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****I WILL TIP 20%**** Is Hume’s argument on the role of language in our search for
a theory of the self valid? Please answer this question in 700-1000 words. Use in text citations from the provided source document.

Language and Hume’s Search
21
Alan Schwerin*
Language and Hume’s Search for a Theory of the Self
Abstract: In his Treatise Hume makes a profound suggestion: philosophical
problems, especially problems in metaphysics, are verbal. This view is most vigorously
articulated and defended in the course of his investigation of the problem of the
self, in the section “Of personal identity.” My paper is a critical exploration of Hume’s
arguments for this influential thesis and an analysis of the context that informs this
1739 version of the nature of philosophical problems that anticipates the linguistic
turn in philosophy.
Keywords: self, language, perceptions, personal identity, Kuhn, bundle theory, ontology,
indeterminacy, pragmatism
DOI 10.1515/mp-2015-0008
I am convinced that no Man can comprehend what he means.
(Letter to Common Sense: Or the Englishman’s Journal 1740)
When David Hume defends a novel and provocative account of the self in the section
“Of personal identity” in his Treatise of Human Nature, and contrasts it with that of his
rivals, he suggests that his is the more reasonable and scientifically rigorous thesis. As
he puts it, not without a twinge of exasperation, “If any one upon serious and
unprejudic’d reflexion, thinks he has a different notion of himself, I must confess I can
reason no longer with him” (Hume 1978, Treatise 252). The reception accorded Hume’s
views on the self, at least within the philosophical community, appears to bear out this
assessment. The bundle theory of the self has certainly been influential among
philosophers, acquiring an expanding coterie of advocates since its publication in 1739.
What is more, the influence of Hume’s views on the self continues to grow. While many
have found a variety of ideas and arguments in Hume’s diverse philosophical contributions
noteworthy and provocative, the investigation of theories on the self in his magnum opus
has proven to be especially exigent and an ongoing source of analysis and speculation for
philosophers. His challenging arguments on these theories of the self continue to
stimulate researchers, providing them with an invaluable framework for their own
__________________
*Corresponding author: Alan Schwerin, Monmouth University, West Long Branch,
NJ, USA, E-mail: aschweri@monmouth.edu
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A. Schwerin
investigations into the mind: providing them with a perspective from the mid-eighteenth
century that persists within the philosophical community in large measure due to its
heuristic value. Many philosophers today who are intent on promoting their own
solutions to the problems of the mind still draw on Hume’s Treatise insights in their own
efforts to enhance their understanding of the intricacies of the complex issues endemic
to the issues on the mind. Hume is certainly not passé in the philosophical community
– well, certainly not within that segment of the community that has been actively
exploring issues from the philosophy of the mind in the past century.
How do we account for the resilience of Hume’s account of the self? This
paper is an attempt to throw some light on this important question. In the course of my
analysis some suggestions will be made on the dominance of Hume’s views on the
self and on the relationship between this influential conceptual framework and that
of his rivals. More importantly, I shall show that Hume’s 1739 analysis of the problems
of the self anticipates the linguistic turn of modern analytic philosophers with what I
call his coup de grâce argument: a line of reasoning that I shall argue is invalid.
However, as I shall also show, this invalidity is revealing in that it opens a fascinating
vista into Hume’s presuppositions in the Treatise. But first a preliminary issue needs to
be addressed. Who are the modern philosophers who are provoked by, if not inspired
by, Hume?
Norman Kemp Smith’s The Philosophy of David Hume, with its accessible
naturalistic interpretation of Hume’s philosophy, inaugurated a resurgence of interest in
Hume’s views in general in the 1940s. But it was the publication of Peter Strawson’s
Individuals that placed Hume’s no-substantial self-theory of the self – with its
accompanying cluster of interconnected concerns – center stage among the leading
modern conceptions of the mind. When Strawson argues, as he does in his chapter
“Persons,” that “the word ‘I’ never refers to this, the pure subject” he is explicitly
endorsing Hume’s no-substantial self-view of a person (Strawson 1979, 103). Clearly
inspired by the Treatise critique of the substantial theory of the self, Strawson pointedly
reminds his readers that it is the reasonable search for an ego-substance, the purported
seat of pure consciousness, that ultimately encourages Hume to adopt a view of the self
that many find counterintuitive:
It was the entity corresponding to this illusory primary concept of the pure consciousness, the egosubstance, for which Hume was seeking, or ironically pretending to seek, when he looked into himself, and
complained that he could never discover himself without a perception and could never discover anything
but the perception. (Strawson 1979, 103).
While the analysis that is presented by Strawson in his Individuals might be one of the
most prominent instances of the impact of Hume’s views on current theories on the
self within the philosophical community, there are many other examples of the abiding
influence of Hume’s thought. His bundle thesis of the self and its arguments continue to
guide reflections on the self and its theories. Let me cite but a few of the most recent
analyses influenced by Hume.
Derek Parfit’s (1984) suggestion that a person is an evolving series of related
experiences – a claim presented and argued for in his Reasons and Persons – is heavily
indebted to Hume’s bundle theory. In his Consciousness Explained Daniel Dennett argues
Language and Hume’s Search
21
that consciousness “in fact is gappy” and that the self “could be just as gappy” (Dennett
1991, 423). This is a view that appears to be consistent with, and apparently has been
influenced by, Hume’s fluid bundle theory of the self. (On this issue see his chapter
entitled “The reality of selves.”) Finally, Thomas Nagel’s account of the self and
consciousness in A View from Nowhere also appears to be inspired by Hume’s suggestion
that the concept of personal identity cannot be understood “through an examination of
my first- person concept of self” (Nagel 1986, 35).
All this suggests that Hume’s view on the self is still current. There is little doubt
that this account of the self has not only survived the vicissitudes of time, but in one way
or another it continues to influence members of the philosophical community. Why? That
this account of the self continues to guide much of the research of philosophers into the
mind is surprising. Hume himself has serious misgivings about his views, as his appendix
to the Treatise amply testifies. The labyrinth that he finds himself in, in large measure
due to his views on perceptions and the inability of the mind to isolate connections
between discrete perceptions, encourages Hume to declare that, where the problem of the
self is concerned, the “difficulty is too hard for my understanding” (Hume 1978, Treatise
636). The theory on the self that is promoted by Hume, with its concomitant implications,
is clearly not as problem-free as its author would like it to be. Yet the bundle theory of the
self has proven to be influential – at least among philosophers – as I have suggested above.
So how serious can the problems be that Hume has singled out for his theory of the self
if many, after all these years, continue to draw inspiration from it?
Hume’s reflections in the appendix to the Treatise leaves one with the distinct
impression that as far as he is concerned his account of the self is not fundamentally flawed,
and is not necessarily intractable. In his critical remarks there on the arguments in section
VI “Of personal identity” Hume reluctantly declares that while he is unable to resolve his
problem, others might be able to do so. After dejectedly concluding that he “must plead
the privilege of a sceptic” unable to resolve the difficulties that he has unearthed, Hume
allows for the possibility that others might have more success at solving the problems
(Hume 1978, Treatise 636). And in the event that other philosophers are unsuccessful in
their attempts to solve the problems unearthed in the appendix to the Treatise, Hume
wonders whether or not he will be able to solve the problem when he is more mature. As
he puts it, somewhat plaintively, “others, perhaps, or myself, upon more mature reflection,
may discover” a solution to the problem (Hume 1978, Treatise 636). All of which suggests,
as far as Hume is concerned, that the problem with his account of the self is not
impossible to solve, but merely temporarily obdurate.
Nevertheless, Hume’s subsequent reluctance – “failure” is perhaps a more apt term
here – to approach this problem apparently endemic to his theory of the mind in his
later philosophical endeavors strongly suggests that he never does come to terms with
the issue as he presents it in the appendix to the Treatise. And if the problem that
appears to be embedded in his account of the self remains untouched – or, at least not
dealt with by its author – it is reasonable to conclude that the theory of the self that is
proposed by Hume in the Treatise must itself have lost much of its luster fairly soon after
its initial presentation. But if this suggestion that the author of the notorious bundle
theory of the self appears to distance himself from his creation is plausible, one wonders
why others continue to be inspired by this theory of the self? Why does Hume’s
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A. Schwerin
problematic account of the self continue to attract adherents among the members of the
philosophical community? That it continues to be influential, if not entirely persuasive,
seems counterintuitive, at least for the following two reasons.
In the first place, it appears that Hume’s own critical investigations into his account
of the self ought to diminish its appeal. To the best of my knowledge the central problem
integral to Hume’s conceptual scheme that philosophers interested in the self apparently
need to resolve that he unearths in his appendix remains unattended. When Hume argues
that his account of the self rests on two inconsistent propositions, or principles as he prefers
to call them, he is drawing attention to a problem that he views as serious:
In short, there are two principles, which I cannot render consistent; nor is it in my power to renounce either
of them. viz. that all our distinct perceptions are distinct existences, and that the mind never perceives any real
connexion among distinct existences. (Hume 1978, 35 Treatise 636, my underlining)
As Hume sees it, this so-called “inconsistent” set of principles drives him into a vexing
labyrinth with its confusing suggestions on the mind. But his readers do not appear to
be concerned about these critical reflections from Hume. If Hume himself finds his
account of the self problematic, surely others, now forewarned about its
shortcomings, ought to distance themselves from this theory? That they do not is
surprising. For one thing, if I am correct in my suggestion that Hume himself does
not revisit the problem in his later writings it seems plausible to infer that he either was
not able to solve the problem or that he simply lost interest in it. So one of the central
problems on which the bundle theory of the self rests appears to remain unresolved
by its author. Furthermore, it seems that others who ought to address the difficulties
encapsulated by this problem have also failed to address them. For instance, none of
the philosophers of the mind mentioned above who are inspired by Hume’s bundle
theory of the self even acknowledge the existence of the central problem that Hume
outlines in his appendix, let alone attempts to solve it. And as far as I can determine,
no other philosopher has presented us with a solution to Hume’s problem. So it
appears that Hume’s theory of the self persists within the philosophical
community, warts and all. If we work on the assumption that his advocates are aware
of his reservations, the willingness to continue to rely on his (problematic) thought
on the self suggests that “the defects” with this account of the self are not regarded
as fatal by his advocates but are viewed by them as mere minor aberrations: perhaps,
with the appropriate attention and application the problem can be solved and
removed. This brings us to the second reason for wondering about the persistent
positive reception accorded Hume’s problematic account of the self.
