Personal identity

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V024-3
Version: v3,  Published online: 2017
Retrieved October 19, 2018, from

1. John Locke and the Framework of the Debate

John Locke’s (1689) discussion of personal identity in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding set the framework for much of the philosophical discussion of this topic that followed (see Locke, John §8). This discussion is embedded in a longer consideration of questions of identity and diversity. Locke argues that in order to determine the identity criteria for an entity we must first attend to what kinds of entity it is. The identity conditions for a heap of matter, an artifact, and an organism will all be different from one another and the identity conditions for a person different yet again. A person, according to 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....’ (Locke 1689: 335). Given this understanding of persons he argues that what makes a person at one time the same as a person at some other time is therefore that they possess the same consciousness.

Although Locke’s precise view is no longer a central part of the philosophical debate on personal identity, there are three crucial elements of his discussion that have shaped work on this topic to the present day. The first is Locke’s basic methodology. The central arguments he offers for his view take the form of hypothetical cases in which sameness of consciousness is separated in thought from other relations which might be thought to constitute personal identity over time. When we reflect on such cases, Locke says, it becomes clear that sameness of person tracks sameness of consciousness rather than these other relations. He describes, for instance, the case of a prince whose consciousness enters the body of a cobbler, resulting in an individual who has the cobbler’s body but first-personal experience of the prince’s life, remembering as his own experiences all of the things that happened to the prince and with no recollection whatsoever of any of the cobbler’s experience. Surely we will see, Locke says, that this is a case in which the prince has come to inhabit the cobbler’s body, showing that the person goes where the consciousness goes. This interpretation of the case is consonant with the interpretation of similar scenarios throughout popular culture. Think, for instance, of the film Freaky Friday in which the consciousness of a mother and daughter come to inhabit each other’s bodies. It is taken for granted as a premise of the film that the mother and daughter have switched bodies, each following her consciousness, and this is how audiences inevitably interpret the situation. Contemplation of hypothetical cases remains a core methodology in the philosophy of personal identity, and updated versions of Locke’s prince and cobbler case are still offered as the primary arguments for psychological accounts of identity.

A second important feature of Locke’s view is the connection he draws between personal identity and practical considerations (see Morality and identity). He says that ‘person’ is a ‘forensic’ term (Locke 1689: 346) and emphasizes that facts about personal identity are tied to particular kinds of practical judgments that apply only to persons. Persons can be held responsible for their actions, for instance, and they are held directly responsible only for their own actions and not for those of others. Persons are also able to take a particular kind of interest in their own future wellbeing and can be accused of irrationality or imprudence if they fail to do so. Although not necessarily lesser in quantity, egoistic concern is typically understood to be different in kind than concern for others.

This connection between personal identity and practical judgments also plays a methodological role in Locke’s arguments. For instance, after describing the case of the prince and the cobbler he directs us to reflect on the fact that we would hold the person with the prince’s consciousness and cobbler’s body responsible for what the prince did before the switch, and not for what the cobbler did. We might similarly point out that before the switch the prince would be prudent to concern himself with the wellbeing of the person who will have his consciousness in the cobbler’s body. The practical judgments associated with personal identity thus seem appropriate just in case there is sameness of consciousness, and this supports the claim that personal identity is constituted by this relation.

A third element of Locke’s account which remains important in current debate is his relational view of personal identity. It would be natural to think that the persistence of an entity requires the persistence of some kind of substance. Locke argues, however, that this is not the case with personal identity. As long as a person at one time bears the relation of sameness of consciousness to a person at another time, they are the same person, whether they have any substance in common or not. This claim is partially demonstrated through the case of the prince and the cobbler. The person with the prince’s consciousness in the cobbler’s body is the same person as the prince despite having no matter whatsoever in common with the pre-switch prince. Locke emphasizes that this is true not only of material substance but also of immaterial substance, which is also neither necessary nor sufficient for sameness of consciousness on his view. If we do have souls, he argues, and these are thought of as immaterial substances, there is no principled reason that a particular soul could not be stripped of the consciousness associated with it or given a new consciousness just as a body could. If that were to happen, Locke says, the person would follow the consciousness to a new soul.

Each of these elements has been challenged repeatedly, and they are not universal features of every account of personal identity which has been offered since Locke. They have, however, been a central part of the discussion of personal identity since their appearance in Locke’s treatment of this topic.

Citing this article:
Schechtman, Marya. John Locke and the Framework of the Debate. Personal identity, 2017, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-V024-3. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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