Hume, the Problem of Content, and the Idea of the Identical Self

Hume, the Problem of Content, and the Idea of the Identical Self


Abstract: After having presented his theory of personal identity in Book I, Part 4, Section 6 of A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume famously expressed a cryptic concern about it in the Appendix. This paper engages in the interpretative effort of elucidating the causes and the scope of Hume‟s retraction of his views on personal identity. I will argue that Hume‟s dissatisfaction arises from “the problem of content”. This problem points to the fact that, in Hume‟s account of the formation of our idea of the identical self, a necessary requirement for identity ascriptions is not met, and that such a requirement is the presence of the content of the successive perceptions that (according to the associative principles that he had presented throughout the Treatise) bring about the idea of identity.

Hume had applied such an identity-ascription method to external objects, noting that relations of resemblance and causation between our successive perceptions of objects give rise to our idea of their identity. In the case of the idea of the self, however, Hume‟s explanation does not work because he applies that same identity-ascription method to perceptions that do not share the same content, neither between them nor with the resulting idea. The different perceptions that, because of their rapid succession, make the imagination create the idea of the self, are not perceptions of selves. I will argue that the inadequacy of this analogy is Hume‟s source of discontent: how is a succession of ordinary perceptions of all sorts of other objects supposed to bring about the idea of an identical self? I have called this “Hume‟s gap”. When putting forward a reading of Hume‟s concerns in the Appendix, it‟s worth keeping in mind that any interpretation must regard what could have worried Hume, and not what should have worried him.1 I will show how my reading along the lines of a problem of content is faithful to the texts as well as context-sensitive.

Keywords: David Hume, personal identity, resemblance, causation

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