Blog #171: Exhuming More Hume in To the Lighthouse

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When I view this table and that chimney, nothing is present to me but particular perceptions, which are of a like nature with all the other perceptions. This is the doctrine of philosophers. But this table, which is present to me, and the chimney, may and do exist separately. This is the doctrine of the vulgar, and implies no contradiction. There is no contradiction, therefore, in extending the same doctrine to all the perceptions.

In general, the following reasoning seems satisfactory. All ideas are borrowed from preceding perceptions. Our ideas of objects, therefore, are derived from that source. Consequently no proposition can be intelligible or consistent with regard to objects, which is not so with regard to perceptions. But it is intelligible and consistent to say, that objects exist distinct and independent, without any common simple substance or subject of inhesion. This proposition, therefore, can never be absurd with regard to perceptions.

When I turn my reflection on myself, I never can perceive this self without some one or more perceptions; nor can I ever perceive any thing but the perceptions. It is the composition of these, therefore, which forms the self. We can conceive a thinking being to have either many or few perceptions. Suppose the mind to be reduced even below the life of an oyster. Suppose it to have only one perception, as of thirst or hunger. Consider it in that situation. Do you conceive any thing but merely that perception? Have you any notion of self or substance? If not, the addition of other perceptions can never give you that notion.

A Treatise of Human Nature

I’ve had several more ideas about the presence of Hume in To the Lighthouse. Two of those ideas are rather playful, but I want to hang on to them. The first idea is that if Virginia did read Dean Ramsay’s book, she would have been struck by the way in which the Hume anecdote is a retelling of the Sir George Ramsay story (epigraphs to Blog #169). She would have been pleased and amused at this possible transformation and what it suggests about the power of stories to transmute experience and create new realities, however apocryphal.

The second playful thought is that Virginia enjoyed the feminist aspect of the Hume story. The story may have been selected for its humour, for the way in which it calls attention to Hume, and because it was one which Leslie Stephen enjoyed, but Virginia also makes use of the way in which the story shows a woman triumphing over a man. The third and final reference to the bog story comes immediately after Mrs Ramsay’s “I have triumphed tonight,” thereby linking the old woman’s triumph to Mrs. Ramsay’s triumph over William Bankes (later, she will dive into the “soft mass” of the Boeuf en Daube “triumph” to choose “a specially tender piece” for him), and, proleptically, to Mrs. Ramsay’s triumph at the end of “Window” section.

As important as the feminist implications of the story is the way in which it calls attention to Hume, thereby inviting direct engagement with Hume’s ideas. Gillian Beer has teased out elements of this engagement in “Hume, Stephen, and Elegy in To the Lighthouse,” focusing primarily on Leslie Stephen’s writings on Hume, and also on the way in which Lily seeing the kitchen table in the pear tree pays homage to Hume’s ideas about substance and perception. For Beer, To the Lighthouse contains a “grounded inquiry” into “subject and object and the nature of reality” and the philosophical ideas of David Hume and Leslie Stephen.

Beer’s exhumation of the Hume laid up in To the Lighthouse can be further developed by examining the language which Virginia uses to show Lily and William Banks looking at Mrs. Ramsay and James . First, we see Lily “[l]ooking along the level of Mr. Bankes’s glance at her.” This is followed by “[l]ooking along his beam she added to it her different ray,” and later we are told that t]his ray passed level with Mr. Bankes’s ray straight to Mrs. Ramsay sitting reading there with James at her knee.” This language of beams and rays links very closely to the language Hume uses to consider perception in his Treatise of Human Nature:

When an object augments or diminishes to the eye or imagination from a comparison with others, the image and idea of the object are still the same, and are equally extended in the retina, and in the brain or organ of perception. The eyes refract the rays of light, and the optic nerves convey the images to the brain in the very same manner, whether a great or small object has preceded; nor does even the imagination alter the dimensions of its object on account of a comparison with others. The question then is, how from the same impression and the same idea we can form such different judgments concerning the same object, and at one time admire its bulk, and at another despise its littleness. This variation in our judgments must certainly proceed from a variation in some perception; but as the variation lies not in the immediate impression or idea of the object, it must lie in some other impression, that accompanies it.

Even though Lily and William look at Mrs. Ramsay from the same angle, they form very different judgments. Impressions affect impressions, and since no two individuals share identical experiences or impressions, since each individual is a unique “collection of different impressions,” each of us experiences and interprets life differently. No matter how level or parallel to each other Lily and William’s rays may be, they will always perceive a different Mrs. Ramsay. Not only that, but, as we continue to acquire new impressions, our experience of life, of necessity, continues to change. New impressions beget new impressions, and “the deposit of each day’s living” constantly alters subsequent perceptions.

In To the Lighthouse, Virginia pays particular attention to Hume’s ideas of the self as a fiction, an action of the imagination. Life consists of successive impressions, impressions mediated by the senses, and it is through imagination that we ascribe a continuous sense of self to the accumulation of impressions which constitute the mind. Identity depends on resemblance, contiguity, and causation or, put differently, on gradual and proportional change and a common purpose. Throughout To the Lighthouse, Virginia both plays with, endorses, and extends these Humean ideas. Rigid identity is an illusion, and the ecstasy of immediate apprehension should constantly be opposed to the deadening harm of habit. The task of the individual, or of the artist, is both to accept and to wrestle with the protean nature of reality.

But setting aside some metaphysicians of this kind, 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. Our eyes cannot turn in their sockets without varying our perceptions. Our thought is still more variable than our sight; and all our other senses and faculties contribute to this change; nor is there any single power of the soul, which remains unalterably the same, perhaps for one moment. 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; whatever natural propension we may have to imagine that simplicity and identity. The comparison of the theatre must not mislead us. They are the successive perceptions only, that constitute the mind; nor have we the most distant notion of the place, where these scenes are represented, or of the materials, of which it is composed.

A Treatise of Human Nature

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