Précis of Hume’s difficulty: Time and identity in the TREATISE

Philosophical Studies 146 (3):407-411 (2009)
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Despite its central role in his important theories of self and external world, Hume’s account of numerical identity has been neglected or misunderstood. The account is designed as a response to a difficulty concerning identity apparently original with Hume. I argue that the problem is real, crucial, and remains unresolved today. Hume’s response to the difficulty enlists his idiosyncratic, empiricist views on time: time consists of discrete, partless moments, some of which coexist with successions of others. Time is more like a wall of variously sized bricks than like a continuous line. Hume’s arguments that time (and space) are not infinitely divisible have met with literal contempt. I show that his unusual views are motivated and consistent. The topic of identity leads naturally to Hume’s account of personal identity and his later retraction--one of the most widely discussed topics in Hume scholarship. I give a new, straightforward explanation of the retraction, by arguing that Hume’s views on consciousness preclude his prior account of the self as a fiction. I then suggest that Hume’s fundamental problem for personal identity is his general difficulty concerning identity. Discussing Hume’s metaphysics raises perhaps the most central and difficult topic in Hume scholarship--how to reconcile the constructive, theoretical Hume with the skeptical Hume. The prevailing view for the last century has been that Hume’s skepticism is limited, leaving room for his theorizing. I argue, rather, that Hume is an unlimited Pyrrhonian skeptic in relevant respects, and that this interpretation of him best reconciles his two sides.

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Donald L. M. Baxter
University of Connecticut


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