This last weekend I was working on my first academic philosophy writing, an essay on Hume’s views of the “self”. He was a convinced empiricist and was sceptical about rationalism and its assumption that we can know things based on and thanks to our reason alone. Hume thought that the only way we can develop any real ideas is by first having corresponding sensory inputs (he called them “impressions”). In other words, for Hume, we can only learn through experience. Therefore, his conclusion regarding this elusive notion of the “self” was that, basically, it is an illusion. The idea of the self cannot be real, in his view, because he could not identify any corresponding sensory input that would “impress” the idea of the self onto us.
The problem that still remained and that Hume seemed to struggle to explain within his framework was this – what makes me feel that all the sensory inputs and all the ideas are somehow glued together in whole experiences? Even more importantly- what makes me feel that all these experiences are indeed mine? It was difficult for Hume to come up with an answer that would fit to his basic assumption that every real idea starts necessarily with an impression, a direct sensory input.
Here enters the title of this article. If Hume would have allowed for a possibility that the truth lies somewhere in the middle, not simply in either empiricism or in rationalism, then he might have been more ready to drop his basic assumptions and come up with new, more comprehensive ones. Instead, he opted for answering these uncomfortable questions in a manner that would allow him to stick to his initial assumptions – the idea of a continuous self is an imaginary fiction created by our minds.
It is exactly this kind of approach that I take issue with, although I understand how difficult it is for us, humans, to drop something so dear to us – our basic assumptions, foundations of so many mental castles that we build throughout our lives. Yet, we are the ones building them, so we can also give them a new shape. In my view, that is how development happens.