Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

2 3
Hume on the Self 4
Alan Schwerin 5

Abstract In the Treatise Hume argues that a person is “nothing but a bundle of 9
perceptions”. But what precisely is the meaning of this bundle thesis of a person? In 10
my paper, an attempt is made to articulate two plausible interpretations of this 11
controversial view and to identify and evaluate a number of problems for this thesis 12
central that is central to Hume’s account of the self. 13
Keywords Hume . Self .Mind . Perceptions . Identity . Bundle theory . Ontology . 14
Conceptual scheme . Idea . Substance 15
When Hume prepares the way for his Treatise account of the self in the section “Of 17
personal identity”, he dispatches a rival view as manifestly contradictory and absurd. 18
His concise and bleak assessment of this alternative account of the self is due, in large 19
measure, to the conceptual scheme that Hume adopts early on in the Treatise in his 20
attempt to broaden and strengthen the science of human nature. His decision in the 21
very first section of the Treatise to introduce and promote the novel linguistic 22
framework that is founded on the notion of impressions enables Hume to detect 23
fundamental flaws in the views of other philosophers that they, apparently, are unable 24
to identify. Equally important, Hume’s conceptual scheme provides him with a new 25
conception of the self that from his point of view, appears to be robust and immune 26
from the challenges that beset the view of the mind that is promoted by his most 27
prominent rivals. So what is this view of the self that Hume enthusiastically intro- 28
duces in the Treatise? And is this theory, even with its commitment to the celebrated 29
impressions, any less defective than that defended by his rivals? This paper is an 30
attempt to throw light on both of these important issues. Take the first question. 31
Hume’s conception of the self is articulated most fully and directly in Section 6 of 32
the Treatise, in the section titled “Of personal identity.” While there are faint vestiges 33
of this conception elsewhere in the Treatise, most notably in his analysis in “Of the 34
Int Ontology Metaphysics
DOI 10.1007/s12133-012-0094-x
A. Schwerin (*)
Monmouth University, West Long Branch, NJ, USA
e-mail: aschweri@monmouth.edu
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immateriality of the soul”, it is Section 6 that contains the most complete expression 35
of Hume’s own view of the self. Not one to mince his words, Hume cuts to the chase 36
with a concise proposition: the self is a collection of perceptions. As he bluntly puts 37
it, we are “nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions.” (Treatise 252). 38
On the surface, this seems a straightforward statement: it appears to be precise and 39
readily verifiable. Unlike his rivals with their opaque view that the self is an 40
unchanging mysterious substance, when Hume maintains that we are constituted by 41
a set of changing perceptions, he is adopting a view of a person that appears to be 42
easier to test than that advocated by his rivals. For are these immediate and directly 43
accessible perceptions not more accessible than the alleged fictions proposed by his 44
rivals? And as perceptions, are nothing more than distinct and separable sensory 45
impressions, as far as Hume is concerned, questions on the nature of the self now 46
become distinctly decidable: confine the investigation to the directly accessible 47
impressions generated by the senses. So, if we view the self as nothing more than a 48
concatenation of diverse sensory impressions, each one of which is reputed to be 49
directly and unambiguously accessible—even though the set or collection of impres- 50
sions is (allegedly) constantly in flux—reliable knowledge of the self now becomes 51
attainable. And this, to a large extent is surely what the founders of the new science of 52
human nature are after. But is this inroad into the citadel of a human being as reliable 53
as Hume intimates it is? 54
Is Hume’s enthusiasm for his view of the self warranted? Hume has provided us 55
with his reasons for adopting this view on the self, due in large measure, to his 56
rejection of his rivals’ view of the self, with its commitment to mysterious immaterial 57
substances. But is Hume’s bundle thesis on the self, as it stands, true? More 58
fundamentally, what does it mean? Even if the thesis is true, the suggestion that a 59
complex person, who is capable of engaging in a diverse series of acts, such as falling 60
in love, becoming angry, being thoughtful, and of being self-conscious—to randomly 61
mention but a few activities that a person can perform—can be reduced to something 62
that is nothing more than a collection of discrete perceptions seems implausible, if not 63
far-fetched. This minimalist view of a person on the surface seems implausible, and 64
certainly does not appear to make sense. It certainly does not appear to do justice to 65
the myriad aspects of a person. Hume’s austere thesis on the self on the surface 66
appears similar to the suggestion that DaVinci’s Mona Lisa in the Louvre is nothing 67
more than blobs of pigment on a canvas. This bold thesis on a person, as succinct as it 68
is, gives rise to a number of important questions that ought to be considered before 69
any decision can be made on its viability. These are not straightforward questions to 70
deal with, as becomes apparent from even a cursory investigation of the theory and its 71
ramifications. We shall discover that Hume has unfortunately not helped us, or 72
himself, on these matters. For a careful investigation of his bundle thesis of the self 73
and its implications begs many questions that do not appear to be anticipated in the 74
Treatise. Neither the main text nor Hume’s critical appendix to the Treatise, in spite of 75
its forthrightness, says anything about these issues. His silence on these important 76
matters is most unfortunate, as I shall demonstrate below, as the lacunae seriously 77
compromise his view on the self. This suggests—or so I shall argue—contrary to 78
Hume’s assessment, that both the rival substance theory of the self and Hume’s 79
bundle theory of the self are beset with difficulties, some serious. While Hume might 80
have identified some possible shortcomings in the substance theory of the self, his 81
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own account appears to have its own set of problems. All of which begs the important 82
question on which theory has the least shortcomings. Naturally, we can begin to 83
consider this question only after we have determined the standing of Hume’s own 84
view on the self. For these reasons in this paper I shall restrict my exploration of 85
Hume’s bundle theory on the self and its potential problems and leave it to others to 86
weigh his innovative view against the more traditional substance theory of the self. So 87
what appears to be problematic with the thesis that a person is “nothing but a bundle 88
or collection of different perceptions”? 89
The view of the self that Hume vigorously promotes in the Treatise is not as 90
straightforward as its author intimates it is. While his analysis in “Of personal 91
identity” leaves one with the distinct impression that Hume is convinced that he 92
has found the truth where the self is concerned, the confident tone of his proclama- 93
tions belies many troubling issues. Unfortunately, none of these potentially fatal 94
concerns are even mentioned, let alone dealt with by the intrepid Scotsman.1 What 95
might they be? A few of these questions emerge if we expand on and make more 96
explicit some of the strands of Hume’s central thesis statement. My modest modifi- 97
cation here to his initial terse expression of the bundle theory of the self, while still 98
true to the essentials of his position, makes some of the problematic aspects of his 99
thesis more apparent: 100
Statement One: A person is a bundle of perceptions and nothing else. 101
How ought we to understand this statement? While the reasons for this thesis 102
might initially appear plausible, encouraging Hume to explore the motivation of 103
philosophers for adopting their (discredited) rival substantial theory of the self, at 104
the end of the section “Of personal identity” we are still left wondering how he wants 105
us to read his thesis that is the cornerstone of his analysis of the newly emerging 106
philosophical conception of the self. In the first place, questions arise on the logic of 107
the statement. Is it correct to view Statement One as a categorical statement, without 108
any qualifying clauses? The uncompromising declarative sentences that Hume relies 109
on to express his thoughts on the self in the main text of the Treatise, along with the 110
confident, if not brash tone of the writing in the early part of the section “Of personal 111
identity” certainly leaves one with the impression that this is his intent. A person 112
definitely is, in Hume’s considered view, a set of perceptions. Period. There are no 113
exceptions or mitigating qualifications to this provocative statement. We either take it 114
or leave it at that: as Hume sees it, we need not concern ourselves with any potentially 115
compromising reservations where his thesis on the self is concerned. As he does not 116
hedge his statement with any qualifying clauses it seems plausible to assume that the 117
statement on his own view on the self ought to be viewed as a categorical statement, 118
free of any encumbering mitigating conditions. However, there is another, more 119
nuanced way to read his thesis. 120
1 One might object that trailblazers are most unlikely to draw attention to problems associated with their
innovative ideas. This rejoinder strikes me as moot when one takes into account the scathing criticisms
leveled by Hume against his rivals. As a philosopher more than willing to wield a critical ax against his
intellectual opposition, Hume is obliged to acknowledge potential shortcomings in his own views:
something he does not do in the section “Of personal identity.” And when he does come clean in the
appendix and acknowledge that there are problems with his account of the self, the problems that he
identifies there do not concern the status of his theory on the self but concern its justification.
