A Contrast of the Concepts of the Self From Rene Descartes and David Hume

Rene Descartes and David Hume held opposing theories about the ‘self’ and of personal identity. Rather than accepting previously acknowledged truths, Descartes deliberately ignored the philosophers who preceded him and was determined to discover truths for himself. He broke away from the traditional theocentric trend of thought and build his own systematic method in which he used to arrive at the certainty of the existence of the self. He used this as his starting point in his own philosophy, claiming to be that which he is most certain of.

After Descartes, David Hume, a Scottish philosopher, aimed at describing how the mind works in acquiring knowledge and accurately concluded that no theory of reality is possible as there can be no knowledge of anything beyond experience. Hume abandoned the concept of the self and, in doing so, debunked Descartes’ theory, arguing that the ‘self’ does not really exist, but rather we are all simply a series of impressions or perceptions.

Descartes was committed to providing a more solid foundation for philosophy.

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He was determined to search for and discover one thing that was certain and undoubtable which could then be used as the foundation of the philosophical system upon which all other truths would be built. Descartes knew that in order to reach this type of certainty, he would first have to consider all his prior knowledge as false. Descartes stated that, “in order to seek truth, it is necessary once in the course of our life, to doubt, as far as possible, of all things” (Selections from the Principles of Philosophy).

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He began his line of thought by emptying his mind and by doubting all that he used to know. This is known as his methodic doubt.

Descartes came to believe that it was possible to be deceived by his senses and for those things which he thought to be real, only be in his dreams. Due to this, he viewed the senses and intellect as uncertainties and considered everything derived from these things as untrustworthy and false. After having doubted virtually everything as true, Descartes realized that he in fact cannot doubt the fact that he is thinking, for by doubting that he is thinking, he is confirming it. Although Descartes believed to confirm that thinking or doubting does exist, he thought of it as not having an independent existence, and, therefore, needed a substance to be a property of. He concluded that this substance that thinking is to be an essence of is none other than the mind, or the cogito. Descartes claims: “I am nothing so long as I shall be conscious that I am something. So that it must, in fine, be maintained, all things being maturely and carefully considered, that this proposition, ‘I am, I exist’ is necessarily true each time it is expressed by me or conceived in my mind” (Meditations II). Thus, Descartes’ first certitude was his existence; “I think therefore I am” (Meditations on First Philosophy).

Following his establishment of Cogito Ergo Sum, Descartes posed the question: “But what then am I? A thinking thing, it has been said. But what is a thinking thing? Is it a thing that doubts, understands, conceives, affirms, denies, wills, refuses, that imagines, and also perceives” (Meditations II)? In the process of doubting everything, Descartes had also doubted himself, including what he is. Thus, ‘Cogito ergo sum’ has only succeeded in establishing that Descartes is a thinking being. And so, Descartes began to explain that he perceives clearly that he performs physical activities through some parts of himself, such as his head and his feet, which he calls his body. To Descartes, the body is an extended substance which is distinct from his essence as a thinking being. The body and the mind are therefore, two kinds of substances, each of which is different and can exist independent of one another, although they interact. With this thought, Cartesian dualism was created.

The certainty that Descartes holds for the existence of the ‘self’ received much approval as well as much criticism. One of the most prominent of those who criticized his thought, specifically his theory of the self, was David Hume. Hume’s line of thought originated from the empiricist school of thought. The accounts of Hume’s stance on the ‘self’ or personal identity are found in his book, “A Treatise on Human Nature.” In Book I, part IV, section VI, Hume writes, “all knowledge is to be traced back from an impression” (Of Personal Identity). Hume separated our perceptions into two classes: impressions and ideas. Hume draws a distinction between impressions and ideas stating that impressions arise from the senses and are lively and vivid perceptions, whereas ideas arise when we reflect upon those impressions and come from memory or the imagination.

With this, one might ask how can I have an idea of something when I have not perceived such in reality? This is a common refutation against empiricism. According to Hume, impressions are distinct from one another. Thus, we tend to create connections between the separate perceptions through our imagination. The connections exist only in our minds for nothing really is connected, rather, things are only conjoined.

Hume’s theory establishes that we connect distinct ideas through three ways: resemblance, contiguity, and causation. These principles of connections are also those principles with which we apply to our claim that we have an identity or to the idea of the existence of the self. The impression that gives rise to the idea of the self is one that: “must continue invariably the same, through the whole course of our lives; since self is supposed to exist after that manner” (Hume, Of Personal Identity). Therefore, identity is something that remains as it is, regardless of the many changes that one goes through. However, Hume then asks: from what impression can we trace the existence of an identity? To answer this, Hume argues that because the ‘self’ must be a constant, persisting, stable thing, but all knowledge is derived from impressions, which are transient, non-persisting, variable things, it follows that we do not really have knowledge of a ‘self’ and as a result, there is no self. Therefore, Hume disagrees on the dominating idea of the self and goes on to say that it is nothing but a bundle of a variety of perceptions which succeed each other with such speed that it is impossible for us to conceive. He believes that even the slightest change can destroy our identity and therefore, we are nothing but a fleeting moment.

The distinction of Descartes’ and Hume’s thoughts begin in their approaches to thinking. Descartes dwelled on not what was probable but what is true. He is classified as a rationalist due to his distrust of how the senses perceives without the mind. His attempt to the advancement of knowledge only comes after his discovery of where it comes from. He aimed at discovering an indubitable truth through use of his methodic doubt. At the conclusion of his doubt, he realized that he thinks, and therefore he is.

Hume on the other hand, was faithful in following the empiricist tradition. His main goal was to advance our understanding on the acquisition of knowledge. He applied this to his notion of the understanding of the self. He holds that the kind of self that Descartes claims as existing is only a fabrication of our mind. Many interpretations of Hume’s “Of Personal Identity” mistake his account as an attempt to explain what it is that we have in an existing identity when in reality, his effort was in denying such a possibility. It is a negative explanation of the possibility of knowing the self. Hume believed that our conventional idea of a personal identity is fictitious, for, we are, but a bundle of several distinct impressions that just so happened to occur at the same location at the same time, creating an illusion that they are all the same.

It is clear that David Hume’s theory of the self –or the lack thereof, rather – is more logically sound than Rene Descartes’ theory, and, therefore, it is considerably more plausible. It is important, however, to recognize that Descartes was searching for an indubitable foundation for all the rest of his beliefs, and so while some of his theories seem illogical, given that they lead us to doubt our senses, they cannot be our foundation for certain knowledge. With cogito ergo sum, Descartes essentially is saying that the only thing that he is unquestionably certain of is the existence of his thoughts, and he then defines himself as being those thoughts –he is a thinking thing. He later attempts to use this certain foundation to establish the existence of the physical world and his body as well.

The first problem, however, with Descartes’ philosophy is that after he establishes cogito ergo sum, very little else makes any logical sense. While you can establish that you are thinking, you simply cannot establish the objective existence of anything you perceive in those thoughts. Every single experience you have comes through your senses and your perceptions, which, as Descartes himself states, cannot be trusted. The consequences that resulted from this line of thinking are even more condemnable. Descartes ultimately redefined the idea of “objective” knowledge. The new Cartesian version of objective knowledge promotes the idea that you are separate from what it is that you are trying to understand. This, however, is never our actual experience as we are always together with what we are experiencing. It is, again, impossible to have knowledge of how things really are, and we can only experience them through our perceptions, or impressions. So, even if you are being given experience by an evil genius, and the world does not actually exist, you still experience the world as if it does actually exist and it is impossible to act otherwise. To do otherwise is impractical for we have no knowledge of any other world. We all recognize that this world does actually exist and that we all have a shared experience of it and any knowledge that is to be acquired is coming from that actual shared experience.

Works Cited

  1. Descartes, Rene. “Meditations II.” Meditations on First Philosophy. Cambridge Unity Press, 1911. pp. 9-10. Selfpace.uconn.edu/class/percep/DescartesMeditations.pdf
  2. Descartes, Rene. “Selections from the Principles of Philosophy.” Wikisource, 7 October 2013, https://en.wikisource.org/w/index.php?title=Selections_from_the_Principles_of_Philosophy&oldid=4613353
  3. Hume, David. “Of Personal Identity.” web.mnstate.edu/gracyk/courses/web%20publishing/TreatiseI.iv.vi.htm
  4. Mulder, Dwayne H. “Objectivity.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://www.iep.utm.edu/objectiv/
Updated: Feb 24, 2024
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A Contrast of the Concepts of the Self From Rene Descartes and David Hume. (2024, Feb 24). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/a-contrast-of-the-concepts-of-the-self-from-rene-descartes-and-david-hume-essay

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