Hume starts with the empiricist's premise: that all we know comes through the senses. His predecessors taught that, given that premise, we had reason to doubt everything we know since our senses can't be trusted. All that I really know about objects or other people is but the image in my mind, they say, and I have no way to know if that image corresponds to reality. Hume, pursuing this path, went even farther and said that I can't even know if I exist, since I only know of myself through sensory experience. What I think I know -- no, that formulation of the sentence doesn't work, because it assumes I exist. Let's try this: The apparent thoughts that suggest the existence of myself only exist in the mind -- although I don't know if it's my mind or our mind or The Mind or what.
Now in David Copperfield, Dickens might appear at first to be saying something like what Hume says. We find that people interact more with vivid memories or vivid images of the future than they do with the present. (The exception is shown by David and Dora, who, at the moment of their engagement, think only of the present. But then they are described as being "mad" with love, so they can't be taken as models of human thinking!) David's beloved nurse, Peggotty, has a sewing kit with a picture of St. Paul's on the lid, but she is disappointed with the "real" St. Paul's when she sees it because it doesn't live up to the superior image she has in her mind. In a hundred-and-one examples like these, Dickens presents characters whose mental images of objects are more real to them than reality.
The unusual use of names in the book could be seen as an example that applies not to objects but to people. Many a character in this novel has a special name for another character that only he uses. For instance, Aunt Betsey -- and only Aunt Betsey -- calls David "Trot." Steerforth calls him "Daisy," Dora calls him "Doady," and Ham calls him "Mas'r Davy Bor." Betsey definitely calls him Trot because, for her, the name stands for the ideal child, and she usually sees David as this ideal child (or at least a very close substitute for the ideal child -- a girl -- that David didn't turn out to be); she does not generally see him as a real, flawed boy. Steerforth explains that he calls David "Daisy" because he sees him as fresh and innocent, whether David actually is fresh as a daisy or not. So with all these pet names representing all these mental images, is there such a person as David Copperfield in the world of the novel? Or is that name only a convenient symbol for the collection of all the images that all the other characters have in their minds?
In Charles Dickens and the Romantic Self, Lawrence Frank, my colleague at the University of Oklahoma, says that the answer to the last question is "yes." Dickens, he says, shows us in his novels that there is no self, no human soul, and that people are only imaginations. An object with a human name has a string of experiences, but there's nothing to suggest that the object that, for instance, is now looking at this computer screen is the same object that ate that turkey sandwich last November. I never expected a Dickens fan to espouse such a philosophy, let alone ascribe it to the Great Author, so I had to read Frank's first chapter several times before I could understand that this was, in fact, his meaning. If he's right, I wondered, who was this "Charles Dickens" who supposedly said all these things? Who was "Larry Frank" who wrote the book and got tenure for it? Who was this "I" that read it and got confused by it?
Well, at the very least, I can respond that the Dickens that lives in my head never said any such thing. (And you can rest assured that the Ken Stephenson that lives in your head doesn't think Dickens said it.) To say that human beings are mysteries is a long way from saying there are no humans to be mystified. And to accept that reality challenges the limitations of the human mind doesn't mean there is no reality, just as our difficulty grabbing on to the greased pig doesn't mean there is no pig. But let's say that a person's very personhood does reside only in the mind. Well, then, a Mind of greater power than ours, the Mind that imagined us and created us, knows who we are better than we know ourselves and preserves the integrity of our souls. And God, too, will one day give to each of his children a white stone engraved with a special name that only He will use.
Hume didn't ultimately buy it, either. Here's an excerpt from his Conclusion (I'm glad Francis Schaeffer told me to keep my eye out for it):
The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another. Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? Whose favour shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me? and on whom have I any influence, or who have any influence on me? I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, invironed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.I, too, find that after playing a game (or after reading a few pages of Dickens) all pessimistic philosophies appear cold, strained, and ridiculous.
Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours' amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.
Hume's oft-suppressed Conclusion, by the way, is not included in the purportedly complete copy online at this site from the University of Idaho. [Note from 2016: the link from the U of Idaho philosophy professor seems to have been taken down.] It is included, though, on the Project Gutenberg copy.