Contributions to the science of the mind have flourished since the publication of
Hume’s Treatise. His bundle theory of the self now has to contend with literally dozens of
rivals. Given the proliferation of alternative accounts of the self, in large measure fueled by
the growing interest in psychology, the appeal of the bundle theory of the self would surely
have diminished, and not grown as it has within the philosophical community. In light
of his admission that the account of the self in the Treatise is defective, the fact that it
coexists shoulder-to-shoulder with numerous competing conceptions makes one wonder
about the continued appeal and influence of the Scot’s mid-eighteenth-century account of
the self. This view of the self has certainly had a long innings. How do we explain the
Language and Hume’s Search
21
resiliency of Hume’s bundle theory on the self? One philosopher who might hold the key
to an answer to this question is Thomas Kuhn. In numerous publications of his Kuhn
provides us with invaluable insights into theory acceptance that I suggest can be drawn on
in our quest to understand the reasons for the continued significance, if not prominence
of Hume’s bundle theory of the self among researchers interested in problems on the
mind. Let us briefly visit Kuhn’s views on theory acceptance in order to better appreciate
the continued appeal of Hume’s views on the self.
Section one: Kuhn on theory acceptance and the many unanticipated observations
In his discussion of theories and their reception Kuhn suggests that researchers are looking
for guidance and are drawn to those accounts that offer the prospects of revealing
inroads into the problems that interest them. Consider the field of astronomy with its
proliferation of ingenious theories to help understand the constitution of the universe. As
Kuhn sees it, while many of the earlier views of the universe are intriguing from a theoretical
point of view, what distinguish some of the more appealing accounts are their pragmatic
consequences. Some of these theories have definite practical implications, suggesting
specific solutions to a number of down-to-earth problems. Take the problem of
circumnavigating the globe. As soon as astronomers adopted what Kuhn calls the twosphere cosmology, according to which mankind on earth is viewed as occupying an
inner sphere and the stars that surround us an external sphere, a number of practical
consequences came into play. Most importantly, for Kuhn, this decision encouraged
individuals to wonder about the shape of the earth, eventually giving rise to the suggestion
that the earth has a circumference: an implication that had profound consequences. So the
two-sphere cosmology ultimately led to a set of observations that supported the view
that one could successfully sail around the earth. Navigators, such as Christopher
Columbus, found much comfort from this outlook, relying on it to guide their actions:
One set of observations … led Columbus to believe that the circumnavigation of the globe was a practical
undertaking, and the results of his voyages have been recorded. Those voyages and the subsequent travels
of Magellan and others provided observational evidence for beliefs that had previously been derived solely
from theory, and the supplied science with many unanticipated observations besides. (Kuhn 1957, 40)
Had the two-sphere theory of the universe not been adopted Columbus would not have
undertaken his voyages and new observations and contributions would not have accrued to
mankind in general, and to the sciences in particular. More importantly, without the sensory
evidence acquired by intrepid explorers such as Columbus and Magellan the conception of
the universe endorsed by researchers interested in the heavens would continue to be
founded on a priori considerations. That is to say, their cosmological views would be
beholden to non- empirical or theoretical speculations, for their cosmological “beliefs
(would be) derived solely from theory” (Kuhn 1957, 40: my insert). Thus the adoption of
a different theory by researchers can put them in the position to accomplish a great
deal that otherwise would not be attainable with the “older” perspective. The adoption of
a new theory now makes possible “many unanticipated observations.” As Kuhn sees it,
theories can be especially useful in practice, often literally guiding the “scientist into the
unknown, telling him where to look and what he may expect to find” (Kuhn 1957, 40).
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A. Schwerin
In short, theories provide the researcher with a vision or gestalt that reveals further avenues
for research that would otherwise remain invisible.
However, as fruitful as the theory might be, its adoption and application is not
without glitches. The scientist will not find the perspective provided by the theory
problem-free. Difficulties are bound to arise that are not easy to circumvent. For this
reason the scientist is advised to view the novel theory as a helpful conceptual scheme
that provides “hints for the organization of research rather than explicit directives, and
the pursuit of these hints usually requires extension or modification of the conceptual
scheme that provided them” (Kuhn 1957, 40, my emphasis). I think that this insight
from Kuhn is very important and particularly suggestive for us in our attempts to
understand and do justice to Hume’s account of the self. Is this not precisely what
Hume is doing with his bundle theory of the self? Is he not providing himself and
the rest of us with hints on how to think about the self? Perhaps the theory of the self
that emerges from the section “Of personal identity” in the Treatise is not to be viewed
as a definitive account of the self that is regarded by its author as categorically true, but
as a tentative proposal ripe with suggestions on how researchers are encouraged to
proceed in their research into human nature? Sure, Hume argues vigorously for his views
and spends much time and energy assessing and dispelling the leading rival account of
the self. That he does this so enthusiastically misleadingly encourages us to subscribe
to the view that Hume is fully committed to his novel view of the self. But perhaps his
commitment is not as comprehensive as we might be inclined to think? As attractive
as the proposal provided by Hume on the self might be, and as convincing as his
arguments in its favor might appear to be, Hume is well aware of the fact that his
bundle theory of the self still has its limitations. And he is more than willing to point
them out to us. With his appendix Hume takes the lead in drawing attention to some
of the difficulties associated with his innovative theory on the self: problematic issues
that emerge only if one takes seriously and accepts – even if only partially – the
Treatise’s conceptual scheme on the self. In short, perhaps in section VI of the Treatise
Hume is best seen as presenting us with a working hypothesis on the mind that is only
at its embryonic stage in its development. This undeveloped or immature conception of
a person ought therefore to be seen as little more than a useful hint for researchers
interested in the study of human nature. The hypothesis, on this understanding, still
needs to be refined – or carefully nurtured, to extend the metaphor – to hopefully
eventually yield a fully-fledged robust theory of the mind fully capable of assisting
researchers working on the science of human nature. This perspective of Hume’s
contribution to problems on the mind has a number of fascinating implications for our
understanding of Hume’s excursion into the science of human nature, some of which
we need to explore.
As with the astronomer with his theory of two-spheres and its concomitant practical
ramifications for astronomy, Hume can be viewed as a researcher interested in a set
of challenging problems outlining a vision that he regards as useful. His hope is that
others will find his insights equally attractive. The bundle theory of the self, as I see it,
can thus be seen as a convenient means for solving – or at least of promising to solve –
thorny problems on the self that previous theorists found intractable. As such it is not to
be regarded as the final solution to these problems but as a valuable stepping stone or
Language and Hume’s Search
21
fruitful avenue for future research into the problems on the mind. As with a child who
needs careful nourishment and attention in order to develop into a healthy strong
adult, ready to both take her place in the world and to contribute to mankind, Hume’s
bundle theory of the self is to be seen as a potentially useful addition to the intellectual
tools scientists rely on in their research into the challenging issues that face them. This
perspective of Hume’s bundle theory of the self, begs a number of questions, one of which
strikes me as central: is it plausible? As interesting, and possibly as useful an interpretative
framework this interpretation of Hume’s account of the self might be, we still need to find
support for it from the text: whether the Treatise or some other text from Hume. Without a
text to support this perspective of Hume’s analysis we run the risk of foisting an
anachronistic framework on the discussion in section VI of the Treatise. So does Hume
provide us with any reason to support what I think is appropriately called a pragmatic
interpretation of his account of the self?
As it happens, there is strong textual support for this pragmatic interpretation of
Hume. Both Hume’s Treatise and some of his other writings leave us with the distinct
impression that Hume’s bundle theory of the self ought not to be viewed as a categorical
thesis but as a heuristic aid for researchers interested in problems of the mind. Before we
consider the textual evidence from the Treatise to determine whether or not this pragmatic
perspective is plausible, it is useful for us to recall remarks made by Hume towards the
end of his life when he was reflecting on the overall impact of his contributions to
philosophy. In his auto-biography “My own life” completed in April 1776, mere weeks
before his death, Hume reflects on his philosophical contributions over the years and
explicitly relies on the metaphor of a dead infant to articulate his views – a powerful
metaphor that resonates with my suggestions in this chapter. Of all the images that he
could have alluded to in order to express his views he selects a particularly grotesque
image that leaves us in no doubt about the depth of his pain and disappointment. In his
sober reflections on his early philosophical contributions, and in particular, in his
assessment of the responses to those nascent contributions, Hume opines that his
views in the Treatise were not noticed and that they were left to die at birth. Even the
presumably harsh and insensitive zealots, forever on the lookout for a morsel to victimize,
overlooked his work, thereby resisting the temptation to touch his innovative contributions
to the philosophical community:
Never literary attempt was more unfortunate than my Treatise of Human Nature. It fell dead-born from the
press, without reaching such distinction, as even to excite a murmur among the zealots.
