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Hume’s Discussion on the Personal Identity

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     ‘What am I’ is the question which is generally asked and answered differently , since the history of thought. It is related to one’s identity, so everyone gives different answer according to their personal history, physical features and circumstances. For Hume self is neither a body, nor a mind, nor a combination of both, nor an unknown substance as some thinkers generally say and defend. It is only a series of experiences, a strew of feelings, sensations, desires, thoughts, beliefs etc After that he considers the problem of personal identity by adopting the classical exposition of the positivist’s theory of personal identity. It is the view of those thinkers, who adopted sceptical view and also think that the idea of self can be described in the empirical or linguistic formula. It is common to all positivist that they think self is an abstraction from the facts with no ontological status of its own.

       Hume is against those philosophers, who believe in the conception that we have an idea of a permanent, independent and immaterial self and its continuous identity.

       He is not satisfied with this thinking that the idea of self is the foundation of all our emotions, passions, thoughts and desires etc. He thinks that all these are different and separate from each other and may be separately consider and exist.

      Hume says there should be one impression that gives rise to every real idea. But we don’t have any such impression about the self. Hume refutes the existence of all material and immaterial substances. Hume argued that if we can directly know, we know nothing but the object of our sense experience as ideas and impressions only.

     He says these are all different and separable so, there is no need for their support. When we examine we found nothing, what we call it a self or any certain principle.

     Our mind is like a stage of a theatre in which thoughts and ideas come in a procession. All thoughts are transitory and temporary. The only reason for suspecting the existence of self is that the rapidity of their change causes an illusion. He says we should try to be clear that we are just concentrating mind on only successive perceptions, not where they are presented. So, self is merely a composition of successive impressions.

     We can compare this idea of Hume with Buddha. He also rejects commonly believed conception of self though he does not deny the continuity of the stream successive states that compose life. The self or the ego denotes nothing more than this collection and the existence of man depends on this collection and it dissolves when the collection breaks up. But there is much difference between above conception of the self and Hume’s conception of self.

       Now, here  a problem arises about this view that if we have not any permanent  self, then how can we explain personal identity ? And how can  we justify this conception?

       Firstly, John Locke introduced problem of personal identity in his book An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Locke defines a person as a “thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection and  can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places.” This self-consciousness, which is inseparable from thinking ,constitutes the essence of personality. Consequently the identity of a person is to be found in the identity of consciousness. Of course, we are not always conscious.In contrast toLocke, Hume does not believe in an identical self. For him  there are no constant and invariable impressions of such a self and that introspection does not discover anything, but  particular perceptions. Thus we can have only  particular sensation and emotions, but no impression of  self.

       Hume’s discussion of personal identity is primarily built on the major role of the imagination, which it plays in the formation of belief. From this formation of belief in general, we arrive at belief in causes, continued existence, and then on to the personal identity. Hume uses the word ‘feign’ to explain this conception of personal identity. By the reason of memory and imagination we “make believe” in the continued existence of a “self” or identical personality during these interruptions by the same methods and for the same reasons as I feign the continued existence of external world.

        For Hume identity depends upon the three relations of resemblance, contiguity, and causation. It follows from these principle that the notion of personal identity proceeds from the “smooth and uninterrupted progress of the thought ” by its continuity. Hume thinks that the identity which we ascribe for the human mind is same as the identity what we ascribe to  vegetables and animals, it is fictitious one. This is only by the reason of imagiantion that we do with another objects.

        With reference to the  personal identity, Hume’s above said theory is not far from fallacies and difficulties. Actually, he himself knows that his principle is not completely satisfactory. In the “Appendix” of his Treatise, he mentioned a difficulty which is not solvable by him. It is related to inheritenceness and composition of perceptions. If all our perceptions are different and independent to each other and there is no idea of self then, Hume questions how were they organized and related to each other. In other words, we ask this question as what is the prime substance and principle by which we integrate and organize our perceptions. Hume himself asks this question and he found himself incompetent to answer it.

        Hume sums up the discussion of personal identity by saying that his whole  examination of this question reveals that most of the disputes about personal identity are ‘merely verbal’ he says it is a grammitical rather than a philosophical problem.

        Modern logical positivists have tried to give an empirical explanation of this theory, as Hume does. But, it has also some dogmaticism and it failed to give any satisfactory solution.

       Many philosophers have criticized Hume’s ideas by various points. Some are related to memory that it is not the  only criterion for the self. Although memory seems to be the most important and the primary criterion to the discovery of the personal identity, but it is not only based on memory and continuity but on some other factors also.

        Chisholm attacks on Humean position to say that Hume made a conceptual error in his notion of what constitutes the idea of self, he seems contradictory when he examine self in experience and lastly, he is only aware about particular mental data.

       According to Flage Reid’s and Beattie found Hume’s theory of mind have many misconceptions and it is not much clear.

         And lastly, we cannot  perceived self as an object as Hume does. Because we cannot deny our experiences about the authority of awareness of self. This self awareness makes possible all concentration and contemplation. The self which is the basis of all knowledge cannot be perceived as an object.

        Copleston found that Hume’s use the ambiguous word ‘identity’ and memory not possible in his theory and Ayer also defends it.

        Finally, it is also to be considered that Hume accepts scepticism in his all logical and philosophical speculations. According to scepticism, we cannot get the definite knowledge of anything. Therefore, we should think all our knowledge suspicious and shouldn’t try to give  any definite judgment  about any problem or principle. Hume follows this rule in his entire speculation, but softly. He realizes that one cannot follow this rule in his practical life, if we will adopt this we cannot do anything faithfully and cannot  live whole life easily. So, David Hume is both an epistemological and metaphysical subjectivist and a moral and ethical relativist. His theories make both philosophical knowledge and scientific knowledge impossible. Hume solution for the problem of personal identity is not satisfactory, but it has a great relevance in today’s era.

          Hume’s ideas not only effected Eighteenth and Nineteenth century philosophy, but also  effects contemporary philosophy. Most problems which are discussed as contemporary issues  are due to Hume’s critical philosophy.  In present times, analytical point of view is more dominant., it also gets inspiration and effect from Hume. His thinking not only effects epistemology and metaphysics, but every field of philosophy. Two major theories of contemporary ethics Emotivism and Prescriptivism have originated from his thinking.

        Mostly thinkers like Moore, Russell, Wittegenstein, Carnap, Ayer etc. are inspired by Hume’s speculations. So, we can concludes that, Hume is pre-eminently a breaker of new ground: a philosopher who opens up new lines of thought, who suggests to us an endless variety of philosophical explorations. Nothing as ultimate except the spirit of enquiry. In this sense Hume is the fore runner of postmodernism and deconstruction, post-structuralism, feminism, post-colonialism, new historicism, et al. 


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Williams,J.Anthony (2006) “Is Hume a Sceptic with regard to Personal Identity and Ontology in General ?”

http://home.sandigo.edu/-baber/SCP2006/papers/williams.pdf, Dated:07-07-2007 

Note: this paper is presented at Utkal University, on the occasion of All Orissa Philosophy Association Annaul programme.

Published :“Hume’s Ideas on the Problem of Personal Identity” in Journal of Bihar Philosophical Research, 2005 (Combined Edition) , pp.189-197.


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