'Wicker Man' photo, by Ian Southwell'Wicker Man', Ian Southwell

Bundle Theory and the Buddha

In broad strokes, the issue of personal identity comes down to attempting to answer the question of “what is it that makes me ‘me’ despite the changes I go through?” It might at first seem strange that there could be a connection between the thoughts of 18th Century Scottish philosopher David Hume and the prophet and founder of Buddhism, yet in the realm of personal identity, the views of Hume and the Buddha are highly similar. This article will explore this interesting connection in their theories on personal identity.

Hume’s Bundle Theory

Let’s start with David Hume, whose most significant work, ‘A Treatise of Human Nature’, was first published towards the end of 1738. Though quite unpopular in its time (much to his dismay), in it Hume discussed, with great ingenuity, topics such as morality, epistemology and, as noted, personal identity. He begins by noting the fact that many philosophers “imagine we are at every moment intimately conscious of what we call our self” and that our passions and perceptions are wholly connected to an entity capable of feeling and perceiving.

However, Hume believed that they could not be farther from the truth. Instead, he believed, that the manifestations of passions such as pain and pleasure, grief and joy, are ephemeral in nature; succeeding one another unpredictably. From this, he derived that “there is no impression constant and invariable” and that the impermanent and transitory nature of these impressions which supposedly gave rise to the idea of personal identity, show that there is no validity to this idea. The same can be said about perceptions. Hume rightly points out that you are always perceiving something and, furthermore, whatever it is that you are observing is really just the perception of the properties of an object or thing.

David Hume, 1711 - 1776. Philosopher, whose personal identity theory is known as bundle theory.‘David Hume’, Allan Ramsey

These arguments, which give rise to Hume’s Bundle Theory of personal identity are intended to refute the traditional notion of the self. Indeed, the following excerpt really puts the nail in the coffin of the self so-conceived:

I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.” – Hume

But Hume does not believe with certainty that his theory is an entirely adequate account of personal identity (or lack thereof). Instead, he makes it quite clear that these questions can never be simply resolved. This is because, according to Hume, they are to be considered “rather as grammatical than as philosophical difficulties”. That is to say, since there is no fixed terminology for discussing the topic of personal identity, it becomes a question of arguing which naming convention we find more suitable.

The Buddha’s Five Aggregates

Now we will go far back in time to when the Buddha gave his ‘Discourse on the Not-Self Characteristic’. In Buddhism, much importance is given to what is known as the Five Aggregates, which are supposed to explain and constitute the mental and physical components of a person’s existence. They are, in order: form (matter), feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. What the Buddha thus ascertains is that given the nature of these five aggregates, no self can exist; despite these being the constitution of a person.

The Buddha believes, much like Hume, that these five aggregates are entirely impermanent and very much out of our control. If we take ‘form’, for instance, you find that you can’t manipulate this aggregate by extending your arm past the length it already is in physical space. The same goes for the other aggregates. In the discourse, the Buddha dissects each aggregate in the exact same way asking the monks surrounding him: “Is that which is impermanent, unsatisfactory, subject to change, properly regarded as self?” The resounding answer is “no”. Thus, after conducting this analysis of the five aggregates, which are all argued to have the same nature of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and change, the Buddha can conclude that:

This is not mine, this I am not, this is not myself. – Buddha

Notice that, though worded differently, both the Buddha and Hume break down the notion of personal identity or selfhood in the exact same way. They ask us to critically examine passions and perceptions, elements of our experiences that we profoundly believe belong to something that is capable 
of experiencing said passions and perceptions, and come to see instead that they are inherently vague, impermanent and largely out of our control. There is, of course, a difference in the thinkers’ intentions in disclosing the true nature of selfhood. Hume (we assume) intended mainly to enlighten and inform the reader and develop our understanding of personal identity, whereas the Buddha had another motive in mind. He wanted to liberate the monks from the aggregates to which they clung and, through this clinging, suffer.

