Hume on the Self: A Bundle of Perceptions

For my part, 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 can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception.”

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.  Our eyes cannot turn in their sockets without varying our perceptions.  Our thought is still more variable than our sight, and all our other senses and faculties contribute to this change; nor is there any single power of the soul, which remains unalterably the same, perhaps for one moment”

This seems to be pervasive in Indian culture too, and something Romantic in it as well, even Heracletian too. Memory, what is it, and does this make us who we are? Are we just memories that we collect, that shape us, mold us, form our character? Surely a captain can remember when he was just a recruit, and even more so, he can remember when he was just a child playing with his toy soldiers. But what if memories come and go a well? We can forget, but when re are reintroduced to a memory we thought we forget we remember it with an “Ah-ha!” as we look at our pictures we left sitting for decades when we grow old in our long years. If we’re being Kantian about this, Kant–the critic of David Hume–then, we might have a moment to pause and think, if we are the lucky few in the intellectual realm, then we are who we choose to be then. What we reap is what we sow.

But there’s something much more basic, and closer to us that we might miss if we continue on Hume’s theory of self. The bundle of percpections, of floating ideas, sensations, feelings, as if they were rowing in a river of thought. To Hindus, this would be Brahmin, God itself. We each have God flowing within us. Tell this to a Christian and he might deny this for only Jesus could be equal to God. What about the Romantics? Fo the Romantics, there was this creative force in reality, of creation and recreation. Where arists’ seize hold of an artform and are able to, perhaps with the will of Brahmin, or Will, breathe something into life as they form characters and destiny. This might be what Keats calls Negative Capability, to let oneself be a vessel so the bundle of perceptions can seize and take hold and form something new and never seen before.

Camus talks of Sisyphus as a man who climbs a mountain, rolling a rock up a hill, but the thing to take notice is not so much the grit of it, but the brow aimed on high. If we limit ourselves, our brahmin, or will, or creativity, to something dreaming and mechanical, then what good was our life? If all we do is argue and criticize, then what good was it for? No, the aim of humanity, since the dawn of man, was to look up at the stars and wonder with curiosity and awe, and seek answers. What is the self but a bundle of perceptions wasting away making memes and tweeting chicanery? What is it about brahmin, or will or Sisyphus that makes it aim on high? What about that aim is human? When you find the question you’ve been trying to answer your entire life, and you think on that question for decades, I hope you play with it, because the purpose of the self is a celebration of life, and I hope you play with that idea for years to come, exploring every faucet of it, dressing it up, breathing characters into destinies and new beginnings with endings with new endings. Life is a process that flows, and If you don’t learn to dance, you’ll get swept up in dark paths, but even that has it’s dance. It takes a lot of pain and suffering to see and understand this truth, to shake off the chicanery and focus and dedicate your bundle towards something above yourself, but once you do you’ll be able to dance again.


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