Locke: Identity
Lowe (E.J.)
Source: Lowe - Locke on Human Understandingn Chapter 5
Paper - Abstract

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  1. Sortal1 terms and criteria of identity
  2. Locke on the identity of matter and organisms
  3. Locke on persons and personal identity
  4. Difficulties for Locke’s account of personal identity
  5. In defence of the substantial self


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Write-up2 (as at 20/04/2018 23:25:26): Lowe - Locke on Identity

This paper is a detailed analysis of "Lowe (E.J.) - Locke: Identity".

    • Two broad categorisations of general terms (those that are applicable to many different individuals):
      … 1. Adjectival / characterising: (eg. green)
      … 2. Sortal / substantival: (eg. tree)
    • Adjectival terms have only a criterion of application, whereas sortal terms also have a criterion of identity.
    • Application refers to which individuals the term is applied to; identity refers to determining when one individual to which the term is applied is the same as another.
    • Note that, strictly speaking, one individual can only be identical with itself. The idiom above is used of an individual referred to in one way being identical with that same individual being referred to in another.
    • Adjectival terms: nothing in the meaning of the term green (say) helps us to determine whether or not two green things are the same, nor to count them. We can’t begin counting green things, because we don’t know what sorts to count. Counting is impossible in principle, not just in practice.
    • Sortal terms: the meaning of the term tree (say) helps us both to apply the term and to count the things to which it applies.
    • Locke was perhaps the first to realise that different sortal terms may have different criteria of identity. Trees, for instance, can undergo considerable changes of shape (and even position – if transplanted) while remaining numerically the same.
    • Lowe contrasts this with mountains. We wouldn’t say that a mountain had moved, but that one had been destroyed and another created. We do allow small changes. This can lead to the Sorites3 paradox, but this just shows that mountain is a vague term. Lowe will ignore questions of vagueness.
    • Criteria of identity are not the epistemological or heuristic evidential support for identity claims (eg. finger prints aren’t a criterion of human identity) but are rather the semantic and metaphysical principles that tell us, respectively, the meaning and fundamental nature of the things to which the term applies.
    • Can two different sortal terms, with different criteria of identity, apply to the same thing? Lowe thinks not. Can the same thing be both a person and a man (Lowe thinks not), which, for Locke, have different criteria of identity (Lowe agrees).
    • Relativists think that it is possible for something to be both an F and a G, where Fs and Gs have different criteria of identity. Absolutists deny this. For relativists, it makes sense to say that x is the same F as y, but not the same G.
    • Lowe thinks relativism is incoherent. He admits that Locke often writes as though he were a relativist (in allowing A.B to be the same man as C.D., but not the same person). However, since Locke wasn’t aware of the distinction he finds the exegetical question unclear.
    • Locke uses sortal terms to distinguish the identity conditions of “parcels of matter” from those of living organisms.
    • Mass terms (eg. gold) denote kinds of stuff, but we can construct the corresponding sortal by using (eg.) piece or lump, so that “lump of gold” is a sortal.
    • Lowe thinks that “portion of gold” isn’t strictly a sortal, since portions are formed of other portions, in a way that lumps (and pieces?) aren’t, so there’s no principled way of counting portions. Locke’s view of a lump of gold (a parcel) is of a “maximally connected portion” of gold.
    • Lowe notes that Locke was an atomist, and presumes that parcels of gold are ultimately composed of atoms of the relevant kind. The question arises whether an atom of gold would qualify as a piece of gold, even though is has no sub-portions.
    • Lowe doesn’t think the truth of atomism is relevant to the issue of our ways of classifying and individuating parcels of matter. However, this raises a question for Locke, because criteria of identity are semantic principles, giving part of the meaning of their associated sortals, while atomism is a speculative theory of the nature of matter.
    • Lowe thinks Locke can be rescued as follows. Locke claims that a portion of gold remains the same iff it contains the same atoms. If we treat at atom as a least parcel, we can have Locke say that a piece of gold remains the same iff it contains the same parcels of gold, so eliminating speculative theories.
    • Lowe briefly discusses the gain or loss of small portions of gold from a piece. Strictly, the piece isn’t the same even after the loss of an undetectable portion, but there’s a loose sense in which it would be allowed to be the same.
    • Locke’s definition of a piece of matter shows why he wants to associate different criteria of identity with living things. We don’t want to say that a tree that gains and loses great portions of matter through growth and metabolism is a different tree, in contrast to what we would say of a piece of gold.
    • Locke’s proposal for the identity criterion of a living thing is (says Lowe) the continuance of the biological processes necessary to maintain its overall organisation and economy.
    • Lowe thinks that fission (eg. of an amoeba) by Locke’s criteria results in the loss of one individual and the creation of two others.
