David Hume on The Self: Personality and Dementia

The annihilation, which some people suppose to follow upon death, and which entirely destroys this self, is nothing but an extinction of all particular perceptions; love and hatred, pain and pleasure, thought and sensation. These therefore must be the same with self; since the one cannot survive the other.—David Hume Of Personal Identity, A Treatise of Human Nature

My mother has dementia, probably Lewy Bodies, as well as kidney failure, as well as a slew of other things. Since my father died in 2010, her decline has been rapid.

Luckily, she (mostly) remembers who I am. Just yesterday I came into town and met her and my brother here at the hospital. She didn’t say much, but when she overheard my brother tell me that he was leaving town to visit my other brother, she got a little peeved and said to him, “I don’t understand why you’re leaving now that Tina’s here.”

This is a distinct My Mom personality trait. This is SO her.

Needless to say, it made me very happy. Not because of the content of what she said, but because what she said was HER, not someone else, not nothing, not silence.

Other times, I feel only her absence. I’m sitting right next to her now, and I just spoke to her. She replied, “I didn’t know you were here,” even though I’ve been sitting here for hours. Sometimes she asks me, “Are you Tina?”

Regarding Hume’s quote: I feel I’m experiencing perceptions, sensations, and thoughts being stripped away from her, but somehow this falls short of death of identity. Something about his observation feels wrong. It could be wishful thinking on my part.

On the other hand, I’m really lucky. I’ve heard horror stories, people who were once sweet and kind turning sour and hostile. I wonder how it is with people whose dementia symptoms are far worse, what it must be like for their family and friends to have virtually nothing left of the old personality. Would they find Hume’s quote closer to the truth?

What it is that makes us who we are? What is it that others “see”? How far can my perceptions and thoughts can be stripped away before I lose my identity? What if my appearance changed as well, and I morphed into someone else’s body, sort of like a certain Michael Jackson video, so that my perceptions and thoughts and looks changed all at once? Would I still be the same person?

I want to say yes, but I sense that I’d have to cook up a good reason, which I haven’t done yet. The fact that I want to ‘cook up’ anything is a bad sign. What do y’all think?

10 thoughts on “David Hume on The Self: Personality and Dementia

  1. I think our memories and experiences shape our perception. Maybe thats just me, but the things that I have learned, seen, and heard changed my personality and how I look at the world. If someone looked at my life, they would see how dramatically I have changed my personality, and I can attribute that to the things that I have learned! “Our life is what our thoughts make it.” – Marcus Aurelius


  2. Sorry to hear about your mother. I think of all the ways that people can deteriorate, watching the mind go is the hardest to endure.

    The science seems to show that we are a combination of our genetics and experiences, both nature and nurture. We aren’t born blank slates. If I had your experiences, but with my genetic tendencies, I still wouldn’t be you, nor you me if you had my experiences. Who we are is also the habits that we’ve acquired, many of which we might not recall the source of. Because of that, I think we can lose a lot of our memories and still be us. Unfortunately, as the brain degrades, even those innate tendencies can be changed.


  3. My dad had Alzheimer’s disease so I went through a process of observing the various stages that are typical of that particular dementia condition. What I found was that the most difficult phase was during the middle period (of say, a 5/6 year decline), wherein the paranoia, aggression, ’embarrassing’ behaviour and so forth occur. This only lasted a year or so, and then the descent was akin to a drift into a child-like innocence, and was often very pleasing to observe and as well to, very gently, engage with. There was also lots of humour too in the course of the disease’s progression. I once asked dad how he thought his memory was, and he replied (without a trace of irony), ‘actually it’s not bad, I just can’t remember anything in the past’.

    On the point of loss of identity or personality, then what I observed was that there no longer was any attempt to conform to others’ expectations – this, after all, is arguably what much of our supposed ‘identity’ is about is it not? This is not necessarily a total loss of connection for loved ones (me, you), as facial mannerisms, gestures, and habituated tendencies by and large persist. So there can be a rawness, a directness, and of course, a lack of responsiveness, all of which can be a little disconcerting at times, and yet the mannerisms keep bringing us back to a recognition of the former self-construct. I would even go so far as to say that the shedding of that construct in its more cohesive manifestation, was in some sense a kind of liberation – can you forgive me for saying that?



    • Of course I can forgive you for saying that! I think there’s a lot of truth to it. It’s definitely a different progression depending on the kind of dementia, and depending on the person too. My mom seems to have a lot of her old Self in there, in her passivity, I suppose. She’s always been a go-with-the-flow kind of person, almost to a detriment, but at this point in her life, it’s a good thing. At some point we’ll all have to give in, accept reality.

      That stage you talk about with the paranoia and aggression sounds typical of Alzheimer’s. I’m really fortunate that I didn’t have to go through that. I can’t imagine what that would be like. Like I said, she was a really gentle and passive sort of person, always kind. I don’t think I would have been able to see such a transformation.

      Although the embarrassing behavior is certainly there with her. She really doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her. I can see the liberation in that. I just wonder if the lack of time-continuity allows her to feel liberated.


      • Thank you so much for sharing your perceptions of your mother’s condition; I do know this is all intensely personal, and that there’s nothing private about what each of us has stated when published here.

        I appreciate that your dear mother’s condition is likely to unfold in very differing ways to that of my father, or of any Alzheimer’s sufferer. Perhaps a common thread though, is that of how we engage with the dementia sufferer generally? Our former methods no longer apply, and new techniques must be adopted. For myself, I found a book called ‘Dementia Reconsidered’ by Tom Kitwood to be extremely helpful in this regard. [ http://www.amazon.co.uk/Dementia-Reconsidered-Person-Rethinking-Ageing/dp/0335198554 ]

        You say ‘I just wonder if the lack of time-continuity allows her to feel liberated. Then I myself wonder, perhaps it is possible that as there is unlikely to be a comparison with what obtained previously, then the question of ‘feeling liberated’ is by the by – there is no reference point either to sense liberation from, or to look back at as a former state. For the subject, there is just ‘this’.

        It’s good to meet you, I chanced upon you via the Self Aware Patterns blog by the way.

        All best wishes.



        • Good to meet you too!

          You’re on the mark with “for the subject, there is just ‘this’.” That’s exactly what I meant.

          Thanks for the book recommendation. I’ll have to check it out.

          It’s true that I find it hard to engage with her, but that’s because she sleeps nonstop. That’s part of her kind of dementia. When she talks, it’s only very immediate concerns: “Can you give me something to drink?” Etc.

          This whole thing has been difficult, but also intriguing. That’s why I wanted to write about it from a philosophical point of view. I certainly don’t want my blog to be a sounding board for emoting, although that has its place. I’m just now turning to questions of the self, what is personality. So far I’ve been concerned with other areas of philosophy, but this I’m taking on in a different way, somewhat obliquely.


      • Thank you for engaging so openly; I have appreciated the exchange just here, and hopefully we will have others in the future. In the meantime, I wish both you and your mother peace, and also many tender moments of connection, however briefly glimpsed.


        Liked by 1 person

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