(History of England, Volume One: 1778)
As Hume sees it, his precious and fragile Treatise had little chance to survive, given this
silence from the presumably more animated members of the community of letters. What
are the prospects for an innovative text if even those in the best position to do so – namely
the energetic zealots who are deeply interested in the issues – are unwilling to deign to
critique his thought? Others, less enthused by the issues dealt with by the Treatise, would
surely be even less inclined to engage with it. As provocative as the material might be, it
stood no chance of stirring individuals less interested in and less enthused about the
problems that Hume had written about. This failure of his work to stir anyone – whether
due to their latent insensitivity or to some characteristic of the text itself is not clear from
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A. Schwerin
Hume’s assessment here – had a serious detrimental effect on the subsequent
contributions from the aspiring philosopher. With no one noticing, commenting on and
possibly developing his work, it died quickly, retreating to obscurity. And with the demise
of his theory on the self the members of the philosophical community were denied the
opportunity to explore and possibly refine a theory that Hume regarded as useful, even
if somewhat controversial. So the sentiments in his autobiography make it clear that as far
as Hume is concerned the reception that his thought on the self receives is most
unfortunate. For in the end, as he sees it, the members of the targeted audience of
researchers who are interested in problems on human nature that the Treatise is meant to
reach and serve are not touched by his ideas.
His characterization of the reaction accorded his work is most suggestive. As he sees
it his philosophical contributions – and this presumably includes his centrally important
contributions on the self – are denied the opportunity to develop into fully mature, useful
theories that could assist scholars in the various fields that Hume is contributing to.
The powerful metaphor of a theory falling dead from the press at birth not only says
something about Hume’s disappointment about the reception meted out to the theory,
but equally importantly, reveals a great deal about Hume’s understanding of his
contribution. As he sees it, his philosophical creation – i.e., the Treatise – is an
undeveloped infant that still needs to be guided and assisted in its development. This
work is not a fully mature, independent being with the ability to fend for itself. So the
views that he is presenting to his audience in the Treatise – and by implication his account
of the self in section VI – must be given the opportunity to develop into robust selfsustaining theories, able to assist others interested in the problems that Hume is
exploring. That they remain little more than lifeless fetuses – with unfulfilled promising
futures – is an indictment of the members of the community to which these
precious, potentially useful gifts have been presented.
But can the theories that Hume presents in his magnum opus be seen from a
pragmatic perspective? More specifically, is there material in the Treatise that lends
credence to my suggestion that Hume’s bundle theory of the self ought to be viewed
as a useful, albeit undeveloped theory? My argument below will attempt to show
that a close reading of his discussion in section VI strongly suggests that the
pragmatic interpretation of Hume’s bundle thesis is viable. However, as I shall also
point out, the textual evidence from the Treatise not only lends support for the
pragmatic understanding of his bundle thesis on the self but also gives rise to
difficulties that if left unattended are likely to cast Hume’s views in a misleading
light. My argument is that these apparent textual aberrations must be dealt with
carefully.
While making it difficult for Hume’s readers to determine with confidence
precisely where he stands on the issues that he is exploring, the so-called “problems
with the text” appear to serve a fascinating purpose as they reveal an important
dimension to Hume’s thought on attempts to construct viable and meaningful
theories on the mind. As we shall see, a consideration of these irregularities helps
reveal aspects of Hume’s thought on the mind that might otherwise escape our
attention. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Before we consider what I regard as
the role of these intentional irregularities in Hume’s text, we need to consider the
Language and Hume’s Search
21
evidence for my claim that his text is both pragmatic and irregular.
An investigation of the Treatise analysis of the problem of personal identity does
appear to support a pragmatic interpretation of Hume’s account of the self. While the
tone of his writing in “Of personal identity” suggests otherwise, there are numerous
clues in the text that Hume is not categorical about his bundle thesis on the self. His
writing here suggests that he regards his theory on the self as a useful, yet undeveloped
proposal for the nascent philosophy of the mind that he is interested in. That Hume
does not view his account of the self as definitive, but as a tentative hypothesis in need
of additional supplements becomes apparent when we remember how central
analogies are to Hume when he discusses his thesis on the self. For instance, when
Hume compares the mind to a theater he makes it immediately clear to the reader that
as helpful as this comparison might be, much still needs to be done to make his
views more robust and complete. As he warns us, the
comparison of the theatre must not mislead us. They are the successive perceptions only that constitute the mind;
no have we the most distant notion of the place, where these scenes are represented, or of the material, of which
it is compos’d.
(Hume 1978, Treatise 253)
Hume’s willingness to draw on the illustrative powers of the theater analogy – along with
the many other analogies that he relies on in the section “Of personal identity” – reminds
us that as far as he is concerned the bundle theory of the self is not self-sufficient from an
explanatory point of view. This view of the self is clearly regarded by Hume as tentative
and incomplete. Had his theory on the self been definitive there surely would be no need
to explain and elaborate on it. This suggests, as I see it, that Hume’s bundle theory of the
self is regarded by its author as a working hypothesis in need of further nurturing: an
untested new-born theory that has promise. While Hume is clearly convinced that his
untested bundle theory of the self is useful, and ought to be put to use by those members
of the philosophical community who are interested in understanding human nature, his
cautionary asides on the analogies that he draws on when articulating his view on the self
serve as warnings that his approach to their problems is not the final solution. As he
intimates, more still needs to be done by those philosophers who are attempted to apply
his views on the self to their problems on the mind. In the process, the bundle theory will
likely be altered in the light of the additional required research.
So there does appear to be at least some, possibly minor, textual support for my
suggestion that Hume’s bundle theory on the self can be viewed as a thesis with pragmatic
value. But are there more substantial reasons for adopting this pragmatic interpretation? I
think so. Let’s begin with an analysis of what I regard as the most compelling evidence from
the Treatise for this interpretation of his thought. This is Hume’s enthusiastic endorsement
of the bundle theory’s ability solve a problem that he regards as otherwise intractable:
namely, the problem of personal identity.
Section VI of the Treatise opens with a scathing attack on the substance theory of
the self. But the demise of this entrenched view of a person gives rise to a serious problem,
as far as Hume is concerned: without the established theory of a substantial self, how
do we account for the willingness of individuals to think and speak about themselves as
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A. Schwerin
singular individuals? As Hume ironically puts it early in the section, what evidence there
is happens to support an alternative theory of the self – a theory that advocates a nonsubstance view of a person, even though individuals mistakenly persist in subscribing to
and promoting the faulty substance theory of the self. And the non-substance theory of
the self that Hume presents to us is his bundle theory of the self, of course: a theory that
is supported by much evidence, as far as he is concerned. What is more, his (nonsubstance) bundle theory of the self is not only grounded in accessible evidence, it
offers investigators into the mind an invaluable advantage over its rival: with this theory
one can explain why individuals endorse the discredited view on an unchanging, simple
substantial self. This is a very important virtue of the new theory, as far as Hume is
concerned. One of the benefits of the bundle theory of the self, as he sees it, is that it
can be used to explain the willingness of individuals to continue to subscribe to the
traditional conception of personal identity even though the substance theory of the self is
false. But this is not all! Not only has this novel theory the explanatory power that
researchers who are interested in the problems of human nature desire – such as the
ability to help solve the problem of personal identity – it has this explanatory power in
abundance, as far as Hume is concerned. For with this theory not only is it possible to
produce an explanation for the willingness of individuals to “ascribe an identity” to
themselves – the non-existence of a recurrent unchanging substantial self notwithstanding
– it is possible to produce a complete explanation, i.e., we can now “explain [this willingness
mistakenly to ascribe identity to mysterious substances] perfectly” (Hume 1978, Treatise 253,
my insert and emphasis). In short, as far as Hume is concerned, his bundle theory of
the self more than proves itself in practice, for with it researchers can provide complete
explanations for the tendency of individuals to ascribe identity to themselves in an
ontologically misleading manner.
That his theory of the self proves so successful delights Hume to no end. Flush
with the successful application of his bundle theory of the self at explaining the mistaken
attribution of identity to a non-existent substance, Hume concludes his discussion in
section VI “Of personal identity” on a triumphant note: at last, we are now able to set
aside this broad issue. With the complete explanation that Hume’s bundle theory of the
self has made possible it is now possible to move onto new pastures. Satisfied that the
apparently intractable problem of personal identity has been laid to rest we are at liberty
to turn our attention to some of the other problems of human nature that call for
investigation. As he proudly declares,
‘Tis now time to return to a more close examination of our subject, and to proceed in the
accurate anatomy of human nature, having fully explain’d the nature of our judgment and understanding.
(Hume 1978, Treatise 263, my emphasis)
Once again Hume makes it clear to his audience that his philosophical views –
that are founded on his account of the self – have made it possible to produce yet another
complete set of explanations. With the problem of personal identity out of the way, two of
the broader problems of interest to philosophers can also be satisfactorily resolved: namely
the problem on the nature of judgment and issues on the understanding. And as with
the resolution of the problem of personal identity, the success with these different,
Language and Hume’s Search
21
yet related philosophical problems is unequivocal. As he sees it, as with his analysis of
the problem of personal identity, there is no need for any reservations about the application
of his thought on the self to the problems on judgment and the understanding. The bundle
theory on the self can be applied here too, with total unmitigated success, due in
large measure to the theory’s superior explanatory power. With unqualified successes
like these, research into the many problems that underscore the investigations into
human nature must surely take account of Hume’s philosophical thought, most notably
his views on the self. However, there appear to be one or two creases that still need to be
attended to.
