TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

After Hume: James and Husserl on Identity

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Christian Kronsted looks at Lowell A. Dunlap’s “Hume, James, and Husserl on the Self,” from Telos 2 (Fall 1968).

With the publication of A Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume turned the philosophical community of his time upside down with his provocative skepticism and denial of a cohesive self. Since its initial publication, Hume’s claim that the self is nothing but a bundle of perceptions has plagued philosophers and psychologists alike, and has inspired many to completely abandon the idea of a coherent self. Yet a central question remains largely unanswered: if there is not a self, what is doing the thinking, and how is it done? If a person does not have a “self,” how come human beings think of themselves as unique and separate entities that have subjective experiences? Lowell A. Dunlap’s article “Hume, James, and Husserl on the Self” investigates how William James and Edmund Husserl tackled the notion of personal identity in the aftermath of Hume’s philosophy.

James’s answer to Hume’s dilemma ends up being a form of metaphysical monism. James asserts that all matter, whether of the mind or material objects, is essentially made from the same underlying substance: “pure experience.” Knowing something is a relation between two objects made from the same pure experience. For James, this explains how two separate minds can know of the same object correctly. Every entity is connected through the same substance (pure experience), but no single indivisible unit on its own creates consciousness. Consciousness is rather a multitude of connected pure experience that bonds together. The self is the constant flux of ideas appropriating themselves so as to form a unified group. James gives the example of a farmer gathering his cattle: each separate thought-entity decides to flock together and commit to the idea that they are a collected unit: hence the herd. Consciousness is a never-ending stream of thoughts, which in each infinitely tiny moment thinks of itself as unit, before appearing into the past. Dunlap shows that each such unit both gives birth to the succeeding unit while connecting it to past units in a never-ending chain. In other words, the self is constantly born and then replaced. “The result is a conception of consciousness as a ‘stream’ in which there is no process; that is nothing persists in consciousness because consciousness neither is a thing nor inhabited by a thing. Consciousness or subjectivity is equated with flux; objectivity is equated with process” (112). As Dunlap explains, to have a self is process happening rather than a solid thing that an entity can possess.

Husserl begins much like James, with a theory based in strong empiricism that denies the existence of an empirical ego. Yet Husserl later changes his view to a form of transcendental idealism. This happens because, as Dunlap puts it, “the empirical ego is as much a transcendent being as any empirical thing. If this is the case, the phenomenological reduction will phenomenalize the empirical ego resulting in the lack of adequate evidence for the ‘I am'” (106). Dunlap points out that Husserl’s move into transcendental idealism not only undermines the similarities between him, James, and Hume, but it also unravels Husserl’s own previous philosophical system, changing the general direction of his thinking. The early Husserl embraces a doctrine that places the self in the world of empirical objects. This self is in steady alteration and can therefore only be described as a constant flux rather than a static thing. Dunlap explains that the flux cannot create a non-changing ego, but yet for there to be a process something must persist. What persists is the way in which the process operates, which means that the flux itself is governed by rules. The ego is ever changing, but the rules it changes by are set in pattern and unalterable speed. Each new moment creates a new now that connects the old you with the new: “a now is constituted by a given impression or bare that to which are joined horizons of retention and protension. This form, then, supports the consciousness of continuing change in which each new impression is given as a new now. And finally, each new now is given as retaining the past nows and protending future nows” (108). The later Husserl moves away from this position by proposing a steady transcendental ego in which the process of creating the “I” is self-perpetuated by the subjective ego itself. Rather than having consciousness as a product of flux, the flux is now created because of the consciousness (112). The ego is a pole of identity that persists throughout the flux that it initiates.

Dunlap’s article manages not only to point out how difficult the questions of personal identity truly are, but also takes the reader straight to the heart of what a philosopher such as Kant thought was the most important question: what is man? With the many advances in technology and psychiatric medicine, the debate over personal identity is just as relevant as it has ever been. Dunlap contributes to this debate by bringing together three distinct philosophical systems and portraying them in a new light. In this way the reader can understand the difficulties involved with explaining the nature of personal identity and see the nuances to be taken into account when considering what we are.

Read the full version of Lowell A. Dunlap’s “Hume, James, and Husserl on the Self” at the Telos Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at a per-article rate. Follow the article link for more details.

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