David Hume — Is there a Self?

Posted: January 15, 2014 in Philosophy
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This is a video essay looking how philosopher David Hume questions the existance of the “self”, and tries to define what it means.


In the broadest possible terms, the “self” can be defined as the unique identity of a person over time. It is a source of consciousness within a unified being. It is the “agent” responsible for the thoughts and actions of an individual. It can also be interpreted as the traits and characteristics of a person, as observed by others. Some philosophers have argued that a person is their memories—that we define ourselves by past experience—though perhaps the self is the spirit, or maybe it is the body the houses it. David Hume argues that the self is an illusion.

Hume asks us consider how we view ourselves. We think of ourselves as stable entities that exist over time. He argues, however, that no matter how closely we examine our own experiences, we never observe anything beyond a series of temporary feelings and sensations. We cannot observe ourselves in a unified way, only what we are experiencing at a specific moment in time. Hume suggests that the self is really just a bundle of perceptions, like links in a chain. Trying to find a unifying self beyond those perceptions is like trying to find a chain outside those links. He describes these perceptions as either memory or the imagination of the mind.

Hume treats the mind like a theatre, through which many perceptions make appearances, mingle and fall back. We sense our self through these perceptions, as a result of our experiences. But during long periods in which our perceptions are removed, such as sleep, then the self no longer exists. Hume is argues that the self is an entirely illusory force, and that identity we have for ourselves is not stable at all, but fleeting. This almost stands in opposition of the philosophical mantra—“I think therefore I am”—which locates the self in the act of thinking.

Hume makes a compelling argument that there is no such thing as the self. At any given point you are only experiencing the thoughts in your head. For example, you’re now hearing me speak and feeling the chair beneath you. You might be a little hungry or thirsty, but can you really look inside yourself at this point and see a permanent self. Sure you may have memories of things you’ve done, but to quote the film Memento: “Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the colour of a car. And memories can be distorted. They’re just an interpretation.” We are a different person from who we were 5 years ago, both in body and mind, and we will be a different person in 5 years to come. So who are we but a bundle of perceived thoughts and feelings, encased in an ever changing shell?

I think one aspect of our identifiable self is the feeling of what it’s like to be us. A familiarity with our own metal landscape, and the unique way we each feel and digest experiences. While perception is subjective and memories can certainly be distorted and forgotten, I feel there is an inner consciousness that persists over time and develops a distinct and familiar way of viewing the world. And that this is the “self”.

Some questions to consider:

  • What are we when we are asleep? We have no senses and perceive nothing. Our body may continue to exist but does our self?
  • If our memories were erased would we be the same person?
  • Could we learn who we used to be from friends and family? If so, is our self internal or observed by others?

Works Cited

Hume, David. “Of the Sceptical and Other Systems of Philosophy.” A Treatise of Human Nature. 1739.


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