David Hume questions our idea of personal identity in the Treatise. We change constantly throughout our lives, yet we are said to remain the same due to the idea of self which is constant. Hume cannot seem to find this thing we call the self. I will reject Hume’s passing perceptions argument and argue that people have a personal identity and that the self exists.
I will begin by explaining how Hume views personal identity and his specific argument of passing perceptions. Hume believes that it is impossible to gain an idea of something unchanging from a being, such as ourselves, which is in constant change. Every time we try to think about our personal identities to find an unchanging and continuous self, we are presented with passing perceptions. These passing perceptions prevent us from forming an idea of a self because this self will then be based on multiple perceptions and impressions. Hume states, “But there is no impression constant and invariable. Pain and pleasure, grief and joy, passions and sensations succeed each other, and never all exist at the same time. It cannot, therefore, be from any of these impressions, or from any other, that the idea of self is derivederiv’d; and consequently there is no such idea (Treatise, 251 – 252).” Hume claims that it is not a personal identity or a self, but a bundle of perceptions that are constantly passing and being replaced by other perceptions. Moreover, when we remember something that we thought of in the past, we might form a perception that is different than what it was the first time. We are prone to think of past perceptions as the same perception as they were in the past, when in fact they are different “…which we attribute to them, because of the union of their ideas in the imagination, when we reflect upon them (Treatise, 260).” This idea is what causes Hume to conclude that personal identity must come from the imagination and not from reasoning.
Before arguing against Hume’s views on passing perceptions and personal identity, I will now reconstruct the strongest version of Hume’s argument in order to make it charitable. Hume explains his views on why we have an idea of personal identity and the self with the concepts resemblance and causation. In terms of resemblance, Hume claims that when we form perceptions, they can resemble ones that we have had before. Hume states this idea as, “an image that necessarily resembles its objects, must not the frequent placing of these resembling perceptions in the chain of thought, convey the imagination more easily from one link to another, and make the whole seem like the continuance of one object (Treatise, 261)?” Therefore, remembering these past perceptions that resemble present ones, trick us into thinking we are seeing a constant and unchanging perception and link it to a self. In terms of causation, Hume claims that we fail to see multiple perceptions and mistakenly perceive them as one due to the gap between cause and effect. He says, “And in this view our identity with regard to the passions serves to corroborte that with regard to the imagination, by the making our distant perceptions influence each other, and by giving us a present concern for our past or future pains or pleasures (Treatise, 261).” We trick ourselves into thinking that we are experiencing a single perception of the self, but in reality our imaginations are combining many perceptions together since they follow one another.
Now that I have evaluated the passing perceptions part of Hume’s argument, I will now explain why we should reject this component and why personal identity and the self exists. Firstly, I believe that we cannot think without having a self to think with. In order to think and perceive things, there must be something that thinks and acts as a base for thoughts. In other words, there cannot be nothing which does all the thinking. I believe that I can think, and wonder what to do, and make decisions, and act upon situations, and suffer, which does not make me a thought or an action or a feeling but rather a self that facilitates these sensations. While Hume thinks that we are all made from passing perceptions, I believe that there must be something that has these perceptions which is a self.
Secondly, I believe that personal identity should not be determined by unchanging perceptions. While I think that all new perceptions tend to alter past ones in some way, I do not think this alteration means that identity changes along with them. Even if our perceptions change when we look back on them, they are still forms of the same perceptions that we once had. Therefore, perceptions can alter in passing but how each person perceives them depends on their individualities and personal identities. Hume claims that the idea of personal identity and the self comes from the imagination because we constantly have passing perceptions, yet Hume also perceives things and holds the same argument within the same identity the next day.
Altogether, Hume’s self believes that there are no personal identities which is an unchanging belief of his. Part of his personal identity is constructed by his personal identity theory as an unchanging perception. Therefore, I think that it is fair to claim that Hume has something that creates the theory of personal identity which is a self.