Locke on personal identity

Jim asked:

We have to write an essay on the following:

Please write an argumentative essay in response to the following. Locke: whatever has the consciousness of present and past actions is the same person to whom they both belong (278). Explain and evaluate Locke’s claim.

I don’t really understand Locke’s statement. I thought it might mean that if for example I got drunk last night then today I learned from my actions last night and am therefore a different person that I was yesterday. I really need help. I just don’t really understand how I would approach writing this essay. Thanks!

Answer by Craig Skinner

The quote ‘Whatever has the consciousness of present and past actions is the same person to whom they both belong’ is from 27.16 of the famous chapter (27) ‘Of Identity and Diversity’ in Book 2 of Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (2nd edition 1694).

Locke is not concerned here with learning from our actions or with moral improvement. He is concerned with what makes it the case that somebody is the same individual over a period of time. He is especially concerned with fair praise and blame, both in this life and at the Last Judgment, what he calls ‘forensic’ issues. Obviously praise/blame can only be fair if the individual being rewarded/punished is the SAME individual as the one who did the good/bad deeds.

So, what makes me the same individual as yesterday or last year?. Locke distinguishes between being the same Human Being (‘same Man’ as he puts it) and being the same Person. Neither depends on being the same Substance.

Being the same Human Being, like being the same plant or animal, is to be the same living, organized body, to be ‘the same continued life communicated to different particles of matter, as they happen successively to be united to that organized living body’ (27.8). In short I am the same Man as twenty years ago even although none of the atoms constituting me then is part of me now.

Being the same Person is to have continuity of consciousness – one presently remembers one’s past actions. Locke’s famous definition of ‘Person’ (27.9):

‘A thinking intelligent being, that has reason, and can consider it self as it self, the same thinking thing, in different times and places; which it does only by that consciousness, which is inseparable from thinking’

So Personal identity is not identity of Substance (one could swap one’s material body, or, Locke feels, one’s immaterial soul, without loss of identity) but identity (continuity) of consciousness.

Being the same Human Being and being the same Person needn’t always go together. Locke describes an early mind swap thought experiment. The mind of the Prince enters the body of the sleeping Cobbler (whose own mind departs). The individual who later wakes up is the same Man as was (the Cobbler), but a different Person (the Prince).

You can think of yourself as essentially a Human Being or as essentially a Person.

If you are essentially a Human Being, then you were once a zygote, then an embryo, a foetus, a child, an adult, and may sadly sustain brain damage and pass into a persistent vegetative state (PVS). If you were to get a brain transplant, you would be the same Man with a new brain, even though this brain thought as it did in the donor, just as a transplanted heart pumps blood as it did in the donor, so that the brain thinks it IS the person of the donor in a new body, like the Prince waking up in the Cobbler’s body.

If on the other hand you are essentially a Person, then YOU were never a zygote or an embryo, nor can you be a human in a PVS, for none of these has consciousness, far less continuity of consciousness. If your brain were transplanted into a new body you would think of this as YOU getting a new body rather than somebody else getting a new brain.

Each view has its counterintuitive aspect.

The Human Being view means that identity goes with the body not the brain in brain transplant/downloading thought experiments. On the other hand, the individual in the PVS is still YOU (as relatives mostly think, few take the Person view and think you no longer exist).

The Person view means that identity goes with the brain/mind in transplant/downloads. On the other hand YOU were never an embryo or a foetus, and the individual in the PVS is not YOU.

So, in short, the quotation we started with states the psychological, or memory, or continuity of consciousness criterion for being the same Person, namely you are conscious of your present actions and recall yourself doing past actions.

So in your ‘argumentative essay’, you need to:

1. Explain that the Locke quote states the condition for persisting Personal identity.

2. Distinguish between identity conditions for a Person and for a Human Being (‘Man’ in Locke’s text). Quote Locke’s definitions of (sameness) of Man and of Person.

3. Evaluate the pros and cons of Locke’s memory criterion for Personal identity.


(a) intuitive, corresponds to the common notion of a ‘self’

(b) allows fair dealing by the law and by God at the Last Judgment. At the latter (so the story goes) you may not even have a body, but are the same Person who did the deeds when embodied, and can remember doing them.


(a) what about discontinuities in consciousness (i) sleeping (ii) memory for distant events lost – Thomas Reid’s example of the Old General who remembers nothing of his boyhood – according to Locke the old man is not the same person as the boy, but he clearly is. On the other

hand is it fair to punish a person for something they can’t remember doing (she was mad, or drunk at the time; or is now demented). Locke thinks it is sometimes not fair.

(b) a big one this, the definition is circular, begging the question. How do you know that the memories you have are genuine rather than false or quasi- memories ? To suppose they are YOUR memories presupposes there is a YOU. Maybe we can say there must be an appropriate causal relation between me now and the memories I have.

(c) problems with split-brain/fission cases – which of the beings, both of which are psychologically continuous with you, IS you. Maybe neither, and what matters is survival (continuity of consciousness) not identity.

Finally, do read Locke’s Chapter 27 (or at least 27.8 to 27.29), it is one of the most important, influential, and still relevant parts of his philosophy.


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