Home » Philosophy of Mind » A Question of Hume’s Theory of Personal Identity

A Question of Hume’s Theory of Personal Identity

Katja A. Behrens
Oxford Brookes University



The following essay examines a subject debated in early modern philosophy, namely the question of what constitutes persistence over time with a special focus on human nature, personhood, and the self. The main problem is centred on the concept of personal identity and how we come to identify with it. A crucial detail hereby is the definition and perspective on this concept of identity. Different approaches are significantly shaping the outlines of this debate, offering diverse solution-statements to its puzzles.  One approach suggests that a separate, mental substance is the key to personal persistence; where  the other introduces memory as being the persisting connection between spatio-temporal states of person. A third account – and core theory focussed in the essay on hand – assumes that identity as it is used in common terms is a misleading conceptualisation of what is in reality a succession of individual perceptions.

This work will particularly deal with the latter theory initiated by English philosopher David Hume. It will analyse the question of whether or not Hume’s account is plausible, whilst using the alternative approaches to present and support the essay’s central thesis: Hume’s account on personal identity is plausible. But this does not mean the thesis on hand necessarily considers Hume’s suggestion to be justifiable, infallible, or philosophically borne out; but rather that it is embracing Hume’s outlook and search for natural underlying patterns of subscribing identity to extremely changing objects; persons respectively. Hume’s thoughts about personal identity try to first trace and consecutively explain psychological processes (such as beliefs, sentiments, etc.) which are causes for people to ascribe sameness to a person based on an alleged uninterrupted and unchanging entity: the self. Hume rejects the concept of the self as a substantial entity on the basis of metaphysical factors of the concept of identity, but does not try to reduce the confusion to a merely linguistic problem either. In contrast to memory as a key factor of personal identity, Hume’s attempt at explanation introduces the ‘bundle theory of the self,’ reconciling characteristics of metaphysical identity with qualities of mental processes.

Methodologically, the paper will begin by defining key terms such as ‘plausible’ and ‘identity’ as these are crucial parts of answering the essay question. Further, it will briefly introduce opponent views on personal identity and their limitations, before outlining differences between Hume’s account and other analysed approaches. It will deal with Hume’s self-made and externally-claimed criticisms before summarising these arguments in favour of the stated thesis.


To answer the question of whether Hume’s account on personal identity is plausible it is necessary to define of what the concept of ‘plausibility’ comprises. A claim is plausible if subjectively believing in it is intelligible regardless of objective reasoning. Plausibility is mainly contrasted by probability insofar as the latter includes existence and consideration of alternatives. This in turn entails that a plausible thought could – after investigation – turn out to be false. Consequently, the concept of plausibility allows acceptance of an intelligible and intuitive claim until the opposite is proven.

Avoiding ambiguities concerning the definition of ‘identity,’ this essay will predominantly deal with numerical identity rather than qualitative identity. Hence, the view that sameness equals numerical identity, which is in turn characterised by unchanging and uninterrupted stableness. Views on Hume being confused by qualitative and quantitative meanings of identity will therefore be neglected whilst accounts taking Hume’s theory to be centred on numerical identity as a starting point.


The main questions in the debate regarding personal identity are those facing what constitutes persistence of personhood over time, i. e. what does it mean to identify someone to be ‘the same’ person as he used to be as a child, or as the person we met who was wearing different clothes? Participants in this debate discuss also which criterion of evidence we can plausibly employ in this consideration. But the debate is a matter to various variables shifting attention from one characteristic to the other. Unlike other approaches this paper will not deal with narratives or personhood, but centre persistence in greater detail and incidentally engage with epistemic concerns investigating criterions of identity. It will also approach the subject in examining motif origins of participating theories, as this perspective makes the most obvious distinctions.

Descartes’ philosophical account gives a solution according to his dualistic view on human nature in which mind and body are distinct from one another – mental and physical substances respectively. According to him, the personal identity or ‘self’ is a mental substance added to a physical or bodily substance constituting the so-called ‘entire self.’ Descartes’ view embraces changes as long as the non-physical substance remains the same. Hence his account of a persisting self does not involve any problems with change going hand-in-hand with sameness. Hume criticises this view in presenting the self as a fiction created by philosophers in attempt to bridge the gaps such theories leave behind. Descartes’ process of finding a resolution to the problem of personal identity is classified as being a rationalist’s approach, as he is convinced that knowledge about the external world can be gained through rational reasoning.

John Locke, in contrast, offers an empiricist point of view. Observation and experience reconciled in consciousness and self-consciousness are the foundations for knowledge in his philosophy. He introduces memory as being the key criterion to manifest persistence of a person over time. Locke’s theory is therefore summarised in an analogy of a flux ‘stream of consciousness,’ uniting experiences and memory in a continuous self-awareness. Various criticisms have been contrasted to this view. The simplest, but most striking counter-argument is how human dispositions of forgetfulness are combinable with such an approach. What impact would a lack of memory have, even if it is only a certain period of time one cannot remember? Would this inevitably lead to a loss of personal identity? Such questions reduce the plausibility of Locke’s account and expose inconsistencies in his ideas.

It seems as if what fundamentally distinguishes the abovementioned approaches to personal identity is the philosophical stance from which they emerge: their mutual belief in personal identity and its persistence over time. Problematic of each account is their undeniable refutability.


