The Self of Descartes and Locke

The theory of the self was first developed in Western thought by the French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650), who posited that the self was a ‘thinking thing’, substantial and subjective, and both distinct from, but connected to, the body. Descartes introduced his theory in his Meditations of First Philosophy (1641) where he posited that proof of the self came from its own doubt, forming through reason, and not our unreliable senses (unreliable in the sense that, for example, if we place a stick in a pool of water, the stick appears distorted, when it is the result of light travelling through a substance denser than air that makes the stick appear distorted to the human eye).

    640px-Frans_Hals_-_Portret_van_René_DescartesCredit: Wikimedia CommonsThe self, believed Descartes, is detached from the exterior world and so the only certainty in our world. Only the subject has privileged access to the self, revealing itself through self-reflection. The idea of God within our mind proves His existence and through God, we are each born with an innate grasp of reason within our self. The indivisible self would also survive our death.

    Descartes’ ideas were later developed by John Locke (1632 – 1704), an Englishman who believed the mind began as a blank, without innate principles, developing through experience. From these experiences, the self constructed ideas. Continuity of consciousness kept the self cogent, along with an awareness of its own reasoning, and as a set of memories. God remembered forgotten memories and supplied, through revelation, all that we cannot reason for ourselves.

    According to Locke, the self experiences the world through ideas: indivisible primary qualities (the weight, shape, or solidity of an apple, for instance), secondary qualities (the colour, taste and smell of an apple) and complex ideas, a mix of primary and secondary qualities. If we experience enough of the same event (such as eating an apple), we apply a mental construct (the term ‘apple’) to make things easier for ourselves. Locke wrote of his theory of the self in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). John LockeCredit: Wikimedia Commons

    Although Descartes’ knowledge demonstration by doubt was an influence on David Hume (1711 – 1776), the Scotsman disagreed with Descartes on many other aspects, most crucially on reason's importance. As for Locke, Hume agreed with him that all knowledge derives from reason, but diverged from Locke on how we experience and organize our perceptions. Let us take a look at how Hume set out the structure of the mind.

    Whereas Locke categorized perceptions (including sensations, passions and thoughts) under the term ‘ideas’, Hume defined perception as the contents of the mind, dividing them into either impressions or ideas. Impressions subdivided into simple or complex, and of sensation or of reflection. Ideas were, primarily, also simple or complex, but were then divided into imagination or memory, and then further divided into fancy, understanding, and two forms of reasoning, either upon ideas or facts.

Hume's Self

    Hume described impressions as every sensation, passion or emotion we experience. Ideas were “less lively perceptions, of which we are conscious, when we reflect on any of those sensation or movements above mentioned; ideas are the faint images of these impressions,” (Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding [1748]). For example, experiencing cold is an impression, and thinking about that coldness later, when we are no longer cold, is an idea.

    Simple impressions and simple ideas were those that could not be broken down further. A simple impression was sensual, while recollecting the sensation later was a simple idea. Hume, in his A Treatise of Human Nature (1739, with an appendix published in 1740) called this the ‘Copy Principle’, saying “All our simple ideas in their first appearance are derived from simple impressions, which are correspondent to them, and which they exactly represent.”

    David HumeCredit: Wikimedia CommonsComplex impressions and complex ideas were those that could be divided into component parts. In eating an apple, we experience a bundle of simple impressions in one package, and in remembering the apple later, we mentally form an image, a complex idea of that apple, less vivid than the original experience. The idea of the apple could be traced back to the impression we experienced when eaten. Hume believed the Copy Principle helped to explain how we taught abstract ideas.

    So, where is the self in all of this? Hume’s answer was there was no such thing as the ‘self’, and what we call our self is nothing more than a constantly changing set of perceptions. “The impression of our self is not of an enduring self but a bundle of varying perceptions, so it appears impossible to have any such idea of the self,” wrote Hume in his Treatise, adding: “The mind is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, re-pass, glide away and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations.” British writer Angela Carter based her novel Several Perceptions (1968) on Hume’s description, although another novelist, Iris Murdoch, criticised this idea of the mind as theatre in her book of philosophical essays, The Fire and the Sun (1977).  

    If there is no self, what makes us think we have such a thing? Perceptions are by their very nature fragmented and interrupted, yet the mind ascribes permanence to these fragments. The nature of our imaginations is associative, so each perception causes us to associate one fragment with another, in an unending sequence of mental links. As Hume puts it in his Treatise: “When I turn my reflexion onto myself, I never can perceive this self without one or more perceptions; nor can I perceive anything but the perceptions... [It is the composition of perceptions] ...which forms the self.” Hume later added: “...when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never catch myself without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception.” A woman thinkingCredit: Wikimedia Commons/ÁWá

    Hume tells us the self is a convenient fiction created by our imagination to help smooth our way through an incomprehensible world of fluctuating sensory impressions, which become ideas within our memory. Our ability to remember the past and imagine the future leads us to believe, as Locke did, that we are a continual entity with an ongoing narrative. Therefore your life is, as Homer Simpson once put it, just a bunch of stuff that happened. “The identity, which we ascribe to the mind of man is only a fictitious one” (Enquiry).

    Man believes in causality due to repeated experience of natural sequences, which we then project upon the world. Ignoring the separateness of our perceptions we, through the process of imagination and memory, come to believe in a universe of continuing objects. In ascribing this ongoing identity, as though all perceptions were the same in our mind, leads us to believe our fictitious self. As for God, Hume believed Him a mere product of belief, with belief a product of our imagination, created by man’s need to find meaning and narrative in natural events.



This BBC discussion program looks at Hume's life and his view of the self