Theories that reputably work as well as the one advocated by Hume on the
self warrant significant attention and ought to be taken seriously, scrutinized and where
possible, put to use. But there inevitably are a few lingering problems that still call for
attention, as useful as the theory might appear to be. In section VI of the Treatise
Hume alludes to a few of these outstanding issues. The euphoria that emerges at the
end of his analysis on the self and his treatment of the issues that circumscribe the
problems of personal identity and the broader problems of judgment and
understanding is tempered with some sobering reflections on these difficulties. These
reservations are apt, as far as Hume is concerned, as the issues that still need
attention apparently are important and unsettling. In fact, these issues are so serious,
as far as he is concerned, that unless they are attended to, his entire enterprise in section
VI might be compromised. As I shall argue below, these are major concerns for
Hume and not mere inconsequential “lingering problems,” as their location at the very
end of his analysis and my discussion above might suggest. So what are these lingering
problems, as I call them? And are they as momentous as is suggested here? Each of
these questions calls for closer attention.
Section two: Hume and the lingering problems for any theory on the self
What Hume has to say in the midst of his enthusiastic reflections on the reputed virtues of
his bundle theory of the self must come as a great surprise to his readers. In a somewhat
offhanded manner Hume nonchalantly suggests that the problems that he has so
meticulously investigated in section VI of the Treatise might actually be beyond the reach of
the philosopher:
The whole of this doctrine leads us to a conclusion, which is of great importance in the present affair,
viz, that all the nice and subtle questions concerning personal identity can never possibly be decided, and are to be
regarded rather as grammatical than as philosophical difficulties.
(Hume 1978, Treatise 262, my emphasis)
What? Can Hume be serious? After all that has been said and done on these issues in
the Treatise Hume wants us to accept that there are no dependable decision procedures
for settling the problems that play a large role in motivating his bundle theory of the self?
Apparently the problems on the mind that have encouraged Hume and many other
philosophers to respond to are not as substantial as might have been thought, but merely
linguistic, or “grammatical” as he puts it? Who would have thought it? Was his theory of
the self not touted as the best, if not the most reasonable solution to a lingering
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A. Schwerin
philosophical problem about the self? That is to say, was the theory not intended to help
resolve a problem that had enticed misguided philosophers to propose unacceptable
metaphysical theories such as the substance theory of the self? If the sentiments contained
in the quotation on “the nice and subtle questions” above do accurately reflect Hume’s
view – that the problems of personal identity, for instance, “can never possibly be decided”
– why does he rely on his bundle theory of the self to help explain the willingness of
individuals to attribute identity to persons, plants and animals? Persons, plants and animals
are not words, but entities that words are reputed to refer to. Had Hume intended from
the outset to focus on language – perhaps providing us with a linguistic analysis of
terminology associated with the realm of the mind – the arguments that he might
have presented to his audience would surely have been quite different from those that he
ends up relying on in section VI of the Treatise. So why does he even bother to outline his
criticisms of his rivals’ substance theory of the self, and develop his alternative bundle
theory of the self, when his view actually appears to be that these theories are moot? Is he
simply entertaining his audience with his reasoning on these theories on competing
ontologies? Surely not? To suggest this would tempt one to propose that these theories
or artifices from Hume are little more than mere contrivances to entertain the minds of
idle dilettantes. So what is going on here?
This textual issue is certainly not easy to resolve, in large measure due to the
complete absence of guidance from Hume both in section VI of the main section of
the Treatise and to the total silence on this aspect of his analysis in his appendix.
Unfortunately he has neither helped us nor himself with this silence, leaving us to
speculate on his unstated intentions here. Yet the allegations that Hume presents on
“all the nice and subtle questions” at the end of his analysis into the problems of
personal identity are serious and call for close attention. So we are not at liberty to
ignore them. How then do we reconcile Hume’s remarks on the indeterminacy of the
problems on personal identity with his earlier excursions into the problems of
personal identity and the self and the emergence of Hume’s triumphant bundle theory
of the self?
One approach to the problem that has been articulated in the previous
paragraph is to consider the respective locations of Hume’s “deflationary” remarks and
the theories under consideration. Perhaps the juxtaposition of Hume’s unsettling views
on the indeterminacy of the problems on personal identity with the bold, if not brash,
articulation of the theories to solve those very problems is intended to drive home a subtle
yet important point that might otherwise be lost on the researcher interested in Hume’s
views on the mind. Perhaps Hume is suggesting that ultimately the investigation of
philosophical questions, like those on the mind and self, is little more than an enquiry into
language, and researchers with their elaborate theories on the self do not realize this. In broader
terms, perhaps Hume is suggesting that unbeknownst to unsuspecting philosophers,
ontological issues are fundamentally questions about linguistic matters. And without the
preamble in section VI of the Treatise to this provocative thesis on indeterminacy, the
significance of this insight might be entirely lost on philosophers who are interested in the
problem of the mind. If so, perhaps it is useful for Hume to guide us through the initial
analyses only to shock us later with his unsettling remarks on the indeterminacy of the
problems we were diligently working through. On this interpretation the opening
Language and Hume’s Search
21
paragraphs of section VI of the Treatise serve as a convenient backdrop for the coup de grâce:
the claim that our problems on personal identity, and by implication, the problems on the
mind, as we currently understand them, “can never possibly be decided”. Placed where they
are at the end of the chapter, after all the close analyses of the issues that Hume thinks are
important and in need of attention – issues on theory formation and evaluation that we
also are likely to see as significant and worthy of attention – these unsettling remarks
certainly get our attention and drive home his point on language in a dramatic manner.
This coup de grâce – namely after we have naïvely walked with Hume through a series
of problems and suggestions on the self and perceptions – and his subsequent remarks
on the indeterminacy of the problems strongly suggests, as I read Hume, that he views the
problem on the mind as far more complex than he initially thought it is. What is more, the
implicit suggestion appears to be that the complexity that engulfs the problems of the mind only reveals
itself when issues like those explored by Hume in the beginning of section VI are attacked head on.
Without this prior preparation the deeper, more subtle points are likely to be lost on the
audience. As with a conjurer who is prepared to reveal his secrets to the audience, the
revelations are empty and come across as flat if the explanations precede the conjuring act.
That the claim about indeterminacy has the impact that it has is directly related to the fact
that the audience has been led along into a world of mystery at the beginning of the
performance. While I am not suggesting that Hume is a conjurer, the parallels in the
performance strike me as useful. Hume perhaps needs to first present the traditional set of
issues and the responses to them in order to more dramatically reveal to us the elements that
(initially) are hidden from view. On this interpretation, his remarks on the indeterminacy
of the issues on the mind have the impact that they have in large measure due to their
location in his analysis: coming as they do at the end of his investigation of the issues
these profound reflections are especially poignant. This would suggest that there is a hidden
subtle complexity embedded in the issues on the problem of the mind that any theorist
interested in these problems must attend to but without sufficient diligence is unlikely to
detect and resolve. Unless this complexity is identified and dealt with by researchers the
theories that they are presenting for the problems of the mind are likely to be inappropriate,
if not entirely irrelevant. In short, if the problem of personal identity and by implication that
of the nature of the self are essentially problems about the use of words, and if no one
happens to realize this –- other than Hume, of course – the resultant theories are likely to
be misguided and seriously misleading.
Now in his characterization of the theories of his rivals Hume says absolutely
nothing on the role of language in the formulation of their views. This omission
strongly suggests that as far as he is concerned the proponents of the (rival)
popular substance theory of the self are not concerned about the influence of
language in their endeavors and that they have been deceived into adopting and
promoting a misguided ontological scheme on the self. This unfortunate perspective
on reality that is endorsed by his rivals, Hume intimates, would likely not materialize
had sufficient attention been paid to language and its subtle benign influence on
philosophical reflections. All of which suggests that for Hume the Treatise, especially
the section “Of personal identity,” ought to be viewed as an antidote to a metaphysical
malaise that threatens the integrity of the contributions of the philosophers to a
robust philosophy of the mind. For it appears that philosophers are sorely tempted
to invent ingenious ontologies in order to further their investigations into problems
from the philosophy of mind and end up presenting us with unnecessary and
seriously misleading theories of the self. So perhaps the primary objective of section
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A. Schwerin
VI is not to present us with a novel theory of the self, as useful as it might be at
explaining, for instance, why individuals attribute identity to themselves and entities
around them, but to ultimately help us realize the extent of the deception that has
ensnared his rivals into adopting faulty theories with their unnecessary ontologies.
Furthermore, unless we learn from their mistakes and remain vigilant, we are likely to
be deceived as well.
This will certainly be an interesting twist to the proceedings if it holds. But does
it? My suggestions above rest on a number of critical assumptions, not least of which is
the view that the proposal about indeterminacy is to be taken seriously, and is not
to be dismissed as a casual aside. What would add weight to this suggestion from Hume
is an argument from him for indeterminacy – preferably a convincing argument. So, is
there one? What argument, if any, does Hume present to his audience that the problems
that have occupied them are fundamentally indeterminate? Surely the author of the claim
that the problems that have occupied him and the innocent researchers into problems
central to issues on human nature owes his audience a set of plausible reasons for the
surprising proposal that these problems are actually indeterminate? Anyone who has
diligently worked through his earlier prognostications on the merits and demerits of
the different theories on the mind will be disappointed, if not sorely dismayed, if there
is no justification for this surprising turn of events in Hume’s analysis. So, what reasons
do we have from Hume for his sudden provocative suggestion that the search for an
understanding of the mind is ultimately a search for an appropriate linguistic
framework? And are these reasons persuasive? The section that follows addresses both
of these important questions.
Section three: On Hume’s coup de grâce argument
The justification that Hume presents for his assertion that the “questions concerning
personal identity… are to be regarded rather as grammatical than as philosophical
difficulties” (Hume 1978, Treatise 262) draws on his views on ideas, perceptions and
language. Unfortunately, the argument appears to be invalid. Let me explain.
