Hume, Sartre, and Dostoyevsky:
a Critique of the Construct of Personality

Jarkko Jalava
Department of Psychology
Simon Fraser University


It has been questioned whether personality as an empirical construct truly exists. According to thinkers such as David Hume, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, our need to objectify, explain, and measure phenomena in nature has led us to see order and consistency where in actuality there is none. For Hume, there is no self: the mind is a mere bundle of ideas that neither remains the same over time nor has the ability to act as a causal agent. In a similar manner Sartre points out the difference between character and cause. For him, our will is forever free to act in any one way, unhindered by the dictates of our personality. Also of importance is Sartre`s ontological criticism of the self, according to which the self cannot be seen as an objective given, but rather as a continuous task. Finally, Dostoyevsky calls attention to the fact that human nature is not entirely definable by its rationality; it is not necessarily willing to act in accordance with the character it has assumed. Dostoyevsky`s view of reason allows for an interesting comparison with the other two views discussed here: it seems as if the construct of personality is inextricably intertwined with the concept of reason.

The study of personality concentrates on the externally observable character traits that distinguish one person from the other. In Allport`s words, personality is "THE DYNAMIC ORGANIZATION WITHIN THE INDIVIDUAL OF THOSE PSYCHOPHYSICAL SYSTEMS THAT DETERMINE THE UNIQUE ADJUSTMENTS TO HIS ENVIRONMENT" (Allport, 1937, p. 48; capitals original). Thus, personality is an objective construct, which, due to its relative stability over time, is suitable for an empirical study and classification. Furthermore, moral philosophers have often held the view that there is at least a semi-causal relationship between our character and our actions. Our actions are said to "grow out," or "flow from" our personality, and indeed, according to this view it is perfectly correct to say "I ran away because I am a coward" (Morris, 1976, p. 86).

The Definition of a Problem:

The inherent appeal of an argument which states that personality (or any other human quality for that matter) A) Exists, B) Is stable and observable, and C) determines our actions, is great - should this view be correct it would allow us both prediction and control over our environment. However, this view has been challenged on logical as well as on psychological grounds. David Hume and Jean-Paul Sartre are good examples of philosophers who attack the construct of personality with logical arguments while Fyodor Dostoyevsky`s views exemplify a combined philosophical and psychological approach to the same issue.

Hume's View of Self and Personal Identity

David Hume`s view of personal identity and the self must be studied in the context of his epistemological formulation: Hume is skeptical about our ability to draw correct inferences of phenomena in nature. He raises the question whether law-like connections between causes and effects can ever be rationally justified, and continues to offer proof that they cannot. According to Hume, an inference from one instance to another can never be demonstrated, for there is no such thing as a necessary connection between two events. Knowledge of a relation between a cause and an effect is not given a priori- that is, through reason - but arises entirely from experience (Ayer, 1972). It is, therefore, a mistake to say that all future events will necessarily resemble similar past events, for we are unable to have experience of either all events (problem of generalization), or events in the future (problem of prediction). What we perceive as causality, for Hume, is merely an association of ideas that follows from contiguity in time and space. Causality, then, is by no means inherent in nature, but is "added by the mind," or imposed on nature by humans who wish to see order and consistency in their environment. In short: "All inferences from experience, therefore, are effects of custom, not of reasoning" (Hume, 1963, p. 46).

If no causality can be established with certainty, can it then be said with any more certainty that our actions are caused by our selves or by our personalities? Hume`s answer is no, volition or character does not produce actions any more than causes produce effects. Hume`s skepticism about causality extends itself to the concept of identity and the coherence of the self. introspectively he says:

For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception (Hume, 1964; p. 252; emphasis original).

In order for a thing to operate as a causal agent it must itself be a coherent something. For Hume (1964) the mind is "nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions" (p.252). The self has no identity or simplicity; it functions as a kind of a theatre in which perceptions appear, disappear, and mingle with each other in infinity of ways, but do not stay. The mind receives input, and attempts to organize it into sensible units by seeing actually unrelated objects and events as belonging together. But since inference is a failing enterprise the mind`s effort to lump perceptions together is in vain. About this Hume (1964) says:

Our last resource is to ... boldly assert that these different related objects are in effect the same, however interrupted and variable, In order to justify to ourselves this absurdity, we often feign some new and unintelligible principle, that connects the objects together, and prevents their interruption or variation. Thus we ... run into the notion of a soul, and self , and substance, to disguise the variation (p. 254; emphasis original)

