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James's Answer to Hume: The Empirical Basis of the Unified Self

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In the Appendix to A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume famously retracts his account of personal identity by confessing that it involves a profound problem he cannot solve, which I have elsewhere identified and called the Bundling Problem. Neither of the two possible solutions that Hume himself considers in the Appendix is a viable option for him by his own lights, which might suggest that any successful account of a unified self must go beyond the empirical framework. In this paper, I argue that we can find a strictly empiricist solution to Hume's problem in William James. I attempt to show that James's descriptions of our experience are phenomenologically more detailed and faithful to how experience is undergone from the first-person perspective, which allows him to explain our belief in an identical, unified self solely on empirical grounds. James finds unity and continuity right in the content of the stream of experience itself. A detailed investigation of James's accounts reveals that Hume's fundamental problem does not stem merely from his lack of empirical resources but, more importantly, from his tacit abandonment of the professed empiricist methodology.

Keywords: Hume; James; the unity of the self

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: University of Massachusetts, Boston,

Publication date: 2012-03-01

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