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Locke on Personal Identity
(Text as at 18/12/2010 19:58:05)
(For earlier versions of this Note, see the table at the end)
What, if anything, is wrong with Locke’s account of personal identity?
- Locke’s account of personal identity appears in Book II, Chapter 27 of his Essay ("Locke (John) - Of Identity and Diversity"). To address the question before us, we need first of all to discuss what Locke understands by persons.
- For Locke, a person is characterised by rationality and consciousness – a person is a "thinking intelligent being" that can consider itself the same thinking thing across different times and places (§9:335.10-13). Additionally, personhood is a forensic concept: a person is something that can be praised or blamed, and which is legally responsible (§26:346.26-28). Locke considers it of first importance that the divine justice at the resurrection should fix on the right person (§26:347.9).
- Personal identity is determined by the scope of consciousness of self (§9:335.24-26).
- A self is that present thinking and perceiving thing with its history of memories. I am identical with the self I was in the past if I can remember my thoughts and actions from that time (§9:335.25-28).
- "Noonan (Harold) - Locke" (pp.43-44) points out that “Consciousness” in Locke’s day meant shared knowledge, in particular that had by a present self of a past self’s thoughts & actions. For Locke, it consists in present perceptions, sensations, thoughts and memories of the past (§9:335.13-18). It is consciousness that unites “existences and actions” over time into the same person – “whatever has the consciousness of present and past actions, is the same person to whom they both belong” (§16:340.33-35).
- The identity conditions for persons must not be confused with those for human beings, which are no different to those for other living organisms, such as horses; namely the “participation of the same continued life, by constantly fleeting particles of matter, in succession vitally united to the same organised body” (§6:331.35-332.2).
- In contrast, the identity of pieces of inanimate matter arises purely from the atoms that make them up (§3:330.18-20).
- An immediate consequence of Locke’s definition of personhood is the distinction between person and man (human being). Locke imagines the exchange of consciousnesses of a prince and a cobbler (§15:340.10-18). Locke says that the cobbler animated by the prince's consciousness is the same person as the prince, because personhood follows consciousness. However, the cobbler with the prince’s consciousness is still the same man as the cobbler, because "being a man" depends more on corporeal than psychological attributes, as Locke explains in his discussion of the rational parrot, which, despite its accomplishments, remains a parrot (§8:333.5-12).
- "Noonan (Harold) - Locke" (p.27) summarises Locke’s reasons for making personal identity a matter of sameness of consciousness: they fit the three aims behind his account of personal identity.
As "Jolley (Nicholas) - Personal Identity" (p.101) points out, certain well-meaning modifications to Locke’s theory will be ruled out by his need to accommodate personal immortality and divine justice.
- Firstly, he wants an account that’s neutral between dualists and materialists, but allows for immortality and the resurrection.
- Secondly, we can’t be sure about the identity of substance, but we can about consciousness, so this repels sceptical doubts.
- Thirdly, consciousness reflects our practical concern for our identity; I have no reason to care about substantial identity, except where I own and am conscious of that substance’s actions and memories (§14:339.15-340.2).
Substance and Personal Identity
- According to any straightforward reading of the text, Locke denies the relevance of substance to the issue of personal identity. For Locke, there are three kinds of substance:
… 1. God,
… 2. “Finite intelligences” (souls or spiritual beings) and
… 3. Bodies (§2:329.1-2).
- So, for personal identity to be substantial, it would need to reside either in the soul or in the body. By means of thought experiments, Locke excludes both:
- The body because:
- The body at the resurrection differs from the earthly body, so if the person were the body, the resurrected person would not be the same as the person that died (§15.340.5-6).
- A corpse would be a person (§23:344.16).
- Locke can imagine two persons inhabiting the same body, the one by day, the other by night, as "incommunicable consciousnesses" (§23:344.18-20).
- He can also imagine a single person serially occupying two bodies as though changing clothes (§23:344.24-25).
- The soul because:
- A person could undergo change of spiritual substance, if his present soul remembers the thoughts and experiences of his past soul (§13:338.22-27).
- A single spiritual substance could serve as the soul for two distinct persons, if my soul should forget the thoughts and experiences it had when it was the soul of another person (§14).
- Nevertheless, while God could have “superadded” the power of consciousness to matter (IV.3§6:541.3), Locke thinks that it’s most likely that human beings do have souls (§25:345.25-27) and that it’s our souls that think “in” us (§10:336.13).
