Hume on Finding an Impression of the Self

Hume Studies 11 (1):47-68 (1985)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:HUME ON FINDING AN IMPRESSION OF THE SELF 47 1 1. Introduction Descartes held that reflection on "the commonest matters", for example our recognition of a piece of wax, reveals our more fundamental awareness of ourselves. And further, if the [notion or] perception of the wax has seemed to me clearer and more distinct, not only after the sight or the touch, but also after many other causes have rendered it quite manifest to me, with how much more [evidence] and distinctness must it be said that I now know myself, since all the reasons which contribute to the knowledge of wax, or any other body whatever, are yet better proofs of the nature of my mind!2 Even if I only seem to see a piece of wax, when I have no eyes to see and there is no wax before me, I still know something. I know myself. When I judge that the wax is soft I am aware of myself as so judging. When I judge that the wax is hard, I am aware that I_ judge it so. I cannot have knowledge of external bodies without having certain knowledge of myself, because even my mere beliefs reveal my self-knowledge. Descartes exploited the insight that he is more intimately conscious of his own mind than anything else to establish that he is "a mind or a soul... a thing which thinks".3 Philosophers who did not share Descartes' rationalism still held the view that we are intimately conscious of ourselves, and that our awareness of other things enhances our self-awareness, and is epistemically dependent on it. Butler claimed that our awareness of ourselves was beyond doubt, since to doubt that awareness presupposes that we already have it. Whenever we "turn our thoughts upon ourselves" we have 48 "certain conviction, which necessarily and every moment, rises within us" of our personal identity. In A Treatise of Human Nature Hume argues against both the intelligibility of the notion of immaterial substance, and the claim that we have simple awareness of our selves independently of our awareness of other objects. when Hume turns his attention squarely to the topic of personal identity in the Treatise, he has already dismissed the rationalist notion of immaterial substance or soul. He attacks the view which tempted rationalists and empiricists alike, that our awareness of ourselves is distinct from our feeling and thinking, but is often enhanced by such experience. Hume's argument has been and continues to be influential. Recent Wittgenstein interpretation suggests that the Tractatus discussion of the unencounterability of the self in experience is directly borrowed from Hume.5 Chisholm's views concerning self-awareness are motivated in part by problems he locates in Hume's negative argument. Chisholm argues that the report that he finds no impression of self commits Hume to the existence of a subject of experience.6 Most recently, Nozick suggests that Hume did not consider the possibility that our awareness of ourselves might be isolated by employing •7 special techniques, such as yoga or meditation. In this paper I will focus on the passage in the Treatise where Hume reports his failure to find an impression of the self and presents this as an argument against the theory of self-awareness which many philosophers found irresistible. Although Hume's argument has been influential and is often discussed in contemporary literature, the Treatise passage in which it occurs appears confused. The confusion is cleared up only when it is seen that Hume really presents two 49 different arguments against the view that we are intimately conscious of ourselves. Finally I suggest how Hume's actual arguments pave the way for his positive views. 2. The Difficulty Hume's discussion of personal identity in the Treatise begins with his consideration of the view of "some philosophers, who imagine we are every moment intimately conscious of what we call our SELF."8 After characterizing the view, Hume rejects it, having found that we have no idea of self "after the manner it is here explain'd". The unnamed philosophers, as Hume understands them, take the idea of the self to be a simple idea. For Hume, a...



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Saul Traiger
Occidental College

Citations of this work

A Humean Conundrum.Ruth Weintraub - 2005 - Hume Studies 31 (2):211-224.

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References found in this work

A Treatise of Human Nature.David Hume & A. D. Lindsay - 1958 - Philosophical Quarterly 8 (33):379-380.

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