This tendency to find order in our perceptual world explains why we think of ourselves as well as of others as having identities: we imagine a common bond between our own perceptions to explain their contiguity, and we also imagine bond between the actions of others to explain their contiguity. As a result we conjure up "our own self" which binds together our perceptions, and "the selves of others" which bind together other people`s behaviours (since actions are seen to stem from personalities). According to Hume this operation of creating identities requires a minimal stretch of thought, for it aims at simplicity and unity while eliminating variability as a source of confusion. In his words (1964) "we are apt to imagine something unknown and mysterious, connecting the parts, beside their relation; and this I take to be the case with regard to the identity we ascribe to plants and vegetables" (p. 254). Therefore identity, like causality, is a mere a habit of the mind.

Sartre's Approach to Personality

Jean-Paul Sartre`s approach to the question of personality is in some respects similar to David Hume`s. Sartre refuses the view that our actions stem, and are determined by our character. Drawing causal inferences between dispositional traits and actions, he argues, is a risky procedure, and while in rare cases it may lead to correct conclusions, it can never be wholly justified (Morris, 1976). However, unlike Hume, Sartre does not deny the existence of personality altogether. While not being a causal agent, personality according to Sartre very much exists, and indeed, to deny one`s character that has been formed by past actions is a form of bad faith. On the other hand proclaiming a character trait in the absence of actions of that kind is bad faith as well (Morris, 1976). Therefore, personality is a historical statement, and while it is not correct to say: "I ran away because I am a coward," (Sartre obviously does not believe that personality can function as a formal cause) it IS correct to say "I am a coward because I ran away," especially if this behaviour is a reoccurring theme in the person`s history. Thus, according to Sartre, a person`s past actions can be studied as his or her personality - which is for instance what biographers do - as they are now facticity.

However, in an existential tradition Sartre is opposed to schemes classification. To belong to a class restricts one`s freedom to act according to one`s free will. This is especially true in the social sphere in which pressure for predictable behaviour is great, and uncharacteristic acts are discouraged. To avoid the judgement of the collectivity it is often necessary to accept one`s "true nature" as a homosexual, a brave person, a coward, an extrovert, or whatever it may be. However, since personality is merely a statement of a person`s past actions, it is a mistake to define one`s essence and one`s future self as a homosexual, a brave person etc. Sartre (1975) gives an example of a hypothetical self-statement that avoids such a mistake: "To the extent that a pattern of conduct is defined as the conduct of a pederast and to the extent that I have taken on this conduct, I am a pederast. But to the extent that human reality cannot be finally defined by patterns of conduct, I am not one" (p. 320).

From this statement the following ontological question inevitably arises: how, then, can human reality be defined? Sartre explains the concept of human being as that which is composed of a duality, including both what he calls "being- in-itself," (or "facticity") and "being-for-itself." The "being-in-itself" refers to things "which are what they are," i.e.,. immutable, timeless, empirical, value-free, and objective constructs which cannot but exist in their given form. Such an account of a human being would for instance include one`s date of birth, physical characteristics, and environment, as well as one`s personality based on past actions. The "being-for-itself," on the other hand, has a temporal and subjective existence which is best characterized by purpose, intention (Aristotle`s final cause) (Olson, 1962), and freedom to choose among alternative courses of action. To understand the nature of "being-for-itself . . . . [w]e have to deal with human reality as a being which is what it is not and which is not what it is" (Sartre, 1975, p. 313). With this paradox Sartre refers to the distinction between one`s past, present, and future selves: the past self cannot influence the present self without the present self`s consent nor can the present self influence the future self without the consent of the future self (Olson, 1962), for example, there is an inevitable gap between one`s temporal selves, and no guarantee exists that one`s actions will be consistent across time.

Since purpose and intention are the defining characteristics of the "being-for-itself," it is, in fact, impossible for us to be what we are. This is because the goal of the "being-for-itself" is authenticity, i.e.,. to make us what we are, and, if this is true, what are we then, if our obligation is to make ourselves what we are. Hence, we are what we are not and we are not what we are. If for example my task is to be a person with certain desirable character traits, I can be that person "only in representation" (Sartre, 1975, p.315). But if I represent him, I am not him. As Hume compares the mind to a theatre Sartre compares personality to an actor - according to Sartre (1975), his present self stands in relation to his future self as follows: "I can be he only in the neutralized mode, as the actor is Hamlet, by mechanically making the typical gestures of my state" (p.315; italics original).