Problems with Locke’s Account of Personal Identity
- I’m the same person today as I was yesterday because I remember the thoughts, experiences and deeds of my earlier self. However, don’t I also remember other people’s thoughts and deeds? Locke might respond by claiming that I remember my own experiences in a first-person way, but others’ only in a third-person way.
- Initially, this response appears circular, since the reference to “first-person” memories mentions “person”, and it seems that I need to grasp what constitutes the difference between myself and another person in order to recognise first-person memories.
- "Lowe (E.J.) - Locke: Identity" (p.110) suggests 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. One can then deny that, even in principle, one could have first-person memories of the experiences of another person since, having been involved, I would identify myself with such a person.
- "Lowe (E.J.) - Locke: Identity" (p.117) thinks a genuine circularity arises if Locke thinks of human persons as highly complex modes or properties of spiritual substances, these properties being complex patterns of successive and interrelated states of consciousness. This is because Locke specifies the identity conditions of persons in terms of relations between conscious mental states, but fails to appreciate that those conscious mental states depend for their identity on the identity of the persons whose states they are. This dooms Locke’s strategy to circularity. "Lowe (E.J.) - Locke: Identity" (p.117) concludes that conscious states are individuated by persons, and not vice versa.
- "Ayers (Michael R.) - Contemporary Reactions to Locke's Theory" (p.271) points out that Locke doesn’t suppose that there are a lot more persons than men at the resurrection, or that many crimes will go unpunished. So, people will have to have their memories restored. But, this presupposes a set of actions that are theirs whether or not they remember them, and, on Locke’s account, again leads to circularity.
- "Winkler (Kenneth) - Locke on Personal Identity" (p.168) considers the problem of transference (cf. §13:338.17) whereby God at the resurrection transfers to my resurrected consciousness some acts that weren’t mine but which I’m now willing to own and be punished for, despite the fact that I didn’t perform them. Locke thinks God wouldn’t allow this situation, but to what can he appeal if Locke’s right about what constitutes a person? While no ancestor-self acknowledged these acts, my present self does. "Jolley (Nicholas) - Personal Identity" (p.117) suggests that God can sort things out at the resurrection by checking for inconsistencies. "Winkler (Kenneth) - Locke on Personal Identity" (p.171) and other writers suggest that Locke might escape by saying that while memory might be necessary for personal identity, it is not sufficient, and that personal identity consists in something underlying consciousness.
- "Jolley (Nicholas) - Personal Identity" (p.113) also considers the problem of pseudo-remembering. Genuine remembering is causal, running though one and the same body. So, either Locke’s theory collapses into bodily identity or is wildly implausible, claiming that George IV was the same person as led the troops at Waterloo because he (falsely) remembered so doing. These considerations seem fatal to Locke’s account, with mounting suggestions that a substantial account of personhood is required.
- Isn’t one still responsible for actions one has committed but forgotten? While Locke admits that the same man is responsible, his forensic understanding of personhood means that punishment properly belongs to the person, not the man.
- "Winkler (Kenneth) - Locke on Personal Identity" (p.153) argues that, for Locke, the self has to appropriate things to itself. Since the self is constituted by what it takes to be included in it, actions and thoughts forgotten beyond recall cannot be part of it. On Locke’s account one has only done what one is conscious of having done. "Ayers (Michael R.) - Contemporary Reactions to Locke's Theory" (p.266) wonders whether reward and punishment even make sense unless the recipient acknowledges the action in question as his own.
- When we punish someone even though he cannot remember what he did, this, according to Locke, is like punishing the wrong twin (§19:342.19-20). We don’t punish the sane man for what he did when out of his mind (§20:342.35-343.4). Locke would not punish the sobered-up drunkard for his now-forgotten actions, but claims that human law has to operate as it does, since we cannot know whether a man is counterfeit or not in claiming amnesia. Locke’s reasoning is based on our necessary ignorance of other people’s mental states, but he hopes that any injustices will be put right on the day of judgement (§22:343.34-344.12).
- Locke is right to allow that the genuinely insane man is a different person during the period of his insanity, but amnesia has nothing to do with it. We would still forgive the recovered insane man, and treat him as having been a different person, even were he to remember the period of his insanity.
- We don't do this for amnesiac drunkards; not because of the greater likelihood of dissimulation, but because the drunkard knew what he would be likely to do when he got drunk. Drunkenness is a voluntarily contracted state, indeed a crime, and no crime can excuse another. So, the sobered-up drunkard deserves punishment whatever his memory of his actions might be. In contrast to the recovered madman, on being informed of his behaviour he ought to own these acts.
- Hence, Locke’s theory of personal identity fails to explain or derive plausibility from moral and legal accountability.