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The uncompromising, authoritative tone of the language Hume draws on to 121
articulate his thesis notwithstanding, it can be shown that a more appropriate inter- 122
pretation of Hume’s articulation of his bundle thesis of the self is to regard his 123
statement as a tentative expression of his thoughts. On this reading, the statement is 124
little more than a hypothesis, subject to the standard vicissitudes of experience. While 125
perhaps not commanding the same level of attention that the thesis could engender if 126
read categorically, this interpretation of the expression of the bundle theory of the self 127
still warrants the serious scrutiny of individuals interested in knowing what a person 128
is. Naturally, Hume’s statement on the self on this softer interpretation must still be 129
regarded as an earnest contribution to the science of human nature, fully entitled to 130
systematic consideration by both philosophers and the vulgar. But the assertive and 131
confident aura that initially accompanied Hume’s terse statement on the self, on this 132
alternative interpretation, is now more restrained and cautious. 133
While Hume, unfortunately, does not provide us with any direct textual assistance 134
on this important matter of interpretation, a case can be made that the second option is 135
the more plausible of the two options that I have identified here. The suggestion that 136
we ought to view Statement One hypothetically is consistent with the observation that 137
the analysis in the section “Of personal identity” makes much of evidence. Sensory 138
evidence, apparently constitutes the Achilles heel of Hume’s rivals’ substance theory 139
of the self, as far as he is concerned, enabling him to detect the contradictions and 140
absurdities in their position. And it is evidence from the senses that Hume draws on in 141
order to provide the support that he needs for his own thesis. Immediately after 142
presenting his provocative bundle thesis on the self he alludes to the observable facts 143
that he views as providing the necessary support for his philosophical thesis on the self: 144
Our eyes cannot turn in their sockets without varying our perceptions. Our 1456
thought is still more variable than our sight; and all our other senses and 147
faculties contribute to this change; nor is there any single power of the soul, 148
which remains unalterably the same, perhaps for one moment. (Treatise 252–3) 149
This is an important component of Hume’s strategy in his analysis of the problems 1501
concerning the self. As he intimates, his statement on the self is not a casual 152
suggestion, but a serious proposal motivated by a consideration of various observable 153
facts and most importantly, constrained by these facts. Furthermore, the thesis does 154
not depend on the existence of mysterious fictions, as does the discredited substance 155
theory of his rivals. Instead, the bundle thesis on the self requires down-to-earth 156
sensory evidence for its verification: namely, eminently accessible perceptions that 157
we are all presumed to possess. Furthermore, in his view, not only is there evidence 158
for his thesis, there is a lot of it. As it happens there is a great deal of the required 159
evidence that is supportive of his innovative view on the self. Each one of us 160
possesses this evidence in abundance, namely in the form of our perceptions. Finally, 161
this evidence comes from a dependable source, namely the senses. As Hume inti- 162
mates, this abundant evidence available to all of us proves that his bundle thesis on 163
the self is true. All of which suggests, as I see it, that Hume regards his bundle thesis 164
on the self, not as a categorical statement free of qualifications, but as a plausible, 165
scientific hypothesis beholden to the world of voluminous diverse sensory evidence. 166
Unfortunately, this interpretation, if correct, gives rise to additional difficult ques- 167
tions, none of which have been anticipated, let alone dealt with by Hume. 168
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I have argued that the interpretation of Hume’s bundle thesis on the self as a 169
scientific hypothesis is plausible. If correct, this reading gives rise to a number of 170
challenging problems for Hume. Here are a few of the more pressing issues calling 171
for further attention if my proposal holds any water. To make matters manageable I 172
shall first list the issues that strike me as most pressing and then consider each 173
separately. Five issues stand out: 174

  1. Biased assessment of the evidence: Hume appears to be very selective in what he 175
    accepts as evidence for his thesis. He fails to consider evidence that could falsify 176
    his thesis on the self. 177
  2. Fallacious generalization from the evidence: his personal experiences serve as the 178
    basis of his generalization for all mankind, with the exception of those allegedly 179
    misguided metaphysicians who endorse the rival substance theory of the self. 180
  3. Contradictory evidence: when Hume gathers evidence to support his view, his net 181
    ensnares material that appears to both confirm and (unbeknownst to him) refute 182
    his thesis. 183
  4. Unintelligible evidence: the conception of the evidence that Hume alludes to 184
    appears to be difficult if not impossible to comprehend. 185
  5. Unnecessary evidence: the search for evidence for his view on the self can be 186
    shown to be moot. 187
    Consider the first suggestion from the list above that Hume is selective in the 188
    evidence that he gathers. 189
    As we have seen, when Hume presents his bundle thesis on the self, he delights in 190
    pointing to the evidence that he has found to support his view. From his perspective, 191
    this evidence is incontrovertible. In many respects, Hume seems to be correct on this 192
    score. There can be no doubt that the mind has numerous, different perceptions that 193
    are in constant flux: 194
    The mind is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their 1956
    appearance; pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of 197
    postures and situations. (Treatise 253) 198
    But appeals to evidence—as with Hume’s references here to his changing percep- 120909
    tions—in support of any thesis cannot establish beyond a doubt that that proposition 201
    is certain and absolutely true: at best, the thesis can be regarded as probably true, 202
    perhaps even as highly probable. And inductive probable propositions, even those 203
    with high degrees of probability, are nothing more than tentative hypotheses mani- 204
    festing a preponderance one way or another to some truth value. That is to say, these 205
    hypothetical propositions are conjectures that require their advocates to weigh the 206
    evidence either for or against their position. The evidence needs to be carefully 207
    assayed in an attempt to either confirm or refute the hypothesis. Now, it would be 208
    naïve to assume that if a thesis can be viewed as a true hypothesis by virtue of the fact 209
    that there is some evidence in its favor, there cannot simultaneously be contrary 210
    evidence that, under the appropriate circumstances, could undermine the thesis— 211
    thereby serving as a potential, if not actual, refutation of the thesis. It is thus 212
    unrealistic to take it for granted that all of the evidence that can be gathered that 213
    pertains to a thesis will automatically serve to confirm it. Surely some of the evidence 214
    that can be accumulated by a conscientious objective investigator is not likely to 215
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    support the thesis. But Hume does not even entertain the possibility that his bundle 216
    thesis on the self is false. As far as he is concerned, it is a true thesis that has the edge 217
    over his rivals in that it at least is supported by independent evidence. But what 218
    reasons do we have from Hume for thinking that there is no negative evidence, i.e., 219
    evidence that is incompatible with his view on the self? Surely there is some evidence 220
    that can refute his bundle thesis of the self? Unfortunately, he does not provide any 221
    reasons for assuming that his thesis can only be true. Without some discussion from 222
    him on this important issue we are left with the distinct impression that Hume is not 223
    willing to concede that he is wrong about the self. And when we factor in what 224
    appears to be an arrogant tone to the articulation of his view on the self, we are 225
    tempted to wonder whether Hume’s uncompromising theory of the self is little better 226
    than the outburst of some radical irrational thinker wildly speculating on the nature of 227
    a person. So Hume’s reliance on highly selective evidence in support of his theory of 228
    the self, while commendatory to some extent, can be seen as indicative of a biased 229
    mind.2 230
    Unfortunately, even the evidence that Hume presents in favor of his bundle thesis 231
    on the self appears to be less than satisfactory. Some of it actually threatens to 232
    undermine his position. As I shall demonstrate shortly, the evidence that Hume 233
    provides us for his theory on the self can be viewed as a refutation of his view on 234
    the self. Before we explore this issue on the potentially compromising nature of the 235
    evidence that Hume has gathered, there are two other aspects of his reliance on 236
    evidence that call for attention: the one more pressing than the other. Take the less 237
    problematic issue. The evidence garnered by Hume is insufficient to establish his 238
    thesis. 239
    To put it politely, the sensory evidence that Hume has gathered in the Treatise for 240
    his bundle thesis on the self is somewhat limited: a limitation that gives rise to a 241
    number of interesting problems. The evidence that Hume collects happens to be 242
    culled from his own private world, i.e., he is drawing on the operations of his own 243
    mind and body to formulate and confirm a thesis on the self that he clearly intends to 244
    extrapolate beyond himself. Without direct access to the minds of others, with their 245
    inaccessible perceptions, the best that Hume can do under the circumstances is draw 246
    on his own experiences. Operating on the unexamined assumption that his private 247
    world of perceptions is fundamentally similar to that of everyone else—while simul- 248
    taneously assuming that he is not the sole constituent of some solipsistic world—and 249
    assuming that these perceptions are produced by organs that operate in basically 250
    similar ways between individuals, Hume takes it for granted that what applies to him 251
    applies to the rest of mankind. For instance, Hume makes explicit reference to eyes 252
    that produce perceptions that possess definite, yet fundamentally similar, character- 253
    istics. But are our sense organs alike, operating in similar ways, producing similar 254
    perceptions? Some studies suggest not. Numerous studies have shown that percep- 255
    tions are not similarly produced. For example, individuals who suffer from synes- 256
    thesia perceive colors where others perceive mere letters and numerals. The contents 257
    2 Hume appears to subscribe to a naïve view of science, according to which scientists need merely look for
    evidence that confirms their theories. Many critics of this model of science, most notably Karl Popper, point
    out that the failure to actively seek refutation instances to test one’s theory encourages the researcher to
    become highly selective in determining the status of the theory at hand. (See Popper, “Conjectures and
    Refutations” on this issue.)
