I was reading Alison Gopnik's essay in The Atlantic, "How an 18th-Century Philosopher Helped Solve My Midlife Crisis", and I came across the following

[...] the coherent self is an illusion. My research had convinced me that our selves are something we construct, not something we discover. I had found that when we are children, we don’t connect the "I" of the present to the "I" of the past and the future. We learn to be who we are.

Now I understand this somewhat -- I(Present) = I(Past) + Conscious Effort. But why would that imply that we do not connect who we are at present to what we were in the past? Is it because the conscious act of learning to be who we are also erases our understanding (if one ever existed) of who we were in the past? More fundamentally, what does it mean to say that we do not connect the "I" of the present with the "I" of the past?


Hume regards the self - the 'I' - as a kind of fiction. On a traditional view such as that of Descartes there is a persisting mind or continuant which possesses attributes - it thinks, imagines, perceives. Hume's challenge is that ideas and impressions in his language - thoughts, imaginings, perceptions in ours - are real enough as occurrents. He can report them. What he cannot do is to experience the persisting mind or continuant that has them.

His explanation is that there is no such continuant - and personal identity doesn't consist in having it. All impressions and ideas are separate, discrete, singular occurrences but there are resemblances between them. These resemblances - the similarity of impressions when one impression of a blue ball follows instantaneously another impression of a blue blue which follows another impression and so on - creates the illusion that a continuing self has been watching the same blue ball for (say) five minutes. In fact, in Hume's view, it is the repetition of similar impressions, 'which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity' (Treatise of [not 'on'] Human Nature, 1739-40, I.IV.6), which creates via the imagination the illusion that 'we', a continuing, persistent self, have been looking at, perceiving, the ball for five minutes.

There are immense philosophical difficulties in Hume's account. So serious were they that, first trying to tackle them in an Appendix, he gave up and never returned to the topic. But he also never surrendered his view of the fictive nature of the self or 'I'. David Fate Norton (ed.) 'The Cambridge Companion to Hume', Cambridge, 1993 is a useful place to start exploring.

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  • That second paragraph is a thought I can safely say I have never thought before. I basically interpret that to mean that we are nothing but the sum of our impressions or experiences. So then what role does free will play in Hume's conception of self? If there is no continuant to privilege one impression over the other, then who is learning to be? – tchakravarty Dec 18 '17 at 18:32
  • @tchakravarty. Interesting point. May I come back to you on it ? I need to organise my thoughts but you have put your finger on a crucial difficulty in Hume's account. Thank you. – Geoffrey Thomas Dec 18 '17 at 20:16

When you refer to the I of the past what are you referring to?

Think on this question. What the I of the past is, and how it exists in the present is mostly in the form of a conversation. There is the present where the body is acting, but something is referencing the past in some fashion. As Douglas Hofstadter says in I Am A Strange Loop:

In the end, we are self-perceiving, self-inventing, locked-in mirages that are little miracles of self-reference.

We are who we are in the present as an illusion which is something like an infinite regress of self-reference. If we ask who we are now, we attempt to find ourselves in the past (everything is past - on the cutting edge of the present, there is nothing), but the me who I would find in the past doesn’t exist in any way that is real. In fact, if I look into the past for a definition, I can imagine a self that exists only in reference to some further past, ad infinitum.

When considering a solid you, that which is considering only finds that there is no such thing. You can find yourself in the present as action, but then there is no you that is inserted between experience and action. There is only doing/being and the one doing/being is not something that has existence apart from the doing / being itself. Self is not a fixed thing that exists with substance. If so, touch it/point to it.

The only place the you from the past has existence is in a conversation about the you from the past. The person you are in the present is not grounded in the past. The you that you are is grounded in the conversation you are having with yourself about reality in the present.

Freud, when speaking about Neurosis, said of the patient:

He is obliged to repeat the repressed material as a contemporary experience instead of, as the physician would prefer to see, remembering it as something belonging to the past

Here, the material of self is not a thread that connects now with the past. The self experiences itself in the present, and is often bound to the illusion that the self in the past exists and has substance.

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