    • What’s the relation between the living organism and the parcel of matter that makes it up? It cannot be one of identity, because the life-histories of the entities differ (the parcel ceases to exist while the organism doesn’t). This agrees with the absolutist position noted above.
    • This leads to an argument for absolutism:
      … 1. The life history of an individual must be consistent with criterion of identity of any sortal term that applies to it.
      … 2. Different criteria of identity have different implications for life-histories.
      … 3. The same individual cannot have two different life-histories
      … 4. So, the same individual cannot have applied to it two sortal terms with different criteria of identity.
    • This seems to imply that, in the case of an organism, we have two distinct things occupying the same space at the same time – the tree (say) and a certain parcel of matter.
    • Lowe doesn’t think this leads to double counting, on the grounds that we can’t count things, but only sorts of things. We don’t usually count together things of different sorts (such as trees and parcels of matter). He thinks it’s this “impropriety” that leads to the feeling of double-counting.
    • Locke has set the terms of the modern debate and his views remain influential. The reason is his vital insight that different sortal terms yield different conditions of identity (a term due to Frege).
    • In order to determine in what personal identity consists, Locke realised that we must first define person.
    • It’s important, however not to assume that there are different forms of identity (ie. personal identity, animal identity, material identity). “Personal identity”, is what constitutes identity in the case of persons. That is, the conditions under which a person picked out in one way is identical with the person picked out in another. This isn’t an epistemological question, but one about what has to be the case for two identifying references to be to the same person.
    • Locke’s main interest was in diachronic personal identity, the identity of a person over time, the persistence or survival of persons. We can also have questions of synchronic personal identity (as in the case of split brain patients in whom thought and action come apart, so it makes sense to ask whether the person thinking certain thoughts is identical to the person performing certain actions).
    • For Locke, the defining characteristics of personhood are rationality and consciousness, including (says Lowe) self-consciousness. This is similar to Descartes’ res cogitans, except that this is a thinking substance. Again, it is similar to Aristotle’s rational animal, though Locke wants to pull apart the notions of person and animal (though not in the way Descartes did).
    • A philosophical definition is not a statement about how a term is used (as in a dictionary) but a recommendation. Even so, while our intuitions can be altered by philosophical enquiry, they should not be set aside without good reason. Lowe agrees with Locke’s definition, but would add that persons are also agents and percipients.
    • Having identified self-consciousness as the key ingredient in personhood, Locke believed that personal identity is determined by the scope of self-consciousness. Consequently, for Locke I am identical with the person I was in the past if I can remember my thoughts and actions from that time. This view is fraught with difficulties and paradox.
    • An immediate consequence of Locke’s definition of personhood is the separation of person from man (human being). Man is at least partly a biological concept, with certain inalienable bodily characteristics, but Locke’s definition of person includes no reference to any particular bodily form, even though some bodily form might be essential. Eg. Locke’s fanciful rational parrot would be a person, but obviously not a man.
    • Hence, personal identity must not be confused with animal identity. The identity criteria for men are no different to those for other living organisms, such as trees, namely the “participation in a continued life, wherein constantly fleeting particles of matter are vitally united to the same organised body”. This is obviously not the same thing as continuity of consciousness, the criterion for personal identity.
    • The prince and the cobbler: we intuitively think that the person who wakes up in the prince’s bed remembering as his own the thoughts and deeds of the cobbler is the same person as the cobbler. However, the body owning these thoughts is not the same living human body as that which lay down in the cobbler’s bed.
    • Just as living bodies are not to be identified with the parcels of matter that constitute them at any particular time, so (it would seem, according to Locke) persons are not to be identified with their living bodies. Locke appears to support a relativist position, in which the man waking in the prince’s bed is the same person, but not the same man as the man who went to sleep in the cobbler’s bed.
    • Locke doesn’t think that a person is a thinking substance (soul or spirit) any more than a living organism. While Locke thinks that God could have “superadded” the power of consciousness to matter, he thinks it most likely that human beings have souls and that thought and consciousness are modes of such spiritual substances. It is our souls that think “in” us.
    • However, Locke denies that our identity as persons depends logically on the identity of our souls. He thinks it conceivable that:
      … 1. A person could undergo change of spiritual substance (eg. if my present soul remembers the thoughts and experiences of my past soul) and,
      … 2. That a single spiritual substance could serve as the soul for two distinct persons (eg. if my soul should forget the thoughts and experiences it had when it was the soul of another person).
    • There are odd implications for Locke’s doctrine. It looks as though, by his definition, souls are themselves persons, since they are thinking, self-conscious beings. Yet, my soul isn’t the same person as me, because I could get a new one. There appear to be two kinds of person, things like my soul and things like me, with different criteria of identity. However, a sortal term, like “person”, can have only one criterion of identity associated with it.