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    of our perceptual worlds can be very different, as can the processes that give rise to 258
    the contents of these worlds. There is great variety where the nature and production of 259
    our perceptions are concerned. So the attempt to inductively generalize from one 260
    mental world and its contents to other mental worlds is fraught with difficulties. What 261
    Hume says about his world of changing perceptions might not be representative of the 262
    perceptual worlds of others. Yet he trades on the unexamined assumption that these 263
    perceptual worlds are fundamentally similar. Hence his remark that “I may venture to 264
    affirm of the rest of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of 265
    different perceptions which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and 266
    are in a perpetual flux and movement.” (Treatise 252, my emphasis). But what 267
    warrant has Hume to assume that his mind is similar to that of the rest of mankind? 268
    He clearly needs to argue for this pillar of his analysis and not merely accept it as 269
    problem-free. Without the necessary ancillary premise/s to support his generalization, 270
    the limited evidence that Hume has gathered from his own personal world proves to 271
    be insufficient to support his universal bundle thesis of the self. 272
    The limited evidence that Hume provides for his thesis on the self faces yet another 273
    problem. It does not appear to be internally consistent. In his enthusiastic presentation 274
    of his provocative account of the self, Hume inadvertently provides us with 275
    conflicting evidence. While some of the evidence that he provides in the section 276
    “Of personal identity” appears to confirm his bundle thesis on the self, unfortunately 277
    there is also evidence in this section that appears to undermine this very thesis, in that 278
    it seems not to be entirely compatible with, if not contradictory to his views on 279
    perceptions and the self. Let me explain. 280
    As we have seen, Hume makes much of the sensory evidence available to him in 281
    his analysis. Not only does he use this sensory evidence against his rivals with their 282
    substance theory of the self, he depends on it to support his own bundle thesis on the 283
    self. As he sees it, we all live in discrete perceptual worlds whose content is 284
    constantly changing. But where do our forever fluctuating perceptions come from? 285
    Hume does not hesitate to inform us: from our eyes. In the midst of his references to 286
    his ephemeral perceptions, he quite openly refers to body parts—eyes, and their 287
    sockets. And these body parts are presumably more stable—that is to say, less 288
    transitory—than the constantly changing perceptions. For immediately after boldly 289
    informing us that the bulk of “mankind…are nothing but a bundle or collection of 290
    different perceptions”, Hume informs us about the origin of these perceptions: “Our 291
    eyes cannot turn in their sockets without varying our perceptions.” (Treatise 252). 292
    Thanks to (physical) eyes that are relatively unchanging in (physical) eye-sockets that 293
    are similarly stable, streams of different perceptions can be generated. But are these 294
    similar types of entities? The textual evidence from the Treatise suggests that Hume 295
    regards perceptions and parts of the body as fundamentally different types of entities: 296
    well at least as far as his explicit proposals in the section “Of personal identity” goes. 297
    But if Hume is willing to acknowledge the existence of two mutually exclusive types 298
    of entities where persons are concerned, and quite prepared to refer to both sets of 299
    (different types) of entities without any reservations, a fundamental question arises: 300
    why single out the one set of entities over the other in determining the ontological 301
    scheme that best applies to persons? In short, why identify a person with a set of (non- 302
    physical) perceptions, when physical entities apparently are equally accessible? 303
    Rather than, for instance, rely on a collection of physical objects to serve as the 304
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    referents for the definiens, Hume focuses exclusively on perceptions. Why? Let us 305
    take a closer look at his characterization of perceptions and entities from alternative 306
    ontological schemes in the section “Of personal identity” in an attempt to understand 307
    a possible justification for Hume’s preference for perceptions where the explication of 308
    a person is concerned. My hope is that an attempt at reconstructing a clear under- 309
    standing of his conception of the relationship between perceptions and these alterna- 310
    tive entities will enable us to appreciate the likely grounds for his preference for 311
    perceptions when defining a person.3 312
    With his bundle thesis on the self, Hume is clearly exhibiting an explicit commit- 313
    ment to the ontology of perceptions at the expense of other all other ontologies. For 314
    instance, his bundle thesis on the self that is centered exclusively on perceptions 315
    implicitly excludes any commitment to the radically different ontologies of physical 316
    objects and minds. Nevertheless, Hume is more than willing to make reference to the 317
    entities from these alternative ontologies. In the section “Of personal identity”, 318
    numerous unrestrained references are made to entities from ontologies that exclude 319
    perceptions. No mention is made of any problems with the references to the denizens 320
    of these alternative ontologies. And as we might expect, none of the problems raised 321
    by these alternative ontologies are even hinted at, let alone explored by Hume. As a 322
    matter of fact, he not only draws on these alternative ontologies when promoting his 323
    bundle thesis on the self, he subsequently proceeds to rely heavily on these different 324
    ontological schemes in his explication of the notion of identity.4 But the various 325
    ontological schemes that Hume is drawing on in his analysis of the self are not 326
    entirely compatible. A case can be made that they are actually mutually exclusive. So 327
    the evidence that Hume calls on in support of his bundle thesis on the self can be 328
    viewed as incompatible, if not contradictory. This is a potential problem for Hume 329
    that if not resolved can seriously weaken, if not undermine his philosophical view that 330
    a person is nothing but a bundle of perceptions. 331
    To understand Hume’s preference for the ontological scheme founded on percep- 332
    tions we need to have a reasonably clear grasp of his view on perceptions. While 333
    much of the Treatise is devoted to an analysis of perceptions, there are a number of 334
    useful remarks on perceptions in his arguments on the self that prove helpful here. A 335
    revealing and invaluable insight into Hume’s view on the nature of perceptions and 336
    his commitment to the ontology of perceptions where attempts to construct a viable 337
    theory of the self are concerned can be gleaned from an investigation of the theater 338
    analogy that he uses to explain the operation and nature of the self. We need to take a 339
    closer look at this famous analogy from the Treatise as it contains the key to many of 340
    the questions that have been raised above. As I shall attempt to demonstrate an 341
    analysis of this analogy will help us to better appreciate Hume’s argument for his 342
    view of the self, and most importantly here, can assist us in our attempt to resolve 343
    what appears to be a problem with the incompatibility of the evidence for Hume’s 344
    provocative thesis on the self. 345
    3 Is this the justification that Hume would use had he to explore this issue explicitly? It is difficult to say
    with any precision how Hume would respond to the problems that I am alluding to here. For this reason it is
    prudent to couch the suggestions here as speculative proposals.
    4 Might this be a case of Hume wanting his cake and eating it at the same time? The analysis that follows
    will hopefully throw a little light on this issue.
