Locke on Personal Identity

Locke on Personal Identity: Consciousness and Concernment

Galen Strawson
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    Locke on Personal Identity
    Book Description:

    John Locke's theory of personal identity underlies all modern discussion of the nature of persons and selves--yet it is widely thought to be wrong. In his new book, Galen Strawson argues that in fact it is Locke's critics who are wrong, and that the famous objections to his theory are invalid. Indeed, far from refuting Locke, they illustrate his fundamental point.

    Strawson argues that the root error is to take Locke's use of the word "person" only in the ordinary way, as merely a term for a standard persisting thing, like "human being." In actuality, Locke uses "person" primarily as a forensic or legal term geared specifically to questions about praise and blame, punishment and reward. In these terms, your personal identity is roughly a matter of those of your past actions that you are still responsible for because you are still "conscious" of them in Locke's special sense of that word.

    Clearly and vigorously argued, this is an important contribution both to the history of philosophy and to the contemporary philosophy of personal identity.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4022-9
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-X)
  3. Preface
    (pp. XI-XVIII)
  4. Chapter One Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    It’s widely held that Locke’s account of personal identity, first published in 1694, is circular and inconsistent, and blatantly so. Locke, however, thought long and hard about the matter.¹ He discussed it extensively with friends and colleagues, and was a profoundly intelligent, generally very careful, and exceptionally sensible philosopher. He made no foolish error.

    Why has he been so misunderstood? I blame certain influential commentators, in whose vanguard one finds one of the worst readers of other philosophers in the history of philosophy: the good Bishop Berkeley. Thomas Reid is also to blame, for although he is a great (and...

  5. Chapter Two “Person”
    (pp. 5-16)

    The word “person” has a double use, both now and in the seventeenth century. In its most common everyday use, today as in the seventeenth century, it simply denotes a human being considered as a whole, aperson1, as I will say. Its next most common everyday use, which I will call theperson2use, is the one that allows us to say, of a single human being, “She’s not the same person anymore,” or “He’s become a completely different person.” When Henry James writes, of one of his early novels, “I think of . . . the masterpiece in...

  6. Chapter Three “Person . . . is a forensic term”
    (pp. 17-21)

    The word “person” contains considerable opportunities for confusion, as we have seen. But help is not far to seek. Udo Thiel makes a crucial point when he notes the sense in which “person” is indeed a property term, a term for amoral quality, in Locke’s text. Throughout the seventeenth century, he says,

    “person” most commonly referred to an individual human being: it was simply a term for the individual human self. But in some philosophical discussions “person” referred to a particular aspect, quality, or function of the individual human being.

    This use of the word derived from Roman law,...

  7. Chapter Four Concernment
    (pp. 22-29)

    If we look for a thing-denoting term that corresponds to “Person,” it looks as if we need something like “unit of accountability.” A Person is a unit of accountability. A unit of accountability always contains a subject of experience, and we naturally think of the subject of experience alone as the thing that is accountable. Strictly speaking, though, the subject of experience [S] consists only of [M] ± [I], at any given time, and we don’t have a full, actual unit of accountability until we add on [A].

    The fact remains that we naturally think of [S] alone as the...

  8. Chapter Five Consciousness
    (pp. 30-41)

    The only things of which one can be Conscious are

    [M] one’s own body,

    [I] one’s immaterial soul (if any), and

    [A] one’s actions and experiences (including one’s thoughts in the narrower cognitive sense).

    So these, presumably, are what wholly constitute one as a Person, in Locke’s view, at any given time, as remarked on pages 14-15: [P] = [M] ± [I] + [A]. If the notion of a Person were a wholly or merely moral notion, one would expect the being or extent of oneself as Person to be identical to the being or extent of one’s field of...

  9. Chapter Six “Consciousness . . . is inseparable from thinking”
    (pp. 42-49)

    Being Conscious of some action or experience, experiencing it as one’s own in a certain immediate (i.e. nonmediated) or from-the-inside sort of way, needn’t—and standardly doesn’t—involve any sort of explicit or express or attentive or “thetic”¹ second-order taking of it as one’s own. That the action or experience is one’s own needn’t be in the focus of conscious attention in any way, and in fact the “experiencing-as-one’s-own-ness” of Consciousness is, in the normal case of present awareness of one’s body and one’s surroundings, wholly “non-thetic,” “pre-reflective,” “non-egological,” in the Phenomenologists’ terminology. It is in other words devoid of...

