Hume on Perceptions and Persons

Hume Studies 10 (2):125-138 (1984)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:125 HUME ON PERCEPTIONS AND PERSONS Hume's account of personal identity,1 though defective by his own lights as an answer to the questions he frames, is not as wildly unacceptable as many readers have supposed. An indication of its power and a feature that many recent readers have missed is that Hume can cite any bit of data which we could in the course of trying to ascertain the identity of a person. Now, it seems pretty evident that facts about the body of a person are relevant to a determination of identity or "oneness" of that person. It is not commonly recognized that such facts are fully available to the would-be Knower within Hume's perspective. It is possible, I surmise, that twentieth century readers have been misled in their reading of Hume by their own assumptions about "mind" and "mental objects;" there may be some assumptions which we take for granted, but which Hume would not accept. Below I will offer some brief speculations about this matter, though it is not my main concern. Mainly I want to show that Hume's persons can have bodies. First I will present what I take to be the standard way of reading Hume's account of personal identity nowadays. Next I will show that a careful reading of the Treatise supports my claim that Hume's perspective does not rule out as inadmissible data concerning the physical aspect of being a person. Our problem here is to determine what perceptions are for Hume. Finally I will illustrate the effect my view has when it comes to understanding what a person is. I. The Standard View Let me sketch "the person" whose identity we are to investigate, according to the standard way of reading Hume when we take up the topic of personal 126 identity. I shall use for my sketch several works by 2 Terence Penelhum. Penelhum's view of the matter is widely accepted, typical, and it has the virtue of being clear and explicit on the topic which concerns us. We may conveniently begin by recalling the way in which Hume attacked those philosophers who hold that each of us is intimately conscious of our self and is certain of its "perfect identity and simplicity." Against this claim Hume reported that his own introspection never reveals anything but "some particular perception or other." (T 252) He concludes from this that a person is "... nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions." His problem, of course, is that we do not ordinarily think of a person as1 being nothing but a bundle or collection of anything, much less one constituted by perceptions. It strikes us that a person has greater unity, and a different kind of unity, than any bundle or mere collection would have. Hume proceeds to construct an explanation of why we have "so great a propension to ascribe an identity to these successive perceptions, and to suppose ourselves possest of an invariable and uninterrupted existence thro' the whole course of our lives." (T 253) The explanation Hume offers in the subsequent discussion is not our present concern; briefly, his view is that "in our common way of thinking" we confuse two ideas. One is that of an object that remains the same over some period of time (the idea of identity) and the other is that of several related objects existing in succession (the idea of diversity). It happens that distinct things can blend together for the human mind, provided that the things are sufficiently alike. The imagination passes smoothly over the differences and it feels the same to 127 us as one thing does. So the identity we are talking about is really "fictitious." Having glanced at the explanation Hume offers, let us go back for a moment to the question which calls for the explanation in the first place. Regarding the character of Hume's question, Penelhum makes the following observation....the question [which Hume asks about personal identity]... is importantly restricted. It is a question about our ascription of unity to a succession of perceptions; i.e. it is about what we call a mind, rather than what we...



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