Hume and the “Western” Notion of “Self”

One of my best experiences as an undergraduate was a year-long philosophy seminar in which we did a close-reading of Hume’s work. So, in honor of Hume’s 300th anniversary I thought I’d read an article on Hume and anthropology. The article I picked was “What is the Western Concept of the Self? on Forgetting David Hume” by D. W. Murray.

Murray’s argument is fairly simple and straightforward – in a good way. In a way reminiscent of Hume’s own writing. Murray argues that anthropologists have constructed a “monolithic” vision of “Hegemonic Western Tradition,” which they then contrast with their own work. In particular, he is concerned with anthropological writing about the “Western” notion of a “transcendent self” against which the rest of the world’s cultures are judged.

To counter this, Murray looks at David Hume as an example of a very different Western notion of the self. Hume saw the idea of a “continuous self” as “fantastic.” For “there was nothing beneath the ideas to connect them…”

Hume’s theory of experience closely paralleled the atomistic theory of matter. Hume reduced all the contents of the mind to a number of elementary sensations. In thinking, what transpired was, in fact, a succession of detached sensations. “Ideas” were faint copies of “impressions,” or distinct perceptions. Beyond the impressions and ideas, it was unnecessary to look.

He goes so far as to suggest that there was something postmodern in Hume’s conception of identity, as the following quote from Hume illustrates:

Thus the controversy concerning identity is not merely a dispute of words. For when we attribute identity, in an improper sense, to variable or interrupted objects, our mistake is not confined to the expression, but is commonly attended with a fiction, either of something invariable and uninterrupted, or of something mysterious and inexplicable, or at least with a propensity to such fictions.

It wasn’t till Kant that the “Transcendental Ego” was established with “a stable, continuous, and transcendent self-identity, offered as a defense against Hume’s contingent vision.”

Returning to anthropology, he asks:

What needs to be explained is why (perhaps as a consequence of Enlightenment notions of “Progress,” but then what isn’t) so many academics feel the need to invert the process. That is, they seem to project a simplistically monolithic cultural and intellectual past onto what is in fact enormous diversity and competition.

He suggests that this is not simply a matter of ignorance, but suggests a broader pattern to establish a “mythic past” as an ideological basis for anthropological critique. A “select configuration of the West’s historical practices, defined partly in opposition to Western understanding of foreign ways and intrusions, as a function of the West’s own postcolonial status.” An interesting suggestion, and I can think of no better fitting tribute to David Hume than to critically examine our own institutional traditions of critique, and by contemplating the complexity and diversity of Western notions of the “self.”

13 thoughts on “Hume and the “Western” Notion of “Self”

  1. Nice, very nice. Now, when we get a fees anthropologists comparing,say, Hopi to various Confucian, Daoist, or Buddhist senses of self….

  2. Thank you for the post and the link to the article, which I’m now reading.

    This speaks to some of my frustration with undergraduate anthropology education as I’ve experienced it and participated in it, namely, that I think we often adopt a simple “open your mind”-type pedagogy of Western vs. non-Western cultural universes. It has a lot of appeal out of novelty, and also is a pretty effective basic type of anti-racist education. But I often think, and have occasionally observed, that minds “opened” in this way tend to snap shut again when confronted with realities more complex than can be accounted for by this generic post-colonial relativism.

    On the other hand — and somewhat irrelevant to the point that such different concepts of the self exist in the West — it’s always vexed me greatly how people talk about perceptions of the unified self being “a fiction” or “illusory”? I honestly don’t understand what that is meant to mean — how does one distinguish between “fictional” and “non-fictional” perceptions when the object being perceived is, itself, made of nothing but thought and perception?

    “I have a self”
    “No you don’t, what you have is an illusion constantly incorporating dispersed perceptions into a fictional whole.”

    Okay, so how is that a negation, rather than a definition, of the self? I have a thought about my thoughts and that thought constitutes a perception, which we can call a “self”.

