top of page

David Hume and "The Self"


David Hume treats “the self” as fiction; he threatens the commonly held belief that an enduring self exists by claiming that personal identity is a misleading construct. Because our existence is merely our sensory perceptions at any given point in time when we do not perceive anything we do not exist. Similarly, when we perceive different things our existence is inherently different--Hume calls into question the sameness and consistency then of our identity. In some ways, I understand Hume’s point: we bundle experiences and isolated perceptions together, feigning a concept of the self. Sometimes I may look back at days before and think how much I have changed. Besides the memory of the time I was that person, I may see myself to have no relation to the person I was freshman year of high school. Without memory then, we have no concept of the self.

However, while I understand Hume’s point about the self, I am still drawn to believe in the existence of myself. While memory adds to the narrative consistency of myself, there are yet other consistent aspects of myself that define me... First, I am biologically made up of identical and specific DNA molecules. Both 8 year old me, and current me, were composed of the same genetic material, and this structural homogeneity supports the existence of the self. Second, there are certain innate qualities that define me--vices and virtues--and fixed beliefs, that make me who I am, and have been maintained throughout my life. Third, not only through memory do I remember experiences--vague images of places I have been--but I remember specifically what I thought at a certain moment in time--establishing a more complex connection with my memory, perhaps proof of conscious consistency. I understand that each example I have given can easily be objected (what about an object like Theseus’s ship with no biological consistency, a person completely changed whose personality bears no resemblance to their childhood self, or someone with a neurological memory disorder who cannot remember prior conscious thoughts), but let me be clear, that these examples apply specifically to me, not to just anyone. My objection to Hume’s argument does not insist on the existence of the identities of other people, but rather on the identity of myself. That other people have personal identities that exist, as I do, is uncertain from my point of view. I cannot know how people change, how they think, and how they see themselves over time. I cannot know if they are even alive in the same way as me. I can, however, look at myself and recognize the sameness of my identity and definitively assert that my personal identity exists.

The Wise Kiwi Has Spoken

bottom of page