Humean self


In A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume (1711-1776) said

‘When I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade…I never catch myself at anytime without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception. When my perceptions are remov’d for any time, as by sound sleep; so long am I insensible of myself, and may be truly be said not to exist’

In this text, Hume claims that the self eludes us bar when we perceive and hence the self is no more than the sum of our perceptions. Furthermore, that

‘the rest of mankind…are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions’

And that

‘The mind is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance…There is properly no simplicity in it at one time, nor identity…There are the successive perceptions only, that constitute the mind; nor have we the most distant notion of the place, where these scenes are represented, or of the materials of which it is composed’.

Hume challenges our natural assumptions about the self, namely that it has unity (simplicity in Hume’s terms), and that there is a singular identity over time. Even though Hume did not discuss the sense of agency, and our awareness of distinction from the world external to us these also are aspects of the self.  For Hume and some contemporary philosophers such as Parfit and German Berrios, the self is a concept, not a thing. So the strong and urgent sense that one has of being embodied, and capable of grasping the material world by hand and manipulating it, and the feeling of being distinct and separate from others, that is of being unique, are all illusory.

Yet, in psychopathology there are cases that reveal that these notions are not mere concepts but lived and experienced. The pathologies that undermine the security of these assumptions demonstrate that the unity, identity, separateness and feeling of activity are intrinsic to how the self is structured.

Passivity experiences in schizophrenia, that is the experience of corrupted agency wherein the subject believes that he is no longer the author of his own actions but is under the control of external powers or authorities, signal that there are mechanisms, materially instantiated mechanisms, for our ‘owning’ our actions. That these mechanisms can go awry so that commonplace and ordinary actions such as swinging one’s arms, speaking, even breathing can come to seem alien. The precise mechanism need not be elucidated for there to be certainty that pathology is revealing something deep about the nature of agency, of volition and authorship. The most troubling of these passivity experiences are the so called made actions. See Daniel Schreber (1842-1911)

‘My nerves are influenced by the rays to vibrate corresponding to certain human words; their choice therefore is not subject to my will, but is due to an influence exerted on me from without. From the beginning the system of not-finishing- a-sentence prevailed, that is to say the vibrations caused in my nerves and the words so produced not mainly finished thoughts, but unfinished ideas or only fragments of ideas, which my nerves have to supplement to make up the sense’.

Singular identity over time is vouchsafed by the fact of our inhabiting one body. But, is it? Yet, rarely there are cases where the individual subject believes that he has been radically altered. Although he inhabits the same body yet his identity is different. And, what is important is that these are experiences and not merely the metaphorical use of language.

Finally, the unity of the self is itself undermined by such rare conditions as autoscopy and multiple personality disorder, in which there is fragmentation of the self into constituent parts. The best described of the multiple personality disorders is that by Morton Prince:

‘Miss Christine L Beauchamp, the subject of this study, is a person in whom several personalities have become developed; that is to say, she may change personality from time to time, often from hour to hour, and with each change her character becomes transformed and her memories altered. in addition to the real, original or normal self, the self that was born and which she was intended by nature to be, she may be anyone of …three persons’

The configuration of the self evolves out of the fact that we find ourselves in this material world. We come up against the physicality of it. It resists us and in this encounter we come to know that we are material beings with boundaries. In apprehending this material world with our limbs we come to recognize that we can manipulate the world, and that it is within our grasp, at least to a degree. Agency and willfulness derive from this. We also to come to know that there are other beings in the world. That these beings have projects of their own, that they can be unreliable and can frustrate our will. That is, that there are living beings who are independent of us. These basic ideas about the nature of the world rely on memory and categorization, and if that is what concepts are, then yes, the self is a concept. But, it is a concept drawn on structure.

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