Locke, John (1632–1704)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA054-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2017
Retrieved December 13, 2018, from

8. Thinking matter and persons

The second quality or power that Locke claims God may have superadded to matter is thought. Locke’s claim is that we are not in a position to know whether God has ‘given to some systems of matter fitly disposed, a power to perceive and think’ or whether he has joined to it ‘a thinking immaterial substance’ (Essay IV.iii.6). He is not claiming that God has, as a matter of fact, superadded the power of thought to matter fitly disposed, but only that we cannot rule out this possibility. Nor is he claiming that matter structured in a particular way might give rise to thought. Elsewhere he is adamant that irrespective of how matter is arranged, it cannot give rise to thought (Essay IV.x.10, 11). In effect, all that Locke is doing here is denying the truth of the conditional ‘If it thinks then it is immaterial’. And in so doing he inserted a small wedge into the substance dualist conception of the mind (see Dualism).

Locke also opposed the Cartesian view that the mind is always thinking: ‘methinks, every drowsy nod shakes their doctrine, who teach, that the soul is always thinking’ (Essay II.i.13). In fact, it is important for Locke that both thought and memory can be gappy. This is of particular relevance to his theory of personhood. A person for Locke is ‘a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider it self as it self, the same thinking thing in different times and places’ (Essay II.xxvii.9). A person can consider itself as itself and distinguish itself from all other persons because it is conscious that each of its current thoughts and each recalled memory is part of itself: ‘as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person’ (ibid.). Locke is claiming that each thought, be it a memory or state of current conscious thought, is the object of a perception that it is part of the same thinking thing that has existed in different times and places. So, just as one can be conscious that a particular thought derives from memory or directly from sensation, so one is conscious that a particular memory is part of one’s thinking self (see Personal identity). This psychological criterion of the identity of a person over time is independent of any claims concerning the ontological status of persons and Locke seems never to have addressed this question. He does, however, develop some extraordinary thought experiments to show that more than one person can inhere in the same soul and that the very same person can inhere in more than one human body. These thought experiments are predicated on Locke’s distinction between person and man, or human being.

One important feature of Locke’s concept of person is that it provides an account of individual moral responsibility. For Locke, ‘person’ is ‘a forensick term appropriating actions and their merit; and so belongs only to intelligent agents capable of a law, and happiness and misery’. A person is morally responsible for their actions in so far as it ‘owns and imputes to it self past actions, just upon the same ground, and for the same reason, that it does the present’ (Essay II.xxvii.26). Among the consequences of this account of moral responsibility, two are of particular interest. First, according to Locke, one cannot be held accountable for actions that one is unable to remember. Second, should there be some way that one could receive a memory of performing a morally wrong action that someone else performed, we can rest assured that God would prevent such a transfer.

Citing this article:
Anstey, Peter. Thinking matter and persons. Locke, John (1632–1704), 2017, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA054-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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