philosophy is for everyone
and not just philosophers

philosophers should know lots
of things besides philosophy

Philosophical Connections

Electronic Philosopher

Feature Articles

University of London BA

Philosophy Lovers Gallery

PhiloSophos Home

International Society for Philosophers

Hume's argument against a substantial self or soul


To: Jeffrey D.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hume's argument against a substantial self or soul
Date: 19th March 2008 12:02

Dear Jeffrey,

Thank you for your email of 9 March, with your first essay for Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'The philosopher Hume remarked that when he looked into himself, he never succeeded in catching sight of his 'self', but only of particular thoughts, feelings and perceptions. Is that a valid argument against the idea of a soul?'

One of the things I have tried to emphasise is that there is no 'correct' way to write an essay. What you have written, in my view, is excellent. The only thing lacking is your own appreciation of what you have done -- a mental model which places it within a certain genre of philosophical writing.

Descartes' 'Meditations' is an example of that genre. You are taking the reader along with you in a philosophical exploration, a meditation on a particular philosophical question.

Let me first say what I think is the point of Hume's remark. He is not just confessing personal ignorance. He is making a philosophical point against Descartes. According to Descartes, the one thing I cannot doubt is my existence. I know that I exist, and this 'I' is an enduring self, a mental 'substance' with attributes of thinking, perceiving, feeling, doubting etc.

In the Second Meditation Descartes presents his case for this mental substance, in effect, inviting the reader to perform the same mental experiment. And Hume's response is flat denial. What Hume's 'failure' to perceive his 'self' implies is that Descartes is not in fact reporting on his experience, or something that is directly presented to his subjective view but rather giving a theory.

In other words, Hume is presenting a phenomenological claim, a claim about how things *actually* appear. Sometimes we can be wrong about how things appear (odd as that might seem). We mix up appearances with prior beliefs and prejudices. That is the basis for the philosophical movement known as 'Phenomenology'. Before we can produce anything like a philosophical 'theory' we have to be clear about what it is that the theory is intended to explain, what the phenomena are *really* like. And that proves to be a much harder task than one first thought.

The key point, for me, in your essay is, 'I looked inside a car and I only see pieces that compose it.' Imagine someone who is totally ignorant of cars and how they work asking to be shown the engine. You open up the bonnet and say, 'There it is!' But they are still mystified. 'Is that the engine?', they keep asking, pointing to various components, the radiator, the cylinder head, the air filter. 'The whole thing is the engine!'

Gilbert Ryle makes the same point in his book 'Concept of Mind', using the example of a visitor to a university pointing at various buildings and asking, 'Is that the university?' In Ryle's view, the idea that there has to be a mental 'thing' which is the self is a 'category mistake'. Ryle would therefore approve of Hume's remark, even though Ryle would say that Hume had not fully succeeded in exorcising the 'ghost in the machine'.

Your view is that 'the whole thing' is the self, the various mental components which compose the system known by itself as 'self'. And that is Hume's view too. For Hume, the 'self' is a fiction, a convenient label for the mental system which according to his theory is built upon the principle of the 'association' and the 'bundling' of 'ideas'.

If there was a 'soul', it would have to play some role in this system. Maybe it does. But in that case the soul would be just one of the components of the system comprising the 'self' not the self as such. I think this is a point you seem to be making with your discussion of Aquinas.

Another point which comes out of your essay has a Kantian flavour: the idea that the system 'self' only comes into being in parallel with recognition of an external 'world'. It is through the proper functioning of the mental system -- taking experiences and forming a representation of an external world -- that the idea of the self as subject of experience arises, not as an immediate object of experience but rather as a necessary concept. We form the notion of a self through our interaction with a world.

What I would strongly suggest at this point is that you read some Descartes. Not the Discourse but the Meditations, or at least the first two Meditations.

I would like to see you try other essay formats, if only to convince yourself that you 'can do it'. After you have written your 'meditation' go through it and see how you would assemble the various points in an explanation, e.g. which you would give to a friend who was curious about philosophy. It's not that difficult. Try it and see!

All the best,