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Hume Studies

Volume 41, Issue 1, April 2015

Jennifer Welchman
Pages 33-55

Self-Love and Personal Identity in Hume’s Treatise

Do the first two books of Hume’s Treatise form a “compleat chain of reasoning” on the subject of personal identity? Not if a complete chain of reasoning is one that explains the origin of the fictitious beliefs that we remain identical through time, “as it regards our thought or imagination, and as it regards our passions or the concern we take in ourselves.” Book 1 explains how we come to believe that we are persisting subjects of conscious experience of an external world. Book 2 explains our belief that we are persisting subjects of passions and powers of practical agency. But neither explains the origin of the mistaken belief that we are also persisting objects of our own practical agency or the equally mistaken belief that we are naturally and powerfully disposed to “concern” for ourselves. If we are not the enduring objects of our practical agency and if, as Hume explicitly states in Book 2, we do not love our “selves,” how do we come to make these mistakes? And what actually plays the causal role in moral and social life vulgarly attributed to self-love? Were Hume to leave these phenomena unexplained, his chain of reasoning regarding personal identity would be incomplete. Hume supplies this account in Book 3. Thus the first two Books do not form a complete chain of reasoning as regards personal identity.

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