- Identity is a transitive relation. So, if A is the same person as B and B is the same person as C, then A must be the same person as C. However, as Thomas Reid pointed out, this isn’t the case on Locke’s account. Imagine a small boy caught stealing apples, growing up into a young officer and declining into an old general. The old general remembers being a young officer and the young officer remembers being a mischievous boy, but the old general doesn't remember being the mischievous boy. According to Locke, the three cannot be the same person, though two pairs are.
- 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 could justifiably claim that the old general is the same person as the boy.
- "Lowe (E.J.) - Locke: Identity" (p.113) thinks that Locke wouldn’t be happy with this solution because he thinks of personhood as a forensic concept. A person should not be held responsible and punished for deeds he didn’t do which, for Locke, are those he can’t remember committing. However, "Winkler (Kenneth) - Locke on Personal Identity" (p.170) thinks that the young officer has appropriated the acts of the young boy, and because the old general has identified himself with the young officer, he has thereby appropriated all the acts he has appropriated. Because, on Lowe’s account, the self accumulates over time, rather than being constituted by instantaneous consciousness, identity of the self remains transitive.
- Locke thinks we have no clear idea of substance (I.4§18:95.29-33), so we certainly have no clear idea of when something is the same substance. Consequently, we need a nonsubstantial notion of a thing, and we do have a clear idea of the same self, considered as self.
- As "Lowe (E.J.) - Locke: Identity" (p.107) points out, by Locke’s own 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 associated with it only one criterion of identity, which enables us to count them.
- The problem is compounded by Locke’s concerns for “sensible creatures”, to whom memories are transferred, which (as both "Ayers (Michael R.) - Contemporary Reactions to Locke's Theory" (p.264) and "Noonan (Harold) - Locke" (p.45) point out) are thinking substances, not persons (§13.338.14-18). Locke worries that a soul will be wrongly punished or rewarded at the resurrection by having some consciousness passed on to it for which it wasn’t originally responsible. The wrong thinking substance will suffer, even though the right person (consisting in more than one thinking substance) is punished. It was once thought fitting that the same matter be punished as performed the deed, so Locke may be being ironical, as though souls have their feelings too.
- "Lowe (E.J.) - Locke: Identity" (p.117) thinks that to resolve such difficulties, we must equate persons with thinking substances. This doesn’t commit us to belief in “immaterial souls” if, contra Descartes, we allow matter to have attributes of thought as well as extension. However, given Locke’s explicit arguments against persons being souls, this suggestion is not to be preferred.
- "Lowe (E.J.) - Locke: Identity" (p.73), "Bennett (Jonathan) - Locke's Philosophy of the Mind" (p.106) and "Noonan (Harold) - Locke" (p.30) are in agreement that Locke distinguishes between basic substances (atoms) and non-basic substances (trees), the latter being modes of the former. In this chapter, Locke doesn’t use “substance” for “thing”, but for fundamental constituents of reality.
- This makes way for "Winkler (Kenneth) - Locke on Personal Identity"’s (p.164) interesting neo-Lockean proposal, for which we must consider substance-stages, temporal slices of Lockean non-basic substances, which persons supervene on (or are constructed out of). Successive stages are connected by two relations – that of psychological continuity, which connects them into persons, and physical continuity, which connects them into living things.
- Ontologically, persons and living things are then on the same level, but may share only some of their stages. Locke’s insistence that identity of persons is not determined by identity of substance means only that the identity isn’t determined by either of two kinds of substances in particular – organised bodies or immaterial souls.
- While Locke has escaped the transitivity objection, the problems raised by amnesia make Locke’s account implausible. Additionally, he is convicted of circularity on two counts above (See under Priority and Memory). Consequently, Locke has to give up all thought of consciousness defining personal identity, though it is certainly relevant. Locke was right to consider the concept of a person as fundamentally a psychological one, involving mental powers including rationality and self-consciousness.
- So, we must reject Locke’s characterisation of persons as insubstantial beings, constituted of streams of consciousness interconnected by memory. Locke ought to have acknowledged that persons are substantial aggregates of Winkler’s substance-stages, of which aggregates their conscious states are modes.
Previous Version of this Note:
|Note last updated
||Reference for this Topic
||876 (Locke on Personal Identity)
Summary of Note Links to this Page
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Authors, Books & Papers Citing this Note
||Of Identity and Diversity
||Psychology and Personal Identity
||Personal Identity and Immortality
||2, 3, 4, 5, 6
||Thesis - Locke
||Thesis - Quasi-Memory
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