Sample Philosophy Paper: David Hume and The "Self"


Who is David Hume?

David Hume is a Scottish philosopher born in 1711 and is known for some of his rather skeptical theories about religion. He is a renowned empiricist. Meaning he supports that all knowledge is derived from human senses. He believes we only know what we gather from actual physical experiences like seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling. He is also renowned for his critical account of causation and his naturalist theory of mind.

As a child, he religiously attended the church where his uncle was the pastor and was homeschooled by his mother. By the age of 11, he attended the University of Edinburgh. He was very religious and he followed the list of moral guidelines taken from a popular Calvinistic devotional, The Whole Duty of Man.

He left the University of Edinburgh at the age of 15 and was encouraged to consider taking up law but he soon found his interests leaning towards philosophy. After he suffered from a nervous breakdown which was caused by his excitement, he planned to continue his education privately. It was during this time that he started raising questions about religion. He created a manuscript to record his thoughts but subsequently destroyed it.

Works and Philosophy

He managed to publish two of three installments of his Treatise of Human Nature before his thirties and during his private study. The Treatise explores various philosophical subjects and was his attempt to create a philosophical system. Back in the day, the Treatise was ignored, which saddened Hume, but today, it is recognized by scholars as a philosophical masterpiece. He discussed topics relating to space and time, passions, morality and free will, and causality, which he is also famous for.

He went on to publish more of his writings after the Treatise’ was unsuccessful as it did not gain the people’s interest as he expected it. The first of these writings was Essays, Moral and Political, which was significantly more successful than the treatise because it has a more popular writing style.

An incident regarding David Hume being up for candidacy as the Chair of Moral Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh caused him to think that the poor reception of the people towards the treatise may be because of the way it is written. Hume was convinced that there really was not a problem with the content of his book. Because of his defeat in winning over the clergy to be the chair, he fell into a depression and traveled a lot.

In his wanderings, he wrote several more academic philosophical papers. Some of those are: Three Essays, Moral and Political and Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding, both in the year 1748. He revised the first and third books of the treatise and gave both a new title, respectively: An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and The Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals.

In David Hume’s Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding, he distinguished that there is a difference between impressions and ideas. He said that impressions, like empiricism, originate from everything that comes from physical experiences or the 5 senses. On the other hand, Hume pointed out that ideas are based on facts and are a way of reasoning or perception based on what people physically experienced from their impressions.

In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding he attempted to define the principles of human knowledge. Questions about the flow of reasoning that is based on fact and experience and answers those questions by the use of the principles of association. Based on this and what has been discussed in his Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding, it can be derived that the mind does not actually create ideas but is obtained from impressions.

David Hume also wrote about history . His last major literary work was The History of England. This last work of his is the reason why his works as a philosopher had been overshadowed, even for a while, by his being a great historian. He spent his last years refining his philosophical works and writings in his hometown, Edinburgh, Scotland.

After his death, some of his unpublished works got out to the public. One of which was his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. His admirers deemed this as a masterfully written work while it has been branded as dangerous to religion by religious critics. Hume’s two essays on the topic of suicide and immortality were also got published.

What does David Hume say about the self?

Is there a self? According to Hume, there is none.

In David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature otherwise known as An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and The Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals after it got revised, he tackled much of philosophically important relevant subjects. David Hume has shown a pattern in the Treatise. That is:

First, he skeptically argues that we are unable to gain complete knowledge of some important philosophical notions under consideration. Second, he shows how understanding gives us a very limited idea of that notion. Third, he explains how some erroneous views of that notion are grounded in the fancy, and he accordingly recommends that we reject those erroneous ideas (Fieser, n.d.).

One of the topics he discussed was regarding the issue of the existence of a personal identity, or the existence of “self.” Using an empiricist approach, Hume comes to the conclusion that the entity we call “self” is actually non-existent. The “self” Hume is pertaining to as non-existent is the total simple collection of an individual’s conscious life. He believes that a person gives himself an unchanging identity or concept of identity to achieve a more unified concept of “self.”

This rather controversial proposition is, to some extent, believable if one immerses in the same introspective process the famous philosopher put himself into. However, one may also question the very skepticism that Hume presented. By exploring and examining his claims closely, one can conclude that David Hume may have been disproving himself.

As he supports his firm stance about the absence of self, Hume introduces us to his “Bundle Theory of the Self” wherein he suggests that mankind is “nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions” that occur in succession. Thus, creating the illusion that experiences are connected and made intelligible by the process or perception of an individual of the sum of his experiences.

In his book titled “A Treatise of Human Nature,” he also argues that when he examines his mind, he never can catch himself and instead finds particular perceptions; “of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure.” All of these are fleeting sensations of experiences that he labels as impressions and ideas.

True enough, if a person tries to investigate the contents of his consciousness, he will see nothing but changing emotions, ideas, sensations, and experiences. David Hume banks on this inconsistent series of random impressions to prove his claim and go on to argue that there is no “constant, invariable and enduring self.” This is where the danger of assigning a passive role to a person’s consciousness lies.

At the end of his writings about personal identity, David Hume argues that the discourse about personal identity is a matter of grammatical than philosophical difficulty. However, he did not disprove the possibility of the presence of an identity or a continuing self as shown by the succeeding philosophers of his time. The lack of elaboration of the self that cannot be perceived is where they come into the picture and to this day, still open for interpretation and further discussion.


Basically, what Hume was trying to infer is that the “self” of a person the day before is not to be added to that person’s “self” for this day. If anything has changed even in the slightest within a person’s “self,” then that person would literally be another person altogether. What David Hume means to say is that people become different persons as each day passes by. Thereby solidifying his philosophy that there is no “self.”

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Fieser, J. (n.d). David Hume.  Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Jessop, T. & Cranston, M. (2020, August 21). David Hume. In Encyclopædia Britannica.

Whittemore, J. (2015, March 4). David Hume & the Lack of Self.

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