Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

HUME: Of Personal Identity (What Would Socrates Think?)

Of Personal Identity is a chapter from Hume’s book entitled A Treatise of Human Nature. Hume has an interesting theory.  He believes “mankind… is nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions.”  Human beings are made up of sense perceptions and our ideas come from those perceptions.  We are what we see and touch.  In Hume’s view “the mind is a kind of theatre” where we watch one thought after another come in and out of view.  This would get confusing if we stopped to think about it.  Most of us don’t.  But Hume did.  He wondered how we can make sense of all this confusion of perceptions and thought.  How can we identify all these diverse perceptions as ideas?  What makes them related to other ideas?  Hume concludes, “Our chief business, then, must be to prove, that all objects, to which we ascribe identity, without observing their invariableness and uninterruptedness, are such as consist of a succession of related objects.”

There’s the key term: identity.  Things change.  Plants grow.  People get old.  They don’t look anything like they did before.  And yet in our minds they still seem like the same things they were.  Why?  Hume gives an example.  He says, “in a very few years both vegetables and animals endure a total change, yet we still attribute identity to them.”  An acorn grows into an oak tree.  Acorns and oaks don’t look anything alike.  And yet in our minds the IDENTITY of the acorn and the oak tree is the same thing.  That acorn became this oak.  An even stranger example is a church.  Let’s say a church (call it St. Michael’s) burns down and is rebuilt in a new style with different materials.  But we still call it St. Michael’s.  Why?  Hume says “…neither the form nor materials are the same, nor is there anything common to the two objects but their RELATION to the inhabitants of the parish; and yet this alone is sufficient to make us denominate them the same.”

Hume says the “church” still exists but only in our minds.  There’s a real building made of stone, that’s true.  And before that there was a real building made of wood.  But now they’re entirely different buildings made of entirely different materials.  St. Michael’s Church still exists in our minds but only because our memories connect the current stone building with the wooden building that stood there before.  In reality they don’t have the same “identity” because they’re nothing like they were.  They’ve totally changed.  To call them the same thing is a mental delusion.  And it’s not just acorns and churches. The same principle applies to us too.  Hume says “The identity which we ascribe to the mind of man is only a fictitious one…”  My mind, my own identity, is a fiction?

This all sounds very strange.  Everything Hume says sounds perfectly logical.  But really, what good is it?  Hume started off his essay by saying “there are some philosophers who imagine we are at every moment intimately conscious of what we call our ‘self’… (Footnote: not just philosophers; every sane person thinks they have a self.) …nor is there anything of which we can be certain if we doubt of this.”  That’s what “some philosophers” think.  And that’s the whole point.  If I can’t be certain that “I” even exist then what else in the whole wide world can I ever be certain of?  Hume seems to be undermining the foundations of our minds.  Is this what philosophy is for?  Socrates had a sort of maxim that it was good to Know Thyself.  Hume implies there’s no self to know.  Is this what philosophy has come to in the past two thousand years?  It’s too bad Socrates and Hume can’t sit down together and have a long talk.      


Anonymous SMJ said...

To ask "what good is it?" is to question the very existence of philosophy. Why do anything? Why bother to think at all? Isn't it just a lot of needless work? The justification for doing philosophy is not based on a desire for certainty (which is never available to us), but as an activity (thinking) which has value in itself. Hume is irritating because he undermines our confidence in our own opinions. He makes us reconsider the evidence of our senses. How can we be sure that our ideas of the world (perceptions) are ever true? Hume does not undermine thinking; but he does undermine our assumptions about the world and of the ways in which our own mind operates. Anything that forces us to reexamine our assumptions of reality contributes to intellectual growth. Socrates and Hume cannot sit down together to have a conversation; but we can. We start, as Descartes did, with the basic fact of our existence, and then go from there. What else can we infer from the fact of our existence? Hume seems to say, "very little." But that is just the beginning of the conversation, not the end.

1/21/2015 7:02 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home