Term Paper: Self" Is Difficult

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[. . .] Hume rejects this because Descartes did not base the idea of the self on a sensory impression and could not have done so:

For as Hume points out, the idea of a self which is permanent, identical, continuously the same must be derived from an impression that is permanent, identical, continuously the same (Lavine 171).

Since there is no such thing possible, the idea of the self cannot be based on such a sensory impression.

Whatever we might call our consciousness, then, it cannot be a continuous, permanent, and unchangeable feature. Lavine says that Hume comes close to the idea of the self "as a stream of consciousness" such as would later infuse certain literature "in which the stream and flow of fragmentary perception make up the self" (Lavine 172). This refers to a sort of "theater of the mind," but Hume rejects even this idea, saying that "there is not even a theater that we can know about through a sense impression" (Lavine 172). In addition, we might presume that such a theater taking place entirely in the mind would be rejected in any case because it does not involve sensory impressions. Descartes would accept the validity of reason alone, but Hume will not.

Of course, people believe that they possess a single self with the same personal identity throughout their lives. This is the common sense view that Hume counters. Hume says that people are deceived in this belief, however, and deceived specifically by the operation of memory, "which by the association of your past separate ideas connects one idea with the others, and leads you to form the fictional idea that these impressions that you recall are united in some sense in a permanent self" (Lavine 173). Hume ultimately rejects this idea simply because for the idea of the self to be meaningful, it must derive from an impression. What we refer to as the self, however, is not derived from a single impression at all but, as noted, from a series of impressions, from "all those impressions to a self which is imagined to exist and to underly them or contain them" (Lavine 173).

This leads to a problem pointed out by critics of Hume, that he wants to see the self as a bundle of sensory impressions, emotions, thoughts, and so on occurring one after another but without a subject which actually has the experience. What Hume is actually stating is that the only source for the idea of the self is the imagination -- we imagine that we have such an entity and that it continues throughout life, though we cannot demonstrate it concretely or by reference to sensory information. In this sense, Hume agrees with Descartes that the self is an idea, a rational creation, but Hume rejects this as a source of knowledge. Immanuel Kant later considered Hume's empiricist argument and found a logical fallacy, for since Hume claimed that all knowledge derives from experience, there thus cannot be any knowledge: "There is only association of ideas through habit, psychological expectancy, and compulsion" (Lavine 193).

Hume is not denying that our experience leads us to believe in the idea of the self, for clearly it does. We are deceived when we believe that our series of impressions can be linked together in a single entity called the self, or the soul, or any other term we might apply to it. Hume is not clear whether he means that there is no such thing as the self or whether he means that the self is only a bundle of experiences and thoughts held together by memory. Generally, Hume is believed to have been "rejecting the common sense concept of what the soul is, and saying that there is a self, but people have been seriously mistaken about what it is" (Lesson 7 handout). Hume would later state that his attempt to picture the self as only a bundle of sense-data was a failure. Ultimately, Hume is not clear about what he means with reference to the self and the idea of the self except that the common sense point-of-view is simply mistaken.

Works Cited

Hume: Knowledge That There Is an External World and Knowledge of the Mind." Lesson 7 (Handout).

Lavine, T.Z. From Socrates to Sartre: The Philosophic Quest. New York: Bantam,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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