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    When Hume outlines his provocative bundle thesis on the self, he draws on a 346
    simile to help illustrate his views. This is the comparison of the mind with a theater: 347
    The mind is a kind of theater, where several perceptions successively make their 3489
    appearance; pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of 350
    postures and situations. (Treatise 253) 351
    The evocative perspective introduced into the analysis with this analogy serves a 3523
    useful purpose for Hume, assisting him in his attempt to drive home both the extent of 354
    the dynamism of the mind and our inability to comprehend it. However, as with all 355
    analogies, the comparison of the mind to a theater carries with it various restrictions 356
    that Hume is adamant that we acknowledge and enforce. The reservations that Hume 357
    articulates with respect to his analogy are most revealing in that they provide us with 358
    an invaluable insight into the reasons for his preference for perceptions when 359
    attempting to construct a theory of the self. With a clearer understanding of his views 360
    on the virtues of perceptions, we will be able to better appreciate his insistence on the 361
    priority of perceptions in his search for a viable theory of the self. I believe that this 362
    will have the added benefit of putting us in the position to resolve the potentially fatal 363
    problem of the incompatibility of Hume’s evidence for his bundle thesis on the self. 364
    As useful as the theater analogy might be, Hume urges us not to read too much into 365
    it. In particular, we are strongly advised not to assume that the mind is governed by 366
    the same constraints that apply to other entities: 367
    The comparison of the theatre must not mislead us. They are the successive 3689
    perceptions only, that constitute the mind; nor have we the most distant notion 370
    of the place, where these scenes are represented, or of the materials, of which it 371
    is compos’d. (Treatise 253) 372
    Unlike other entities, such as physical objects that presumably can be located 3734
    spatially, perceptions are paradoxically beset with a serious shortcoming: in Hume’s 375
    view it is not possible to determine their location. As useful as perceptions might be 376
    for the investigator who is attempting to construct a viable account of the self, the 377
    arena in which these perceptions are presumably located proves difficult if not 378
    impossible to unearth and explore. What accounts for this difficulty, one might 379
    wonder? As Hume sees it, the locale for the perceptions is impossible to comprehend. 380
    But this shortcoming is not fatal in his view, compelling us to fundamentally modify 381
    our understanding of the mind. No. More specifically, we need not eliminate our 382
    assumption that there is a location for the vital perceptions that allegedly constitute 383
    us. Nor are we required to go further and possibly give up any reliance on percep- 384
    tions. These would be two (unnecessarily) extreme responses to the realization that 385
    the location of our perceptions is unknowable. For the failure on our part to under- 386
    stand where the perceptions are, as he sees it, does not entail that the perceptions are 387
    not located somewhere. Perceptions apparently do have a location, intimates Hume 388
    and this location is composed of something or other: the problem is that both the 389
    location and its nature are shrouded in mystery. The location and nature of the 390
    mind or self that contains our perceptions for Hume just happens to lie beyond 391
    our intellectual grasp: “nor have we the most distant notion of the place, where 392
    these scenes are represented, or of the materials, of which it is compos’d.” (Treatise 393
    253, my emphasis). So we have perceptions—actually, many of them, according to 394
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    Hume—and they presumably do exist in a location (i.e., the self), but apparently we 395
    are unable to conceive of this location and equally lack the means to understand what 396
    the location might be like. 397
    This is puzzling. Surely Hume does not want to expose himself to the charge that 398
    his account of the self is founded on an unintelligible, if not contradictory foundation? 399
    With its commitment to intelligible perceptions that allegedly are confined to an 400
    unintelligible realm it certainly begins to look as though the foundation of his bundle 401
    thesis on the self is fatally flawed. For the conception of evidence that Hume alludes 402
    to in support of his bundle thesis on the self appears to be difficult, if not impossible 403
    to comprehend. On the one hand, Hume wants us to accept that there can be little 404
    doubt that perceptions as a matter of fact do exist. Furthermore, we are apparently 405
    able to distinguish between these existing entities—that is to say, we are able to 406
    determine the nature of each of the separate perceptions and to compare them with 407
    their neighbors. So perceptions are thought to be comprehensible. But on the other 408
    hand, for some reason that is unfortunately unexplained by Hume, we are warned that 409
    we are unable to determine the location, let alone the nature of the location in which 410
    these perceptions exist. This inability is not a mere minor inconvenience, as Hume 411
    sees it, but a fundamental shortcoming, due in large part, or so it seems, to failings on 412
    our part. Our conceptual apparatus, or so it seems, is reputably ill-equipped to 413
    unfathom the location and nature of the venue in which our accessible perceptions 414
    interact. So our intelligible perceptions are reputably located in an unintelligible self. 415
    What accounts for this discrepancy? 416
    While the text is unfortunately not explicit on this important point, it seems 417
    reasonable to conclude that for Hume we are faced with an insurmountable hurdle 418
    when we attempt to explore the location of our allegedly comprehensible perceptions: 419
    we cannot even conceive of their location. For we do not understand what the mind is 420
    and are equally ignorant of its constitution. Both of these issues lie beyond our 421
    comprehension. As Hume (reluctantly?) puts it, while we are intimately aware of 422
    the great variety of activities engaged in by our perceptions, and can study these 423
    perceptions closely and monitor their activity, we unfortunately do not possess even 424
    “the most distant notion of the place, where these scenes are represented…” (Treatise 425
    253, my emphasis). In short, as we do not possess the requisite idea of the mind we 426
    are unable to determine either the location of the diverse perceptual activity we are 427
    well aware of or the nature of this location.5 But with perceptions this is not the case. 428
    As Hume sees it, perceptions serve as the paragon entities where comprehensibil- 429
    ity is concerned. They are immanently accessible, distinguishable, and scrutable. 430
    These prove to be highly desirable properties. By virtue of these features of percep- 431
    tions investigators interested in constructing a useful and accurate conception of a 432
    person can precisely determine the constitution of the bundles of perceptions that 433
    characterize our experiences. This invaluable insight into our perceptions has addi- 434
    tional benefits. In the first place, access to the scrutable perceptions enables the 435
    investigator to determine with precision that the bundles of perceptions change, 436
    i.e., the composition of the collection of perceptions alters. In the second place, the 437
    5 From this, it follows that our willingness to talk about the mind and its nature belies a fundamental
    problem that we ought to acknowledge—in this instance, that we literally do not know what we are
    attempting to talk about.
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    rate of change can be determined in broad terms. Thirdly, the frequency of the change 438
    can be monitored. It is because perceptions are so accessible and distinguishable that 439
    we apparently are able to determine that our perceptions exist as bundles “of different 440
    perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a 441
    perpetual flux and movement.” (Treatise 252) 442
    Consider this example that I think illustrates Hume’s view on the three attributes of 443
    perceptions that strike him as especially appealing. This example also brings home 444
    the incongruous nature of his views on the distinction between the self and its 445
    perceptions. When our clothes are washed—whether by us or someone else—we 446
    can determine what is in the machine and how the machine has been operated. Our 447
    knowledge of the contents of the machine and of its operation is fairly substantial. In 448
    the first place, we can determine the composition of the bundles of washing that have 449
    been placed in the washing machine: for instance, we can determine whether or not 450
    the delicate fabrics have been placed together, while hardier outfits have been inserted 451
    separately. Secondly, the rate of washing of the various batches can be monitored 452
    accurately: for instance, we can tell how long the whites have been in the wash as 453
    opposed to the time taken to wash our athletic outfits. Finally, it is possible to monitor 454
    the frequency of washing of the clothes: perhaps this week we wash each day for an 455
    hour for each session, while next week we wash every alternative day, for a mere 456
    20 min each time. As Hume sees it, we have a comparable facility with our 457
    perceptions. 458
    Hume suggests that we have direct access to and an unencumbered command of 459
    our perceptions. As with the bundles of washing in my example, investigators who 460
    are intent on exploring the contents of the mind can do so with a high degree of 461
    success. This is in large part due to the fact that the nature of the activities engaged in 462
    by our perceptions can be determined precisely, in his view. Given that the contents of 463
    the mind are all “different, and distinguishable, and separable from each other, and 464
    may be separately consider’d, and may exist separately” (Treatise 252) it seems 465
    reasonable to assume—as Hume does—that investigators who study the various acts 466
    that can be performed by their perceptions are able to construct fairly accurate 467
    accounts of the activities observed. 468
    But where the mind or self itself is concerned, a serious hurdle needs to be 469
    traversed: an obstacle that proves to be insurmountable. Unfortunately we lack any 470
    understanding of the location in which these scrutable perceptions are “housed”. To 471
