Section 6c

Discerning Identities

by David Hume Icon

Two phenomena are remarkable:

  1. We are commonly able to distinguish between numerical and specific identity.

Yet sometimes we confound them. In our thinking and reasoning, we employ the one for the other. A man who hears a sound that is frequently heard on and off, says that it is still the same sound even if those sounds only resemble each other.

Those sounds are not numerically the same. Only the source that produced those sounds is numerically the same. A brick church falls to ruin.

The parish rebuilds the same church of stone, according to modern architecture. The form and materials are not the same. The only common to the two objects is their relation to the people of the parish. Yet this alone is enough to make us call them the same. In these cases, the initial object is destroyed before the latter object comes into existence.

Our minds do not get more than one impression of the object at a time. This is why we call them the same.

  1. In order to preserve the identity in a succession of related objects, the change of its parts should not be sudden nor entire.

Yet where the objects are, by nature, changeable, we allow a more sudden transition. A river is constantly in motion and changing its parts.

A river might totally change in a day. But it stays the same for several ages. We expect whatever is natural and essential to anything.

We get a weak impression from observing what is expected. This breaks the continuity of the thought very little, and has less influence in destroying the identity. We get a stronger impression from observing the unusual and extraordinary. This breaks the continuity of the thought more, and has more influence in destroying the identity. The Idea of Personal Identity is Caused by the Resemblance and Causation of Perceptions We now explain the nature of personal identity.

Recently in England, this has become so great a question of ill philosophy. England is where all the more abstruse sciences are studied with ardour and application. We shall continue the method of reasoning which we successfully applied to explain the identity of plants, animals, ships, houses, and all the compounded and changeable productions of art or nature. The identity we ascribe to the mind of man, is only a fictitious one.

It is similar to the identity we ascribe to plants and animals. Therefore, it has the same origin and comes from the similar operation of the mind. The identity which we attribute to the human mind is not able to:

run the several different perceptions into one, nor make them lose their essential characters of distinction and difference Every distinct perception that enters into the mind’s composition is a distinct existence.

It is different, distinguishable, and separable from every other perception, either contemporary or successive. This identity of the mind means the unity of that mind’s perceptions. Does this identity really bind our several perceptions together? Or does it only associate the ideas created by the perceptions in the imagination? When we mention a person’s identity, do we observe some real bond among his perceptions? Or do we feel a bond with the ideas that we create from our perception of his perceptions. We can easily answer this question if we remember that:

the understanding never observes any real connection among objects, and even the union of cause and effect, when strictly examined, resolves itself into a habitual association of ideas. It follows that identity does not really belong to these different perceptions and does not unite them together.

Personal identity is merely a quality which we attribute to those different perceptions, because of the union of their ideas in our imagination, when we think about them. The only qualities which can unify ideas in the imagination, are the relations of resemblance, contiguity and causation. These are the uniting principles in the ideal world. Without them, every distinct object would: be separable by the mind, and appear totally unconnected with any other object. Therefore, identity depends on some of these three relations. The very essence of resemblance, contiguity and causation is in their creation of an easy transition of ideas. It follows that our notions of personal identity come entirely from the smooth and uninterrupted progress of the thought along a train of connected ideas. The only question which remains is: which relations produce this uninterrupted progress of our thought when we consider the successive existence of a mind or thinking person?

We must confine ourselves to resemblance and causation, and drop contiguity because it has little influence in this case. Resemblance Leading to Personal Identity We would best see a resemblance in a person’s perceptions if we could:

see into his heart, see the successive perceptions in his mind, and see his memories of most of his past perceptions. The memory is just a faculty which we bring up the images of past perceptions.

An image necessarily resembles its original object. The frequent placing of these resembling perceptions in the chain of thought: convey the imagination more easily from one link to another, and makes the whole seem like the continuance of one object. In this case, the memory not only discovers the personal identity. It also contributes to produce the identity by producing resemblance among the perceptions. The case is the same for ourselves or others. Causation Leading to Personal Identity is Sourced from Memory Impressions of reflection

The human mind is a system of different perceptions or existences linked together by cause and effect.

This system allows perceptions to mutually produce, destroy, influence, and modify each other. Our impressions give rise to their correspondent ideas. These ideas in turn produce other impressions. One thought chases another and draws after it a third, by which it is expelled in its turn. I can only compare the soul to a republic with several members united by the reciprocal ties of government and subordination.

This gives rise to other persons who propagate the same republic through constant change. The same republic may change its members, laws, and constitutions. Similarly, a person may vary his character, disposition, impressions and ideas, without losing his identity. Whatever changes he endures, his parts are still connected by causation. Our identity is directed by our feelings to corroborate with causation in our imagination: by making our distant perceptions influence each other, and by giving us a present concern for our past or future pains or pleasures. We are acquainted with the continuance and extent of this succession of perceptions through our memory alone.

Memory is the source of personal identity. Had we no memory we would never have any notion of causation. Consequently, we would have no chain of causes and effects to create our idea of the self. After we have acquired this notion of causation from the memory, we can extend the same chain of causes.

Consequently, we can extend the identity of ourselves beyond our memory. We can then comprehend times, circumstances, and actions, which have existed but we have entirely forgotten. How few of our past actions can we remember? Who can tell me what were his thoughts and actions on: January 1, 1715, March 11, 1719, and August 3, 1733? Can he say that his present self is not the same person with the self of those times because he has entirely forgotten the incidents of these days? He will overturn all the established notions of personal identity if he does this. Therefore, memory does not so much produce as discover personal identity, by showing us the relation of cause and effect among our different perceptions.

Those who affirm that memory produces entirely our personal identity, should explain why we can extend our identity beyond our memory. This whole doctrine leads us to a very important conclusion that all the nice and subtle questions on personal identity can never possibly be answered. They are more grammatical than philosophical difficulties. Identity depends on the relations of ideas. These relations produce identity through that easy transition. The relations and the transition’s easiness may reduce insensibly. We have no just standard to decide any dispute on when they acquire or lose the name of ‘identity’. All the disputes on the identity of connected objects are merely verbal, except so far as the relation of parts creates some imaginary principle of union. The first origin and uncertainty of our notion of the human mind’s identity, may be extended with little or no variation to the origin of simplicity.

An object, whose different co-existent parts are bound together by a close relation: operates on the imagination in the same way as one perfectly simple and indivisible, and does not require a much greater stretch of thought to its conception. From this similarity of operation we:

attribute a simplicity to it, and feign a principle of union as: the support of this simplicity, and the center of all the different parts and qualities of the object. We have finished our examination of the philosophical systems of the intellectual and natural world.

In our miscellaneous way of reasoning, we have been led into several topics. These will: illustrate and confirm some preceding part of this discourse, or prepare the way for our following opinions. We will now:

return to a closer examination of our subject proceed in the accurate anatomy of human nature, having fully explained the nature of our judgment and understandings.


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