- Many people think that John Locke’s account of personal identity is inconsistent and circular. In fact it’s neither of these things — Locke has been massively misunderstood.
- The blame for the misunderstanding falls principally on two otherwise admirable bishops — Berkeley and Butler — and an otherwise admirable doctor of divinity — Thomas Reid. Their influence has been such that almost no one since their time has had a chance to read what Locke wrote without prejudice. Another bishop — Bishop Law — put things right in 1769, in his Defence of Mr. Locke’s Opinion Concerning Personal Identity. But no one paid any lasting attention.
- The root cause of the misunderstanding, perhaps, has been the tendency to read the term ‘person’ in Locke’s Essay as if it were simply a standard term for a temporal continuant1, like ‘chair’, or ‘human being’. This approach is bound to lead to error because it fails to take adequate account of Locke’s use of ‘person’ as what he calls a ‘forensic’2 term (§26), i.e. a term specifically for use in moral or legal contexts when considering questions of accountability or responsibility.
- Many have acknowledged the importance of Locke’s forensic3 use of ‘person’, but they’ve continued to suppose that his principal aim is the usual aim — the aim of providing criteria (ideally, necessary and sufficient conditions) of diachronic identity for persons considered simply as persisting subjects of experience, and so considered entirely independently of forensic4 matters. They have in other words thought that Locke is trying to answer the following standard — canonical — question about personal identity:
- Consider a subject of experience at time t1 (June 21, 2000, say) who is a person as we ordinarily understand this term — call this person ‘P1’.
- Consider a subject of experience at a later time t2 (June 21, 2016, say) who is a person as we ordinarily understand this term — call this person ‘P2’.
- Question: what has to be the case for it to be true that P1 at (time) t1 is the same as person P2 at (time) t2, the same persisting subject of experience?
- The standard answers propose that P2 stand in some relation of bodily continuity5 to P1, or some relation of psychological continuity6, or both.
- Locke, however, isn’t interested in this standard question — not as it is ordinarily understood. He takes the notion of a persisting subject of experience for granted in his discussion of personal identity, and having taken it for granted, answers four other questions:
- What does a subject of experience that qualifies as a person actually consist of, ontologically speaking, considered at any given time?
- What mental capacities must a subject of experience have in order to qualify as a person?
- What sorts of changes of substantial composition can a subject of experience that qualifies as a person undergo while continuing to exist?
- Which actions is a subject of experience who qualifies as a person responsible for?
- These are the questions he sets himself to answer and does answer — as I will now try to show. (For [A] see in particular section 9, for [B] section 10, for [C] and [D] section 12.)
- ‘Subject of experience’
- ‘“Person” a forensic7 term’
- The field of responsibility and the field of Concernment
- The field of Consciousness
- The reach of Consciousness
- Locke’s definition of ‘person’ 1
- Locke’s definition of ‘person’ 2
- Consciousness isn’t memory
- Personal identity: the canonical question
Footnote 1: I agree entirely; a person may well be a temporal continuant, but not qua person. The continuant (substance) is the human animal.
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