The reasoning for the conclusion that the problems of the mind that researchers
are working on are grammatical rather than philosophical is concise, as is Hume’s wont.
According to him, attributions of identity presuppose that various ideas and perceptions
are related to each other. Now these relationships vary from moment to moment, as
the composition of the ideas and perceptions change. As he sees it, the ever-changing
set of ideas and perceptions in our minds precludes us from using the concept of
identity precisely. And given the imprecise application of the concept of identity
questions on identity, apparently, are not decidable. But why is this the case? That is to say,
even if the minds’ ideas and perceptions are in constant flux and our idea of identity illdefined, why does Hume insist that “the nice and subtle questions concerning personal
identity can never possibly be decided?” (Hume 1978, Treatise 262). The answer, it appears,
has to do with our inability to use language precisely when describing the activity in
our minds. To be more specific, our inability to accurately monitor and precisely label the
diverse and dynamic interactions between our ideas and perceptions precludes us from
determining exactly when an individual is entitled to say that they are the same individual.
Language and Hume’s Search
21
Given that a person is “nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions,” and
given that these perceptions “succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity,” the
attempt to determine with precision when a person becomes that person as opposed to
another person is fraught with difficulties. As far as Hume is concerned, the difficulties
are insurmountable.
Given that we are unable to monitor every subtle change in the dynamic set of
perceptions that constitute each one of us, we are unable to determine precisely when
to stop using one label for the bundle or collection of perceptions and when to begin
using a different label. As Hume sees it, this failure to know precisely when to begin
to use the appropriate label is the Achilles heel for any attempt to attribute identity
to a person. But are his reservations well-founded? Is this shortcoming as
problematic as Hume suggests it is? I think that a strong case can be made that Hume
is overreacting to the challenges here, and in the processes compromising, if not
undermining his surprising proposal on the indeterminacy of the philosophical
problems of the mind.
Take this analogy. The cake we are about to bake consists of a variety of
ingredients. With the disparate ingredients arranged on the table in front of us we do
not have a cake. Call this motley arrangement of items our non-cake. After gathering the
required ingredients we begin to blend them together in various ways. That is to say,
we begin to mix this item with that, and continue to do so until we get close to the
point where we have the requisite components for the cake appropriately blended
together. But we still do not have a cake, i.e., the mixture does not exist as a complete
cake, and we are therefore precluded from describing the mixture as a cake. Now we
place the mixture into the warm oven. The ingredients interact in the heated oven and
when we open the door to the oven after the appropriate time we have our cake. What
initially was a non-cake has now become a cake. At this point we are entitled to
describe the item that comes out of the oven as a cake. So we do know when we do
not have a cake and we do know when we do have a cake. And the knowledge can be
precise. By the same token, we are able to use various descriptions of the entities in
front of us with precision. At some point in the process – presumably when the
ingredients in the oven interacted sufficiently – the non-cake became a cake. Our
inability to be more precise about this aspect of the transition strikes Hume as critical:
But as the relations, and the easiness of the transition may diminish by insensible degrees, we have no
just standard, by which we can decide any dispute concerning the time, when they acquire or lose a title to the
name of identity.
(Hume 1978, Treatise 262, my emphasis)
As far as he is concerned, if the precise details of the specific actual transition are not
known, the overall questions on identity cannot be decided either: they “can never
possibly be decided.” Apparently, it is not sufficient that we are able to determine what
the item is before and after the transition. We must, suggests Hume, know precisely
when the transition transpired. While we might know before the transitional phase that
an item is not what it is about to become, and know after the transition that the item
has become an identifiable item, our failure to know precisely when the item
morphed precludes all attempts at identifying the item. Why, one might wonder?
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A. Schwerin
This is an important question that calls for some scrutiny.
Surely the data available to us both before and after the vital transitional event
enables us to claim that we can successfully use the concept of identify for a major
segment of that entities’ existence? Perhaps we are hamstrung for a very brief period:
right when the transition occurs. But this surely does not necessarily entail that we
cannot invoke the concept of identity at least for a substantial portion of the lifespan of
the item in question? When we collect our ingredients we are fully aware that the
discrete components do not constitute a cake. And when we later sit down to enjoy the
production from the warm oven we are well within our rights to label this as a cake. Is
Hume placing undue emphasis on the role of the transitional event – along with our
ignorance of the intricacies of this event – in his analysis of identity? I think so.
To make the implausibility of Hume’s concern about the transitional phase more
graphic, suppose that the ingredients for the cake have been in containers for five
years, waiting to be put to use. Eventually we mix the ingredients according to our
recipe and bake our cake, i.e., we heat the ingredients. As it is a simple cake, let us
suppose further that this baking process takes a total of seven minutes. Are we to
accept that these seven minutes can completely defeat all attempts either before or
after the baking process to successfully invoke the concept of the identity of the
cake? Surely not? For five years we had absolutely no difficulty in referring to the
ingredients of the non-cake that had been collected in anticipation of the big bake, and
for many years after the crucial seven minutes of baking we successfully refer to the
baked cake. So for the sake of a mere sliver of time we apparently are precluded
from using the term “identity” in our dealings with the cake and its ingredients. This
seems implausible.
And what about the transitional phase itself? Here, I suggest, we encounter
further problems with Hume’s reasoning. Can it be more than an arbitrary ad hoc decision
to determine when a given combination of constituents C(e-j), acting according to
processes P(a-r), becomes X, and ceases to be Y? Hume appears to treat our
understanding of the transitional phase as fundamental in our efforts to invoke the
concept of identity. But he fails to explain exactly why the transitional phase has the
significance that he attributes to it. Without the requisite explanations and
justifications on this central issue in his analysis of identity his warning that “all the
nice and subtle questions concerning personal identity can never possibly be decided”
must be viewed as unwarranted (Hume 1978, Treatise 262). From this it follows, if my
discussion above has any merit, that Hume’s views on our inability to resolve questions
on the identity of persons is in need of further explanation and justification. As it
stands these views on identity seem problematic. So the argument in the Treatise
for the proposal that the problems of personal identity are fundamentally indeterminate
relies on a premise that appears to be implausible, if not false. All of which suggests
that Hume’s claim that the problems of personal identity ought “to be regarded as
grammatical than as philosophical” appears equally unwarranted. Do other nonTreatise renditions of Hume’s views on theories of the self and language resolve the
apparent invalidity of his reasoning in the section “Of personal identity?” This is
an important issue that we are unable to address here, as it takes us too far afield.
Language and Hume’s Search
21
References
Bricke, J. 1980. Hume’s Philosophy of Mind. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Press. Dennett, D. 1991. Consciousness Explained. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and
Company.
Fieser, J., ed. 2000. Early Responses to Hume’s Metaphysical and Epistemological Writings, Vol.
3 and 4. Bristol: Thoemmes Press.
Hume, D. 1975. Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of
Morals, edited by LA Selby-Bigge and PH Nidditch. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Hume, D. 1978. Treatise of Human Nature (Ed. LA Selby-Bigge and PH Nidditch). Oxford:
Clarendon Press.
Kuhn, T. S. 1957. The Copernican Revolution. New York: MJF Books, with Harvard University.
Kuhn, T. S. 1970. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Second Edition). Chicago: University of
Chicago Press.
Nagel, T. 1986. The View from Nowhere. New York: Oxford University Press.
Parfit, D. 1984. Reasons and Persons. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Randall, J. 1947.”David Hume: Radical Empiricist and Pragmatist.” In David Hume: A
Symposium, edited by D. Pears. London: Macmillan.
Strawson, P. 1979. Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics. London: Methuen.
Wittgenstein, L. 1961. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Language and Hume’s Search
21
Alan Schwerin*
Language and Hume’s Search for a Theory of the Self
Abstract: In his Treatise Hume makes a profound suggestion: philosophical
problems, especially problems in metaphysics, are verbal. This view is most vigorously
articulated and defended in the course of his investigation of the problem of the
self, in the section “Of personal identity.” My paper is a critical exploration of Hume’s
arguments for this influential thesis and an analysis of the context that informs this
1739 version of the nature of philosophical problems that anticipates the linguistic
turn in philosophy.
Keywords: self, language, perceptions, personal identity, Kuhn, bundle theory, ontology,
indeterminacy, pragmatism
DOI 10.1515/mp-2015-0008
I am convinced that no Man can comprehend what he means.
(Letter to Common Sense: Or the Englishman’s Journal 1740)
When David Hume defends a novel and provocative account of the self in the section
“Of personal identity” in his Treatise of Human Nature, and contrasts it with that of his
rivals, he suggests that his is the more reasonable and scientifically rigorous thesis. As
he puts it, not without a twinge of exasperation, “If any one upon serious and
unprejudic’d reflexion, thinks he has a different notion of himself, I must confess I can
reason no longer with him” (Hume 1978, Treatise 252). The reception accorded Hume’s
views on the self, at least within the philosophical community, appears to bear out this
assessment. The bundle theory of the self has certainly been influential among
philosophers, acquiring an expanding coterie of advocates since its publication in 1739.
What is more, the influence of Hume’s views on the self continues to grow. While many
have found a variety of ideas and arguments in Hume’s diverse philosophical contributions
noteworthy and provocative, the investigation of theories on the self in his magnum opus
has proven to be especially exigent and an ongoing source of analysis and speculation for
philosophers. His challenging arguments on these theories of the self continue to
stimulate researchers, providing them with an invaluable framework for their own
__________________
*Corresponding author: Alan Schwerin, Monmouth University, West Long Branch,
NJ, USA, E-mail: aschweri@monmouth.edu
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A. Schwerin
investigations into the mind: providing them with a perspective from the mid-eighteenth
century that persists within the philosophical community in large measure due to its
heuristic value. Many philosophers today who are intent on promoting their own
solutions to the problems of the mind still draw on Hume’s Treatise insights in their own
efforts to enhance their understanding of the intricacies of the complex issues endemic
to the issues on the mind. Hume is certainly not passé in the philosophical community
– well, certainly not within that segment of the community that has been actively
exploring issues from the philosophy of the mind in the past century.
