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Hume, Locke, and Descartes: Philosophical Theories

The historical development of philosophical thought was accompanied by emerging controversies regarding the uncertain role of people’s perceptions in the process of the formation of the concept of self. This situation was connected to the conflicting theories aimed at explaining personal identity either through impressions one receives from the world or through the dominant impact of human nature (Bennett). This contradiction resulted in the emergence of various approaches attributed to the thinkers involved in this discussion.

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The difference in the attitudes towards the subject is clearly seen in the works of European philosophers. One of the most known figures claiming that the creation of ideas is conditional upon innate notions was René Descartes. The central place of consciousness and the psychological aspect in the works of John Locke also added to this theory (Bennett). However, the opposing views of David Hume emphasizing the importance of impressions for the creation of personal identity seem to be more reasonable. Therefore, this paper aims to prove that his perception of the process is closer to reality than the perspectives of Descartes and Locke.

David Hume’s Theory of the Self

The attempts of people to find their place in the world defined the need to consider the way they think about themselves, and it was addressed by David Hume in his works. The philosopher developed an approach to this issue known as the theory of the self, and it explained the connection of human experience to feelings, impressions, and sensations (Bennett). From this perspective, it is formed solely through the interaction of a person with the world rather than observations or the mind’s work.

In this way, the theory proposed by Hume reflects on the fact that people cannot gain awareness of themselves with the help of other means different from impressions. Quite the opposite, the only method to know oneself is to analyze feelings resulting from particular experiences at the moment (Bennett). Considering the above, the philosopher claimed that this approach is applicable only to the present time since memory cannot be a reliable source of information in this case due to the lack of evidence.

Contradiction of Hume’s Theory with Other Models

The theory of the self is the outcome of Hume’s efforts to explain the phenomenon of personality formation under the influence of the environment and the present moment. From this point, it contradicts the views of Locke on personal identity since he focused on consciousness as a defining factor in the matter (Bennett). Even though both thinkers believed that knowledge comes from people’s primary senses, their perspectives were different due to the central place of either impressions or societal influence on the development of this notion. Hence, Hume was oriented on explaining the self as a product of human impressions, whereas Locke believed that it results from one’s interaction with the outer world and its effects on mental processes.

Another philosopher whose views contradict with the perceptions of David Hume regarding the concept of the self and personal identity is Descartes. In contrast to Locke, who was an empiricist like Hume, he held a diametrically opposed opinion on the matter. Being a rationalist, Descartes believed that the interrelation between these considerations and reality should be proved on the basis of clear evidence. According to him, the formation of one’s identity is the outcome of living (Bennett). In other words, people gain their perceptions merely from the fact of their existence, and they are linked by the work of their minds. Therefore, he devalued the importance of imagination and impressions placed at the center of Hume’s theory.

Example of Hume’s Point of View In Contrast to Other Theories

The definition of the self seems to be explicitly connected with the influence of the moment, and this fact is seen in the example of a person who is being introduced to a group of people. In this case, one’s perception of his identity is mostly guided by impressions and imagination (Bennett). This experience is based solely on the reaction, which cannot be objective as it was claimed by Descartes since this situation presents new information that should be first processed by feelings (Bennett). The formation of personal identity is also not connected to the societal impact as the person under these circumstances primarily focuses on himself rather than others. From this perspective, the approaches proposed by Descartes and Locke can only be a complement to the initial attempts to adjust to the environment through sensations.

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Origins of Hume’s Theory

The theory of the self originated from David Hume’s attempts to draw an analogy between perceptions and the human soul. The philosopher’s motivation was defined by the disagreement with Descartes’ views on the soul as the storage of all experiences (Bennett). From his perspective, it was quite the opposite, and the perceptions were being generated by a series of impressions accompanied with corresponding feelings and sensations. In this way, it can be concluded that the origin of the theory under consideration is an empirical approach towards the subject and the alleged dominant role of an individual in contrast to society. Hence, it is opposed not only to the concepts proposed by Descartes but also to the notions employed by Locke, who prioritized the societal impact on people.

Assumptions about the Theory’s Correctness

The correctness of Hume’s theory of the self seems to be reasonable from such considerations as ranking human reactions depending on the time of their occurrence. Since the emotions and feelings represent the initial feedback triggered by external circumstances, this notion serves as a basis for such a stance (Bennett). Indeed, their significance is explained by the priorities when it comes to an encounter with a new environment. Hence, the views of David Hume are applicable to the actual situation. They are contrasted by other theories and concepts, which are no less useful but only as a consequence of the primary interaction rather than the initial response of people.

Other Points of View and Arguments

The comparison of the theory of the self with the Second Meditation view of Descartes indicates the former’s increased practicality and the latter’s inapplicability to reality. The first model clearly indicates the correspondence of Hume’s thoughts to the responses described above. Hence, it can be supported by the psychological underpinning of the matter, which increases its credibility (Bennett). In turn, the second approach is based on such a vague notion as a soul and its experience so that no evidence can be drawn to relate it to the outer world.

The second conflicting perspective presented by John Locke also seems insufficient in terms of explaining reality in contrast to the theory of the self. This fact is explained by the philosopher’s prevailing focus on society, and such a complex mechanism can hardly be analyzed through the lens of one’s perceptions (Bennett). In this way, the similarities between the two approaches regarding the orientation on people’s primary senses and their empirical nature provide varying results. Therefore, it can be concluded that Hume’s theory is more reliable due to the consideration of one’s initial reaction instead of the combination of societal and individual factors as in the case of Locke.


The selection of an appropriate philosophical theory for examining the creation of the self is a challenging task. It should be performed with the orientation on its practicality and applicability to real life. As follows from the above, the approach proposed by David Hume is more optimal in contrast to the theories and concepts of John Locke and René Descartes. Hence, its use for the specified purpose is more beneficial than the analysis based on the other two models of reality. Otherwise, the consequences of the focus on such unrealistic approaches as the attempts to explain the process by the interaction with society or the experience of one’s soul might be severe. The researchers building their knowledge upon these ideas risk presenting an inadequate picture of the human psyche’s processes.


To sum up, the theory of the self proposed by David Hume is an optimal approach to the study of personality formation. Its significance is explained by the insufficiency of other ideas, specifically the rationalistic approach of René Descartes and the orientation on the societal impact of John Locke. The former lacks the link to reality, whereas the latter tends to neglect individual factors in favor of society and its processes. Nevertheless, they are still useful but only as a complement to Hume’s model based on perceptions deriving from impressions and imagination. Such preferences are conditional upon the initial response of people to the external circumstances with the help of feelings rather than consciousness or connections to others. Thus, the theory of David Hume is the correct approach to learning about personality formation.

Work Cited

Bennett, Jonathan. Learning from Six Philosophers: Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume. Clarendon Press, 2001.

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