The study of personality is a study of an object existing within an individual prior to its measurement. In response to this Sartre (1968, p. 452) writes: "... human reality does not exist first in order to act later; but for human reality, to be is to act, and to cease to act is to cease to be" (p.452). There is no given ("being-in- itself") in human reality in a sense that personality traits, temper, or reason exist in a human being before they manifest themselves in acts, and are, in a manner of speaking created on the spot. Therefore, as illustrated in the earlier paradox, we are nothing but choice and act (Sartre, 1968). This continuous, obligatory creation however fails to explain the coherence we see in peoples` behaviour; it would be quite naive to deny that a certain degree of prediction in our relations to the world is in fact possible. Addressing this question Sartre rejects Hume`s position that completely nihilates observable causality. Instead Sartre introduces the "fundamental project," which organizes our system of interpretation and memory of events (Morris, 1976). In a sense the "fundamental project" is an ideal, as of yet unmaterialized, self which allows our particular actions to be seen as reasonable in terms of fitting in the framework of the project. The "fundamental project" is a rational construct which is decided upon before particular actions. We are defined by the choice of our ends, but the ends remain forever changeable and freely chosen (Sartre, 1968). Also, particular actions, although flowing from the fundamental project, retain the right to certain contingency. About this Sartre (1968) writes:

... these particular projects are not determined by the global project. They must themselves be choices; and a certain margin of contingency, of unpredictability, and of the absurd is allowed to each of them although each project as it is projected is the specification of the global project on the occasion of particular elements in the situation and so is always understood in relation to the totality of my being-in-the-world (p. 457).

In a similar manner it is false to regard personality as a fixed-upon construct from which actions stem because it is rational for them to do so. It is Sartre`s contention, that instead reason fixes itself freely on certain tasks which in themselves define the person, not the person`s personality. The person is "being-for-itself," while personality as a historical statement is "being-in-itself." The concept of the person is characterized by its freedom to choose and to change while the concept of personality is characterized as being stable and determined.

Dostoyevsky's Notes on Personality

In comparison to Hume`s and Sartre`s approaches to the construct of personality Fyodor Dostoyevsky`s views are more relativistic. For Hume there is no observable identity or personality while for Sartre the term personality can be used only in a very limited sense to refer to a person`s past actions. For Fyodor Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, personality is a matter of conscience. In his NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND (1864/1972) Dostoyevsky describes his existential position not unlike Sartre would some hundred years later. Dostoyevsky contends that in order for one to live truthfully to his or her condition one must avoid attributing praise and blame for one`s actions to external events or to category memberships. According to this position it is out of cowardice or ignorance that we talk of forces of nature, such as inborn temperament or character traits, as limiting and determining our actions, for it is argued that we are free to choose our own behaviour, and we , not our circumstances, are eventually responsible for all our actions. However, for reasons quite understandable many people in fact behave as determined by their personality traits. For Dostoyevsky it is a mistake to consider one`s character as a causal agent, but he recognizes the appeal of such belief. It is, after all, psychologically comforting to have certainty as to what one is - a coward, a quiet person, a revolutionary etc. - regardless of how limiting this knowledge may be. Living in doubt, in a constant "identity crisis" as it were, after all is not a desirable state of affairs. People who live according to what they believe is their given nature Dostoyevsky (1972) calls "men of action," and says the following about them:

... all spontaneous people, men of action, are active because they are stupid and limited. How is this to be explained? Like this: in consequence of their limitations they take immediate, but secondary [e.g.. character], causes for primary [causal] ones, and thus they are more quickly and easily convinced than other people that they have found indisputable grounds for their action, and they are easy in their minds; and this, you know, is the main thing (p. 26).

Thus, the "men of action" deny their free will in order to gain certainty and predictability. Personality, therefore, can be seen as a self-made construct that exerts a causal effect only if willed so. In a sense, then, the construct of personality achieves its facticity not through nature (i.e.,. it is not "being-in-itself), but through an unconditional belief in its existence.

