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Kirby 1
Samantha Kirby
Dr. Graham
Modern Philosophy 332W
25 April 2016
The concept of the “stable self” is that there is something consistent and unchanging that gives
every human a unique personal identity. While many philosophers and theologians believe that
personal identity and selfhood are the crux of human life, there are others who believe that
personal identity is merely a fictitious construct of the mind. This paper will aim to reconstruct
strong arguments for both positions in order to show that, though the argument against selfhood
appears to stronger, it does not completely rule out the possibility of the existence of a stable
Arguments Contending That There is a Stable Self
A person who believes that there is a stable self would contend that there is something invariably
consistent about the personal identity of another human, and that this identity continuously
defines a person throughout the entirety of their lives. This notion was widely supported in the
mid-1600s, when the idea of personal identity was important for religious purposes. Patrick J.
Connolly, an assistant professor at Iowa State University, states that:
Christian Doctrine held that there was an afterlife in which virtuous people
would be rewarded in heaven and sinful people would be punished in hell.
This scheme provided motivation for individuals to behave morally. But,
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for this to work, it was important that the person who is rewarded or
punished is the same person as the one who lived virtuously or lived
sinfully. And this had to be true even though the person being rewarded or
punished had died, had somehow continued to exist in an afterlife, and had
somehow managed to be reunited with a body. So it was important to get
the issue of personal identity right (Connolly)
For religious purposes, a stable self seemed necessary. If a person committed a punishable
crime, but was then able to claim a new identity (one which had not committed a crime), then
how could this new identity be held responsible for something done by an entirely different
person? In addition, identity would have to be consistent even after death. For those who
believed in an afterlife where people would be ultimately judged for the morality of the decisions
they had made while living, a stable identity also seemed necessary. If identity were capable of
being changed in life or death, then there seemed to be no way to hold people culpable for their
John Locke, a prominent philosopher from this time period, contended that there was a
stable self, and that memories were major proponents of selfhood. Locke claims that “For as far
as any intelligent being can repeat the idea of any past action with the same consciousness it had
of it at first, and with the same consciousness it has of any present action; so far it is the same
personal self” (547). The argument is made that the self is formed through the memories that it
has, and that because the memories are continuous, so must be the self that remembers them.
This would entail that part of what makes a person the same through time is their ability to
recognize past experiences as belonging to them (Connolly). Some have criticized Locke for
openly admitting to the shortcomings of the mind when he states that, “…that is, the
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consciousness being interrupted always by forgetfulness, there being no moment of our lives
wherein we have the whole train of all our past actions before our eyes in one view…” (547).
Marina Williams, a published essayist in Oxford Journals, however, makes the claim that
“Memory may be weak, self-consciousness difficult, reason flawed and memory creation
problematic, whereas the memory Locke posits is perfectly whole and readily available to the
rational mind…The form of memory that Locke envisages seems to be similar to…voluntary
memory, accessed to the conscious being through reason…” (123). Neither Locke nor Williams
believe the admissions that the mind is capable of forgetting past events, or that it is unable to
remember the entirety of past events at once, are not enough to discount the notion of a stable
self. Lock is not referring to the mind in general; he is referring to rationality. While a person
may forget certain events, they are perfectly capable of using rational thinking to make the
assumption that because there is continuity between the events that they can remember, there
should also be continuity between the events that they cannot remember.
Arguments Against the Western Notion of a Stable Self
David Hume, a prominent philosopher from the mid-1700s, believed that there was no such thing
as personal identity and that a stable self could not exist. Instead, Hume proposed that humans
were “…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 321). As an
empiricist, Hume believed that knowledge could only be derived from sensory perceptions and
the reflections on sensory perceptions. Because of this, Hume claims that “…when I enter most
intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other…I
never can catch myself at any time without a perception and never can observe anything but the
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perception” (Hume 321). If self were to exist, then it should be able to exist independently of
other sensations. However, Hume finds that whenever he tries to reflect on what it is that
constitutes as his “self,” all he can ever find are the memories of past sensations and feelings. If
self was then reliant on sensations, then the self could not be stable, for new perceptions replace
old perceptions more quickly than any human could ever measure.
Hume claims that when humans attribute personal identity to themselves or to other
humans, they are making a mistake; he believes that “…identity is nothing really belonging to
these different perceptions and uniting them together but rather is merely a quality which we
attribute to them because of the union of their ideas in the imagination when we reflect upon
them” (324). Hume believes that we merely grow accustomed to certain things, so we
subjectively link them together.
Furthermore, Hume believes that memories are not reason enough to prove the existence
or need for a stable self. Though philosophers like Locke believed that the continuous memory of
a person was enough to show that they had a personal identity, Hume finds error in their
argument. Hume states that, “…the identity of our persons beyond our memory can comprehend
times, circumstances, and actions which we have entirely forgotten, but supposing in general, to
have existed” (325). The problem with memories is that they can be forgotten. Very few people
would admit to being able to remember their infancies, and many would likely admit to
forgetting things that have happened to them throughout their lives. It is somewhat hard to
accept that continuous memories prove that there is a self—for if memories can be forgotten, and
memories are self, then self, too, could be forgotten. And if self could be forgotten, then it
would prove to be unstable. In addition to this, many people would also likely admit to recalling
memories in a manner that was inconsistent with the way the event happened in actuality. Hume
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concludes that “…the present self is not the same person with the self of that time” and that
“…memory does not so much produce as discover personal identity by showing us the
relationship of cause and effect among our different perceptions” (325).
