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David Hume Personal Identity Essay

Katja A. Behrens
Oxford Brookes University



The following essay examines a subject debated in early modern philosophy, namely the question of what constitutes persistence over time with a special focus on human nature, personhood, and the self. The main problem is centred on the concept of personal identity and how we come to identify with it. A crucial detail hereby is the definition and perspective on this concept of identity. Different approaches are significantly shaping the outlines of this debate, offering diverse solution-statements to its puzzles.  One approach suggests that a separate, mental substance is the key to personal persistence; where  the other introduces memory as being the persisting connection between spatio-temporal states of person. A third account – and core theory focussed in the essay on hand – assumes that identity as it is used in common terms is a misleading conceptualisation of what is in reality a succession of individual perceptions.

This work will particularly deal with the latter theory initiated by English philosopher David Hume. It will analyse the question of whether or not Hume’s account is plausible, whilst using the alternative approaches to present and support the essay’s central thesis: Hume’s account on personal identity is plausible. But this does not mean the thesis on hand necessarily considers Hume’s suggestion to be justifiable, infallible, or philosophically borne out; but rather that it is embracing Hume’s outlook and search for natural underlying patterns of subscribing identity to extremely changing objects; persons respectively. Hume’s thoughts about personal identity try to first trace and consecutively explain psychological processes (such as beliefs, sentiments, etc.) which are causes for people to ascribe sameness to a person based on an alleged uninterrupted and unchanging entity: the self. Hume rejects the concept of the self as a substantial entity on the basis of metaphysical factors of the concept of identity, but does not try to reduce the confusion to a merely linguistic problem either. In contrast to memory as a key factor of personal identity, Hume’s attempt at explanation introduces the ‘bundle theory of the self,’ reconciling characteristics of metaphysical identity with qualities of mental processes.

Methodologically, the paper will begin by defining key terms such as ‘plausible’ and ‘identity’ as these are crucial parts of answering the essay question. Further, it will briefly introduce opponent views on personal identity and their limitations, before outlining differences between Hume’s account and other analysed approaches. It will deal with Hume’s self-made and externally-claimed criticisms before summarising these arguments in favour of the stated thesis.


To answer the question of whether Hume’s account on personal identity is plausible it is necessary to define of what the concept of ‘plausibility’ comprises. A claim is plausible if subjectively believing in it is intelligible regardless of objective reasoning. Plausibility is mainly contrasted by probability insofar as the latter includes existence and consideration of alternatives. This in turn entails that a plausible thought could – after investigation – turn out to be false. Consequently, the concept of plausibility allows acceptance of an intelligible and intuitive claim until the opposite is proven.

Avoiding ambiguities concerning the definition of ‘identity,’ this essay will predominantly deal with numerical identity rather than qualitative identity. Hence, the view that sameness equals numerical identity, which is in turn characterised by unchanging and uninterrupted stableness. Views on Hume being confused by qualitative and quantitative meanings of identity will therefore be neglected whilst accounts taking Hume’s theory to be centred on numerical identity as a starting point.


The main questions in the debate regarding personal identity are those facing what constitutes persistence of personhood over time, i. e. what does it mean to identify someone to be ‘the same’ person as he used to be as a child, or as the person we met who was wearing different clothes? Participants in this debate discuss also which criterion of evidence we can plausibly employ in this consideration. But the debate is a matter to various variables shifting attention from one characteristic to the other. Unlike other approaches this paper will not deal with narratives or personhood, but centre persistence in greater detail and incidentally engage with epistemic concerns investigating criterions of identity. It will also approach the subject in examining motif origins of participating theories, as this perspective makes the most obvious distinctions.

Descartes’ philosophical account gives a solution according to his dualistic view on human nature in which mind and body are distinct from one another – mental and physical substances respectively. According to him, the personal identity or ‘self’ is a mental substance added to a physical or bodily substance constituting the so-called ‘entire self.’ Descartes’ view embraces changes as long as the non-physical substance remains the same. Hence his account of a persisting self does not involve any problems with change going hand-in-hand with sameness. Hume criticises this view in presenting the self as a fiction created by philosophers in attempt to bridge the gaps such theories leave behind. Descartes’ process of finding a resolution to the problem of personal identity is classified as being a rationalist’s approach, as he is convinced that knowledge about the external world can be gained through rational reasoning.

John Locke, in contrast, offers an empiricist point of view. Observation and experience reconciled in consciousness and self-consciousness are the foundations for knowledge in his philosophy. He introduces memory as being the key criterion to manifest persistence of a person over time. Locke’s theory is therefore summarised in an analogy of a flux ‘stream of consciousness,’ uniting experiences and memory in a continuous self-awareness. Various criticisms have been contrasted to this view. The simplest, but most striking counter-argument is how human dispositions of forgetfulness are combinable with such an approach. What impact would a lack of memory have, even if it is only a certain period of time one cannot remember? Would this inevitably lead to a loss of personal identity? Such questions reduce the plausibility of Locke’s account and expose inconsistencies in his ideas.

It seems as if what fundamentally distinguishes the abovementioned approaches to personal identity is the philosophical stance from which they emerge: their mutual belief in personal identity and its persistence over time. Problematic of each account is their undeniable refutability.


