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.
7 thoughts on “Be Ready to Drop Your Assumptions”
Thank you for the interesting article. I was wondering what did Hume mean by sensory inputs or what he called impressions? Is it just experience that we feel with our senses?
Thanks for your comment! Hume used the word ‘impressions’ when he talked about sensory inputs. Such as sight, smell, hearing, touch etc. For Hume, there is always some impression (= sensory input) underlying any real idea that we might get in our minds. In other words, any idea that is allegedly not based on an underlying impression is an illusion. Therefore, unsurprisingly, Hume concluded that also our idea of self is just an illusion, since there is no sensory input underlying it (for example, I can never meet a ‘self’ on the street and actually see it, it exists only in my mind, not ‘out there’ and so it is not perceivable by the senses).
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But, I can feel myself, I can touch myself, so there is sensory input, so there is ‘self’!?
An idea can’t go with sensory input? It is a thinking process, but still it is part of ‘self’, me. And in case an idea is so much overwhelming, we can feel our enthusiasm, our passion, right? So, feeling isn’t a sensory input? Does Hume only refer to physical impressions only?
Thanks for sharing your view! For Hume, when you feel and touch yourself what you perceive is your physical body, not some abstract ‘self’. He understood that in every day life we call it ‘myself’ but he, like many philosophers, tried very hard to somehow pinpoint what exactly is this ‘self’. Since his basic assumption was that all true knowledge can come only through experience (again, in concrete, physical sense, not abstract), all ideas we have about ‘ourselves’ must necessarily be based on some direct sensory experience of the self (not the body and its processes). As he could not find any such direct sensory experience of a ‘self’, he concluded that it is not real and is an illusion that we create. My point here is that Hume’s basic assumption didn’t allow him to continue exploring the idea of ‘self’. He didn’t establish a ‘self’ that would be in line with his basic assumption and instead of adapting his assumption he decided that the idea of ‘self’ is a fiction. For example, he could have asked himself, who is this someone who is perceiving all the sensory experiences and then thought along those lines. But that would have probably lead him away from his preferred objective, materialistic view of the world. In other words – away from.his basic assumptions.
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Hi thankss for posting this
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I’m glad you enjoyed it