'The Victory of Buddha' by Abanindranath Tagore. The buddha, whose personal identity theory comes from his concept of the five aggregates, sits atop a boulder facing away.‘The Victory of Buddha’, Abanindranath Tagore

It seems, therefore, that Hume and the Buddha are quite aligned in terms of their ‘no-self’ theories. In fact, some have argued it is not unlikely that Hume could have been inspired by Buddhist thought. Alison Gopnik notes that “very little was known about Buddhism in the Europe of the 1730’s” but that despite this, Hume may have come into contact with Buddhist thought during his trip to France. While it is, of course, possible that Hume may have conceived of these ideas independently, the theory that Gopnik advances is supported by evidence that  suggests Hume may have been in contact with French Jesuits who spent time in Tibet, and who wrote prolifically on the subject of Tibetan Buddhism.

It is, of course, important to note that Hume was definitely also influenced by John Locke and other European philosophers who had written on the topic of personal identity, but Gopnik is correct still in asserting that Hume’s argument is “a fairly radical departure from what had gone before”. There is still room for  speculation, of course, but it is not at all absurd to invoke the interconnectedness of the world in this particular example.

Perhaps what Gopnik is trying to say, and what we should take from this interesting overlap, is that the transmission of ideas cannot be impeded by either physical distances or cultural incongruities because ideas are all written in the same language – curiosity.

Kyle van Oosterum is a first-year philosophy student at the University of St. Andrews.


2 thoughts on “Bundle Theory and the Buddha

    1. Good question—here’s the answer in my humble opinion, which can only make sense by carefully considering and testing it out through one’s own consciousness: All perceptions, of oneself or anything else, are memory-based generalizations, products of time, learned “output” derived from previous, repetitive “inputs”, that is, from mysterious presence-based processes commonly called “sensing”. Repeatedly, directly sensing similar clusters or patterns all-at-once, that is, sensing “compresent properties”, is what fundamentally establishes “bundles” of consequently knowable forms, the re-cognizable (hyphen intended) “identity” of any “thing” whatsoever. The built up relations of “sameness” through direct experience (the pure or radical experience of James) is what distinguishes adults from infants; sameness is the necessary basic beginning and ongoing sustenance of memory generally. The relation of sameness is (verify this for yourself) fundamental to all coherent, reliable perceptions of every known form, reactivated in an instant—as memory is reactive in nature—hence of knowledge itself. Sensing, however, is always complimentarily intermingled imperceptibly with every perception, but performs the opposite necessary function (necessary to all observable intelligence from bacterial on), namely detecting differences, first and foremost, from which more complex relations of sameness are only then possible. With a close look, sensing is nothing more than detecting contrasts, nothing more than distinguishing the differences “between” things, between forms of all kinds (physical and metaphysical). It is extremely important to distinguish our own formless sensing—which is a precognitive process—from perceiving things, from perceptions which “furnish” the basic content of cognition. Sensing is itself formless and yet the primary substratum from which form, memory, and all relations of sameness traceably evolve and dependently emerge. Sensing, as Locke noted, is the simplest, natural, necessary beginning point of every kind of consciousness, and is the (inexplicably astounding) formless means by which everything we do and indispensably know remains held together. Because of the purely relational, formless nature of sensing, our simpler perceptual bundles (of nothing more than contrasts, unique composites of relations of difference, closely associated) are readily mergable, recombinable as needed and useful, into more complex, more encompassing bundles, including the “self” and all “higher” knowledge. So the self is indeed as “empty,” ultimately, as the Buddhists sand Hume rather well demonstrate, and yet it has a certain non-absolute “reality” that is actually indispensable for self maintenance; all living creatures necessarily have a sense of themselves as a distinct entity. The trouble begins when humans are socially manipulated to mistake the relativistic for the Absolute. The real significance of all this discussion is to provide the means to autonomously step out of the false framework of socially constructed reality, woefully outdated and based in prescientific myths, and clarify THAT crucial difference, for oneself, free of outside authority, the keen, precise difference between the absolute and the relative. Major improvements in one’s quality of life result; enlightened people still have egos, they’re just not attached to them and do not identify with them.

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