Hume and Locke, in contrast to Descartes, investigate human nature from an ant’s or empiricist’s point of view – and both of them reject the self as being a distinct substance persisting over time. But Hume’s account of personal identity seems to approach the subject in a more naïve, or ‘observing’ manner than does Locke’s. In contrast to Locke, Hume tries to follow and understand psychological habits of human beings before trying to resolve them. In this connection he is predominantly interested in analysing what he calls ‘the vulgar,’ meaning the ‘non-philosophical’ people. Hume claims linguistic consent to be flawed in calling persons ‘the same’ who are inevitably subject to essential changes in body and mind over time. He therefore does not take ascription of identity to persons for granted, but rather suspects a ‘metaphysical-cum-semantic’ issue in doing so.  He nevertheless acknowledges that non-philosophical people seem to be aware of the fact that those habits are not accurate (viz. not justifiable) in relation to the concept of numerical identity. Hence, even in the common view, the concept of numerical identity or sameness excluded changes and is constituted by unchanging, uninterrupted, and stable characteristics. Hume argues, regardless to how complex a possible solution to the notion of a persisting identity might be, that this distinct substance of the ‘self’ is a gap-filling fiction.

Hume suggests the self is ‘nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.’ Hume compares the mind to a theatre upon whose stage we are observing perceptions and experiences like scenery and actors. Our imagination, nevertheless, fools us into conceiving  a single entity, despite having no perception from which we might draw onto the mind or the self. Explicitly stressed in this notion of a ‘succession of related objects’ is the significance of sentiments as being the cause for calling things identical. Hume attends to this matter because he finds that sensations towards an imagination of identity are similar to those perceived towards a succession of objects. He considers memories to take over an essential part in creating personal identity, but avoids the problem of forgetfulness in declaring causality to be the connection allowing us to ‘extend identity beyond memory.’

Similar to the other presented theories, Hume’s account on personal identity is subject to criticism. What is special about his argument is that he himself feels the need to acknowledge a contradiction for which he can provide no answer: the origin of his idea that each perception is a distinct entity. One response to this issue is that Hume cannot help but espouse the common belief that there are connections between distinct experiences which are neither traceable nor tangible through introspection. This would explain his usage of words describing instances beyond mere perceptions such as ‘mind’, ‘self’, and ‘soul’. It seems as though concepts of these entities serve to construct an idea of connections between perceptions regarding identity where, according to Hume’s original notion, there are none.  Pike offers an apology to this criticism in claiming Hume’s theory is an analysis of the mind. Despite opponent interpretations of Hume entirely denying the notion of mind, Pike argues that Hume bundle of perceptions constitutes a conceptual mind. On this notion, what Hume denies is the philosophical idea of the mind as a mental substance; and this in turn would be in accordance with his use of such terms as ‘mind’ and ‘self’.

So far provided insight in the debate about personal identity exposes the problem of reconciling variables in the criterion for existence, psychological fundaments, and continuity of personal identity. What distinguishes Hume’s account is his high level of naivety with which he begins his inquiry. The subject of personal identity (as well as his other investigations into human nature) changes Hume’s stance noticeably from a naturalist origin to a rather sceptical outlook. Though starting his exploration with a tendency to argue in favour of accepting and trusting one’s natural intuitions, Hume finishes in acknowledging that he does not feel that he should trust his own senses. Although these doubts may have been cornerstones in presenting personal identity over time as irresolvable, Hume changes sway towards the end of his inquiry in establishing ‘a system or set of opinions, which if not true (for that, perhaps, is too much to be hoped for), might at least be satisfactory to the human mind, and might stand the test of the most critical examination.’ In other words – returning to the original question – he is appealing to a consistent and plausible account for what constitutes persistence in personal identity over time, based in ‘vulgar’ or ‘common’ notions. This essay forwards the thesis that he succeeds in observing and plausibly describing underlying patterns of attributing identity to individual persons. Doubts concerning his account could be seen as capitulations to the belief in personal persistence regardless of rational commitments elsewhere. Finally, he allows common intuitions and linguistic practices to suffice as justification in the belief in personal identity over time, when saying that he allows himself to follow his natural inclination even in philosophical investigation.


To summarise, then, the essay on hand presents an argumentation in favour of the plausibility of Hume’s account on personal identity. Plausibility appeals to the degree of intelligibility of a claim rather than its infallibility and unfailing justification. Hume approaches the preliminary human phenomenon of personal identity on what he considers to be the very basis of its appearance: common linguistic habits and notions. His account establishes itself in contrast to views that proffer the self as a mental substance, or those which place memory as a key factor in persistence, in not giving a definite answer. On the basis of his inspection he describes his findings and subsequently reconciles them with other facts regarding individuals. This results in his argument considering only the metaphysical criterion of identity, though this is nevertheless plausible if not justified in being commonly accepted. His self-criticism is accounted here to emphasise the authenticity of his theory, as it confronts natural human inclination with philosophical accuracy. The essay on hand has dealt with perniciousness and probable ambiguities of the subject, as well as contemporary views on Descartes and Locke and their respective limitations. Restrictions to Hume’s theory are sustainably annihilated and moreover reverted to strengthen the goal of his mission. Hume’s theory is intuitive and intelligible, and restricted only in his natural identification with human nature.


Works Cited

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1 Comment

  1. Kjetil Haugen says:

    The author adds: I believe the editor of this journal needs some nice words related to this contribution. Thanks a lot George for brushing up my English to the present level. And again, the best of luck with this project. The scientific world needs such initiatives.

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