Creativity and Destruction and Hume’s Bundle notion of self

I was sick yesterday, so instead of having an impro gig I spent the night writing some songs and a few gags for this Tuesday’s stand-up gig. It’s been a while since I’ve written so effectively, so I was quite pleased with the results. Then this morning I was dabbling in Wikipedia and came to the entry on philosopher David Hume.

Hume was a Scottish philosopher in the 1700’s, most known for Utilitarianism, Naturalism, and receiving accusations of Atheism. The section on the Bundle Theory of Self particularly interested me as I’ve recently experienced odd feelings of being inhabited by separate entities whose dominance varies depending on the task at hand.

Audience: [cough]Too many drugs[/cough]

In particular, I can relate to the following:

… when you start introspecting, you notice a bunch of thoughts and feelings and perceptions and such, but you never perceive any substance you could call “the self”. So as far as we can tell, Hume concludes, there is nothing to the self over and above a big, fleeting bundle of perceptions.

Speaking as someone who is required to be highly rational and scientific in my day job (Computer Programming for a large bank) and random, emotional and creative in my hobbies (improv, stand-up, music), I have begun see these bunches of thoughts and feelings ebb and flow quite dramatically over the course of a single day or week. I also have a fairly diverse set of friends with dramatically different approaches to life, and this also affects which aspects of my personality surface at a particular time.

This thinking led me along two seemingly-unrelated strands of thought.

The first is the nature and reasons for creativity. Given that we are such fluid entities, and assuming a desire in the individual for some concrete identification of the self, it is not unreasonable to say that creating a concrete item such as a painting, a song, or a story would help to create an anchor-point for one’s identity. “This is me, now”. They are flags planted in the earth at points along one’s path through life. They help to mark the journey.

The second is to do with tribalism and fear of The Other. People naturally gravitate into groups of like-minded individuals who mutually reinforce each others’ sense of self. This, too, provides an anchor point for certain aspects of the personality, by validating their existence and approving their expression. Over time, and with sufficient exposure to one group over all others, this would result in a hardening of the individual’s personality into a single form; less of a bundle of ever-changing thoughts and feelings, and more of a singular – dare I say, robotic – entity.

[pointedly looks at football fanatics]

This helps to explain, to me at least, the nature of such phenomena as xenophobia, sexism and racism. All come about when large-ish, mutually-reinforcing collectives communicate mostly among themselves and exclude opinions (either deliberately or accidentally) which would disrupt the hardening of their identities into a form which resonates with the collective.

So it seems that, at some level, the acts of painting a bowl of petunias and beating up homosexuals both satisfy the same need: To capture and identify the self.

But there’s no such thing as the self. Which sucks for gays but is good for Camberwell Market.

6 Replies to “Creativity and Destruction and Hume’s Bundle notion of self”

  1. I didn’t say individuality – I said sense of self. The self does not need to be behaviorally distinct from other selves in order to be distinguished from them by the entity that is bound to it.

    Not a paradox!

  2. Though, interestingly, much of philosophical thought and meditation is dedicated to losing one’s sense of self and being integrated into the universal consciousness.

    So the struggle to lock onesself into a particular identity is probably counter-productive if that’s the sort of thing you’re after.

  3. Yeah, Hume was dramatically preceded by Buddhism there, particularly the zen variety.

    It’s interesting that the way you first put it (“I’ve recently experienced odd feelings of being inhabited by separate entities whose dominance varies depending on the task at hand” ) sounds more like a theory of multiple selves than anything else.