As opposed to "men of action," Dostoyevsky and "people of intellect" have no definite character traits. He writes: "Yes, a man of the nineteenth century ought, indeed is morally bound, to be essentially without character" (Dostoyevsky, 1972, p. 16). Hence, the "man of the nineteenth century" realizes his or her unbound nature, refuses to be categorized, and thus denies the existence of his or her personality. This denial comes at a cost, however. Since the psychological comfort derived from certainty of one`s traits is not there the "people of intellect" are likely to experience a feeling of profound alienation from the sources of their own being. The following quote from Dostoyevsky (1972) exemplifies this situation: "But how am I, for example, to be sure of myself? Where are the primary causes on which I can take my stand, where are my foundations? Where am I to take them from?" (p. 27). In great agony he continues: "Not only couldn't I make myself malevolent, I couldn`t make myself anything: neither good nor bad, neither a scoundrel nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect" (Dostoyevsky, 1972, p. 16). A "person of intellect," thus deprives himself or herself of a positive definition. There are no suitable adjectives for a person who has made himself or herself free to act "out of character", and who in fact will act unpredictably from one moment to the other. The philosophy of such persons is well described by Emerson (1903): "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do" (p.57).

The "men of action," Dostoyevsky argues, are the most rational people. While a "man of action" derives a sense of strength and well-being from his or her set character a "person of intellect" feels morally obliged to plunge himself or herself into continuous doubt. Thus, acting according to one`s personality in itself seems rational. Furthermore, according to Dostoyevsky, the behaviours of "men of action" always go towards the greatest advantage and self-interest. Thus, a belief in the existence of personality as a causal agent itself implies a belief in the efficacy of reason. As may be imagined, there is a profound repulsion for reason among "people of intellect." For Dostoyevsky, the essence of humanness does not lie in our ability to reason, but in our ability for independent volition (i.e.,. to exercise one`s free will). The privilege of a human being as compared to animals is his or her ability to choose to act either rationally or irrationally. However, for most people (for the "men of action") to be rational is taken as a law of nature. Thus he writes:

Where did all the sages get the idea that a man`s desires must be normal and virtuous? Why did they imagine that he must inevitably will what is reasonable and profitable? What a man needs is simply and solely independent volition, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead (Dostoyevsky, 1972, p. 34).

It is clear where this independent volition in NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND (1972) leads. According to Dostoyevsky, not to have a defined personality is both a moral obligation, and a curse. He argues, that while "every kind of intellectual activity is a disease" (Dostoyevsky, 1972, p. 18), every kind of intellectual inactivity, on the other hand, is stupidity. Here lies the most fundamental paradox: humans as rational animals are morally bound to negate their rationality. In other words (Sartre`s) we must be what we are not, and not be what we are. However, while according to Sartre we have no choice but to live this paradox, for Dostoyevsky to live it or not to live it is a matter of choice.


In summary, according to the thinkers discussed above, the question about the existence of personality implies at least the following issues: potential for incorrect reasoning and perceptual processes (Hume), potential for personality to be a final cause instead of a formal one (Sartre), and potential for personality to be a moral issue (Dostoyevsky). Furthermore, it is clear that for each philosopher discussed here the question of reason is closely linked with the question of personality. Hume claims, that the reason why no personality or identity can be found lies in our imperfect capacities to draw conclusions and observe causality in nature. Indeed, as Watson and Evans (1991) point out, Hume does not deny causality, he only denies our ability to detect it. According to Hume, then, personality is constructed by our flawed reasoning to account for spatial and temporal contiguity in nature. It is only the less flawed reasoning (Hume`s, we must assume) that recognizes variability and contingency as such without attempting to make unwarranted causal claims. Sartre, on the other hand, recognizes personality, but only as a historical statement; our actions are facticity only as far as they have already taken place. There is no justification to expect personality to exert a causal effect on our current or future behaviour. What in fact explains our behaviour is reason. This reason, however, does not determine all our actions, it simply organizes it in the form of the "fundamental project." Furthermore, reason is free to choose its target (a particular behaviour, or even an entirely new fundamental project) at any given time. This target, then, functions as a task of one becoming what one wills to be, and it is a logical necessity, that in the process of becoming something one cannot already be that. Thus, personality for Sartre is only a result of, not a reason for acting. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, views personality as a possible facticity. According to him, it is reasonable (psychologically) to construct, and to live according to one`s character traits, but as reason is not a defining characteristics of humanness (and it is a moral obligation for us to recognize this), personality can be denied existence on intellectual grounds.

About the Author

Jarkko Jalava is currently working on his second undergraduate degree. With a B.A. in English he is now a psychology major whose interests are widespread from European literature to existential philosophy.


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