David Hume, that most sly student of human experience, declared he couldn’t find himself anywhere. As he gazed inward, he came across sensations, feelings, passions, and moods, but he had never come across aself in the way one might come across a vivid shade of turquoise or a lampshade or a heartbeat. He could find no “simple and continued” thing underlying his perceptions, as a bed of stone lies beneath an ever-changing stream. And so he haplessly concluded that he was nothing more than a stream, a bundle of impressions, a shifting mass of predicates without a subject. And if someone else has come to a different conclusion – if he stumbles across himself in his own experience –
“I must confess I can no longer reason with him. All I can allow him is, that he may be in the right as well as I, and that we are essentially different in this particular. He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and continu’d, which he calls himself; tho’ I am certain there is no such principle in me.”
It wasn’t long before alarm bells went off. In an appendix to his treatise, Hume admitted he was in deep trouble. The basis of his entire philosophy was the view that distinct events are, well, distinct: it is only our thinking that combines distinct events into ideas of enduring things, into stable causal regularities, into expectations of uniformity in nature, and so on. Our minds create the universe out of the diverse. But if we ourselves are diverse – if there is no unity even in us – then how we ever be able to pull off such a trick? Without a simple and continued thing to assemble all the broken fragments into a whole, how is the appearance of a whole ever to come about? “All my hopes vanish,” he wrote, as he entered into this deepest of all labyrinths. He provided no solution, not ever, and he never wrote on this subject again.