  10. Chapter Seven “From the inside”
    (pp. 50-57)

    In current philosophical discussion, Shoemaker’s term “from the inside” is mainly applied to autobiographical memory, although it’s also a feature of all one’s current experience. The difference between remembering something from the inside and remembering it only from the outside is the difference between (i) rememberingfalling out of the boat, the water rushing up to meet you, and so on, and (ii) rememberingthat you fell out of the boat—which may after a time be all that you have left, in the way of memory of the event, and which someone other than you may remember equally well....

  11. Chapter Eight “Person”-Locke’s Definition
    (pp. 58-71)

    I’m an individual agent, a thinking being, a persisting human subject of experience—very much as I think I am. All this is clear. But what am I insofar as I am a Person—a person in Locke’s sense? This still doesn’t seem so clear, and I’m now going to go in more detail over some ground I’ve already briefly surveyed.

    The first answer is terminological: the Person I am is the self that I am:

    Person, as I take it, is the name for thisself. Wherever a man finds what he callshimself, there, I think, another may...

  12. Chapter Nine Consciousness Is Not Memory
    (pp. 72-76)

    It’s clear that Consciousness—Lockean consciousness—isn’t the same as memory, contrary to what many have supposed. The primary and paradigm case of Consciousness involves no memory at all: it’s the Consciousness one has of one’s own experience and action in the present, the Consciousness that’s “inseparable from thinking” (i.e. experience), “essential to it” (§9), essentially constitutive of it. One can be fully Conscious in this fundamental way and have no memory at all, or only a few seconds’ worth.¹ Consciousness of past actions and experiences, which does of course involve memory, is just one special case of Consciousness. It’s...

  13. Chapter Ten Personal Identity
    (pp. 77-87)

    I’ve attempted to clarify Locke’s notions-definitions-of consciousness (Consciousness), concernment (Concernment), and person (Person). It seems high time to put the canonical personal identity question:

    What are the necessary and sufficient conditions of the truth of the claim that a person considered now at timet2, whom we may call [P], is the same person as a person considered at a different past timet1, whom we may call [Px]? What has to be true if it is to be true that [Px] is the same person as [P]?

    There is, certainly, a sense in which Locke is interested in this...

  14. Chapter Eleven Psychological Connectedness
    (pp. 88-92)

    I’ll return to this question in chapter 19. For the moment, note that this account of Locke’s view can be reexpressed in Parfit’s terms, according to which

    a person [P] att2is (directly)psychologically connectedto a person [Px] att1if—to take the case of memory—[P] can now remember having some of the experiences that [Px] had att1,


    a person [P] att2ispsychologically continuouswith [Px] if there is some unbroken overlapping chain of such direct connections ([P] being psychologically connected to some [Pi], [Pi] to some [Pj], [Pj] to some [Pk],...

  15. Chapter Twelve Transition (Butler Dismissed)
    (pp. 93-96)

    Locke has defined Personal identity in terms of the reach of Consciousness in beings who qualify as Persons (being in particular fully self-conscious, able to think of past and future, and “capable of a law”). A person in this sense, a Person, is not just a type of standard temporal continuant whose fundamental diachronic identity conditions amount to nothing more than the standard temporal-continuity conditions of other known kinds of objects (living or not, material or not). A Person is indeed an object of a certain sort, and must exemplify a certain sort of temporal continuity, if it is to...

  16. Chapter Thirteen “But next . . . ”: Personal Identity without Substantial Continuity
    (pp. 97-109)

    Suppose, as I suspect Locke suspected, that materialism is true, and that one’s whole psychological being—one’s character, personality, memory, and so on—is wholly located in one’s brain (see p. 9, n. 5). Suppose further that all the individual material particles composing one’s brain have over the years been replaced many times.¹ Is this something to worry about, personally speaking? Plainly not. This is how things actually are with us (so Locke suspects, and so most of us today believe), and it doesn’t put our continuing existence in question in any way at all. The [S] that one is,...

  17. Chapter Fourteen “And therefore . . . ”: [I]-transfers, [Ag]-transfers, [P]-transfers
    (pp. 110-118)

    [s4], [s5] So far, perhaps, so good. We now arrive at the main problem. At first Locke seems to use the terms “agent,” “thinking substance,” and “intellectual substance” in [s4]-[s6] in a way that allows that a Person may survive change of agent or thinking substance or intellectual substance. I’ll call this thebare-immaterial-substanceuse of the terms “agent,” “thinking substance,” and “intellectual substance” (I hope not too confusingly), or, more simply, thenon-Personuse. We know that Locke wants to establish that a Person can conceivably survive change of immaterial substance, and since a Person obviously can’t survive a...

