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  • Richard Farr

An eighteenth-century Scottish Buddhist?

Catching up with my favorite podcast, Philosophy Bites, I was fascinated to learn that the eerie connections between one of my favorite philosophers, David Hume, and Buddhism may not just be chance after all. Philosopher Alison Gopnik has uncovered evidence that Hume, while writing at La Flèche in the 1720s, met a Jesuit missionary who had spent years in Tibet.


As Gopnik says, the view of the self as an illusion is a particularly striking parallel. The idea in a nutshell: we think we are a unified self that ‘has’ sense-impressions; but look carefully at ‘your’ sense-impressions, and all you can find are the sense-impressions themselves. There is no self.

Not that I’m convinced Hume and the Buddhists are right. When I try to look only at my sense-impressions, what I seem to observe is not just a free-floating string of independent “experience objects,” as Hume suggests, but rather (think of what the word literally means) impressions. For something to count as an impression, there has to be something being impressed. I know, Hume was aware of this — he called it a persistent illusion, just as the Buddhists do. The question is, do we have good grounds for thinking it’s an illusion? Or better grounds for treating it as evidence for the existence of some putty-like thing that exists independently of the impressions it’s impressed by?


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