Models pp 277-296 | Cite as

Hume’s Concept of Identity and the Principium Individuations

  • Marx W. Wartofsky
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series (BSPS, volume 48)


In Hume’s account of Identity, an apparent contradiction is presented as the ground for introducing the principle of Imagination as the source of that fiction by means of which we attribute not merely continued existence to objects when they are not present to the senses, but an identity through time to the objects so conceived. On the grounds of an epistemological critique, the ontological identity of persistent objects is declared fictive. But in the process of this analysis, an alternative ontological scheme is proposed, whose import is often overlooked in accounts of Hume’s empiricism. It is obscured by Hume’s ambivalent usage of key terms in the Treatise, but I think it can be shown to emerge from an analysis of the conceptual elements in his scheme. Such an analysis is instructive not only in terms of what may be inferred from what Hume himself has to say, but also in terms of Hume’s dependence on, and transformation of, historically antecedent concept-structures. I hope to show that from Hume’s own account, he is to be reckoned not as a clear atomist, but as an ambiguous one, with strong elements of that relationalism which is identified with the tradition of Leibniz and Whitehead.


Ontological Commitment Distinct Perception Perfect Identity Distinct Impression Distinct Existence 
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  1. 2.
    See, for example, the extensive discussion of the analytic paradoxes of identity, in A. Pap, Semantics and Necessary Truth (Yale, New Haven, 1958), Chpts. 9–10, esp. pp. 275 ff.Google Scholar
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    David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, (ed. by L. A. Selby-Bigge) Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1888. p. 200. (All subsequent references are to this edition, and will be footnoted S.B.)Google Scholar
  3. 3a.
    W. V. Quine, in a discussion of this passage in Word and Object (Technology Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1960), pp. 116 ff., attributes Hume’s view on this to a confusion between sign and object. Quine writes: “If identity is taken strictly as the relation that every entity bears to itself only, [Hume] is at a loss to see what is relational about it and how it differs from the mere attribute of existing. Now the root of this trouble is confusion of sign and object. What makes identity a relation and ‘=’ a relative term, is that ‘=’ goes between distinct and occurrences of singular terms, same or distinct, and not that it relates distinct objects.” Quine attributes a similar confusion to Leibniz’ explanation of identity “as a relation between signs, rather than between the named object and itself,” and sees this confusion in one form or another, in Frege, Korzybski, Whitehead, and Wittgenstein. He cites Wittgenstein’s distinctly Humean formulation in the Tractatus… (5.5303): “... to say of two things that they are identical is nonsense, and to say of one thing that it is identical with itself is to say nothing.” The argument is based on an interpretation of signs and reference. But Hume’s rejection of nominal identity as empty is based on an ontological commitment to perceptions, as the only admissible entities in his scheme. On these grounds, identity is an ontological relation between these existents. To name twice for Hume, would therefore be to have two separate occasions, two distinct perceptions to be named. Anything less cannot constitute a relation, within his phenomenalistic ontology. Synonymy may be relational in another universe of discourse, but strictly speaking, for Hume there is only one such universe. All others are fictive or illusory. Cf. also A. Pap. Op. Cit., p. 276: “If we replace the ontological mode of speech, ‘X and Y are identical concepts (or attributes)’ by the semantic mode of speech ‘“X” and “Y” are synonymous expressions,’ we only reformulate, we do not solve the problem. “Hume does essentially the same kind of reformulation, in replacing the more traditional realist ontological approach to identity with a phenomenalist epistemic approach, the consequences of which we will examine here.Google Scholar
  4. 3b.
    See also, for an important recent discussion, the Symposium on the Principle of Individuation, J. Łukasiewicz, E. Anscombe and K. Popper, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volume XXVII, (1953) pp. 69–120.Google Scholar
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    S.B., p. 200.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 199.Google Scholar
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    W. V. Quine, ‘Identity, Ostension and Hypostasis,’ From a Logical Point of View Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1953, p. 66.Google Scholar
