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Hume's Theory of the Self Revisited*

  • Terence Penelhum (a1)


This paper is in two parts. I begin the first part by presenting a brief resume of an account of Hume's Section “Of Personal Identity” which I offered at length in a paper first published twenty years ago. I shall then try to respond to some criticisms of my interpretation of that Section. The authors of these criticisms consider that Hume's account of personal identity is less sceptical and more defensible than I suggested it is. The purpose of responding to these criticisms is not, I trust, that of protecting an ego: this would be an objective that would be uniquely inappropriate in such a context. It is rather to look again at some difficult but important problems in Humean exegesis. In the second part of the paper I turn to some criticisms that are commonly levelled against Hume, and which I have been inclined to subscribe to myself in the past. I do not think that a proper assessment of these criticisms depends upon accepting or rejecting the reading of Hume that I have tried to defend in the first part, so the two parts of the paper are largely independent of each other. I now incline to believe, however, that the criticisms I shall deal with in the second part are criticisms to which Hume has, or could find, quite plausible answers.



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1 “Of Personal Identity” is the Sixth Section of Part IV of Book I of the Treatise of Human Nature, pp. 251263 in the Selby-Bigge edition (Clarendon Press).

2 Hume on Personal Identity”, The Philosophical Review, Vol. LXIV, 1955, pp. 571589. This essay has been reprinted in Human Understanding, ed. Sesonske, A. and Fleming, N., Wadsworth, , 1965; Hume, ed. Chappell, V.C., Doubleday, , 1966; and Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind, ed. Morick, Harold, Foresman, Scott and Company. 1970.

3 References appear below. I should like to express my indebtedness to all the authors cited, and also to Professors Patten and Kubara and colleagues at the University of Lethbridge, who heard an earlier version of this paper.

4 An exception is the argument I offer in B2 (i) of Part Two, which does presuppose the soundness of Part One.

5 Noxon, James, “Senses of Identity in Hume's Treatise”, Dialoque, Vol. VIII, 1969. pp. 367384.

6 Ashley, Lawrence and Stack, Michael, “Hume's Doctrine of Personal Identity”, Dialogue, Vol. XIII (2), 1974, pp. 239254.

7 See particularly pp. 200–204 in Selby-Bigge.

8 “Hume on Personal Identity” pp. 574–576.

9 I think A.H. Basson interprets Hume this way, in his discussion of Section VI (see particularly pp. 130–133, in his David Hume, Penguin Books, 1958).

10 This is of course an attempted paraphrase. His words are, “What thengives us so great a propension to ascribe an identity to these successive perceptions, and to suppose ourselves possesst of an invariable and uninterrupted existence thro' the whole course of our lives?”

11 I think this criticism is involved in Strawson's comments on Hume in the penultimate paragraph of “Persons” (pp. 145–6 in Chappell's, V.C. anthology The Philosophy of Mind; Prentice-Hall, 1962). It is also found in my article “Personal Identity”, in Volume 6 of The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edwards, Paul; The Macmillan Company and the Free Press, 1967 — see page 100.

12 One version of it is in Passmore, J.A., Hume's Intentions, Cambridge University Press, 1952, pp. 8283.

13 MacNabb, D.G.C., David Hume: His Theory of Knowledge and Morality, Hutchinson, London, 1951, p. 251.

14 Smith, Norman Kemp, The Philosophy of David Hume, Macmillan, London, 1941; p. v, pp. 179183.

15 Pike, Nelson, “Hume's Bundle Theory of the Self: A Limited Defense”, American Philosophical Quarterly, Volume 4, 1967, pp. 159165.

16 In presenting my arguments in this portion of Part Two, I have proceeded as though the interpretative theses of Part One can be taken as established. Even if this is not granted, however, I would still argue that a psychological reading of Hume's programme is the more accurate, and that he is not doing logical analysis. The response to the problem of MacNabb's Hexameter would therefore have to take some form close to the one I have offered, and face the difficulty this faces, even if Pike's version of Hume would succeed in avoiding it. I am particularly indebted to Pike's essay for the realisation that Hume's account of the self has internal defences against the criticisms most commonly levelled against it, but must differ in the interpretation of the theory and the identification of the available defences.

17 See particularly Sections II–V of Part I of Book II.

18 Book II, Part 1, Section XI.

19 Book II, Part II, Sections I–III.

20 Book II, Part II, Section VIII.

* This paper was originally read on April 13, 1973, to a meeting of the Oberlin Philosophy Colloquium devoted to the Philosophy of Hume. It is planned to form part of the published Colloquium Proceedings, and I am grateful to the Oberlin Department for their kind agreement to its earlier appearance at this time. Some of the arguments of Part II were presented to the Canadian Philosophical Association in June, 1974, with comments by Amélie Rorty.

Hume's Theory of the Self Revisited*

  • Terence Penelhum (a1)


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