    put it somewhat crudely: as with the operation of the washing machine, we can 472
    determine the configuration of the contents and operations of the mind. But unlike the 473
    washing machine, the location of the mind proves elusive. Without even a “distant 474
    notion of the place” where the perceptions act, our understanding of the mind is 475
    seriously compromised. Or so we might think. To bypass what might appear to be a 476
    fundamental obstacle, and to preserve his commitment to perceptions inviolate, 477
    Hume resorts to an ingenious tactic: he identifies the mind with its perceptions. 478
    The accessibility of our perceptions entails that they are scrutable. As we have 479
    seen, this is a highly prized characteristic of perceptions, as far as Hume is concerned. 480
    But the mind does not appear to be scrutable. Without even a faint understanding of 481
    the mind itself—as opposed to an understanding of its contents, namely its percep- 482
    tions—the location of the (attractively scrutable) perceptions cannot be studied. This 483
    could prove to be a serious stumbling block in the new science of human nature. To 484
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    cite an analogous situation: ichthyologists interested in the carp have much to gain 485
    from the study of the environment in which these fish breed and survive. An account 486
    of the carp that leaves out an investigation of its particular surroundings is therefore 487
    incomplete and likely misleading. So the inability to systematically explore the 488
    environment in which our important perceptions exist could seriously undermine 489
    the value of the contributions of researchers interested in learning about the mind. 490
    However, if the mind can be identified with its perceptions the apparent inscrutability 491
    of the mind can be shown to be little more than a trifling issue in the search for a 492
    complete understanding of the mind and its contents. So it comes as no surprise to 493
    find that Hume presents his identity thesis immediately after his deflationary remarks 494
    on the scrutability of the mind. Having warned us against speculating on the nature of 495
    the mind and its location, while simultaneously applauding the virtues of perceptions, 496
    Hume asserts that the mind is composed of perceptions, and only perceptions: “They 497
    are the successive perceptions only, that constitute the mind.” (Treatise 253, my 498
    emphasis). While we lack any understanding of the location of the perceptions, this 499
    shortcoming ought not to concern us: our presumably extensive knowledge of the 500
    perceptions and their activities more than compensates for the lacuna. Having 501
    identified the mind with its perceptions, the knowledge that we have of perceptions 502
    more than compensates for our initial ignorance of the mind itself. But this is not to 503
    say that the mind cannot be known. The initial, possibly deflationary realization that 504
    the mind is inscrutable ought to be tempered by the insight that the mind happens to 505
    be its contents. So there is a way out of the conundrum, as Hume sees it. Hume’s 506
    thesis that postulates the identification of the mind with its perceptions carries with it 507
    a distinct epistemological advantage over the view of his rivals with their commit- 508
    ment to a (mysterious) substantial self with its perceptions: knowledge of the mind is 509
    now possible, as far as Hume is concerned. So individual minds can be known—but 510
    unfortunately only known indirectly—by virtue of the logical connection between 511
    minds and their accessible contents, i.e., their scrutable perceptions. Once we realize 512
    that minds are their perceptions—that they are one and the same—the investigation 513
    into these minds, or selves, can continue unabated. And in the process, a broad 514
    understanding of minds in general will hopefully emerge. With Hume’s identity 515
    thesis, there now appears to be light at the end of the tunnel. What initially appeared 516
    to be a frustrating insurmountable hurdle is thus to be viewed as a mere bump in the 517
    road towards a more robust, scientific understanding of a person. 518
    This identification of the mind with its perceptions inaugurates a major transition 519
    in Hume’s discourse on the self. The section “Of personal identity” opens with a 520
    severe critical flourish intended to expose the alleged shortcomings of the traditional 521
    account of the self. In this opening section, the substance theory of the self is 522
    subjected to a relentless attack from Hume. Given its broad appeal to both philoso- 523
    phers and the vulgar it seems unlikely that any substitute account of the mind will 524
    pass muster with supporters of the substance theory of the self. Can there be another 525
    account of the self that is as attractive as the popular received view? Perhaps not. 526
    However, it turns out that all is not lost. Hume’s blistering criticisms of his rivals 527
    serves as a somber backdrop to his more optimistic positive account of the self, 528
    assisting him in his attempt to sharply contrast the staid, opaque, and mysterious 529
    entrenched metaphysical view of the self with the more enlightened, straightforward, 530
    and scientific account. So when Hume turns to his own alternative understanding of 531
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    the issue on the self, he injects what he clearly assumes is a healthy dose of 532
    constructive insight into the analysis. As I see it, his suggestion that we accept his 533
    identity thesis on the mind ought to be seen in this light. For with this identification, 534
    knowledge unencumbered by the specter of questionable speculations on the inac- 535
    cessible substantial mind or self now becomes possible. This desirable outcome is not 536
    possible with the established conception of the self. But we need to accept that this at 537
    best is an indirect inroad into knowledge of the mind, or self. As such, this indirect 538
    knowledge will be less certain than that that had initially been sought by investigators 539
    into the mind. Nevertheless, one might console oneself with the thought that a little 540
    knowledge is better than none. But is the mitigated optimism endemic to this inroad 541
    into the self through an investigation of its perceptions warranted? Perhaps not, for 542
    reasons that I need to explain. 543
    The suggestion that a mind consists exclusively of its perceptions is bold and 544
    ingenious. However, it begs a few fundamental questions that give rise to responses 545
    that can undermine this innovative proposal from Hume. Unless these questions are 546
    dealt with adequately, it seems that Hume’s identity thesis and more broadly his 547
    account of the self is likely to falter. More pointedly, the bold thesis that the mind can, 548
    and ought to be identified with its perceptions can be viewed as an unintelligible 549
    thesis. And if this damning indictment holds, the search for evidence for the thesis is 550
    moot. All of which would raise serious questions about the status of the so-called 551
    bundle thesis itself. While the suggestion from Hume that a person is “nothing but a 552
    bundle of perceptions” gives rise to a number of difficult issues, there are two 553
    challenging aspects of this thesis that strike me as especially problematic. 554
    In the first place, there is what we can call the ownership problem: can we be 555
    certain that the set of perceptions that we are investigating belongs to a specific 556
    individual? More pointedly, how do we ensure that an investigation of the contents of 557
    a particular mind can be regarded as representative of that mind, and not of some 558
    other mind? What is it about an individual’s perceptions that mark them as hers, and 559
    not as belonging to someone else? Hume does not say anything on this important 560
    issue. If direct knowledge of minds is not independently obtainable, as Hume insists, 561
    the proposal that we work with substitutes, such as the perceptions that belong to a 562
    person, poses a serious problem for the researcher. As accessible as these perceptions 563
    might prove to be, the investigation of an individual’s perceptions on their own 564
    cannot determine whose perceptions are being considered. As Hume is not willing 565
    to countenance any other entities in his definition of a person investigators intent on 566
    learning about an individual’s mind have nothing else to rely on in their research 567
    other than the dispossessed perceptions. Nothing but these perceptions without any 568
    manifest affiliation are permitted to serve as candidates for the investigator exploring 569
    the mind, in Hume’s view. Given these tight restraints facing the researcher into the 570
    self, surely something needs to be said about the problem facing researchers who 571
    attempt to associate or connect a person’s (reputably knowable) perceptions with their 572
    (reputably unknowable) mind. Unfortunately, Hume is silent on this important issue. 573
    A second and arguably more serious problem demands attention. Hume’s thesis 574
    that the mind can be identified with its contents seems implausible, if not nonsensical. 575
    A person is capable of performing a multitude of mental and emotional acts, from 576
    falling in love to thinking and getting excited, to cite but three activities. Does it make 577
    sense to suggest that it is the perceptions in each case that is falling in love, thinking, 578
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    and getting excited? Surely people fall in love, think, and get excited, not the contents 579
    of their minds. It is not my perception that is in love but me. Certainly, when one 580
    engages in any of these acts the mind is in a particular state and a variety of mental 581
    activities can be identified and reported on. But to boldly imply that we accept that it 582
    is the contents of the mind, namely one’s perceptions, that is in love and not the 583
    person to whom these perceptions belong is nonsensical, if not false. The implication 584
    that it is not the person who possesses these perceptions, but that it is the collection of 585
    perceptions itself that is in love on the face of it seems absurd. 586
    The prospect that Hume’s bundle thesis is meaningless carries with it serious 587
    ramifications, not least of which is the suggestion that the search for evidence for 588
    the thesis is moot. But when Hume presents us with his bold thesis that the mind is its 589
    perceptions, he presents his view in a dramatic manner. His dogmatic claim 590
    broaches no compromising exceptions. As far as he is concerned, there is not 591
