The Reading Room
The Self & Sympathy: David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature
David Hume conceives the mind in metaphors. The mind is a theater, a republic, a stringed instrument. These metaphors suggest that an individual has multiple selves, whose relations resemble social interactions.
Personal psychology about the past (memory) and about the future (anticipation) interact with the arrow of time to raise the problem of personal identity. Hume analyzes personal identity through two concepts of the self, one representational, the other genetic. Here ‘genetic’ means shaped by the angled road of experience.
The representational self
Hume introduces the representational self in an eloquent metaphor of the mind as theater: “The mind is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations. There is properly no simplicity in it at one time, nor identity in different.” (I. IV.VI)
The person is then a sequence of selves; the present self relates to past and future selves by representing them. These representations are fresh with emotion: “almost every kind of idea is attended with some emotion, [...] much more those of such objects as are esteem’d of consequence in life, and fix our attention” (II.II.X).
Sympathy—concordance of sentiment—often tinges memory and anticipation. To recall a cherished moment can be pleasant, and to think ahead to a impending conflict dreadful. However, contrast effects, too, are commonplace. Contrary to sympathy, a contrast effect is opposite in sign to the remembered or anticipated experiences that trigger them: “Thus the prospect of past pain is agreeable, when we are satisfy’d with our present condition; as on the other hand our past pleasures gives us uneasiness, when we enjoy nothing at present equal to them” (II.II.VIII).
A person in a blissful marriage enjoys revisiting their wedding day, whereas a person in a broken marriage feels sorrow. Like sympathy, contrast can be either positive or negative and can occur in memory or anticipation.
Why are some past or future experiences rather than others represented in the theater of the mind by the present self? Hume remarks: “The thinking on any object readily transports the mind to what is contiguous; but ’tis only the actual presence of an object, that transports it with a superior vivacity” (I.III.VIII).
Does Hume underestimate the intensity of some thoughts about past or future or imaginary experiences? A train of thought might reach corners of the mind that kindle strong feelings.
The genetic self
One’s past emotions can shape one’s present emotions without being represented in the mind, if there is a causal chain linking them to the present. A traumatic experience can become engrained and make one fearful, and a serene childhood might make one trustful in adulthood. By contrast, future emotions cannot shape present emotions, only representations of future emotions can. This asymmetry suggests a genetic self. Hume writes: “memory does not so much produce as discover personal identity, by shewing us the relation of cause and effect among our different perceptions” (I.IV.VI)
Hume captures the genetic self in another metaphor, likening the mind to a republic rather than a theater:
“As the same individual republic may not only change its members, but also its laws and constitutions; in like manner the same person may vary his character and disposition, as well as his impressions and ideas, without losing his identity. Whatever changes he endures, his several parts are still connected by the relation of causation. And in this view our identity with regard to the passions serves to corroborate that with regard to the imagination, by the making our distant perceptions influence each other, and by giving us a present concern for our past or future pains or pleasures.” (I.IV.VI)
Hume then introduces a metaphor of the mind as a stringed instrument to highlight reverberation of emotions in the genetic self:
“Now if we consider the human mind, we shall find, that with regard to the passions, ‘tis not of the nature of a wind instrument of music, which in running over all the notes immediately loses the sound after the breath ceases; but rather resembles a string instrument, where after each stroke the vibrations still retain some sound, which gradually and insensibly decays. The imagination is extreme quick and agile; but the passions are slow and restive: For which reason, when any object is presented, that affords a variety of views to the one, and emotions to the other, tho’ the fancy may change its views with great celerity; each stroke will not produce a clear and distinct note of passion, but the one passion will always be mixt and confounded with the other.” (II.III.IX)
The self & others
Hume applies these same mechanisms—sympathy, contrast, and reverberation of sentiments—to explain social psychology, too. He deploys the metaphor of a stringed instrument: “No quality of human nature is more remarkable, both in itself and in its consequences, than the propensity we have to sympathize with others, arid to receive by communication their inclinations and sentiments, however different from, or even contrary to our own. [… .] As in strings equally wound up, the motion of one communicates itself to the rest.” (II.I.XI)
We cannot know others’ emotions directly. Hume explains that we form an idea of their emotions by our familiarity with causes and effects: the circumstances that occasion emotions and the outward manifestations of emotions (III.III.I).
The strength of other-regarding sympathy (fellow feeling) is governed by two kinds of relation between persons, namely, resemblance and contiguity: “Resemblance must very much contribute to make us enter into the sentiments of others [… .] The stronger the relation is betwixt ourselves and any object, the more easily does the imagination make the transition [… .]. Nor is resemblance the only relation, which has this effect [… .]. The sentiments of others have little influence, when far remov’d from us, and require the relation of contiguity, to make them communicate themselves entirely” (II.I.XI)
On the other hand, Hume concedes, “’Tis true, there is no human, and indeed no sensible, creature, whose happiness or misery does not, in some measure, affect us, when brought near to us, and represented in lively colours” (III.II.I)
Think of Pablo Picasso’s painting, Guernica. Artists and photojournalists have a special role to play in widening the circle of social sympathy.
Hume’s social psychology naturally includes contrast effects born of self-centered comparison: “The direct survey of another’s pleasure naturally gives us pleasure, and therefore produces pain when compar’d with our own. His pain, consider’d in itself, is painful to us, but augments the idea of our own happiness, and gives us pleasure” (III.II.VIII).
Comparison may also trigger envy. Some people enjoy being envied and even labor to provoke envy. Some fear being envied and hide their endowments or accomplishments. Envy’s intensity depends on the resemblance and contiguity of the target of comparison. For example, a low-level employee at a large corporation might admire the founder’s success but envy a peer who receives a coveted promotion. In modern commercial culture, many people eschew envy and instead engage in competition or emulation—to keep up with the Joneses. Envy may follow intense interaction. For example, Olivia Rodrigo, in her song about break-up, Happier, sings,
“I hope you’re happy,Just not like how you were with me.
I’m selfish I know,
I can’t let you go.
So find someone great,
But don’t find no one better.
I hope you’re happy,But don’t be happier.”
Hume even translates the intimate phenomenon of reverberation to social interaction: “The minds of men are mirrors to one another, not only because they reflect each others emotions, but also because those rays of passions, sentiments and opinions may be often reverberated, and may decay away by insensible degrees” (II.II.V)
Hume’s theory of social psychology undercuts universal moral theory, for example, Kantianism (Do what every one should do) or Utilitarianism (Do what’s best for all): “In general, it may be affirm’d, that there is no such passion in human minds, as the love of mankind, merely as such, independent of personal qualities, of services, or of relation to ourself” (III.II.I)
Instead, there are circles of moral concern, for example, family, friendship, community, org, occupation, church, or nation. Circles frame and circumscribe morality.
The combinatory possibilities of metaphors of the mind, the representational self, the genetic self, sympathy, comparison, reverberation, resemblance, contiguity, and frames are myriad. Hume’s observations on psychology ring true and explain much with little. A Treatise of Human Nature is a masterpiece of fullness and parsimony, twin ideals of science.