|With acknowledgement to the CeramiX Art Collection|
Once, when our world was not so small, major philosophies rarely made contact with one another. Further, being embedded in different languages, different concepts, different cultures, and different religions, on the surface of it they seemed to hold little in common.Yet as our world has become smaller, and as scholars have devoted more careful attention to distant ideas, so we have discovered, to our surprise, that our philosophies may be much the same.
A case in point is David Hume, the Scottish philosopher of the 18th Century, and Vasubandhu, the Indian philosopher of (about) the 5th – in particular, their views on personal identity.
From one point of view, there were enormous differences between these two men. Hume was an agnostic, and probably an atheist. He was, in the words of Julian Baggini, ‘as godless a man as can be imagined.’ Vasubandhu, on the other hand, was deeply religious. He was a Buddhist monk who spent much of his life writing commentaries on the teachings of the Buddha.
Yet Hume and Vasubandhu came remarkably close, on core philosophical issues. How then did they diverge so completely on matters of religion? What may this tell us about philosophy – above all about metaphysics? But first, let us survey a few examples of the central concepts common to both men, in the area of personal identity.
Vasubandhu believed that the self is a continuum of 'aggregates', which are the physiological elements which constitute the individual person. Similarly, Hume equated the self with a conglomeration of perceptions, which are in a constant state of flux. Both Hume and Vasubandhu therefore believed that, because of the constant transition of our mental states, these are a part of a continuum that moves in temporal sequence from perception to perception.
Vasubandhu believed that one's memory of an object is aroused when a special function of the mind connects to, and identifies objects from, earlier occurrences. Similarly, Hume believed that whatever the changes a person’s mental state may go through, older perceptions influence newer, and the vehicle for continuity is found in our memory, which acquaints us with a succession of perceptions.
For Vasubandhu, the 'self' which possesses a memory is equivalent to that which generated the memory. He argues that the only constant is that of perceived causal connection. Hume, similarly, argues that our memory helps us discover our personal identity by showing us associations among our different perceptions – and these produce the impression of identity.
Vasubandhu, however, did not distinguish between material objects and our mental sensation of them. Hume, on the other hand, did separate the two. Therefore Vasubandhu presumed the existence of objects outside of our mental state of being – allowing for religious belief. But Hume focused almost entirely on empirical comparisons and observations, believing it to be an abuse of the notion of personal identity that the idea of an unchanging substance should be added to it.
Hume the skeptic, and Vasubandhu the monk. How did they come so close on core philosophical questions, yet on the basis of such vastly different presuppositions? How could they so completely diverge on matters of religion, while in basic concepts they so largely agreed? What was it that – as it were – switched on religious corollaries in Vasubandhu, and switched them off in Hume?
Was Hume right? Was Vasubandhu wrong? Were there cracks in the coherence of their philosophies? Did their very languages shape their conceptual associations? Do religious belief or godlessness serve as mere garnish to real philosophy? The answers could have crucial consequences for philosophy.
By the same author: The Pleasures of Idle Thought?