Hume on Bodies, Selves, and the Limits of Perception


David Hume (1711 – 1776), the prominent Scottish philosopher and empiricist, grappled with the complex relationship between our perceptions, the external world, and the idea of the self. He questioned the certainty of knowledge about any existence beyond direct experience. This essay explores Hume's perspectives on the existence of bodies and selves and the implications of his view for our understanding of reality.

Hume on External Objects

Hume believed that our perceptions are intimately connected to the existence of external objects. He nonetheless asserted that the existence of these objects cannot be definitively proven. For Hume, the constancy and coherence of our perceptions – their regularity and connection across time – give rise to the illusion that they represent objects with a distinct, continued existence. He argued that it would be unsustainable to live in a world where we denied the existence of external objects entirely.

Hume on the Self

In much the same way, Hume extended his analysis to the concept of the self. He proposed that the self is not a distinct entity but rather a dynamic construct. Like the belief in external objects, the notion of a stable, permanent self arises from the way we tend to bundle our perceptions together. It's an idea created by the mind out of the ongoing stream of experiences.

Reason vs. Common Sense

While Hume acknowledged the limitations of reason in proving the existence of bodies and selves, he suggested that common sense dictates our belief in them. Because our sense experiences have spatial-temporal continuity, we develop a natural propensity to assume the existence of distinct, enduring objects within our perceptual field. Therefore, even if reason cannot establish these external objects' independent reality with absolute certainty, the coherence and continuity of our experiences justify their acceptance on a practical level.


Hume's skepticism towards ultimate knowledge concerning bodies and selves had a profound influence on later philosophical developments. His analysis highlights the potential tension between what we can intuitively accept as real and the limits of our ability to demonstrate these beliefs' empirical foundations. Hume's work thus challenges us to reconsider our relationship to the external world and our own self-concept.