Monday, 14 March 2016

Eastern and Western Philosophy: Personal Identity

With acknowledgement to the CeramiX Art Collection
Posted by John Hansen
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.


  1. On the surface of it, the post makes light reading. But I think it raises a crucial question. The author, after making a few comparisons, highlights the fact that Vasubandhu's thinking admitted concepts which Hume's did not. Why was this?

    If one may describe Hume's thinking as 'incomplete' in comparison with Vasubandhu's, then this, it would seem, is what characterises all of our Western thinking. We run into disastrous social and ecological side-effects, of incomplete thinking, all the time.

  2. I'm afraid that the dust and thunder surrounding the scandalous Mr Hume (including his attempted prosecution at the Edinburgh Court in 1756 for supposedly claiming (amongst other evil things) that religion was 'prejudicial to mankind', beleis his actual views.

    Notwithstanding Julian Baggini's assessment, as quoted here, Hume was "actually less of a dis-believer than a deviant believer, an agnostic more than an atheist" (quoting my preferred expert).

    A revealing tale told about Hume concerns one of his beloved soirées in Paris when apparently Hume annonced to those present that he had never met an atheist and questioned whether they really existed. Clearly he puts himself outside the category. However, his host, the Baron D'Holbach, replied firmly that he was dining with seventeen of them.

    Thus the ideological 'gap' between Hume and Vasabandhu narrows...

  3. Kudos to this author for a thoughtful post! Well-done here!

    Here is the empiricism of David Hume -- he refuses to analyze phenomena beyond his direct experience -- and once he has come to a complete cessation of his mental faculties, the necessity of empirical analysis also comes to an end.

    To choose one is too difficult and most likely a matter of personal preference..

    1. "he refuses to analyze phenomena beyond his direct experience"
      - well, y'know, that can be a virtue. Descartes and all that.

  4. There is another explanation to this odd resemblance, that has been given in a rather atypical mainstream article, in the Atlantic, last year : How David Hume Helped Me Solve My Midlife Crisis - The Atlantic

    This reads like a detective story. The author discovered that Hume probably had been in contact with the works of a religious preacher who had been in Tibet.

    This story reminds me of another, similar one : it appears that Jean-Jacques Rousseau was actually inspired very directly by an Indian chief from present-day Quebec; his theories about property were being basically plagiarized from those of a Huron-Wendat thinker. In this case as well, it was a religious preacher who was the intermediate.

    I am not saying that it is wrong to say "major philosophies rarely made contact with one another", and actually I'm quite fascinated by what Jaspers has called the Axial age, but I think that we might have a case of an actual cultural contact invisibilized by a Western centric worldview, and by a modern view of History that doesn't look enough at the positive contributions of religion.

    1. The article is really smug - and I htink superficial. The Prof says:

      "’s Hume’s really great idea: Ultimately, the metaphysical foundations don’t matter. Experience is enough all by itself."

      I think this is a misunderstanding of both Hume's point and those of the 'metaphysicians'. The latter are attempting to investigate fundamental causes, they don't need to dispute the practical value of resting on the world of appearences.

  5. More specifically...

    "Some of the ideas in Buddhist philosophy sounded a lot like what I had read in Hume’s Treatise. But this was crazy. Surely in the 1730s, few people in Europe knew about Buddhist philosophy.

    Still, as I read, I kept finding parallels. The Buddha doubted the existence of an omnipotent, benevolent God. In his doctrine of “emptiness,” he suggested that we have no real evidence for the existence of the outside world. He said that our sense of self is an illusion, too. The Buddhist sage Nagasena elaborated on this idea. The self, he said, is like a chariot. A chariot has no transcendent essence; it’s just a collection of wheels and frame and handle. Similarly, the self has no transcendent essence; it’s just a collection of perceptions and emotions.

    “I never can catch myself at any time without a perception.”

    That sure sounded like Buddhist philosophy to me—except, of course, that Hume couldn’t have known anything about Buddhist philosophy."

    ... I believe, on the contrary, that Buddhist and Eastern philosophies were very fashionalbe. Spinoza and Schopenhauer, for example, two philosophical giants for Hume, were both known to have carefully studied it.

  6. I hope the blog can have more write-ups such as this article. Good stuff here. Writing is clear, interesting, and worthwhile.