Looking Through the Mind's I: Empiricism, Moral Psychology, and Hume's Trouble with the Self

Dissertation, The University of Chicago (1998)
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Abstract

The treatment of personal identity in Hume's Treatise displays a shift that is both interesting as an object lesson in the weakness of a particular sort of empirical project, and important for what it teaches about investigating moral life. By examining Hume's change in method and project, I show that theoretical epistemology and practical moral philosophy come together in Hume's account of the passions, and that out of this convergence arises an account of the way interpersonal relations structure our very sense and idea of self. This account of self provides an explanation of moral motivation and the social elements of moral judgment that is naturalistic without being reductive. ;In his turn from the understanding in Book I to the passions in Book II, Hume moves from examining the isolated individual elements of his own mind to investigating the way our mind works as we interact with other persons. Instead of considering the components of thought atomistically, as if each constituent of thought has a nature independent of and unaffected by its relation to other constituents of thought, he considers the network of thought and passion that makes up mental life, developing a picture of the self that is dependent upon the whole of experience, rather than just individual impressions and ideas, considered separately. ;Hume's recovery of the self in the account of the passions shows how the personal identity problem is not just a metaphysical problem concerning the possibility of a substantial self beneath our perceptions, but is a moral problem: it concerns how we assess ourselves and others as moral agents, in interaction with each other. More than just an adjustment to fit the topic of the passions, Hume's change in method indicates an evolution in the kinds of questions he is pursuing. As he turns away from a piecemeal examination of individual elements of his thought to an examination of how persons function in passional life, his inquiry into the source of our idea of self evolves into an investigation of self-awareness and its development through the passions and social experience.

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