  3. Andrew, your observation that “we often adopt a simple ‘open your mind’ pedagogy,” resonates strongly with me. I belong to a generation, growing up in the 1950s and 60s, for whom that kind of pedagogy worked pretty well. The strongly religious, Cold War, standard curriculum background that I grew up with made “opening your mind” or, more precisely, “blowing your mind” a powerful seducer to pursue intellectual activity. Then, when I taught for a few years at Middlebury College in Vermont, I noticed a change in the air. My students were mostly liberal, upper middle class kids who were already steeped in the do your own thing, university as hypermarket culture that was starting to sweep academia. A student who had traveled widely and spoke three languages might know no math past algebra 1. A math and science geek might never have read Julius Caesar and Mill on the Floss. A colleague who taught Chinese history had given up on comparing Nagarjuna’s role in transmitting Buddhism to China to St. Augustine’s contemporaneous role in the spread of Christianity in the West because his students had never heard of St. Augustine or, for that matter, the spread of Christianity in late Roman Empire Europe and North Africa. In sum, the old parochial frame of shared knowledge and assumptions that “open your mind” was designed to challenge was no longer there to be challenged. What many of my students were looking for was something, anything really as long as it was relatively simple to get your head around, that would provide some orientation in an increasingly confusing world. People who were my students are now of an age to be senior faculty and, as far as I can make out, they are still thrashing, still looking for something to believe in. Their world is more confusing than ever and whatever simplistic framework they have seized upon is clearly inadequate. The problem is that they don’t have a clue what to do next until some academic MacDonald’s serves up the next Happy Meal, whose buzzword ingredients are, as far as intellectual nourishment goes, on a par with what fast food does to our bodies. They have been trained to be academic consumers, but they don’t know how to cook for themselves. It’s folks like you who will have to find new paths in this wilderness.

  4. ‘Self’ is much trickier than ‘person.’ It is, for example, one of the harder words to define if you are working by the elementary school rule that you are not to use the word you are defining within the definition for it. I am kind of partial to “that which is both the seeker and the sought” but in the end that is more of a property than a definition. Ray Fogelson’s article “Person, self, and identity: some anthropological retrospects, circumspects, and prospects” (Psychosocial theories of the self [proceedings of the Conference on New Approaches to the Self], ed. Benjamin Lee and Kathleen Smith, 67–109. New York: Plenum, 1982) is a useful read for those interested in the topic.

  5. One of the problems when dealing with the concept of “self” is the focus on impressions, thoughts, sensations and the metaphors of such as visual impressions. What we have learnt throughout the twentieth century is the incorporation into our sense of “self” of the unconscious, the body. I follow closer on Lacan’s triangle of the Imaginary, the Real and the Symbolic as constituting the Self. What I think is helpful in re-examining the notion of “self” within this system is Lacan’s belief that psychoanalysis results (if successful) in the dissolution of the ego. The presense of the ego may be viewed as a form of neurosis–telling if we are examining Western practices when applied to non-Western. I am left wondering if the exoticism associated with the Other (non-Western, the body of the non-Greecian model, the practice of alternative diets, the nature of sexuality) is not in itself the object cause of desire. In Lacanian thought, the other begins with the mirror stage, the ideal image that is not onself. In this we have a powerful example of identification AND resistance–how might this then apply as a corrective to our understanding of anthropological thought/studies?

    The ability to see from the other’s position is not readily apparent. Take American history, especially the Founding Fathers school, where the myth of the formation of the Union is continuously told from within. Stanely Weintraub in “Iron Tears” has begun to move the position of perceiving the formation of the Union to the British side. This may seem trite, but Weintraub’s work is more or less revolutionary in American historiography. This is not just a shift in perception, nor just “taking the other side,” but demands the symbolic value inherent in the Founding Fathers be castrated from the myth of the American Union. Is the practice of anthropology (from such a psychoanalytic perspective) one of emasculation, a giving up of power to make a claim for another’s knowledge? This is a kind of metamorphosis, such as Ovid wrote about: the voice of someone or something goes from itself to another form (indeed, is the ethnography a kind of metamorphosis)? Hume’s notion of self as not whole, as an absence of which we are unaware–Hume only comes to it by the metaphor of atoms–is an arrest of our own absence, and hence of our knowledge. If the “self” not “a stable self-identity” than what is it that revolts in Marxist revolutions, what is it that consumes capitalist goods, what is it that knows the world? What is it then we account for in pedagogy, if the post-modern understanding of “self” has swept us off our feet? Really, I don’t know. At times, I feel we are like Eliot’s Prufrock, whose “you and I” are really two parts of his self in arrangement allowing for debate. The poem ends with a warning, that we will awake and drown: what if we woke up tomorrow and the anthropologists were all over there?

