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  • Once More into the Labyrinth:Kail's Realist Explanation of Hume's Second Thoughts about Personal Identity
  • Don Garrett (bio)

P. J. E. Kail's Projection and Realism in Hume's Philosophy is an excellent book, consisting—like Hume's Treatise itself—of three excellent parts. I will comment on one central aspect of its second part: its explanation of the source of the second thoughts that Hume famously expressed, with a frustrating lack of specificity, about his own initial discussion of personal identity in the Treatise.

As is well known, Hume holds in the section "Of personal identity" (T 1.4.6) that a self, mind, or person is "nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions" (T; SBN 252) and, more specifically, a "system of different perceptions or different existences link'd together by the relation of cause and effect" (T; SBN 261).1 This bundle has neither perfect simplicity (partlessness) at one time nor perfect identity (invariableness and uninterruptedness) through time; nonetheless, he argues, the imagination ascribes both features to it as the result of the associative influence of the relations of causation and resemblance holding among the perceptions themselves. He devotes several pages of the work's Appendix, published more than a year later in the subsequent volume, to reporting a "difficulty too hard for my understanding" (T Appendix 21; SBN 636) concerning his previous account, a difficulty that he despairingly describes as "such a labyrinth that, I confess, I neither know how to correct my former opinions nor how to render them consistent" (T Appendix 10; SBN 633). [End Page 77]

There are now well over two dozen proposed explanations in print of the source of Hume's second thoughts, so the creation of an entirely new and original one is in itself no mean feat. To my knowledge, no commentator on Hume has ever simply endorsed the explanation of another commentator on this question, so it will come as no surprise that I do not endorse Kail's, just as he does not endorse mine.2 Nevertheless, I should emphasize at the outset that we are on the same side of what has emerged as an important interpretive divide. This is the divide between, on the one hand, those who interpret Hume as worried primarily about a problem in the psychology of ascription by which identity is attributed to the mind and, on the other hand, those who interpret him as worried primarily about a problem in the metaphysics of bundling by which perceptions actually belong to or constitute a single mind. Kail and I are both squarely on the latter, metaphysics-of-bundling, side of the divide. This puts us distinctly in the minority, and we are therefore prepared, I believe, to make common cause against a host of shared opponents. Ironically enough, the underlying difference between us is that Kail's explanation depends on Hume's taking an attitude toward a doctrine—Causal Realism—that my explanation depends on Hume's not taking. This fact may serve as a general warning about what we might fairly call the "interpretive openness" of Hume's actual text.

In what follows, I will not say anything more about my own explanation of Hume's second thoughts, nor will I stop to outline either the section "Of personal identity" or the portion of the Appendix that reconsiders it. Instead, I will begin by listing four criteria, derived from what Hume either says or fails to say in the Appendix, that I believe any successful explanation of the source of his second thoughts should satisfy.3 Next, I will summarize Kail's proposed explanation, which I will call the Realist Explanation. Finally, I will explain why I doubt whether this Realist Explanation satisfies the criteria.

Four criteria that any successful explanation of the source of Hume's second thoughts should satisfy are as follows:

  • The Crisis Criterion: The problem ascribed to Hume should be one that he would regard as fitting his initial description of it in the Appendix as one threatening "contradictions and absurdities" and involving him in a "labyrinth" sufficient to inspire skepticism (T Appendix 10...


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