Hume, David (1711–76)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DB040-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2005
Retrieved January 23, 2019, from

8. Personal identity

The second edition of Locke’s An Essay concerning Human Understanding (1694) offers an account of the nature of personal identity as grounded not in identity of substance but in ‘sameness of consciousness’ derived from memory, The account stimulated considerable discussion and controversy, and Hume, in the Treatise, takes up the question of personal identity that ‘has become so great a question in philosophy, especially of late years, in England’ (THN 1.4.6). He rejects the proposal that we are constantly aware of a ‘self’ that is simple and ‘perfectly identical’ (that is, invariable and uninterrupted) through time. We have no idea of such a self, Hume argues, appealing to the Copy Principle, for we have no impression of it. Nor can we conceive how our particular perceptions could be related to a substantial self or mind so as to inhere in it, for the supposed concept of a substance in which qualities or perceptions inhere is a mere fiction, invented to justify the association-based tendency to think of what is really a plurality of related but changing qualities or perceptions as having something that bestows simplicity at a time and perfect identity through time on them. Instead, Hume finds, we are aware only of the sequence of perceptions themselves; as he famously puts it, ‘when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception’ (THN Accordingly, ‘the true idea of the human mind’ is that of a ‘bundle’ of different perceptions related by causation in such a way as to ‘mutually produce, destroy, influence, and modify each other’. Because memory reproduces the intrinsic content of earlier perceptions, there is also a considerable degree of resemblance among these perceptions. These perceptions come to constitute an ‘imperfect’ or ‘fictitious’ identity, Hume explains, because their many close associative relations of causation and resemblance cause them, when surveyed in memory, to be mistaken for a perfect identity. He draws from this a corollary that has negative implications for immortality and the justice of rewards and punishments in the afterlife – namely, that ‘all the nice and subtile questions concerning personal identity can never be decided’ because such questions are merely ‘grammatical’, involving relations susceptible of insensibly diminishing degrees (THN

In the Appendix to the Treatise (published with its second volume, containing Book 3), however, Hume expresses dissatisfaction with his previous account of the relations giving rise to personal identity. Because his diagnosis of the problem remains quite general, many interpretations have been offered of the precise basis of his dissatisfaction. One possible source of dissatisfaction is that his own account of causality, as expressed in his definitions of ‘cause’, entails that simultaneous and spatially unlocated but qualitatively identical perceptions cannot differ in their causal relations, so that two such perceptions could not exist in two different minds if his account of the ‘true idea of the human mind’ were correct. In any case, he pronounces the difficulty a further ground for scepticism – that is, for entertaining ‘a diffidence and modesty in all my decisions’.

Citing this article:
Garrett, Don. Personal identity. Hume, David (1711–76), 2005, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DB040-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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