    a Scylla of a doubt that this account of the mind or self is correct and 592
    unassailable. What is more, he is adamant that we not be tempted by the 593
    possibility that there is anything more to the mind than its perceptions: the 594
    mind is its perceptions and only its perceptions. As he sees it, the thesis as it stands 595
    is true and by implication meaningful. So when he presents his theater analogy, he 596
    insists that we not weaken his thesis and possibly confuse matters with the consid- 597
    eration of what he implies would be extraneous questions. In particular, Hume 598
    advises us not to be tempted to speculate about the conceptual distinction between 599
    the mind and its contents: 600
    The comparison of the theater must not mislead us. They are the successive 6012
    perceptions only, that constitute the mind; nor have we the most distant notion 603
    of the place, where these scenes are represented, or of the materials, of which it 604
    is compos’d. (Treatise 253) 605
    This unqualified identification of the mind with its perceptions is categorical, or 6067
    absolute, as far as Hume is concerned. Clearly confident of his position here, Hume 608
    brooks absolutely no reservations about the thesis. As he sees it, there is no need for 609
    either conceptual or semantic refinements to his bold thesis. That is to say, we don’t 610
    require an understanding of the location of the mind to know what it is and the 611
    statements articulating this thesis can be presumed to be meaningful. But what 612
    accounts for Hume’s confidence in this identification of the mind with its content? 613
    More pointedly, what reasons does he provide us for adopting the assumption that his 614
    thesis on the self is conceptually self-contained and semantically sufficient? As I have 615
    suggested above, in Hume’s view there are distinct tactical reasons for the adoption 616
    of this controversial thesis. As I argued, perhaps the thesis ought to be seen as a 617
    heuristic device, possibly pregnant with instructive suggestions. With this pragmatic 618
    conception of a person, many of the intractable problems on the mind can now be 619
    reclassified as accessible problems about perceptions. But are there more substantial 620
    reasons for accepting the proposal that the mind is its perceptions? And do any of 621
    these reasons bear on either of the two concerns that I am raising here on the 622
    conceptual and semantic dimensions of the thesis? Given the longevity and perva- 623
    siveness of the traditional view of a person, this novel account of a person from Hume 624
    is most unlikely to win over many converts without convincing arguments. So what 625
    can be said in support of this fledgling philosophical thesis that might tempt the 626
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    traditionalists to change their minds? And most important, has Hume provided us 627
    with any justification for his bold identity thesis on the mind? 628
    As it happens, Hume does provide us with empirical reasons for this identification, 629
    and as far as he is concerned, these reasons are sufficient to establish the viability of 630
    his view, both conceptually and semantically. As he sees it, his personal experiences 631
    confirm this (counterintuitive) thesis that identifies the mind with its perceptions. 632
    Furthermore, as he sees it, there is no end to the range and extent of the requisite 633
    evidence for this thesis. Early in the section “Of personal identity”, Hume commits 634
    himself to the ontology of perceptions, as we have seen. Having stressed the 635
    centrality of perceptions where the search for an understanding the self is concerned, 636
    Hume argues that if we possess a clear idea of the self we must possess a set of 637
    distinguishable and separate impressions, or perceptions. Now Hume assumes that he 638
    has a clear understanding of who he is. That is to say, he believes that the idea that he 639
    possess of himself is clear. But precisely who or what is the self that is David Hume? 640
    Intent on discovering who he is, Hume relies on an empirical investigation of himself 641
    that yields a report of his private explorations into the content of his mind that he 642
    shares with us in the Treatise that is interesting, and controversial. For when he 643
    explores himself to determine precisely who he is, he encounters perceptions and 644
    nothing else. The private mental world that he explores—reputedly his private mental 645
    world—apparently consists of perceptions, and only perceptions. He presents his 646
    empirical evidence in a dispassionate, straightforward manner: 647
    …when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on 6489
    some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or 650
    hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a 651
    perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception. (Treatise 252) 652
    From Hume’s point of view, the perceptions that he encounters in his investigation 6534
    into himself are pervasive entities. Wherever he turns his attention he encounters 655
    perceptions. So much so, that he suggests that without them he would not exist. These 656
    perceptions constitute his very being. 657
    When my perceptions are remov’d for any time, as by sound sleep; so long am I 6589
    insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist. And were all my 660
    perceptions remov’d by death, and cou’d I neither think, nor feel, nor see, nor 661
    love , nor hate after the dissolution of my body, I shou’d be entirely annihilated, 662
    nor do I conceive what is farther requisite to make me a perfect non-entity. 663
    (Treatise 252) 664
    So perceptions are fundamental to Hume’s existence: they appear to constitute the 6656
    essence of his existence. But they also constitute the foundation of his theory of the 667
    self. This is interesting in that perceptions are reputed to do double duty. On the one 668
    hand, from a philosophical point of view the perceptions that exist in abundance are 669
    important in that they provide the means for Hume to substantiate his controversial 670
    account of the self. For a philosopher intent on making his mark in the burgeoning 671
    science of human nature this is not an insignificant feat. On the other hand, and 672
    equally important, is the existential impact of the realization that perceptions are vital 673
    constituents of his being. Not only do perceptions serve as the means to verify his 674
    philosophical thesis on the self, they happen to constitute the very essence of his 675
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    existence as a person.Without his perceptions he would neither be able to confirm his 676
    thesis on the self, and most importantly for him, he would not be in the position to 677
    determine that he is a person, with an identity, for he would not be. 678
    Here, we have the prime reasons for Hume’s decision to prioritize perceptions in 679
    his ontological scheme: his existence and his understanding of this existence are 680
    founded on his perceptions, as far as he is concerned. While access to perceptions 681
    makes it possible to solve many intellectual problems on the mind or self, and enables 682
    investigators to expand the new science of human nature it is their perceptions that 683
    sustain them in the first place. Without their invaluable perceptions individuals would 684
    cease to be persons.6 Well, as least as far as Hume’s understanding of himself is 685
    concerned: “nor do I conceive what is farther requisite to make me a perfect non- 686
    entity.” (Treatise 252). Without his perceptions Hume would cease to be a person— 687
    and he reputably knows it.7 688
    From this, it follows that a great deal hinges on Hume’s identification of the mind 689
    with its perceptions. As controversial and counterintuitive as the thesis might prove to 690
    be, it now becomes apparent that from Hume’s perspective this is a thesis that is 691
    central to his conception of himself. However, its importance notwithstanding, 692
    additional questions about the justification for this question-begging thesis linger. 693
    Just as one would be reluctant to accept the suggestion that the washing machine—to 694
    return to my example—is its dirty clothes, so one would surely not willingly concede 695
    to the proposal that the mind can be identified with its perceptions? On the face of it, 696
    what appears to be Hume’s identification of the mind with its contents seems 697
    conceptually implausible and the thesis itself unintelligible, if not flagrantly false. 698
    Yet, a case can be made that the adoption of this identification has attractive practical 699
    consequences, and that the thesis, therefore, ought to be classified as intelligible, at 700
    least from a pragmatic point of view. Let us consider some of the practical benefits of 701
    this controversial proposal from Hume on the constitution of the mind or self in order 702
    to better appreciate the role that Hume has assigned for this thesis in his search for a 703
    viable account of the self. 704
    As we have seen, Hume is adamant that the mind itself—unlike its perceptions—is 705
    elusive: at least from a conceptual point of view, if not from an existential point of 706
    view. Apparently, we are unable to even conceive of the location of the mind’s 707
    perceptions, let alone able to isolate and separately study the mind in any direct 708
    manner. Hence, the bold unusual suggestion that the mind is its perceptions, thereby 709
    eliminating the need to search for the mysterious mind on its own. As counterintuitive 710
    as this suggestion might appear to be, the thesis that the mind is its perceptions has its 711
    merits. Some of the advantages of this strange thesis emerge from a consideration of 712
    the following example. As I type this paragraph, a Mr. Obama lives in the White 713
    House in Washington DC. Naturally, he happens to be the current president of the 714
    USA. So Mr. Obama is the current president of the USA: that is to say, he can be 715
    identified with the office holder of the highest political position in the USA. What is 716
    6 One is reminded of Berkeley’s doctrine from his Principles that to be is to be perceived: esse est percipi.
    7 But precisely where does this conception of himself come from? Surely not from his impressions? For this
    would appear to be circular: impressions would then be asked to both serve as the means to verify his thesis
    on the identification of the mind with its impressions and to serve as the source of his conception of
    himself. Something needs to be said by Hume on this important issue. Unfortunately, he appears to be silent
    on the issue.
