It seems strange that there could be a connection between the thought of an 18th Century Scottish philosopher and the prophet and founder of Buddhism, yet in the realm of personal identity, the views of David Hume and the Buddha are shockingly similar.In broad strokes, the issue of personal identity comes down to attempting to answer the overwhelmingly stereotypical question of “who am I”, i.e.: “what is it that makes me me in light of the changes through which I go?” This article will explore such apparent similarities in their theories, by summarising the content of their work on the subject and finally a comparison will be made as well as an explanation as to the similarities between their ideas.
Let’s start with David Hume, a brilliant Scottish philosopher in the 18th Century who wrote “A Treatise of Human Nature” in 1738. Though this work was quite unpopular in its time (much to his dismay), it discussed, with great ingenuity, topics such as morality, epistemology and more appropriately, personal identity. He begins by noting the fact that many philosophers “imagine we are at every moment intimately conscious of what we call our self” and that passions and perceptions are wholly connected to an entity capable of feeling and perceiving. But Hume believes that they could not be farther from the truth. Hume believes, with a certain degree of accuracy, that the manifestations of passions such as pain and pleasure, grief and joy, are ephemeral in nature, succeeding one another unpredictably. From this he derives that “there is no impression constant and invariable” and that the nature of these impressions which supposedly gave rise to the idea of personal identity, by virtue of their impermanence and transitoriness, show that there is no validity to this idea. The same can be said about perceptions, where Hume rightly points out that you are never not perceiving something and, in reality, the thing that you are observing (any trivial object such as a table, for instance) is really just the perception of the properties of an object or thing. This is Hume’s bundle theory of personal identity and this excerpt really puts the nail in the coffin of the self:
“I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.” – Hume’s ‘Treatise of Human Nature.’
But Hume does not believe with absolute certainty that his theory is the most adequate account of personal identity (or lack thereof), instead he makes it quite clear that these questions can never be simply resolved. They can never be resolved because, according to Hume, they are to be considered “rather as grammatical than as philosophical difficulties”. There is no fixed standard and terminology employed by philosophers who discuss the topic of personal identity and so it becomes a question of arguing which naming convention we find more suitable.
Now we will go far back in time to when the Buddha gave his ‘Discourse on the Not-Self Characteristic’. In Buddhism, much importance is given to what is known as the five aggregates, which are supposed to explain and constitute the mental and physical components of a person’s existence. They are, in order: Form (matter), feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness. What the Buddha thus ascertains is that from the nature of these five aggregates, no self can exist, despite these being the constitution of a person. The Buddha believes, much like Hume, that these five aggregates are entirely impermanent and very much out of our control. If we take form for instance, you find that you can’t manipulate this aggregate by extending your arm past the length it already is in physical space. The same goes for the other aggregates. In the discourse, the Buddha dissects each aggregate in the exact same way asking the monks surrounding him: “Is that which is impermanent, unsatisfactory, subject to change, properly regarded as self?” The resounding answer is “no”. Thus, after conducting this analysis of these five aggregates, which all have the same nature of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and change, the Buddha, with great confidence can conclude that:
“This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.” – Buddha.
Notice that though it may have been worded differently, both the Buddha and David Hume seem to break down the notion of personal identity or selfhood in exactly the same way. They ask us to critically examine passions and perceptions, elements that we profoundly believe belong to something that is capable of experiencing said passions and perceptions, and see that they are inherently vague, impermanent and largely out of our control. There is, of course, a difference when it comes to the purpose behind disclosing the true nature of self-hood and while it may be tacitly assumed that Hume intended to enlighten and inform the reader, the Buddha had another motive in mind. He wanted to liberate the monks from these aggregates to which they cling and through this clinging, suffer. In any case, a notion of personal identity or selfhood might find a better basis upon something that is fixed, such as a soul for instance, but this generally leads to the philosophical hydra that is the mind-body problem (not in the scope of this article). It seems quite clear that David Hume and the Buddha are quite aligned in terms of their “no-self theory” and in fact, interpreters and biographers of Hume have said it is not unlikely that he could have been inspired by Buddhist thought.
The philosophy professor Alison Gopnick notes that “very little was known about Buddhism in the Europe of the 1730’s” but despite this fact, Hume may have come into contact with Buddhist thought during his trip to France. While it is possible that Hume may have conceived these thoughts independently by virtue of his great intelligence, the theory that Gopnick advances is far more interesting and indeed, there is evidence to suggest that Hume may have been in contact with French Jesuits who spent time in Tibet writing prolifically on the subject of Tibetan Buddhism. It is extremely important to note that Hume was definitely influenced by Locke and other great European philosophers, but Gopnick is correct in asserting that Hume’s argument is “a fairly radical departure from what had gone before”. It may seem speculative at best, but it is not at all absurd to invoke the interconnectedness of the world in this particular example. In any case, the findings of modern psychology has given the theories of both of these thinkers a considerable empirical defence when we consider cases that include memory loss or damage to the hemispheres of the brain. To this day, personal identity remains one of those philosophical quagmires bound to antagonize any philosopher.
- Buddha, Gautama. “Anatta-Lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic.” Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic. Buddhist Publication Society, 2007. Web. 20 Aug. 2016.
- Gopnick, Alison. “Could David Hume Have Known about Buddhism? Charles Francois Dolu, the Royal College of La Flèche, and the Global Jesuit Intellectual Network.” Hume Studies 35.1&2 (2009): 1-25. Print.
- Hume, David, L. A. Selby-Bigge, and P. H. Nidditch. A Treatise of Human Nature. Oxford: Clarendon, 1978. Print.
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