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On Hume and Trying to Interpret His Appendix

I will first present Humes theory of the self and personal identity. Then I will present the

problem that in the appendix Hume raises regarding it, and I will next struggle to interpret the

problem, concluding with the fact that.

Humes theory of the self and personal identity is that the self is simply a bundle of

perceptions, which are constantly in flux and succession, and personal identity doesnt really

exist but is felt from the thoughts smooth and uninterrupted transition through ideas, which

this transition is produced by the mental principles of resemblance and causation. To understand

this theory, let us consider the aims first and then we will consider how Hume goes about to

achieve it.

Let us first consider the aims of the theory. First, Hume wishes to show that the generally

accepted or popular view (or at least this is the view he targets) or the view held by some

philosophers regarding self and personal identity, which is a metaphysically laden view, is

wrong. According to the metaphysical view, there is something that is the self, and this self is not

simply the perceptions that constitute our experience. This self also persists and continues over

time, and the continuity of this self over time accounts for personal identity. Second, Hume seeks

to provide a different explanation regarding the ideas of self and personal identity, naturalistic

view. He proposes this view to supplant the metaphysical view. Humes naturalistic view of the

self is that the self is simply a bundle of perceptions, which are constantly in succession. As for
personal identity, Hume doesnt think there is really such a thing as personal identity, but he

thinks that personal identity is just a notion that one feels in one thought as thought transitions

smoothly from one idea to another. Furthermore, the smooth transition is the result of two mental

principles in their connecting of ideas in the imagination: resemblance and causation.

To critique the metaphysical view and support his, Hume first employs his meaningful

principle: all real or meaningful ideas are derived from impressions. Thus, if an idea has no

impression from which it is derived, it is not a real or meaningful idea. This sets the stage for

his critique of the metaphysical view and the support of his own view.

Next, Hume criticizes the metaphysical view and support his naturalistic view based on

our experience of the self. Hume says that if the metaphysical view is true, as in there is a self

and it continues over time, then, by the meaningfulness principle, we should be able to see in

ourselves an impression that is the source of the idea of self, and the impression should persist

over time. But Hume denies that there is any one impression that is the basis of the idea of the

self. This is because whenever one attempts to look into, observe, or in anyway feel the self, one

can see, observe, or feel nothing but the perceptions. Thus, there isnt any one impression from

which our sense of self is derived; rather, our self is referenced in a multitude of perceptions.

Second, no impressions remain constant, for the perceptions come and go in flux. Thus, the

metaphysical view of the self and its persistence is simply not a real idea according to Hume, for

there is no one impression nor persistent continuity of impressions that the idea can derive from.

Furthermore, Hume takes it that our experience of the self suggest a naturalistic view of self and

identity. As in, the self is really nothing more than our perceptions, and there is no real identity

over time as the perceptions are constantly in flux and changing.

Next, Hume provides an argument against the idea of there truly being identity in the

sense of there being some connection that binds the perception. Hume says that when we say that

there is identity, this can mean two things. Either there is some actual bond between the

perceptions that tie together in a union, or we simply feel that there is identity because of the

association of ideas in the mind. The former would an actual identity amongst the perceptions,

and would be espoused by the metaphysical view, and the latter is not an actual identity but just a

sense or feeling of identity, and would be espoused by a naturalistic view. Now, Hume argues

that it cant be the former. Hume says this because he has established previously that the human

understanding cannot perceive any connections between objects. Even in the case of cause and

effect, this supposed relation between objects really turns out to be just association of ideas.

Thus, there can be no perceived connection between the perceptions, and consequently there can

be no actual identity in which the perceptions are bonded together.

Ruling out the former metaphysical view, Hume takes it if there is any kind of identity, it

is the latter, pseudo kind of identity (pseudo isnt a word he uses, but I think it fits in well here)

in which its really just our mind associating the ideas together in a union. According to Hume,

there are only three relations (resemblance, contiguity, and causation) that can be the cause for

such a union, and Hume rules out contiguity as irrelevant, leaving only resemblance and

causation. Importantly, Hume says that because the essence of how these three relations associate

ideas is by making for an easy transition of ideas, this unity of ideas, as in identity, that is

produced by these relations is really just the easy transition of ideas. Thus, Hume establishes

through his argument and its consequences that there is no real identity, and that when we make a

claim to personal identity, the identity claimed is just a feeling that results from the easy

transition of ideas in our mind.

To complete his explanation of personal identity, Hume explains how the relations of

resemblance and causation produce a succession of perceptions and consequently our identity.

First, the relation of resemblance is significant in that the resemblance of a present perception to

the past is what creates a perceived relation between them. Memory is how this relation of

resemblance is made. To elaborate, memory helps facilitate for a transition from the past to the

present through making us recognize the resemblance of present perception to a past one. On the

other hand, causation is significant because, according to Hume, the mind is really just a chain of

cause and effects: impressions lead to ideas, ideas to lead to impressions, one thought causes

another, while the other thought causes another, and so on. In essence, Hume is saying that this

constant transitioning from one perception or idea to another is what constitutes the mind. Hume

elaborates by saying that this makes sense as this is consistent with the fact that peoples identity

persists in spite of changes; it is because our mind is not simply one mental thing within the

succession but the constant succession or flux of mental things, that it is possible for a person to

experience certain changes and yet maintain ones identity.