Hume and Locke, in contrast to Descartes, investigate human nature from an ant’s or empiricist’s point of view – and both of them reject the self as being a distinct substance persisting over time. But Hume’s account of personal identity seems to approach the subject in a more naïve, or ‘observing’ manner than does Locke’s. In contrast to Locke, Hume tries to follow and understand psychological habits of human beings before trying to resolve them. In this connection he is predominantly interested in analysing what he calls ‘the vulgar,’ meaning the ‘non-philosophical’ people. Hume claims linguistic consent to be flawed in calling persons ‘the same’ who are inevitably subject to essential changes in body and mind over time. He therefore does not take ascription of identity to persons for granted, but rather suspects a ‘metaphysical-cum-semantic’ issue in doing so.  He nevertheless acknowledges that non-philosophical people seem to be aware of the fact that those habits are not accurate (viz. not justifiable) in relation to the concept of numerical identity. Hence, even in the common view, the concept of numerical identity or sameness excluded changes and is constituted by unchanging, uninterrupted, and stable characteristics. Hume argues, regardless to how complex a possible solution to the notion of a persisting identity might be, that this distinct substance of the ‘self’ is a gap-filling fiction.

Hume suggests the self 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.’ Hume compares the mind to a theatre upon whose stage we are observing perceptions and experiences like scenery and actors. Our imagination, nevertheless, fools us into conceiving  a single entity, despite having no perception from which we might draw onto the mind or the self. Explicitly stressed in this notion of a ‘succession of related objects’ is the significance of sentiments as being the cause for calling things identical. Hume attends to this matter because he finds that sensations towards an imagination of identity are similar to those perceived towards a succession of objects. He considers memories to take over an essential part in creating personal identity, but avoids the problem of forgetfulness in declaring causality to be the connection allowing us to ‘extend identity beyond memory.’

Similar to the other presented theories, Hume’s account on personal identity is subject to criticism. What is special about his argument is that he himself feels the need to acknowledge a contradiction for which he can provide no answer: the origin of his idea that each perception is a distinct entity. One response to this issue is that Hume cannot help but espouse the common belief that there are connections between distinct experiences which are neither traceable nor tangible through introspection. This would explain his usage of words describing instances beyond mere perceptions such as ‘mind’, ‘self’, and ‘soul’. It seems as though concepts of these entities serve to construct an idea of connections between perceptions regarding identity where, according to Hume’s original notion, there are none.  Pike offers an apology to this criticism in claiming Hume’s theory is an analysis of the mind. Despite opponent interpretations of Hume entirely denying the notion of mind, Pike argues that Hume bundle of perceptions constitutes a conceptual mind. On this notion, what Hume denies is the philosophical idea of the mind as a mental substance; and this in turn would be in accordance with his use of such terms as ‘mind’ and ‘self’.

So far provided insight in the debate about personal identity exposes the problem of reconciling variables in the criterion for existence, psychological fundaments, and continuity of personal identity. What distinguishes Hume’s account is his high level of naivety with which he begins his inquiry. The subject of personal identity (as well as his other investigations into human nature) changes Hume’s stance noticeably from a naturalist origin to a rather sceptical outlook. Though starting his exploration with a tendency to argue in favour of accepting and trusting one’s natural intuitions, Hume finishes in acknowledging that he does not feel that he should trust his own senses. Although these doubts may have been cornerstones in presenting personal identity over time as irresolvable, Hume changes sway towards the end of his inquiry in establishing ‘a system or set of opinions, which if not true (for that, perhaps, is too much to be hoped for), might at least be satisfactory to the human mind, and might stand the test of the most critical examination.’ In other words – returning to the original question – he is appealing to a consistent and plausible account for what constitutes persistence in personal identity over time, based in ‘vulgar’ or ‘common’ notions. This essay forwards the thesis that he succeeds in observing and plausibly describing underlying patterns of attributing identity to individual persons. Doubts concerning his account could be seen as capitulations to the belief in personal persistence regardless of rational commitments elsewhere. Finally, he allows common intuitions and linguistic practices to suffice as justification in the belief in personal identity over time, when saying that he allows himself to follow his natural inclination even in philosophical investigation.


To summarise, then, the essay on hand presents an argumentation in favour of the plausibility of Hume’s account on personal identity. Plausibility appeals to the degree of intelligibility of a claim rather than its infallibility and unfailing justification. Hume approaches the preliminary human phenomenon of personal identity on what he considers to be the very basis of its appearance: common linguistic habits and notions. His account establishes itself in contrast to views that proffer the self as a mental substance, or those which place memory as a key factor in persistence, in not giving a definite answer. On the basis of his inspection he describes his findings and subsequently reconciles them with other facts regarding individuals. This results in his argument considering only the metaphysical criterion of identity, though this is nevertheless plausible if not justified in being commonly accepted. His self-criticism is accounted here to emphasise the authenticity of his theory, as it confronts natural human inclination with philosophical accuracy. The essay on hand has dealt with perniciousness and probable ambiguities of the subject, as well as contemporary views on Descartes and Locke and their respective limitations. Restrictions to Hume’s theory are sustainably annihilated and moreover reverted to strengthen the goal of his mission. Hume’s theory is intuitive and intelligible, and restricted only in his natural identification with human nature.


Works Cited

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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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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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