    • Hence, Lowe thinks that to resolve this difficulty, we must, contra Locke, equate persons with thinking substances. However, this doesn’t commit us to belief in “immaterial souls”. Locke’s thought experiments of my soul having changed overnight, or being identical to that of Socrates, simply point out inadequacies in that conception of “thinking substance”.
    • For Lowe, the best conception we can frame of a thinking substance is of a person, of which we ourselves are paradigm cases.
    • For Locke, personal identity consists in identity of consciousness, but there’s difficulty understanding what Locke means by consciousness, particularly by “participating in the same consciousness”. Sometimes Locke implies that it’s persons and at other times that it’s spiritual substances that do the participating, which, for Locke, is inconsistent.
    • Lowe thinks it makes most sense to interpret Locke as holding that it’s persons that participate in consciousness, so that “participating in the same consciousness” is a relation between a person identified in one way and the same person identified in another. An example would be Socrates waking and Socrates sleeping (though for Locke, these might be separate persons).
    • What, as thus construed, does “participating in the same consciousness” mean?
      … 1. For diachronic cases, it’s to be understood in terms of the memory relation.
      … 2. For synchronic cases (split-brain or multiple-personality), we are better off considering the unity of consciousness. Normal individuals are jointly conscious of all the things they are conscious of (eg. conscious of having a pain in the toe while thinking of a philosophical problem). This may not be so for pathological cases, who may be, for Locke, more than one person.
    • The synchronic case raises a problem. Ordinary people also display disunity of consciousness, as when dividing our attention between driving a car and talking to a friend.
    • However, the diachronic case raises more serious problems. What makes me the same person as I was yesterday is that I remember the thoughts, experiences and deeds of my earlier self. However, I also remember other people’s thoughts and deeds. Locke’s response is that I remember my own experiences in a first-person way, but others’ only in a third-person way.
    • This solution appears circular, since the reference to “first-person” memories involves the notion of “person”. I need to grasp what constitutes the difference between myself and another person in order to recognise first-person memories.
    • A response to this objection is that the first / third person distinction needed here is no more than the distinction between remembering from the perspective of one involved and one not, without presuming that the one involved was myself.
    • In this vein, Parfitt thinks that one might inherit first-person memories of episodes from the lives of other people. However, this hinders rather than helps Locke, for if one can have first-person memories of episodes in the lives of other people, then clearly memory is no use as a criterion of personal identity.
    • Lowe suggests a middle course between circularity and falsehood. We accept the “weaker” (non-circular) definition of first-person memory, but deny, even in principle, that one could have first-person memories of the experiences of another person (ie. I should identify myself with such a person).
    • Another problem is that if it’s not part of the meaning of a first-person memory that it involves oneself, what’s to stop me having first-person memories from the lives of two different persons? The logic of the identity relation prevents the identity of one present person with two different past persons. However, the logic of the first-person memory relation doesn’t forbid one present person having memories of episodes in the lives of two past persons. Hence, the first-person memory relation cannot constitute the relation of identity of persons, since these two relations can come apart.
    • Identity is an equivalence relation; namely, it is symmetrical, reflexive and transitive. If a relation is symmetrical and transitive, it must be reflexive (hence “being a brother of” isn’t an equivalence relation, even between males, since no-one is a brother of himself). This highlights the problem with a person being identical with two past persons, as implied by the first-person memory relation, because the transitive and symmetry properties of the identity relation would make these two past people identical, contrary to the supposition.
    • Are our problems with symmetry or transitivity? Symmetry is the obvious candidate, because a past person cannot have memories of the future. However, this is a muddle, because I am identical with my past self even though my past self had none of my present memories. Modes of identification may identify people at various times, but do not identify them as dated items, which is an incoherent and absurd characterisation of persons.
    • So, as Thomas Reid pointed out with his boy to brave officer to old general example, the problem is with transitivity. The general is the same person as the brave officer, who is the same person as the boy, but the old general is not the same person as the boy, because he can’t remember what he did.
    • We can rescue Locke by replacing the relation of first-person memory by the ancestral of that relation, which is always guaranteed to be transitive. For x to stand in the ancestral of the memory relation to y, it suffices for x to remember the deeds of a who remembers the deeds of b … who remembers the deeds of y. With this adjustment, Locke is justified in claiming that the old general is the same person as the boy.
    • Locke, however, wouldn’t have been happy with this because he thinks of personhood as a forensic concept. That is, that a person should not be held responsible and punished for deeds he can’t remember committing, though he does agree that this provides too much of a loophole for criminals to be practical.