Having explained both relations, Hume goes on to explain that memory is more important

for personal identity, as it is by it that one is acquainted with the succession of perceptions that

is the self, or, in other words, chain of causes and effects which constitute our self or person.

However, Hume says that memory in itself is not necessary for personal identity. This is because

one could be identical to one self in the past, and one could lack memory or enough memory of

that self. By causation, however one can consider and recognize those selves of the past, and thus

recognize the identity. Thus, to Hume, memory by itself does not create personal identity, but

rather it helps recognize personal identity by helping us be acquainted with the causation, or

succession of perceptions, that constitute our mind.

To summarize, Hume thinks that memory allows for the mental relation of causation, and

memory and causation together create the smooth and uninterrupted transition of ideas in the

mind. This smooth transition of ideas is what makes us feel personal identity. As for the self,

Hume thinks that there is no self other than the bundle of perceptions which are constantly in



In the appendix, Hume reflects that his theory is problematic. In two points in the

appendix, Hume identifies the problem with his theory as one of mystery, mystery regarding how

to explain the connection between the perceptions: that he is unable to explain the principle of

connection which binds them together and makes us attribute to them a real simplicity and

identity or the principles that unite our successive perceptions in our thought or

consciousness. At another point, Hume identifies the problem his theory as a dilemma, as in he

has two conflicting principles, both of which he takes to be true, and he doesnt know which of

them to concede: all our distinct perceptions are distinct existences and the mind never

perceives any real connection among distinct existences.

Here is my explication of Humes worry. Hume believes that there is an underlying

principle that connects our perceptions in unity, and the unity that is caused by this principle

leads us to attribute to the unity a self and identity. However, there are two problems with this.

First, he is unable to explain what this principle is. Second, given the distinct existences of the

perceptions and that the mind never perceives a connection between distinct existences, he thinks

that the perceptions cannot possibly have a perceivable connection that binds them.

Now, first of all, the problem with this problem seems to be that the view Hume is

criticizing here is inconsistent with Humes original views! By this, I mean that here in the

appendix Hume is premising that there really is a connection between the perceptions, and yet, in

the original passages, Hume simply premises that there isnt such a connection. Previously, in the

argument he raised himself against identity, he says either there is a connection between the

perceptions, or there isnt really a connection and we just feel that there is some bond and this

feeling is a result of the association of ideas. And after that, Hume simply chooses the latter. Here

in the appendix Hume finds himself puzzled because he finds himself unable to reconcile the

idea that there is a connection between the perceptions with the idea that there cant be a

connection between the perceptions. Yet, in prior passages, he recognizes this very conflict and

just goes with the latter; since the mind never recognizes a perceived connection between

objects, therefore it cant be the case that there is a connection between the perceptions. It seems

that previously, Hume already recognized the conflict of ideas and he simply made his decision

without any question. The real question here is why does he now find himself unable to decide

when he previously just made a choice.

However, perhaps I am simply misunderstanding Hume, and there might be a way to

recognize the problem Hume speaks of. Perhaps there are two kinds or levels of connection that

Hume is talking about. In the original passages, Hume was talking about whether there was

something that really binds our several perceptions together in which there is some real bond

among his perceptions that produces identity. Here, Hume is either talking about the principles

that unite our successive perceptions in our thought or consciousness. In the original passages,

Hume was considering whether the perceptions themselves had some bond, and in the appendix,

Hume is considering whether there is some principle in our consciousness or our thinking that
unites the perceptions as we think about them. This interpretation would be consistent with

Humes original view. This is because in his original view, he considered that there was no

unifying principle amongst the perceptions themselves, but rather he takes it that we simply

associate the ideas together in our mind. If the ideas are associated together in the mind, we can

ask the question that Hume is asking here in the appendix. That is, what is the unifying principle

that associates the principles together in the mind?

If we assume this interpretation of Humes worries regarding his theory, there perhaps

could be a legitimate problem that Hume raises regarding his original view. Hume originally

thought he explained away the principle unifying the perceptions that leads us to attribute

identity by moving the unification from the perceptions to unification of ideas in the mind. But,

as Hume notes in the appendix (assuming this interpretation), the same problem arises in which

one could ask what is the unifying principle in the mind that associates the ideas together?

I must say, however, that even if this is supposed to be the right interpretation of Hume,

I find the interpretation and the legitimacy of this interpretation to be very questionable. First of

all, if Hume is considering what principle in our mind could it be that associates the ideas

together, didnt he answer this question by considering the mental relations of resemblance and

causation? Second, in the appendix, Hume never talks about association or ideas, but rather

he only talks about connection and perceptions. That is, it seems that Hume is really locating

the mystery of unifying principle at the level of perceptions and not at the level of ideas in the

mind. Thus, this interpretation seems problematic, since the mystery seems solved by the mental

relations, and the interpretation seems inconsistent with what Hume suggests in the appendix.

I am thus at a conflict regarding how to understand the supposed problem that Hume

raises in the appendix. Either, we go with my first interpretation and he is puzzled by the idea of
there being a unifying principle among the perceptions. But this doesnt seem to be a problem for

Humes original view, since in his original view he simply denies that there is a unifying

principle. Or, we can go with my second interpretation and he is puzzled by the idea of there

being a unifying principle among the ideas associated in the mind. But the problem that this

interpretation raises for Hume seems answerable and it is questionable that this is how to

interpret Hume. I am ultimately at a loss regarding how to make sense of the supposed problem

that Hume sees with his own view.