  18. Chapter Fifteen “A fatal error of theirs”
    (pp. 119-124)

    Whether or not either of the two proposed readings is right, Locke’s intention in §13 seems plain. But now we face the famous objection that was deferred in the last chapter. For Locke holds that Consciousness is a sufficient condition of personal identity—that “consciousness [alone] makes personal identity” (§§10, 16). And that appears to mean that unjust [P]-transfers are impossible—in which case one can’t need to appeal to God to stop them. It seems that Locke’s theory of personal identity rules out the possibility that there could be “fatal errors” of this sort.1 If so, he’s inconsistent in...

  19. Chapter Sixteen A Fatal Error of Locke’s?
    (pp. 125-130)

    Suppose that immaterial substance [I1] exists at timet1, and is “that which thinks in” [P1], and that [P1] A-s att1(i.e. per­forms a certain action ? or has a certain thought or other experience E). In §13 Locke is canvassing the possibility that [P1], existing att1andt2and beyond, can att1be [I]-constituted (i.e. constituted, immaterial-substance-wise) wholly by immaterial substance [I1] that A-s att1, and can now att2be wholly [I]-constituted by a numerically distinct immaterial substance [I2]. The idea is that the Person who att2has [I2]-based Consciousness of that earlier...

  20. Chapter Seventeen Circularity?
    (pp. 131-134)

    I’ve argued that one must place the radical claim that “consciousness [alone] makes personal identity” in context—a context which, crucially, contains the injustice claim. No reading of Locke can be right unless it interprets the force of the radical claim in a way that renders it consistent with the injustice claim. There is in that sense no problem of inconsistency. There’s only an inadequate reading of Locke that makes it seem that there’s an inconsistency.

    Suppose this is accepted. The charge of circularity or question-begging remains, inasmuch as Locke’s notion of what Personal identity is must contain something over...

  21. Chapter Eighteen The Distinction between [P] and [S]
    (pp. 135-138)

    One might finally put the point-somewhat tendentiously-by saying that Locke isn’t sufficiently clear about the difference between his definition of aPerson, considered as a kind of thing, and his definition of Personalidentity. It’s not sufficiently clear that he raises the forensic question ofPersonal identity-i.e. the question of what a Person is morally and legally responsible for-after, or at least independently of, the question of what aPersonis.

    On this account of things, Locke first defines what it takes to be a Person. He gives a definition according to which we (of course) qualify as Persons, for...

  22. Chapter Nineteen Concernment and Repentance
    (pp. 139-149)

    Having put her unanswerable question to those who think that Lockean consciousness is the same as memory (see p. 75 above), Marya Schechtman goes on to say that on Locke’s view, “past events can become part of present consciousness by affecting us in the present along the dimension of pleasure or pain” (1996: 112); and this is right enough, correctly understood.¹ It’s arguable, however, that this isn’t the only way for past events to become part of present Consciousness, for it seems that one may be Conscious of a past experience simply insofar as one experiences it as one’s own...

  23. Chapter Twenty Conclusion
    (pp. 150-156)

    There’s a further reason why the idea of a person’s overall moral nature or identity may be useful in a Lockean framework. When materialists or mortalists address the troublesome question of what guarantees personal identity between death and resurrection, they face a difficulty. Locke has, indeed, his famous answer in terms of Consciousness, but the idea that the Consciousness of John on the Great Day (JohnGD) is numerically the same Consciousness as the Consciousness of John on earth (JohnE) still seems to require, for its individuality- preserving continuity linking JohnEand and JohnGD. Locke finds no problem in the idea...

  24. Postface
    (pp. 157-162)

    Locke’s theory of personal identity links four fundamen­tal notions:identity, consciousness, concern, and responsibility. In this postface I survey the links in a general fashion.

    Although Locke’s theory of personal identity is part of his chapter on the general subject of identity and diversity, it is perhaps first and foremost a theory of moral and legal responsibility.

    A theory of moral and legal responsibility requires a the­ory of personal identity, on Locke’s (and indeed most people’s) view, because only persons can be morally and legally responsible for anything: But Locke’s theory of personal identity is no less fundamentally a theory...

  25. Appendix One “Of Identity and Diversity” An Essay concerning Human Understanding: Book 2, Chapter 27
    (pp. 163-232)
    John Locke
  26. Appendix Two A Defence of Mr. Locke’s Opinion Concerning Personal Identity
    (pp. 233-252)
    Edmund Law
  27. References
    (pp. 253-256)
  28. Index
    (pp. 257-259)