Philosophy 105 - 6.2.4 Secular Notions of Self

In theology, continuity of the self is achieved through the soul. Secular scholars reject this idea, defining self in different ways, some of which are explored in the next sections.

Bundle Theory

One of the first and most influential scholars in the Western tradition to propose a secular concept of self was Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–1776). Hume formed his thoughts in response to empiricist thinkers’ views on substance and knowledge. British philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) offered a definition of substance in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. In Book XXIII, Locke described substance as “a something, I know not what.” He asserted that although we cannot know exactly what substance is, we can reason from experience that there must be a substance “standing under or upholding” the qualities that exist within a thing itself. The meaning of substance is taken from the Latin substantia, or “that which supports.”

If we return to the acorn and oak example, the reality of what it means to be an oak is rooted in the ultimate reality of what it means to be an oak tree. The ultimate reality, like the oak’s root system, stands beneath every particular instance of an oak tree. While not every tree is exactly the same, all oak trees do share a something, a shared whatness, that makes an oak an oak. Philosophers call this whatness that is shared among oaks a substance.

Arguments against a static and enduring substance ensued. David Hume’s answer to the related question of “What is the self?” illustrates how a singular thing may not require an equally singular substance. According to Hume, the self was not a Platonic form or an Aristotelian composite of matter and form. Hume articulated the self as a changing bundle of perceptions. In his Treatise of Human Nature (Book 1, Part IV), Hume described the self as “a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.”

Hume noted that what has been mistaken for a static and enduring self was nothing more than a constantly changing set of impressions that were tied together through their resemblance to one another, the order or predictable pattern (succession) of the impressions, and the appearance of causation lent through the resemblance and succession. The continuity we experience was not due to an enduring self but due to the mind’s ability to act as a sort of theater: “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” (Hume 1739, 252).

An engraving shows a portrait of the head and shoulders of a person wearing a short powdered wig. The portrait is in a circular frame hanging from a ribbon. Beneath the framed portrait are the words M. David Hume, Historien Celebre.
Figure 6.8 David Hume (1711–1776) took British empiricism to its logical extreme. Immanuel Kant credited Hume as awakening him from his “dogmatic slumbers.” (credit: “M. David Hume, 1764” by Simon Charles Miger after Charles-Nicolas Cochin II/National Gallery of Art, Public Domain)

Which theories of self—and substance—should we accept? The Greek theories of substance and the theological theories of a soul offer advantages. Substance allows us to explain what we observe. For example, an apple, through its substance, allows us to make sense of the qualities of color, taste, the nearness of the object, etc. Without a substance, it could be objected that the qualities are merely unintelligible and unrelated qualities without a reference frame. But bundle theory allows us to make sense of a thing without presupposing a mythical form, or “something I know not what!” Yet, without the mythical form of a soul, how do we explain our own identities?

Anthropological Views

Anthropological views of the self question the cultural and social constructs upon which views of the self are erected. For example, within Western thought, it is supposed that the self is distinct from the “other.” In fact, throughout this section, we have assumed the need for a separate and distinct self and have used a principle of continuity based on the assumption that a self must persist over time. Yet, non-Western cultures blur or negate this distinction. The African notion of ubuntu, for example, posits a humanity that cannot be divided. The Nguni proverb that best describes this concept is “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” sometimes translated as “a person is a person through other persons” (Gade 2011). The word ubuntu is from the Zulu language, but cultures from southern Africa to Tanzania, Kenya, and Democratic Republic of the Congo all have words for this concept. Anthropological approaches attempt to make clear how the self and the culture share in making meaning.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax