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John Locke & Personal Identity
Nurana Rajabova considers why, according to John Locke, you continue to be you.
Does the self reside in the soul, in the body, or in some combination of both? It’s a question philosophers have long debated. However, one philosopher, John Locke (1632-1704), argued that the self resides in memory. In what follows I will give an overview of the arguments that led him to this conclusion, and consider some of the objections critics have raised against Locke’s account of the self, in particular his reducing the self to memory. I will conclude that Locke does not only reduce the self to memory, but to internal memory. In doing so, he puts himself on a slippery slope toward idealism, despite his general common-sense empiricism.
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Before delving into Locke’s position on personal identity, it will be helpful to consider his principles regarding the identity or sameness of things in general. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Locke offers us two main principles in determining the identity or unity of things. One is the time and location principle (p.297): at any given time, one thing can exist at one place only. The same thing cannot possibly exist in two or more places at the same time. Suppose you see a chair in the front yard right at the moment. At the same time, you also see an identical chair five meters away. Despite looking identical, these two items being in different locations at the same time make you conclude that these are separate things. However, if you happened to see only one chair in the front yard in the morning, and two hours later you saw an identical chair in the backyard, you could easily assume that it’s the same chair you’d seen in the front yard in the morning. Someone possibly moved it. Locke concludes:
“It being impossible for two things of the same kind to be or exist in the same instant, in the very same place; or one and the same thing in different places. That therefore, that had one beginning, is the same thing; and that which had a different beginning in time and place from that, is not the same, but diverse.” (p.297).
The second and equally important principle in determining the identity of things according to Locke, is the constituents that a thing is made of and is differentiated from other things. For instance, non-living creatures are “the cohesion of particles any how united” (p.299) and that is where their identity also lies in. For living creatures, however, it is not enough for its particles to be united in just any way: they must be united in a way that would nourish and sustain the creature throughout its existence. Thus, their identity resides “in the participation of the same continued life, by constantly fleeting particles of matter, in succession vitally united to the same organized body” (pp.298-300). Due to this, it is very possible for living beings to continue existing even given the loss or change of their physical matter. We consider an oak growing from a sapling to a great tree still to be the same oak, and a colt grown up to a horse is all the while the same horse for us, despite in both cases there being many changes in the physical matter.
As living beings, humans are no exception to this rule. As Locke says:
“He that shall place the identity of man in anything else than like that of other animals, in one fitly organized body, taken in any one instant, and from thence continued, under one organization of life, in several successively fleeting particles of matter united to it, will find it hard to make an embryo, one of years, mad and sober, the same man, by any supposition that will not make it possible for Seth, Ismael, Socrates, etc to be the same man.” (p.300).
Can we conclude that this is all there is to personal identity for Locke? The short answer is no. But let’s look at why this is not the case.
Identity of Man vs. Personal Identity
Personal identity is not the same as human identity, because for Locke, the man and the person are different things, despite our frequent interchanging of the terms. They are different because their constituents are different. Man, according to Locke, is made of two sorts of substance: the physical matter (ie the body) and the non- physical matter (ie the soul). A person, o n the other hand, in addition to having physical substance and a soul, also possesses consciousness, which in a way unites soul and substance together while giving perception to the being. Specifically, a person is a thinking being that has reason and reflection and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places. This he can do only through consciousness. Therefore, says Locke, personal identity or the continuing ‘sameness’ of a rational being consists in this alone (pp.301-304). Substance cannot be the essence of our personal identity. The evidence for this lies in our very bodies. It is true that we feel our bodies as part of ourselves, for we feel when we are touched, and are affected by the good or harm that happens to them. But we do this only whilst all the particles of our bodies are vitally united to our thinking conscious self. This feeling of parts of our body gets lost the moment they’re disconnected from that body. A prime example Locke mentions are cut off limbs (pp.310-311).
But the soul is not the place where personal identity resides, either. To prove this, Locke invites his reader to think of themselves as having a non-physical soul, and that soul as having previously belonged to someone from history, such as Socrates, Nestor. Then he asks them to reflect whether they have any consciousness of the soul they believe they’re carrying. If they do not remember any of their experiences from past lives, then it would be simply a mistake for these people to conceive themselves as the same person as the historical person whose soul they supposedly have (pp.305-307).
According to Locke, the past identity of a person reaches as far as their consciousness can be extended back to any past action or thought. Anything before that cannot be defined as the same person as long as they do not carry the consciousness of those periods. Put another way, I think of myself typing the draft of this essay yesterday as having been the same person I am at the present moment, because I have the memory of typing yesterday. Had I not any such memory, then I could not have any justification to assert my identity. Locke concludes that having no consciousness reaching into the past, even if there were continuance of the same soul, is evidence that the soul is not where personal identity resides. Personal identity or the self resides in consciousness and in that alone, he maintains. Indeed, since personal identity is determined by consciousness, it really does not make a difference whether that consciousness is attached to some immaterial substance (ie, a soul) or not. It is even technically possible for one man to have two persons residing within him: we can imagine two separate consciousnesses acting in the same body, one by day, the other by night. On the other hand, if the migration of consciousness is granted, it is also equally possible for the same consciousness to act by intervals in two distinct bodies. A person’s residing in two different bodies, in Locke’s view, is no different from a person’s being in two distinct sets of clothes (pp.310-312).
Objections to Locke’s Account of the Self
Locke’s treatment of the nature of self was applauded in his time, and his views remain of interest to philosophers today. He has also received his share of criticism, in particular for reducing the self to memory. Many practical and ethical problems have been brought up against this view both by his contemporaries and by successors.
One such problem was identified by Thomas Reid (1710-1796), who argued that Locke’s memory theory is paradoxical. Reid put forward his well-known ‘Brave Officer paradox’, in which he asks us to imagine a forty-year-old army officer stealing enemy food. At that moment the officer remembers being beaten for stealing apples from his neighbor’s orchard as a ten-year-old boy. Then Reid imagines this officer as a retired General in his eighties, when he still recalls himself stealing enemy food as a forty-year old, but no longer has any memory of being beaten for stealing apples as a boy. Applying Locke’s account of the self to this scenario, the middle-aged officer seems to be identical both to the ten-year-old boy because he remembers his action as the boy; to the eighty-year-old retired General, given that the General remembers stealing enemy food. However, also according to Locke’s account, the retired General cannot be identical to the ten-year-old boy, as he has no memory of the action he committed as a ten-year-old boy! Thus, Locke’s account of the self proves paradoxical, Reid argues, since the General is both identical with the boy and not identical with him.
Other problems with Locke’s account of the self include the fact that our consciousness and memory are constantly interrupted with sleep, drunkenness, or selective remembrance, which raises questions about the continuity of the self, as well as about moral accountability for actions committed during such interruptions.
In response to these objections, Locke provides a somewhat pragmatic answer:
“Human laws punish both, with a justice suitable to their way of knowledge; because in these cases, they cannot distinguish certainly what is real, what counterfeit; and so the ignorance in drunkenness or sleep is not admitted as a plea. For, though punishment be annexed to personality, and personality to consciousness, and the drunkard perhaps be not conscious of what he did, yet human judicatures justly punish him; because the fact is proved against him, but want of consciousness cannot be proved for him. But in the Great Day, wherein the secrets of all hearts shall be laid open, it may be reasonable to think, no one shall be to answer for what he knows nothing of, but shall receive his doom, his conscience accusing or excusing him.” (p.310).
In addition to these objections, I observe an even more fundamental problem in Locke’s account of the self. Locke reduces the self not only to memory, but to internal memory.
To explain what I mean, I will add one more character to Reid’s Brave Officer paradox. This new character is the officer’s younger brother, Alex, who has been with his brother all along. Alex was there when his brother was beaten for stealing the apples as a ten-year-old boy. Alex was also fighting shoulder to shoulder with his brother during the war and witnessed the forty-year-old officer stealing the enemy food. And although the eighty-year-old retired General has no recall of being beaten for stealing the apples, his brother still has a vivid memory of both events. Nonetheless, because Locke says the self reaches as far as one’s consciousness to any event in the past, he seems to be saying that in this case the brother’s testimony will not count in identifying the ten-year-old boy with the eighty-year-old General if the General himself has no remembrance of himself as a ten-year-old boy. We can conclude that, for Locke, the self does not reside in just any memory: it resides in the internal memory of the person concerned. External memory (a witness’s testimony) does not count in identification of the ongoing self.
But with this, Locke seems to be suggesting the self to be a purely ideal concept. If the self is identical only at a time one is conscious of it, and gets lost with the interruption of consciousness or memory regardless of the existence of testimonies (that is, of external memories), then the forgotten actions and words that self was doing also prove non-existent, or at least irrelevant to internal memory. We can say that for Locke everything the actual self experiences and perceives proves to be ideal, that is, only in the mind. From this we can conclude that with his theory of the self, Locke seems to be an idealist in heart, despite his other arguments about us acquiring knowledge only from sensory experience of the material world.
Examining Locke’s views on personal identity, it becomes obvious that the only way to know where personal identity resides is to know what a person is. For Locke, a person is an intelligent being who has reason and reflection and can consider themself as themself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places. One can do this only through consciousness. In Locke’s view, without consciousness, there is no person, whatever substances there are. The identity of a person reaches as far as consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought. At the end of this memory, for Locke, the self ceases. This reductive account of the self has been among the main drivers for various objections to Locke’s account, both at ethical and practical levels. Moreover, I contend that Locke reduces the self not only to memory, but to internal memory, and by doing so, he runs a risk of putting his own empiricist approach to philosophy on shaky grounds.
© Nurana Rajabova 2023
Nurana Rajabova studied philosophy and is interested in questions of philosophy of mind and metaphysics.