How do we account for the resilience of Hume’s account of the self? This
paper is an attempt to throw some light on this important question. In the course of my
analysis some suggestions will be made on the dominance of Hume’s views on the
self and on the relationship between this influential conceptual framework and that
of his rivals. More importantly, I shall show that Hume’s 1739 analysis of the problems
of the self anticipates the linguistic turn of modern analytic philosophers with what I
call his coup de grâce argument: a line of reasoning that I shall argue is invalid.
However, as I shall also show, this invalidity is revealing in that it opens a fascinating
vista into Hume’s presuppositions in the Treatise. But first a preliminary issue needs to
be addressed. Who are the modern philosophers who are provoked by, if not inspired
by, Hume?
Norman Kemp Smith’s The Philosophy of David Hume, with its accessible
naturalistic interpretation of Hume’s philosophy, inaugurated a resurgence of interest in
Hume’s views in general in the 1940s. But it was the publication of Peter Strawson’s
Individuals that placed Hume’s no-substantial self-theory of the self – with its
accompanying cluster of interconnected concerns – center stage among the leading
modern conceptions of the mind. When Strawson argues, as he does in his chapter
“Persons,” that “the word ‘I’ never refers to this, the pure subject” he is explicitly
endorsing Hume’s no-substantial self-view of a person (Strawson 1979, 103). Clearly
inspired by the Treatise critique of the substantial theory of the self, Strawson pointedly
reminds his readers that it is the reasonable search for an ego-substance, the purported
seat of pure consciousness, that ultimately encourages Hume to adopt a view of the self
that many find counterintuitive:
It was the entity corresponding to this illusory primary concept of the pure consciousness, the egosubstance, for which Hume was seeking, or ironically pretending to seek, when he looked into himself, and
complained that he could never discover himself without a perception and could never discover anything
but the perception. (Strawson 1979, 103).
While the analysis that is presented by Strawson in his Individuals might be one of the
most prominent instances of the impact of Hume’s views on current theories on the
self within the philosophical community, there are many other examples of the abiding
influence of Hume’s thought. His bundle thesis of the self and its arguments continue to
guide reflections on the self and its theories. Let me cite but a few of the most recent
analyses influenced by Hume.
Derek Parfit’s (1984) suggestion that a person is an evolving series of related
experiences – a claim presented and argued for in his Reasons and Persons – is heavily
indebted to Hume’s bundle theory. In his Consciousness Explained Daniel Dennett argues
Language and Hume’s Search
21
that consciousness “in fact is gappy” and that the self “could be just as gappy” (Dennett
1991, 423). This is a view that appears to be consistent with, and apparently has been
influenced by, Hume’s fluid bundle theory of the self. (On this issue see his chapter
entitled “The reality of selves.”) Finally, Thomas Nagel’s account of the self and
consciousness in A View from Nowhere also appears to be inspired by Hume’s suggestion
that the concept of personal identity cannot be understood “through an examination of
my first- person concept of self” (Nagel 1986, 35).
All this suggests that Hume’s view on the self is still current. There is little doubt
that this account of the self has not only survived the vicissitudes of time, but in one way
or another it continues to influence members of the philosophical community. Why? That
this account of the self continues to guide much of the research of philosophers into the
mind is surprising. Hume himself has serious misgivings about his views, as his appendix
to the Treatise amply testifies. The labyrinth that he finds himself in, in large measure
due to his views on perceptions and the inability of the mind to isolate connections
between discrete perceptions, encourages Hume to declare that, where the problem of the
self is concerned, the “difficulty is too hard for my understanding” (Hume 1978, Treatise
636). The theory on the self that is promoted by Hume, with its concomitant implications,
is clearly not as problem-free as its author would like it to be. Yet the bundle theory of the
self has proven to be influential – at least among philosophers – as I have suggested above.
So how serious can the problems be that Hume has singled out for his theory of the self
if many, after all these years, continue to draw inspiration from it?
Hume’s reflections in the appendix to the Treatise leaves one with the distinct
impression that as far as he is concerned his account of the self is not fundamentally flawed,
and is not necessarily intractable. In his critical remarks there on the arguments in section
VI “Of personal identity” Hume reluctantly declares that while he is unable to resolve his
problem, others might be able to do so. After dejectedly concluding that he “must plead
the privilege of a sceptic” unable to resolve the difficulties that he has unearthed, Hume
allows for the possibility that others might have more success at solving the problems
(Hume 1978, Treatise 636). And in the event that other philosophers are unsuccessful in
their attempts to solve the problems unearthed in the appendix to the Treatise, Hume
wonders whether or not he will be able to solve the problem when he is more mature. As
he puts it, somewhat plaintively, “others, perhaps, or myself, upon more mature reflection,
may discover” a solution to the problem (Hume 1978, Treatise 636). All of which suggests,
as far as Hume is concerned, that the problem with his account of the self is not
impossible to solve, but merely temporarily obdurate.
Nevertheless, Hume’s subsequent reluctance – “failure” is perhaps a more apt term
here – to approach this problem apparently endemic to his theory of the mind in his
later philosophical endeavors strongly suggests that he never does come to terms with
the issue as he presents it in the appendix to the Treatise. And if the problem that
appears to be embedded in his account of the self remains untouched – or, at least not
dealt with by its author – it is reasonable to conclude that the theory of the self that is
proposed by Hume in the Treatise must itself have lost much of its luster fairly soon after
its initial presentation. But if this suggestion that the author of the notorious bundle
theory of the self appears to distance himself from his creation is plausible, one wonders
why others continue to be inspired by this theory of the self? Why does Hume’s
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problematic account of the self continue to attract adherents among the members of the
philosophical community? That it continues to be influential, if not entirely persuasive,
seems counterintuitive, at least for the following two reasons.
In the first place, it appears that Hume’s own critical investigations into his account
of the self ought to diminish its appeal. To the best of my knowledge the central problem
integral to Hume’s conceptual scheme that philosophers interested in the self apparently
need to resolve that he unearths in his appendix remains unattended. When Hume argues
that his account of the self rests on two inconsistent propositions, or principles as he prefers
to call them, he is drawing attention to a problem that he views as serious:
In short, there are two principles, which I cannot render consistent; nor is it in my power to renounce either
of them. viz. that all our distinct perceptions are distinct existences, and that the mind never perceives any real
connexion among distinct existences. (Hume 1978, 35 Treatise 636, my underlining)
As Hume sees it, this so-called “inconsistent” set of principles drives him into a vexing
labyrinth with its confusing suggestions on the mind. But his readers do not appear to
be concerned about these critical reflections from Hume. If Hume himself finds his
account of the self problematic, surely others, now forewarned about its
shortcomings, ought to distance themselves from this theory? That they do not is
surprising. For one thing, if I am correct in my suggestion that Hume himself does
not revisit the problem in his later writings it seems plausible to infer that he either was
not able to solve the problem or that he simply lost interest in it. So one of the central
problems on which the bundle theory of the self rests appears to remain unresolved
by its author. Furthermore, it seems that others who ought to address the difficulties
encapsulated by this problem have also failed to address them. For instance, none of
the philosophers of the mind mentioned above who are inspired by Hume’s bundle
theory of the self even acknowledge the existence of the central problem that Hume
outlines in his appendix, let alone attempts to solve it. And as far as I can determine,
no other philosopher has presented us with a solution to Hume’s problem. So it
appears that Hume’s theory of the self persists within the philosophical
community, warts and all. If we work on the assumption that his advocates are aware
of his reservations, the willingness to continue to rely on his (problematic) thought
on the self suggests that “the defects” with this account of the self are not regarded
as fatal by his advocates but are viewed by them as mere minor aberrations: perhaps,
with the appropriate attention and application the problem can be solved and
removed. This brings us to the second reason for wondering about the persistent
positive reception accorded Hume’s problematic account of the self.
Contributions to the science of the mind have flourished since the publication of
Hume’s Treatise. His bundle theory of the self now has to contend with literally dozens of
rivals. Given the proliferation of alternative accounts of the self, in large measure fueled by
the growing interest in psychology, the appeal of the bundle theory of the self would surely
have diminished, and not grown as it has within the philosophical community. In light
of his admission that the account of the self in the Treatise is defective, the fact that it
coexists shoulder-to-shoulder with numerous competing conceptions makes one wonder
about the continued appeal and influence of the Scot’s mid-eighteenth-century account of
the self. This view of the self has certainly had a long innings. How do we explain the
Language and Hume’s Search
21
resiliency of Hume’s bundle theory on the self? One philosopher who might hold the key
to an answer to this question is Thomas Kuhn. In numerous publications of his Kuhn
provides us with invaluable insights into theory acceptance that I suggest can be drawn on
in our quest to understand the reasons for the continued significance, if not prominence
of Hume’s bundle theory of the self among researchers interested in problems on the
mind. Let us briefly visit Kuhn’s views on theory acceptance in order to better appreciate
the continued appeal of Hume’s views on the self.