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    important is that knowledge of his residency in the White House is not necessary for 717
    our understanding of his presidency. All that is required is an understanding of his 718
    activities while serving as the president of the US. From our knowledge of Mr. 719
    Obama and his current activities, we can construct an understanding of his current 720
    standing in the US. That is to say, we can determine that he is the president and more 721
    importantly, develop an understanding of his presidency from this vantage point. And 722
    the more extensive and detailed our insight into his current activities, the deeper our 723
    understanding of his particular presidency will be. In short, to know about the nature 724
    of Obama’s presidency, it helps to know about his activities. No knowledge of the 725
    White House itself is called for. For all intents and purposes, the activities of Mr. 726
    Obama exhaustively determine the nature of his presidency. And if knowledge of the 727
    Obama presidency does not presuppose access to theWhite House the statements that 728
    we construct when reporting on this presidency will be meaningful even if they focus 729
    exclusively on the activities of the incumbent president. This seems to be Hume’s 730
    view where the mind is concerned. 731
    To know what the mind is. it is helpful to know how its contents operate: there is 732
    no need to know where the mind is located. If Hume is correct and we have not “the 733
    most distant notion of the place …or of the materials, of which it is compos’d”, we 734
    ought not to be bothered. In our efforts to understand what a person is, these turn out 735
    to be issues that need not concern us, as we have direct access to our perceptions and 736
    can directly perceive their diverse activities. And if knowledge of our perceptions can 737
    serve as an adequate basis of our understanding of the mind, the statements that we 738
    construct on the mind can be intelligible even if they refer exclusively to these 739
    perceptions. So the identification of the mind with its active perceptions, on the 740
    surface at least, appears to be one of expediency, enabling us to bypass both 741
    conceptual and existential obstacles that might otherwise constitute major impedi- 742
    ments in our research into a person. Most importantly for Hume, the adoption of this 743
    thesis enables the researcher into the self to scientifically test their understanding of 744
    the mind. In other words, the practical benefits of this thesis speak volumes for this 745
    approach to a problem than many had regarded as intractable. Equipped with this 746
    thesis, the scientist interested in human nature simply needs to follow the evidence 747
    wherever it leads: determine the nature of one’s perceptions and monitor their activity 748
    to construct a reliable scientific account of the mind. 749
    But is this move even necessary? The proposal that the mind is its perceptions, 750
    with the implication that investigators explore perceptual evidence in order to develop 751
    a reliable understanding of an individual’s mind can be shown to be moot. A strong 752
    argument can be made, as I shall demonstrate below, that there is no need for 753
    investigators to take any evidence into account when they attempt to assess Hume’s 754
    identification thesis on the mind. For an intrepid contributor adamant that the 755
    burgeoning science of human nature not contain “any principles which are not 756
    founded on [the] authority” of experience, this outcome could be embarrassing, if 757
    not downright devastating. (Treatise xviii) 758
    While it is a relatively straightforward matter to take stock of the different items in 759
    the mind, attempts to construct a plausible account of the mind itself are fraught with 760
    difficulties, as Hume has made plain in his analysis. While perceptions are scrutable, 761
    as we have seen, Hume’s view is that their location is beyond our reach. Unlike the 762
    washing machine—to return to my example yet again—where it presumably is a 763
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    simple matter to determine the location of the machine, the mind proves to be more 764
    elusive. While both the contents of the washing machine and the machine itself are 765
    temporally and spatially determinate, and therefore conceivable or intelligible to 766
    anyone intent on learning about the machine and its contents, the mind proves not 767
    to be as accessible. Where the mind is concerned, according to Hume, the synchro- 768
    nicity between the mind and its contents breaks down: while perceptions are pre- 769
    sumed to be intelligible, by virtue of the fact that they are both temporally and 770
    presumably spatially determinate, the mind that is thought to contain these intelligible 771
    perceptions, while presumably temporally determinate, is not spatially determinate, 772
    and therefore unknowable. As Hume sees it, it is the lack of spatial determinateness 773
    that entails that the mind cannot be known.While temporally determinate, the mind is 774
    reputedly not spatially determinate. As he sees it, this entails that we do not possess 775
    even a distant notion to form the most rudimentary understanding of the mind. While 776
    we might have expected the mind to be as accessible and as comprehensible as its 777
    contents—its constantly changing perceptions are accessible both spatially and tem- 778
    porally, and thus knowable—there appears to be a significant disparity here, accord- 779
    ing to Hume. But if the self or mind is as inaccessible as Hume suggests it is, we are 780
    unable to determine with any confidence what the properties are of the referent of the 781
    term “self”. Not knowing what the mind or self is from any direct experience of it, we 782
    are resigned to speculating on its nature. Lacking even a most rudimentary under- 783
    standing of the mind, because we apparently do not possess “the most distant notion 784
    of the place” where our perceptions interact, we would not be able to recognize the 785
    mind had we to somehow encounter it in our investigations. That is to say, while the 786
    contents of the mind—i.e., its perceptions—presumably can be known and their 787
    properties determined, the mind or self remains a mystery, its properties apparently 788
    beyond our grasp. But if the properties of the self are as evasive as Hume implies they 789
    are, the attempt to establish an identity between the self and its perceptions is fraught 790
    with difficulties. For unless one can determine the properties of the extensions of both 791
    of the terms “perceptions” and “self”, one cannot determine the truth value of the 792
    statement asserting an identity between the referents of these terms. And a statement 793
    that is necessarily undecidable is surely to be viewed as scientifically useless, if not 794
    meaningless. So a great deal hinges on the problems generated by Hume’s claim that 795
    we do not possess “the most distant notion of the place” where our perceptions 796
    interact. Hume’s conception of the self will be seriously compromised unless these 797
    problems are dealt with adequately. Let us briefly explore this potential threat to 798
    Hume’s views on the self. 799
    Consider the following identity statement: Mia is Helen’s daughter. The two 800
    singular expressions “Mia” and “Helen’s daughter” happen to each have a referent: 801
    namely, a lovely, blue-eyed, young woman who is twenty-two years old. Had either 802
    of the singular expressions lacked a referent attempts to determine the truth-status of 803
    the identity sentence containing these expressions would fail, entailing that the 804
    identity statement is not verifiable.8 In this case, I suggest that it would be appropriate 805
    to classify the identity sentence that contains the two singular expressions “Mia” and 806
    8 It would not be verifiable at the moment, but had the singular expressions to acquire extensions in the
    future the identity statement would become verifiable then. In short, the identity statement is a contingent
    statement, dependent on the circumstances.
    A. Schwerin
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    “Helen’s daughter” as scientifically meaningless. Now, suppose that the identity 807
    sentence contains singular expressions that happen to refer to entities that for some 808
    reason we are unable to access. Perhaps we don’t know who Helen is and are 809
    therefore unable to determine whether or not Mia is Helen’s daughter. In this case, 810
    the failure to acquire knowledge of the referent of one of the singular expressions 811
    undermines our attempt to assess the truth-status of the identity sentence. But if 812
    knowledge of the referent is beyond our capabilities, so is knowledge of the proper- 813
    ties of that entity. In this case, we are precluded from knowing about the relationship 814
    between the referents of the two singular expressions, i.e., we are unable to determine 815
    that both singular expressions refer to the same entity.9 The inability to determine the 816
    nature or properties of the entity that is referred to by the singular expression “Helen’s 817
    daughter” therefore precludes us from determining the truth-status of the identity 818
    sentence “Mia is Helen’s daughter”.Without the necessary knowledge of the referent, 819
    this sentence must remain an undecidable sentence. And in this case, the sentence 820
    appears to be scientifically meaningless, and possibly useless: an outcome that clearly 821
    has important implications for Hume’s thesis on the mind. 822
    When Hume presents us with his views on the inscrutability of the mind, as he 823
    does with his theater analogy when he maintains that we do not possess “the most 824
    distant notion of the place where these scenes are represented”, he trades on the 825
    assumption that there actually is a place where our perceptions interact. Unfortunate- 826
    ly, as he sees it, this location must remain a mystery. That is to say, he assumes that 827
    there is a mind that contains the interacting perceptions. But if the place where our 828
    perceptions interact is as conceptually inaccessible as he suggests it is, our attempts to 829
    say anything significant about the mind must fail. Not knowing what the mind is 830
    prevents us from constructing meaningful statements on the mind. All of this suggests 831
    that Hume’s bold suggestion on the constitution of the mind that he made earlier in 832
    the section “Of personal identity” is equally problematic. That is to say, his identity 833
    thesis that we are “nothing but a bundle or collection of perceptions” appears to be 834
    meaningless. For this proposal appears to rest on the assumption that both of the 835
    singular terms in this thesis of identity have extensions that are knowable: a condition 836
    that is explicitly ruled out with his injunction against singular terms about the mind. 837
    Now, Hume clearly believes that his account of the self is not meaningless. Far 838
    from it. As he sees it, his thesis on the self has a meaning different to that traditionally 839
    ascribed to the theory of the self. After outlining his criticisms of his rivals’ view on 840
    the self, with their endorsement of an ontology committed to a mysterious constant 841
    substantial self, Hume concludes his critique on a telling note, suggesting that the 842
    idea of the self that does exist is not the same as that alluded to by his rivals: 843
    It cannot, therefore, be from any of these impressions, or from any other, that 8445
    the idea of self is deriv’d; and consequently there is no such idea. (Treatise 252, 846
    my emphasis) 847
    It’s not that there is no idea of the self, but that “no such idea” of the self happens 849
    to exist. The strong suggestion here is that if there is an idea of the self, it is not the 850
    9 My argument here trades on what I believe is the traditional conception of identity provided to us by
    Leibniz. That is to say, X can be identified with Y if, and only if the properties of X are the same as the
    properties of Y.