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    S.B., pp. 30–31. The use of a singular term for a collection of perceptibly different objects is a ‘fictitious denomination’ in somewhat the same way as the attribution of identity to a succession of perceptibly different impressions or ideas is a ‘fiction of the imagination.’ That the fiction may have its origin in a linguistic economy is suggested by Hume, but it is Thomas Reid who grasps this more clearly, in his discussion of identity: “It may be observed that the identity of the object of sense is never perfect. All bodies, as they consist of innumerable parts that may be disjoined from them by a great variety of causes, are subject to continual changes of their substances, increasing, diminishing, changing insensibly. When such alterations are gradual, because language could not afford a different name for every different state of such a changeable being, it retains the same name and is considered the same thing... The identity which we ascribe to bodies… is not a perfect identity; it is something which, for the conveniency of speech, we call identity.” (All emphases mine- M.W.) Essay III, ‘Concerning Memory,’ Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, in Works... (Duyckinck, Collins and Hannay, New York; 1822), II, pp. 138–9. Cf. with Quine’s similar ‘Gavagai’ discussion in Word and Object, pp. 52–4, and with Quine’s claim for the advantage of formal simplicity gained by the ‘central function’ of the concept of identity “in specifying spatio-temporally broad objects by ostension” (From a Logical Point of View, p. 70). The traditional nominalist critique has been that this ostensive procedure or economy of referring leads to a hypostatization of the referring term. In a criticism of Hume’s nominalist objections, T. Penelhum proposes an apparently simple solution (‘Hume on Personal Identity,’ Philosophical Review, pp. 571–89, Oct. 1955) in terms of the ‘singularity’ of a class name, (J) naming a class of successive objects, A,B,C, D,E,F, etc. Penelhum appeals to ordinary usage (pp. 579–81) but he misses Hume’s argument on abstraction, and also the import of the phenomenal framework, in which a class name is nothing but a ‘mark’ in the Hobbesian and Berkeleian (ultimately, in the Ockhamist) sense. The problem in Hume is not analytic, but ontological, since it is the perceptions as existents which are discrete and successive, whatever we ‘name’ a group of them. On Penelhum’s view, class names replace classes named, as elements in perception. Hume’s nominalism precludes this.Google Scholar
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    S.B., p. 190.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 14.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 37.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 37. Cf. Whitehead: “Time is known to me as an abstraction from the passage of events.” The Concept of Nature, Michigan Univ. Press, Ann Arbor, 1957, p. 34.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 31.Google Scholar
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    J. S. Mill, A System of Logic (Harper, New York; 1879), Bk. I, Chpt. iii, sect. 11, pp. 60 ff., and Chpt. v, sect. 6, p. 83.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 201.Google Scholar
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    S.B., p. 198.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 61 (My stress- M.W.)Google Scholar
  19. 20.
    In relation to this, there is a cogent analysis of Husserl’s critique of Hume’s distinctions of reason in the Logische Untersuchungen, and a criticism of N. Kemp Smith’s position on this, in Robert E. Butts, ‘Husserl’s Critique of Hume’s Notion of Distinctions of Reason,’ Philosophy and Phenomenologieal Research, XX, 2 Dec. 1959, pp. 213–221.Google Scholar
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    S.B., p. 2.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 25.Google Scholar
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    See C. R. S. Harris, Duns Scotus Clarendon, Oxford, 1927, II, pp. 95, 114–15;Google Scholar
  23. 23a.
    and also M. J. Grajewski, O.F.M., The Formal Distinction in Duns Scotus Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., 1944, pp. 35 ff. I am indebted to my colleague, Dr. Erazim Kohak, for discussion and suggestions on this point.Google Scholar
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    S.B., p. 25. See also N. Kemp Smith’s discussion, in The Philosophy of David Hume Macmillan, London, 1949, pp. 264 ff.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., pp. 638–639.Google Scholar
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    G. W. Leibniz, Philosophical Works, (ed. by G. M. Duncan) Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor, New Haven, 1890, p. 273Google Scholar
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    quoted in B. Russell, The Philosophy of Leibniz Geo. Allen & Unwin, London, 1900, pp. 220.Google Scholar
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    W. V. Quine, From a Logical Point of View, p. 71.Google Scholar
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    See N. Kemp Smith’s argument on this, op. cit., pp. 133–37.Google Scholar
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    Paul Marhenke, ‘Hume’s View of Identity,’ University of California Publications in Philosophy, XX, (1937) p. 174.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 636.Google Scholar
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    F. H. Bradley, Appearance and Reality, Rev. ed.; Clarendon, Oxford, 1930, p. 309, fn. See also his discussion on ‘sameness and difference,’ p. 308.Google Scholar
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    A. N. Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 213.Google Scholar

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© D. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht, Holland 1979

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  • Marx W. Wartofsky

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