admits that All the nice and subtle questions concerning “personal identity” can never possibly be decided and are to be regarded as grammatical rather than philosophical difficulties…All the disputes concerning the identity of connected objects are merely verbal… Merely verbal? Is this just a game? No, it’s philosophy. Philosophy isn’t a game. Philosophy makes us think. Socrates said the same thing a long time ago. Hume agrees.


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