Creatures of habit(us): bundle theories of the self

All my hopes vanish, when I come to explain the principles, that unite our successive perceptions in our thought or consciousness. I cannot discover any theory, which gives me satisfaction on this head. —David Who-me, A Treatise on Who-man Nature

Allan Ramsay, “the Younger.” Detail. [David Hume.] 1754. [Herr Hume has something less than satisfying on his head: “a scholar’s cap of rich but well-worn crimson velvet,” according to Mossner’s Life of David Hume (1954; OUP, 2001) 280.]

According to David Hume, we tend to think that we are the selfsame person we were five years ago, however our features might have changed. But he denies that there is a distinction between our features and the mysterious self that supposedly bears them: when we—aside from the metaphysicians among us—introspect, we must conclude that we are bundles of perceptions: “a bundle or collection of different perceptions which succeed one another with an inconceivable rapidity and are in perpetual flux and movement” (“Of Personal Identity,” A Treatise of Human Nature [1739-40; Courier Dover, 2003] 180 [1.4.6]).

Hume on the Self as Bundle

If each if us is a bundle of perceptions that do not belong to anything—a commonwealth, or a cosmos, no less—then the question of personal identity becomes a matter of characterizing the loose cohesion of our personal experience in terms of the relations of causation, contiguity, and resemblances, i.e. the connexions of various ilks, that hold among the perceptions.

Most often we assume that experience tells us something about the world and is organized in orderly ways because we tend to generalize on the basis of past experience (“habit”) or tradition (“custom”). (Most famous is Hume’s critique of our traditional understanding of causality in his Enquiry [“Of the Idea of Necessary Connexion,” An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Stephen Buckle (1748; Cambridge UP, 2007) 69 (orig. 75-76)]). We are creatures of habit.


Francis Bacon. Self-Portrait (1973).

“For me, realism is an attempt to capture the appearance with the cluster of sensations that the appearance [here his self] arouses in me” (letter to Michel Leiris, 20 Nov. 1981).

For more on Bacon, see “Bacon’s Skin.”

For the good Bishop Paley, even moral action is interpretable likewise: it is merely habitual, making us bundles of habits:

There are habits, not only of drinking, swearing, and lying, . . . but of every modification of action, speech, and thought: Man is a bundle of habits. . . . [I]n a word, there is not a quality or function either of body or mind, which does not feel the influence of this great law of animated nature. (William Paley, “Virtue,” The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, ed. John Frost [1785; B. B. Mussey, 1852] 47-48 [1.7])

We are creatures of habitus.

For (the better) Emerson—reading nature in a seemingly less anthropomorphic way—our selves are “intertwined with the whole chain of organic and inorganic being,” making us bundles of relations of a different ilk than those that Hume suggests might hold “us” together:

[O]ut of the human heart go, as it were, highways to the heart of every object in nature, to reduce it under the dominion of Man. Man is a bundle of relations, a knot of roots, whose flower and fruitage is the world [and] he cannot live without a world. (Ralph Waldo Emerson, “History,” Essays & Lectures, ed. Joel Porte [1836; Library of America, 1983] 254)

We inhabit creation.

Or, conversely, I might say, it inhabits us, for better or for worse (pace Novalis):

“Whose heart does not leap with joy,” cried the youth with glittering eye, “when the innermost life of nature invades him in all its fullness! When the overpowering emotion for which language has no other name than love expands within him like an ever-dissolving vapour and, trembling with sweet fear, he sinks into the dar alluring heart of nature, consumes his poor personality in the crashing waves of lust, and nothing remains but a focus of infinite procreative force, a yawning vortex in an immense ocean?” (Novalis, The Novices of Sais, trans. Ralph Manheim, illus. Paul Klee [Archipelago Books, 2005] 103)

Whose doesn’t? The heart of those for whom nature is an invader that nests tombs in their breast and dusts their pillow with ash. It leaps—with sorrow—as if into an abyss.


3 thoughts on “Creatures of habit(us): bundle theories of the self

  1. Pingback: Bacon’s skin « Te Ipu Pakore
  2. Pingback: 2010 in Review [sic] « Te Ipu Pakore

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