    Hume on the Self
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    one that other philosophers thought existed. These remarks have misled many 851
    commentators, especially the final words in this conclusion that “there is no such 852
    idea”. Hume is not saying that there is no idea associated with the word “self”, but 853
    explicitly saying that the idea that his rivals assume does exist actually does not: that 854
    they are seriously mistaken in presupposing that there is an idea of a substantial self. 855
    As he sees it, the idea of a substantial unchanging self that his rivals are writing about 856
    cannot be generated by our impressions and it therefore does not exist: 857
    It cannot, therefore, be from any of these impressions, or from any other, the 8589
    idea of self is deriv’d…(Treatise 252) 860
    But does this negative response to the widespread view on the substantial 8612
    self entail anything positive? If so, what exactly can we infer from Hume’s 863
    critique here? In particular, can this criticism be construed as supporting the 864
    suggestion that there is another different idea for the term “self” for Hume, as I am 865
    proposing here? I think so. 866
    The conclusion that “no such idea” exists rests on Hume’s investigation of his 867
    dynamic impressions or perceptions. As he sees it, the careful exploration of these 868
    ever changing perceptions that “succeed each other, and never all exist at the same 869
    time” undermines the assumption endemic to the view of the self promoted by his 870
    rivals that there is an impression that does not change over time. There simply is no 871
    unchanging impression, constant over time. That is to say, the assumption that an 872
    impression exists that is “invariably the same, thro’ the whole course of our lives” is 873
    not borne out by the perceptual evidence available to each one of us. (Treatise 251). 874
    In the light of this evidence, we are strongly encouraged to subscribe to a new view of 875
    the self according to which we are invited to accept the more circumspect view that if 876
    there actually is an idea associated with the term “self” it will necessarily differ 877
    significantly from that originally thought to be aligned with the term. While he does 878
    not do this, I shall refer to this tentative idea as Hume’s purported potential idea, or 879
    PPI, for short. This possible idea, the PPI that Hume is encouraging us to subscribe to, 880
    is reputed to be a composite idea, unlike the simple idea of an unchanging substantial 881
    self touted by his rivals. Adopting the view that all ideas are copies of prior 882
    impressions that caused them, Hume suggests that the proposal that an individual 883
    possesses a simple idea of an unchanging substantial self is unacceptable, and 884
    conflicts with the evidence that is readily available to each one of us. As he sees it, 885
    the realization that we are aware of the existence of many impressions or perceptions 886
    entails that the proposal from his rivals involves a “manifest contradiction and 887
    absurdity”. (Treatise 251). The cluster of different discrete constantly changing 888
    impressions cannot result in the production of a single unchanging idea of the self. 889
    To suggest otherwise is to negate the presumably more scientifically respectable view 890
    that each idea is produced by a preceding impression: a position sacrosanct to Hume. 891
    No, what is more likely to exist, if any idea of the self does exist, suggests Hume, is a 892
    composite idea of the self, each element of which has been produced by a separate 893
    impression. So the idea of the self, if there is one, is most likely to be a composite idea 894
    that has been generated by a stream of forever changing impressions. 895
    Nevertheless, there are some philosophers who will persist with their traditional 896
    view of the self. Hume acknowledges this. With a somewhat exasperated tone, he 897
    concludes that others might disagree with him on this score, insisting on the existence 898
    A. Schwerin
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    of a simple idea of an unchanging substantial self. This obstinacy has no counter, 899
    suggests Hume: 900
    If any one upon serious and unprejudic’d reflexion, thinks he has a different notion 9021
    of himself, I must confess I can reason no longer with him. All I can allow him is, 903
    that he may be in the right as well as I, and that we are essentially different in this 904
    particular. He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and continu’d, which he 905
    call himself; tho’ I am certain there is no such principle in me. (Treatise 252) 906
    Hume clearly has little patience with these unscientific thinkers: individuals he 908
    disparaging refers to as “some metaphysicians of this kind.” (Treatise 252). These 909
    obstinate thinkers from his point of view are beyond the pale, immune from his 910
    arguments, and presumably beyond the reach from any other reasonable approaches. 911
    As he laments, “I must confess I can reason no longer with him.” (Treatise 252). But 912
    is the adoption of Hume’s alternative idea, what I am calling his PPI, any less 913
    problematic than the endorsement of an account of the self that is committed to the 914
    existence of a substantial self? What reasons are there for assuming that speculations 915
    about the existence of a purported potential idea of the self are more reasonable than 916
    speculations on the existence of a mysterious substantial self? This is a question that I 917
    am not able to consider here. 918
    References 920Q1
    1970 Philosophical Letters (Trans. Anthony Kenny) University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 921
    1978 Treatise of Human Nature (Ed. LA Selby-Bigge and PH Niddritch) Clarendon Press. Oxford 922
    2000 A Treatise of Human Nature (Edited by David Norton and Mary Norton) Oxford University Press, 923
    Oxford 924
    Bricke, John 1980 Hume’s Philosophy of Mind Princeton University Press. Princeton, New Jersey 925
    Descartes, Rene 1969 Meditations on The First Philosophy (Trans. John Veatch) Open Court Publishing 926
    Co. La Salle, Illinois 927
    Fieser, James (Ed.) 2000 Early Responses to Hume’s Metaphysical and Epistemological Writings (Volumes 928
    Three and Four) Thoemmes Press, Bristol 929
    Harrison, Jonathan 1976 Hume’s Moral Epistemology Clarendon Press. Oxford 930
    Hume, David 1975 Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals 931
    (Ed. LA Selby-Bigge and PH Nidditch) Clarendon Press. Oxford 932
    Kruse, Vinding 1939 Hume’s Philosophy in his Principal Work A Treatise of Human Nature, and in his 933
    Essays (Trans. PT Federspiel) London 934
    Laird, John 1967 Hume’s Philosophy of Human Nature Archon Books. London 935
    Locke, John 1850 An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Troutman and Hayes, Philadelphia 936
    Mossner, Ernest 1948 “Philosophy and biography: the case of David Hume.” The Philosophical Review, 937
    Volume LIX 938
    Nagel, Thomas 1986 The View from Nowhere Oxford University Press, New York 939
    Parfit, Derek 1984 Reasons and Persons Oxford University Press, Oxford 940
    Pears, David 1990 Hume’s System: An Examination of the First Book of his Treatise Oxford University 941
    Press, New York 942
    Randall, John 1947 “David Hume: Radical Empiricist and Pragmatist.” In David Pears (ed.): David Hume: 943
    a Symposium. Macmillan, London 944
    Strawson, Peter 1979 Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics Methuen, London 945
    Stroud, Barry 1977 Hume Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 946
    Williams, Bernard 1973 Problems of the Self: Philosophical Papers 1956 – 1972 Cambridge University 947
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    Winkler, Kenneth 2000 “All is revolution in us”: Personal identity in Shaftesbury and Hume Hume Studies 949
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    Hume on the Self
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    Q1. All references in the list were not cited in the body or text. Kindly
    provide citations for all references in the body.