Section one: Kuhn on theory acceptance and the many unanticipated observations
In his discussion of theories and their reception Kuhn suggests that researchers are looking
for guidance and are drawn to those accounts that offer the prospects of revealing
inroads into the problems that interest them. Consider the field of astronomy with its
proliferation of ingenious theories to help understand the constitution of the universe. As
Kuhn sees it, while many of the earlier views of the universe are intriguing from a theoretical
point of view, what distinguish some of the more appealing accounts are their pragmatic
consequences. Some of these theories have definite practical implications, suggesting
specific solutions to a number of down-to-earth problems. Take the problem of
circumnavigating the globe. As soon as astronomers adopted what Kuhn calls the twosphere cosmology, according to which mankind on earth is viewed as occupying an
inner sphere and the stars that surround us an external sphere, a number of practical
consequences came into play. Most importantly, for Kuhn, this decision encouraged
individuals to wonder about the shape of the earth, eventually giving rise to the suggestion
that the earth has a circumference: an implication that had profound consequences. So the
two-sphere cosmology ultimately led to a set of observations that supported the view
that one could successfully sail around the earth. Navigators, such as Christopher
Columbus, found much comfort from this outlook, relying on it to guide their actions:
One set of observations … led Columbus to believe that the circumnavigation of the globe was a practical
undertaking, and the results of his voyages have been recorded. Those voyages and the subsequent travels
of Magellan and others provided observational evidence for beliefs that had previously been derived solely
from theory, and the supplied science with many unanticipated observations besides. (Kuhn 1957, 40)
Had the two-sphere theory of the universe not been adopted Columbus would not have
undertaken his voyages and new observations and contributions would not have accrued to
mankind in general, and to the sciences in particular. More importantly, without the sensory
evidence acquired by intrepid explorers such as Columbus and Magellan the conception of
the universe endorsed by researchers interested in the heavens would continue to be
founded on a priori considerations. That is to say, their cosmological views would be
beholden to non- empirical or theoretical speculations, for their cosmological “beliefs
(would be) derived solely from theory” (Kuhn 1957, 40: my insert). Thus the adoption of
a different theory by researchers can put them in the position to accomplish a great
deal that otherwise would not be attainable with the “older” perspective. The adoption of
a new theory now makes possible “many unanticipated observations.” As Kuhn sees it,
theories can be especially useful in practice, often literally guiding the “scientist into the
unknown, telling him where to look and what he may expect to find” (Kuhn 1957, 40).
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In short, theories provide the researcher with a vision or gestalt that reveals further avenues
for research that would otherwise remain invisible.
However, as fruitful as the theory might be, its adoption and application is not
without glitches. The scientist will not find the perspective provided by the theory
problem-free. Difficulties are bound to arise that are not easy to circumvent. For this
reason the scientist is advised to view the novel theory as a helpful conceptual scheme
that provides “hints for the organization of research rather than explicit directives, and
the pursuit of these hints usually requires extension or modification of the conceptual
scheme that provided them” (Kuhn 1957, 40, my emphasis). I think that this insight
from Kuhn is very important and particularly suggestive for us in our attempts to
understand and do justice to Hume’s account of the self. Is this not precisely what
Hume is doing with his bundle theory of the self? Is he not providing himself and
the rest of us with hints on how to think about the self? Perhaps the theory of the self
that emerges from the section “Of personal identity” in the Treatise is not to be viewed
as a definitive account of the self that is regarded by its author as categorically true, but
as a tentative proposal ripe with suggestions on how researchers are encouraged to
proceed in their research into human nature? Sure, Hume argues vigorously for his views
and spends much time and energy assessing and dispelling the leading rival account of
the self. That he does this so enthusiastically misleadingly encourages us to subscribe
to the view that Hume is fully committed to his novel view of the self. But perhaps his
commitment is not as comprehensive as we might be inclined to think? As attractive
as the proposal provided by Hume on the self might be, and as convincing as his
arguments in its favor might appear to be, Hume is well aware of the fact that his
bundle theory of the self still has its limitations. And he is more than willing to point
them out to us. With his appendix Hume takes the lead in drawing attention to some
of the difficulties associated with his innovative theory on the self: problematic issues
that emerge only if one takes seriously and accepts – even if only partially – the
Treatise’s conceptual scheme on the self. In short, perhaps in section VI of the Treatise
Hume is best seen as presenting us with a working hypothesis on the mind that is only
at its embryonic stage in its development. This undeveloped or immature conception of
a person ought therefore to be seen as little more than a useful hint for researchers
interested in the study of human nature. The hypothesis, on this understanding, still
needs to be refined – or carefully nurtured, to extend the metaphor – to hopefully
eventually yield a fully-fledged robust theory of the mind fully capable of assisting
researchers working on the science of human nature. This perspective of Hume’s
contribution to problems on the mind has a number of fascinating implications for our
understanding of Hume’s excursion into the science of human nature, some of which
we need to explore.
As with the astronomer with his theory of two-spheres and its concomitant practical
ramifications for astronomy, Hume can be viewed as a researcher interested in a set
of challenging problems outlining a vision that he regards as useful. His hope is that
others will find his insights equally attractive. The bundle theory of the self, as I see it,
can thus be seen as a convenient means for solving – or at least of promising to solve –
thorny problems on the self that previous theorists found intractable. As such it is not to
be regarded as the final solution to these problems but as a valuable stepping stone or
Language and Hume’s Search
21
fruitful avenue for future research into the problems on the mind. As with a child who
needs careful nourishment and attention in order to develop into a healthy strong
adult, ready to both take her place in the world and to contribute to mankind, Hume’s
bundle theory of the self is to be seen as a potentially useful addition to the intellectual
tools scientists rely on in their research into the challenging issues that face them. This
perspective of Hume’s bundle theory of the self, begs a number of questions, one of which
strikes me as central: is it plausible? As interesting, and possibly as useful an interpretative
framework this interpretation of Hume’s account of the self might be, we still need to find
support for it from the text: whether the Treatise or some other text from Hume. Without a
text to support this perspective of Hume’s analysis we run the risk of foisting an
anachronistic framework on the discussion in section VI of the Treatise. So does Hume
provide us with any reason to support what I think is appropriately called a pragmatic
interpretation of his account of the self?
As it happens, there is strong textual support for this pragmatic interpretation of
Hume. Both Hume’s Treatise and some of his other writings leave us with the distinct
impression that Hume’s bundle theory of the self ought not to be viewed as a categorical
thesis but as a heuristic aid for researchers interested in problems of the mind. Before we
consider the textual evidence from the Treatise to determine whether or not this pragmatic
perspective is plausible, it is useful for us to recall remarks made by Hume towards the
end of his life when he was reflecting on the overall impact of his contributions to
philosophy. In his auto-biography “My own life” completed in April 1776, mere weeks
before his death, Hume reflects on his philosophical contributions over the years and
explicitly relies on the metaphor of a dead infant to articulate his views – a powerful
metaphor that resonates with my suggestions in this chapter. Of all the images that he
could have alluded to in order to express his views he selects a particularly grotesque
image that leaves us in no doubt about the depth of his pain and disappointment. In his
sober reflections on his early philosophical contributions, and in particular, in his
assessment of the responses to those nascent contributions, Hume opines that his
views in the Treatise were not noticed and that they were left to die at birth. Even the
presumably harsh and insensitive zealots, forever on the lookout for a morsel to victimize,
overlooked his work, thereby resisting the temptation to touch his innovative contributions
to the philosophical community:
Never literary attempt was more unfortunate than my Treatise of Human Nature. It fell dead-born from the
press, without reaching such distinction, as even to excite a murmur among the zealots.
(History of England, Volume One: 1778)
As Hume sees it, his precious and fragile Treatise had little chance to survive, given this
silence from the presumably more animated members of the community of letters. What
are the prospects for an innovative text if even those in the best position to do so – namely
the energetic zealots who are deeply interested in the issues – are unwilling to deign to
critique his thought? Others, less enthused by the issues dealt with by the Treatise, would
surely be even less inclined to engage with it. As provocative as the material might be, it
stood no chance of stirring individuals less interested in and less enthused about the
problems that Hume had written about. This failure of his work to stir anyone – whether
due to their latent insensitivity or to some characteristic of the text itself is not clear from
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Hume’s assessment here – had a serious detrimental effect on the subsequent
contributions from the aspiring philosopher. With no one noticing, commenting on and
possibly developing his work, it died quickly, retreating to obscurity. And with the demise
of his theory on the self the members of the philosophical community were denied the
opportunity to explore and possibly refine a theory that Hume regarded as useful, even
if somewhat controversial. So the sentiments in his autobiography make it clear that as far
as Hume is concerned the reception that his thought on the self receives is most
unfortunate. For in the end, as he sees it, the members of the targeted audience of
researchers who are interested in problems on human nature that the Treatise is meant to
reach and serve are not touched by his ideas.
His characterization of the reaction accorded his work is most suggestive. As he sees
it his philosophical contributions – and this presumably includes his centrally important
contributions on the self – are denied the opportunity to develop into fully mature, useful
theories that could assist scholars in the various fields that Hume is contributing to.
The powerful metaphor of a theory falling dead from the press at birth not only says
something about Hume’s disappointment about the reception meted out to the theory,
but equally importantly, reveals a great deal about Hume’s understanding of his
contribution. As he sees it, his philosophical creation – i.e., the Treatise – is an
undeveloped infant that still needs to be guided and assisted in its development. This
work is not a fully mature, independent being with the ability to fend for itself. So the
views that he is presenting to his audience in the Treatise – and by implication his account
of the self in section VI – must be given the opportunity to develop into robust selfsustaining theories, able to assist others interested in the problems that Hume is
exploring. That they remain little more than lifeless fetuses – with unfulfilled promising
futures – is an indictment of the members of the community to which these
precious, potentially useful gifts have been presented.