    • This seems to betray a confusion on Locke’s part between:
      1. “Not being held responsible for” in the sense of not being held accountable and punished, and
      2. “Not being held responsible for” in the sense of not being identical with the perpetrator.
    • Lowe thinks that Locke himself would have insisted that the old general was not the same person as the boy, and dismissed the failure of transitivity as “mere sophistry”, not thinking of “personal identity” in terms of an equivalence relation. He would, however, have said that the old general was the same human being as the boy, so slipping into a relativist account of identity.
    • Locke thinks of persons (with the exception of God) as being highly complex modes of substances, of which there are three – God, finite spirits and material atoms.
    • Persons are not identical with finite spirits (souls) because a soul could be replaced without change of person. So, for Locke, we have souls just as we have bodies, but are neither our souls, nor our bodies, nor a combination of the two.
    • For Locke, we are highly complex properties of certain substances (probably spiritual, though possibly material). These properties are complex patterns of successive and interrelated states of consciousness.
    • Lowe thinks Locke is committed to William James’ view that we are “streams of thought”, though he admits that there’s no explicit endorsement of such a statement until Hume.
    • Lowe thinks that whether we find the view of the self as unsubstantial to be disturbing or liberating is irrelevant to the current concern, since he thinks the notion ultimately incoherent. Lowe’s reasons for this conclusion differ from those in the previous section, which can perhaps be circumvented by sympathetic adjustments to Locke’s theory. However, the objection does involve the charge of circularity, but this time not to the notion of first-person memory.
    • Lowe’s charge is that Locke:
      … 1. Specifies the identity conditions of persons in terms of relations between conscious mental states of persons, but fails to appreciate that …
      … 2. Those conscious mental states depend for their identity on the identity of the persons whose states they are.
    • By way of further explanation:
      … 1. A person identified in one way is the same person as a person identified in another just in case those persons are co-conscious.
      … 2. Co-consciousness is a relation that holds between a person and himself in virtue of a relation between certain conscious states of that person (Eg. between a present first-person memory and a past thought).
      … 3. Conscious states are modes, and so their identities depend on the identities of the substances whose modes they are.
      … 4. Just as the particular redness of a ball can’t exist without the ball, so a pain is incapable of independent existence. A pain belongs inalienably to the substance that “has” it, and which pain it is is determined by which substance has it.
      … 5. Locke accepts that conscious states are modes, but doesn’t think they are modes of persons, since persons aren’t substances.
      … 6. Rather, persons are (most likely) modes of finite spirits, so that the identity of a conscious state depends on the identity of the soul that “has” it.
      … 7. Since, for Locke, souls are not persons, no circularity arises thus far.
      … 8. Lowe, however, has already pointed out the awkwardness for Locke of denying that souls are persons. If souls are persons, it’s hard to see how there can also be Lockean persons – how can I be different from my soul if it is a person doing all the thinking and feeling “in” me? (Analogously, how can I be different from my brain if my brain does all the thinking?)
      … 9. So, once we’ve allowed souls into the story, they take on the mantle of personhood, at variance with Locke’s theory.
    • In response, we might decide to expel immaterial souls from the story, as even Locke agreed that we are very much in the dark as to their existence (and nowadays we consider them scientifically suspect). However, that means that we can’t use them to individuate conscious states.
    • Lowe rejects Hume’s “disastrous” approach of reifying conscious states, so they remain modes, but of what substance? Locke contemplates their being modes of matter (as a modern materialist would hold), but has rejected the possibility in his “prince and cobbler” thought experiment, in which he allows that a person’s consciousness can migrate from one body to another without loss of identity.
    • Lowe concludes that it’s evident that conscious states are individuated by persons, and not vice versa. Locke has things the wrong way round. I can’t have your pains any more than one ball can have another’s roundness.
    • Hence, pace Locke, persons are substances – thinking substances – of which their conscious states are modes. This dooms Locke’s strategy to circularity, just as would the attempt to specify the identity conditions of a substance in terms of its own modes.
    • In saying that persons are thinking substances, we don’t have to agree with Descartes and suppose that these substances are souls. We can allow persons also to have material modes (bodily characteristics). Only Descartes’ unproven assumption that no substance can have both material and mental modes stands in the way.
    • Additionally, this approach still allows us to agree with Locke that the identity conditions of persons differ from those of animals, including man, so considered. We can allow that a person, while requiring bodily characteristics of some sort, could in principle survive a change in characteristics that are incompatible with the survival of the same animal – for instance, the substitution of a robotic for an animal body.
    • Lowe thinks we can retain from Locke’s account his insight that the concept of a person is fundamentally a psychological one, involving mental powers including rationality and self-consciousness. However, Lowe rejects Locke’s implicit characterisation of persons as insubstantial beings, constituted by streams of consciousness interconnected by memory.

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