It also seems relevant to acknowledge the fact that it is widely taken for granted that the
concept of personal identity exists mainly in Western ideologies and certain theologies. If the
question, “does personal identity exist?” were asked to a group of Americans, they would likely
find it a strange question because they were raised in a society that praises individualism and
advocates that people are “their own person.” However, this concept is completely absent in
some cultures and religions. Buddhists, for example, do not believe in personal identity. In
addition to this, many Buddhists would argue that even if there were such a thing as a stable self,
it would not necessarily be a good thing.
In his book Psychotherapy and Buddhism: Toward an Integration, Jeffery Rubin, a
psychotherapist in a private practice in New York, presents his readers with the image of cork
floating away in a small brook. As it flows through the water, bits of the cork begin to break off
and separate until the cork is no longer distinguishable (Rubin 57). Rubin claims that from a
Buddhist perspective, the same thing happens to humans: as they age, they continuously change
until they are hardly recognizable. Eventually, they will cease to exist entirely (58). Rubin then
goes on to say that, for a Buddhist, this is simply how life works—but that, for a person from
Western society, “…sense of nonbeing—[the] experience of ontological weightlessness and
nonexistence—[would] seem to be more of a living hell than an exalted nirvana” (Rubin 58).
The idea of selflessness does not have to be a morbid or pessimistic one. In fact, Rubin goes on
to say that relinquishing personal identity could actually benefit people. He asks his readers to
consider if:
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…The self-preoccupied, individualized self that pervades Western civilization [is]
an epiphenomenon of the maladaptive and anxiety-generating ways of western
life? Would the elimination of some of the irrational and antihuman ways of
being that are encouraged by Western societies result in a different, less selfcentric self-system? Would self-centricity not arise in a person who did not
experience anxiety? (58)
From here, Rubin concludes by stating that “The sense…that there is something to call ‘me;’
something that has its own body, feelings, fantasies, goals, dreams, pains and ideals—the sense
that I am a self—is…perhaps the linchpin of human life” (59), and that this way of thinking is
incredibly detrimental to the human psyche. If there does not exist a stable self, but humans lead
their lives believing that there must exist a stable self, then they will ultimately be left with
feelings of anxiety and fear.
Why I am Still Left Questioning
Though I find Hume’s argument against selfhood and personal identity to be stronger and more
compelling than the arguments in favor of selfhood, I think that there are some important factors
that Hume either did not take into consideration or did not explore thoroughly. It is possible that
these factors could still allow for the possibility of the existence of a stable self.
Hume claims that “The mind is a kind of theatre where several perceptions successively
make their appearance, pass, repass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and
situations” (Hume 321). This statement implies that there is a kind of audience member capable
of reflecting on the given “performance.” Hume fails to acknowledge what exactly it is about
humans that enables them to reflect and to think about sensations and perceptions. I would
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imagine that if all we are is a bundle of perceptions, all we would be is the perceptions as we
experienced them. However, humans are able to reflect and to think, and because Hume does
not address this (and because I have a hard time reconciling the notion that perceptions are
capable of reflecting on other perceptions), I believe that there could still be a stable self that is
capable of reflecting.
What’s more, I think that humans are often inclined to do things for a reason. Though I
find the Buddhist perspective on selfhood to be very compelling, I can’t help but wonder why it
is that a large group of humans would so insistently pursue personal identity and cling to it so
desperately if it were merely a fictitious conception made up in their own minds. And why,
when confronted with the possibility of no personal identity, do people feel such a strong
emotional obstinacy?
Because these issues seem to have been glossed over or omitted altogether by
philosophers like Hume, I believe that a stable self cannot yet be ruled out as a possibility.
In conclusion, I think that the argument Hume makes is stronger than the argument philosophers
and theologians such as Locke have made. There does not yet seem to be an accurate way to
describe what constitutes as self or why that self would be stable. However, Hume’s argument
does not address several important factors, and because of this, I believe that an argument can
still be made for the existence of a stable self.
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Works Cited
Connolly, Patrick J. “John Locke (1632—1704).” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. n.d.
Web. 3 April 2016
Hume, David. “Section 6: Of Personal Identity.” 2000. Readings in Modern Philosophy. Ed.
Roger Ariew and Eric Watkins. Vol. II. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.
Locke, John. “Of Identity and Diversity.” 2015. The Norton Introduction to Philosophy.
Ed. Peter J. Simon. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. Print.
Rubin, Jeffery. Psychotherapy and Buddhism: Toward an Integration. 1996. New York:
Springer Science+Business Media, LLC. Print.
Williams, Marina. “For John Locke, Memory was a Condition, Sine Qua non, for Selfhood. To
What Extent is this Idea Prefigured, Referenced, Critiqued and/or Parodied in
Montaigne’s Essais, du Cote de Chez Swann and Molloy?” Oxford Journals. Vol. 33.