But can the theories that Hume presents in his magnum opus be seen from a
pragmatic perspective? More specifically, is there material in the Treatise that lends
credence to my suggestion that Hume’s bundle theory of the self ought to be viewed
as a useful, albeit undeveloped theory? My argument below will attempt to show
that a close reading of his discussion in section VI strongly suggests that the
pragmatic interpretation of Hume’s bundle thesis is viable. However, as I shall also
point out, the textual evidence from the Treatise not only lends support for the
pragmatic understanding of his bundle thesis on the self but also gives rise to
difficulties that if left unattended are likely to cast Hume’s views in a misleading
light. My argument is that these apparent textual aberrations must be dealt with
carefully.
While making it difficult for Hume’s readers to determine with confidence
precisely where he stands on the issues that he is exploring, the so-called “problems
with the text” appear to serve a fascinating purpose as they reveal an important
dimension to Hume’s thought on attempts to construct viable and meaningful
theories on the mind. As we shall see, a consideration of these irregularities helps
reveal aspects of Hume’s thought on the mind that might otherwise escape our
attention. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Before we consider what I regard as
the role of these intentional irregularities in Hume’s text, we need to consider the
Language and Hume’s Search
21
evidence for my claim that his text is both pragmatic and irregular.
An investigation of the Treatise analysis of the problem of personal identity does
appear to support a pragmatic interpretation of Hume’s account of the self. While the
tone of his writing in “Of personal identity” suggests otherwise, there are numerous
clues in the text that Hume is not categorical about his bundle thesis on the self. His
writing here suggests that he regards his theory on the self as a useful, yet undeveloped
proposal for the nascent philosophy of the mind that he is interested in. That Hume
does not view his account of the self as definitive, but as a tentative hypothesis in need
of additional supplements becomes apparent when we remember how central
analogies are to Hume when he discusses his thesis on the self. For instance, when
Hume compares the mind to a theater he makes it immediately clear to the reader that
as helpful as this comparison might be, much still needs to be done to make his
views more robust and complete. As he warns us, the
comparison of the theatre must not mislead us. They are the successive perceptions only that constitute the mind;
no have we the most distant notion of the place, where these scenes are represented, or of the material, of which
it is compos’d.
(Hume 1978, Treatise 253)
Hume’s willingness to draw on the illustrative powers of the theater analogy – along with
the many other analogies that he relies on in the section “Of personal identity” – reminds
us that as far as he is concerned the bundle theory of the self is not self-sufficient from an
explanatory point of view. This view of the self is clearly regarded by Hume as tentative
and incomplete. Had his theory on the self been definitive there surely would be no need
to explain and elaborate on it. This suggests, as I see it, that Hume’s bundle theory of the
self is regarded by its author as a working hypothesis in need of further nurturing: an
untested new-born theory that has promise. While Hume is clearly convinced that his
untested bundle theory of the self is useful, and ought to be put to use by those members
of the philosophical community who are interested in understanding human nature, his
cautionary asides on the analogies that he draws on when articulating his view on the self
serve as warnings that his approach to their problems is not the final solution. As he
intimates, more still needs to be done by those philosophers who are attempted to apply
his views on the self to their problems on the mind. In the process, the bundle theory will
likely be altered in the light of the additional required research.
So there does appear to be at least some, possibly minor, textual support for my
suggestion that Hume’s bundle theory on the self can be viewed as a thesis with pragmatic
value. But are there more substantial reasons for adopting this pragmatic interpretation? I
think so. Let’s begin with an analysis of what I regard as the most compelling evidence from
the Treatise for this interpretation of his thought. This is Hume’s enthusiastic endorsement
of the bundle theory’s ability solve a problem that he regards as otherwise intractable:
namely, the problem of personal identity.
Section VI of the Treatise opens with a scathing attack on the substance theory of
the self. But the demise of this entrenched view of a person gives rise to a serious problem,
as far as Hume is concerned: without the established theory of a substantial self, how
do we account for the willingness of individuals to think and speak about themselves as
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singular individuals? As Hume ironically puts it early in the section, what evidence there
is happens to support an alternative theory of the self – a theory that advocates a nonsubstance view of a person, even though individuals mistakenly persist in subscribing to
and promoting the faulty substance theory of the self. And the non-substance theory of
the self that Hume presents to us is his bundle theory of the self, of course: a theory that
is supported by much evidence, as far as he is concerned. What is more, his (nonsubstance) bundle theory of the self is not only grounded in accessible evidence, it
offers investigators into the mind an invaluable advantage over its rival: with this theory
one can explain why individuals endorse the discredited view on an unchanging, simple
substantial self. This is a very important virtue of the new theory, as far as Hume is
concerned. One of the benefits of the bundle theory of the self, as he sees it, is that it
can be used to explain the willingness of individuals to continue to subscribe to the
traditional conception of personal identity even though the substance theory of the self is
false. But this is not all! Not only has this novel theory the explanatory power that
researchers who are interested in the problems of human nature desire – such as the
ability to help solve the problem of personal identity – it has this explanatory power in
abundance, as far as Hume is concerned. For with this theory not only is it possible to
produce an explanation for the willingness of individuals to “ascribe an identity” to
themselves – the non-existence of a recurrent unchanging substantial self notwithstanding
– it is possible to produce a complete explanation, i.e., we can now “explain [this willingness
mistakenly to ascribe identity to mysterious substances] perfectly” (Hume 1978, Treatise 253,
my insert and emphasis). In short, as far as Hume is concerned, his bundle theory of
the self more than proves itself in practice, for with it researchers can provide complete
explanations for the tendency of individuals to ascribe identity to themselves in an
ontologically misleading manner.
That his theory of the self proves so successful delights Hume to no end. Flush
with the successful application of his bundle theory of the self at explaining the mistaken
attribution of identity to a non-existent substance, Hume concludes his discussion in
section VI “Of personal identity” on a triumphant note: at last, we are now able to set
aside this broad issue. With the complete explanation that Hume’s bundle theory of the
self has made possible it is now possible to move onto new pastures. Satisfied that the
apparently intractable problem of personal identity has been laid to rest we are at liberty
to turn our attention to some of the other problems of human nature that call for
investigation. As he proudly declares,
‘Tis now time to return to a more close examination of our subject, and to proceed in the
accurate anatomy of human nature, having fully explain’d the nature of our judgment and understanding.
(Hume 1978, Treatise 263, my emphasis)
Once again Hume makes it clear to his audience that his philosophical views –
that are founded on his account of the self – have made it possible to produce yet another
complete set of explanations. With the problem of personal identity out of the way, two of
the broader problems of interest to philosophers can also be satisfactorily resolved: namely
the problem on the nature of judgment and issues on the understanding. And as with
the resolution of the problem of personal identity, the success with these different,
Language and Hume’s Search
21
yet related philosophical problems is unequivocal. As he sees it, as with his analysis of
the problem of personal identity, there is no need for any reservations about the application
of his thought on the self to the problems on judgment and the understanding. The bundle
theory on the self can be applied here too, with total unmitigated success, due in
large measure to the theory’s superior explanatory power. With unqualified successes
like these, research into the many problems that underscore the investigations into
human nature must surely take account of Hume’s philosophical thought, most notably
his views on the self. However, there appear to be one or two creases that still need to be
attended to.
Theories that reputably work as well as the one advocated by Hume on the
self warrant significant attention and ought to be taken seriously, scrutinized and where
possible, put to use. But there inevitably are a few lingering problems that still call for
attention, as useful as the theory might appear to be. In section VI of the Treatise
Hume alludes to a few of these outstanding issues. The euphoria that emerges at the
end of his analysis on the self and his treatment of the issues that circumscribe the
problems of personal identity and the broader problems of judgment and
understanding is tempered with some sobering reflections on these difficulties. These
reservations are apt, as far as Hume is concerned, as the issues that still need
attention apparently are important and unsettling. In fact, these issues are so serious,
as far as he is concerned, that unless they are attended to, his entire enterprise in section
VI might be compromised. As I shall argue below, these are major concerns for
Hume and not mere inconsequential “lingering problems,” as their location at the very
end of his analysis and my discussion above might suggest. So what are these lingering
problems, as I call them? And are they as momentous as is suggested here? Each of
these questions calls for closer attention.
Section two: Hume and the lingering problems for any theory on the self
What Hume has to say in the midst of his enthusiastic reflections on the reputed virtues of
his bundle theory of the self must come as a great surprise to his readers. In a somewhat
offhanded manner Hume nonchalantly suggests that the problems that he has so
meticulously investigated in section VI of the Treatise might actually be beyond the reach of
the philosopher:
The whole of this doctrine leads us to a conclusion, which is of great importance in the present affair,
viz, that all the nice and subtle questions concerning personal identity can never possibly be decided, and are to be
regarded rather as grammatical than as philosophical difficulties.
(Hume 1978, Treatise 262, my emphasis)
What? Can Hume be serious? After all that has been said and done on these issues in
the Treatise Hume wants us to accept that there are no dependable decision procedures
for settling the problems that play a large role in motivating his bundle theory of the self?
Apparently the problems on the mind that have encouraged Hume and many other
philosophers to respond to are not as substantial as might have been thought, but merely
linguistic, or “grammatical” as he puts it? Who would have thought it? Was his theory of
the self not touted as the best, if not the most reasonable solution to a lingering
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philosophical problem about the self? That is to say, was the theory not intended to help
resolve a problem that had enticed misguided philosophers to propose unacceptable
metaphysical theories such as the substance theory of the self? If the sentiments contained
in the quotation on “the nice and subtle questions” above do accurately reflect Hume’s
view – that the problems of personal identity, for instance, “can never possibly be decided”
– why does he rely on his bundle theory…
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