  6. Their world is more confusing than ever and whatever simplistic framework they have seized upon is clearly inadequate. The problem is that they don’t have a clue what to do next until some academic MacDonald’s serves up the next Happy Meal, whose buzzword ingredients are, as far as intellectual nourishment goes, on a par with what fast food does to our bodies. They have been trained to be academic consumers, but they don’t know how to cook for themselves. It’s folks like you who will have to find new paths in this wilderness.

    Quoted for truth.

    As for Hume, he is one of the most under-read philosophers of all time. This is a great shame, because he identified several of the most important problems in philosophy – including two, the is/ought problem and the problem of induction – that are essential to trying to understand the universe in which we live without affecting that understanding unduly with our natural biases, and without taking statements about reality as conferring a basis for action. The latter is especially important when it comes to avoiding the fear of ideas, which is one of the great moral panics of our age – responsible for such nonsense as “evolution –> Nazism” and “physicalism –> nihilism”.

    And “the West”? Well, is there a more ridiculous category in the history of earth? It seems to mean, primarily, those nations that did the large part of conquest in the past five centuries, with whatever other characteristics added post-hoc as rationalisations. What these nations really shared were technological innovations and, often, coasts from which to go about the process of invasion and conquest. That there could be a unified ‘Western’ conception of anything, let alone something as abstract as the notion of ‘self’, is a bit silly to suggest. Philosophical views have been diverse since the pre-Socratics, in any case.

    I would also point out that even if there were a unified ‘Western’ view, we wouldn’t do well to look for it in philosophy. Academic philosophy has never had much to do with popular views.

  7. Edit: by “the latter” I meant the is/ought problem, which I actually put first.
    Important stuff in any case.

  8. Those that deal with social stratification, gender, and ethnicity can’t also assert a monolithic western ideology–that is far too simplistic.

    Perhaps because much of academic tradition began in Europe, American intellectuals may be blind to the diversity of traditions within a society–nation/state–even the larger bounded collectivities require definition and justification.

    Has the myth of assimilation to a middle class northern Euro-American way of life also blinded us to the diversity of beliefs, practices, and ways of knowing within our own society, perhaps? Or is it simply very easy to “other” ourselves as we act as translators of culture for those with whom we work?

    For those anthropologists working in America, this sort of othering is not possible or practicable. I think of Bourgois’s work with Puerto Rican youth in New York City, in which he describes a way of constructing the social person that both endangers and sustains these stigmatized youth.

    Ethnicity, class, gender, language(s), generation, religions all contribute to ways of constructing social personhood that are complex, negotiated, and relate to forms of power. Many of us as academics are products of middle-class Euro-American families, and therefore perhaps see “society” through the lens of that history…which then may become totalized and simplified in comparative analysis.

    Are there totalizing ideologies promulgated by states? Of course, as there are by religions. Yet these are reshaped and contested when the rubber hits the road in the course of daily life. This is as likely to have been true among the Maya and the Romans as it has been true throughout American history.

  9. Linda, well said. In support, allow me to point to Dorinne Kondo’s Crafting Selves, in which Kondo describes three forms of the relationship of language to self-construction: an explicit ideology taught by a moral re-armament center, with which participants in the program have a complicated relationship that is far from simple acceptance; a picaresque biography, in which a craftsman recounts a series of apprenticeships and jobs that resulted in his craft expertise; and fragments of gossip collected from women whose part-time jobs neither conform to explicit ideology nor add up to a tale of growing experience and expertise. The third is, of course, the one that Kondo finds most disturbing, since if, as Japanese frequently seem to assume, work is the heart of identity, a fragmented work experience that results only in scattered dead ends, is hardly a self-construction at all. The good news is that the stories important to the women in question have to do with their families and children instead of their jobs. But that, of course, points to an identity that Kondo herself finds threatening; one of the most touching moments in the book is when she see’s herself reflected in a local butcher’s meat case and all she sees is a young Japanese housewife, an image that terrifies her.

  10. What a delight for an old silver back, to stumble upon this discussion quite by accident. How well Kerim has me, how remarkable, like light bouncing unpredictably off of hard facets, do students and young colleagues take and mis-take and advance the thread. You must forgive me, I have been away. Good to know that Anthropology is (barely) alive; I thought it had been bled-out. Remember the Humean story; “Oh, look, those sheep on that hill are all shorn.” To which the proper reply is, “On this side, laddie, on this side, that we know.” Good skeptic, that lad. “Nullis in Verba.” Carry on.

Comments are closed.