Section 6

Personal Identity

by David Hume Icon

The Self is a Collection of Perceptions

Some philosophers imagine:

  • that we are always intimately conscious of our self,
  • that we feel its existence and its continuance, and
  • that we are certain of its perfect identity and simplicity.

They say that:

  • the strongest sensation, the most violent passion:
  • fixes the self the more intensely, and
  • makes us consider their influence on the self by their pain or pleasure, instead of distracting us from the self.

We cannot prove this further, since if we doubt something so intimate as the self, then we cannot be certain of anything.

Unluckily, all these assertions are contrary to our experience of the self.

If we continued this reasoning, then we cannot have any idea of the self. From what impression could the idea of the self be derived? This question is impossible to answer without a contradiction and absurdity. Yet we must answer this for the self to be a clear and intelligible idea.

Every real idea comes from an impression. But the self or person is not any one impression. It is an impression that references our several other impressions and ideas.

If any impression creates the idea of self, that impression must continue invariably throughout our lives, since the self is supposed to exist for a lifetime.

But no impression is constant and invariable. Pain and pleasure, grief and joy, passions and sensations succeed each other. They never all exist at the same time. Therefore, the idea of the self cannot be derived from any impressions. Consequently, there is no such idea of the self. What must become of all our perceptions on this hypothesis?

All these:

  • are different, distinguishable, separable from each other,
  • may be separately considered,
  • may exist separately, and
  • do not need anything to support their existence.

How do they belong to the self?

How are they connected with it?

When I enter most intimately into myself, I always stumble on some perception of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure.

I can never:

  • catch myself at anytime without a perception, nor
  • observe anything but the perception.

When my perceptions are removed for any time, as by sound sleep, I may truly be said not to exist as long as I am insensible of myself.

I would be entirely annihilated if all my perceptions were removed by death.

I could neither think, feel, see, love, nor hate after the dissolution of my body.

I could not conceive what is needed to make me a perfect non-entity.

If anyone seriously thinks he has a different notion of himself, then I cannot reason with him.

He may be correct, just as I am correct. But we are essentially different in this: He may perceive something simple and continued, which he calls himself. Though I am certain there is no such principle of him in me.

The rest of mankind is nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions which:

  • succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and
  • are in a perpetual flux and movement.

The Mind is a Theatre Where Perceptions Live

Our eyes cannot turn in their sockets without changing our perceptions.

Our thought is still more variable than our sight.

All our other senses and faculties contribute to this change.

There is no single power of the soul which remains unalterably the same, perhaps for one moment.

The mind is a kind of theatre where several perceptions successively make their appearance.

Perceptions pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations.

There is no simplicity in it at one time.

There is no identity in different times, whatever natural propension we may have to imagine that simplicity and identity.

The comparison of the theatre must not mislead us.

They are the successive perceptions only that constitute the mind.

We do not have the most distant notion of:

  • the place where these scenes are represented,
  • the materials it is composed of.

What then gives us so great a propension to:

  • ascribe an identity to these successive perceptions, and
  • suppose ourselves having an invariable and uninterrupted existence through our lives?

To answer this question, we must distinguish between personal identity regarding:

  • our thought or imagination, and
  • our passions or our concern for ourselves.


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