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Arif Ahmed on David Hume’s Disturbing Conception of the Self

Podcast 24th August 2022

Stephen Blackwood Stephen
 Ahmed, Arif
Our Guest Arif Ahmed

Arif Ahmed is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College. He has written on rational choice, Wittgenstein, and religion and has held visiting positions at Sydney University, the Australian National University, the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, and MIT. In 2020 he and Prof. Ross Anderson led a successful campaign to liberalize the University of Cambridge's free speech policy. He was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire in June 2021 and in September 2021 he received Index on Censorship's Trustees Award for defending Freedom of Expression.

'Eternal life belongs to those who live in the present, because nothing comes to an end when you die.'

The historian of ideas, Isaiah Berlin, once said of the famous Scottish philosopher, David Hume: 'No man has influenced the history of philosophy to a deeper or more disturbing degree.' Perhaps the most disturbing chapter in Hume’s work is the discussion of the self in Book I of his Treatise of Human Nature. The idea of 'the self' or 'soul' as an enduring subject of experience seems very natural, indeed almost inevitable. Hume, however, argues that it is a mistake; and he gives a novel account of what it means for you or me to exist at any one time or across different times. In his lecture, Dr Ahmed assesses Hume's central argument and discusses whether it sheds any light on related questions concerning responsibility, the morality of life and death, and the nature and rationality of 'self-interest.'

Suggested reading:
David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, Book I, Part 4, section 6
Daniel Dennett, 'The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity', in Kessel, F. S. et al. (ed.) Self and Consciousness: Multiple Perspectives
John Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book II, ch. xxvii

This lecture and discussion were recorded with a live online audience on May 19th, 2022.



Authors, Ideas, and Works Mentioned in this Episode

David Hume, ‘A Treatise of Human Nature,’ Book 1, Part 4, Section 6
Empiricist tradition: Aristotle, Roger Bacon, Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, George Berkeley, David Hume, John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell, A. J. Ayer
Humean causality
Descartes and the Cartesian cogito
Milinda Pañha, simile of the chariot
Commissurotomy, split-brain experiments of Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga
Derek Parfit, ‘Reasons and Persons’
Julian Jaynes, ‘The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind’
Ludwig Wittgenstein, ‘Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus’
Immanuel Kant, ‘Critique of Pure Reason’
Extended mind thesis
Daniel Dennett, 'The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity', in Kessel, F. S. et al. (ed.) Self and Consciousness: Multiple Perspectives
Alfred North Whitehead
Carl Gustav Jung


Links of Possible Interest:

Dr Arif Ahmed profile at Cambridge

Dr Stephen Blackwood 


Video Timeline

  • 0:00 – Introduction
  • 5:07 – Ahmed’s lecture: an overview of moral and practical consequences of understanding selfhood
  • 17:32 – Hume’s Empiricist background
  • 22:21 – Hume’s reaction to Descartes’ certainty about the self
  • 29:59 – Hume’s positive thesis: the self as a bundle of sensations
  • 35:16 – Commissurotomy experiments, Jaynes, and other problems with the persistent self
  • 41:00 – Hume’s conception of the self applied to our lives
  • 48:41 – The gap between Hume’s views in private and in public


  • 53:46 – From whence do ethics arise for Hume?
  • 56:09 – How far does the mind extend?
  • 58:15 – How are bundles constructed according to Hume?
  • 1:02:22 – Despite ‘Wittgenstein’s rope,’ don’t we still have a sense of the whole?
  • 1:05:00 – Should we disregard Humean causality when we build societies?
  • 1:08:26 – What can we say about the mind that attributes or opposes unifying realities?
  • 1:12:46 – Consciousness in Hume; connection to Locke
  • 1:18:52 – Importance of memory and language in self
  • 1:22:05 – Was Hume hypocritical for not acting on his philosophical assumptions?
  • 1:27:15 – Difference between humans and animals; understanding of death
  • 1:33:00 – Relating Hume to Whitehead and Jung
  • 1:37:50 – Hume on meditation and ‘always-on’ consciousness


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