Outline and critically discuss Locke’s theory of personal identity. John Locke laid down the systematic groundwork of personal identity in the study of modern philosophy. Locke highlights his approach to the problem of personal identity in Chapter XXVII of the book II in An Essay concerning Human Understanding. This paper will explore the features that persuaded Locke to treat the problem of personal identity and then go on to analyse Locke’s theory in light of these factors.
It will then inspect the implications of his theory. Furthermore it will contain a brief assessment of the theory’s historical significance.In exploring the reasons as to why Locke treated the problem on personal identity, it is crucial to understand that his views arose from the ones presented by the French philosopher Rene Descartes. Descartes was a Cartesian and thought that each person was a unified non-extended mental substance whom was unchanged by experience (Skirry, 2006).
Descartes believed in the existence of innate ideas, and the foundation of knowledge believed truth to be located in these ideas (Descartes, 2007, p 13-16). Locke saw many of the struggles that track from this opinion as he himself had an empirical way of thinking, it struck to him that these might be avoided if it could be revealed convincingly that innate ideologies are not present. In BookLocke saw many of the struggles that track from this opinion as he himself had an empirical way of thinking, it struck to him that these might be avoided if it could be revealed convincingly that innate ideologies are not present.
In Book I he argues that they do not exist and that our theories must be built on experience and he then published Book II to shed light on the way our concept of personal identity must derive from our experience (Uzgalis, 2010). Locke’s view of personal identity in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, explores the relationship of substances to ones self. He asserts ‘…our specific ideas of substances are nothing else but a collection of a certain number of simple ideas, considered as united in one thing,’(Locke, 1690, Chapter XXVII) implying that an individual’s awareness is not equipped with any unblemished ideas of substance, and thus can have no instinctual knowledge of its nature. Furthermore he distinguishes between what he declares to be the conditions of identity. He accomplishes this through the deliberation of ‘Principium Individuationis’ (Locke, 1690, Chapter XXVII), which explains that the conditions of identity, for that of masses of matter are distinct from vegetables and animals. Then raises the question of whether the conditions of identity are somewhat dissimilar to that of humans. From thisHe asserts ‘…our specific ideas of substances are nothing else but a collection of a certain number of simple ideas, considered as united in one thing,’(Locke, 1690, Chapter XXVII) implying that an individual’s awareness is not equipped with any unblemished ideas of substance, and thus can have no instinctual knowledge of its nature.
Furthermore he distinguishes between what he declares to be the conditions of identity. He accomplishes this through the deliberation of ‘Principium Individuationis’ (Locke, 1690, Chapter XXVII), which explains that the conditions of identity, for that of masses of matter are distinct from vegetables and animals.Then raises the question of whether the conditions of identity are somewhat dissimilar to that of humans. From this viewpoint he elucidates that it looks as though humans are a type of animal as they too grow and change. Locke states ‘the organization of life that supports nourishment and growth’ (Locke, 1690, Chapter XXVII) is what makes vegetables, animals, and humans unalike from masses of matter because we are furnished with the organisation of life. Locke suggests ‘…consciousness always accompanies thinking, and it is that which makesLocke suggests ‘…consciousness always accompanies thinking, and it is that which makes every one to be what he calls self, and thereby distinguishes himself from all other thinking things’ (Locke, 1690, Chapter XXVII). From this viewpoint it is evident that having consciousness will prevent a man, as long as his existence continues to be other than what he already is.
For example Locke argues that, if the consciousness (soul) of a person left the body of its informant and entered another’s it would not be the same person. He uses the example ‘For should the soul of a prince, carrying with it the consciousness of the prince’s past life, enter and inform the body of a cobbler, as soon as deserted by his own soul, everyone sees he would be the same person with the prince, accountable only for the princess actions but who would say it was the same man?’ (Locke, 1690, Chapter XXVII). This passage emphasizes that the idea ofThis passage emphasizes that the idea of person is different to the idea of man, and we know that they are not identical but identity is oneness. Locke theorizes ‘Self is that conscious thinking thing…which is sensible or conscious of pleasure and pain, capable of happiness or misery and so is concerned for itself as far as that consciousness is concerned’ (Locke, 1690, Chapter XXVII). Thus each person’s consciousness is different, and can never be identical to that of another. Our thoughts and memories are formed by individual experience therefore change of consciousness/memory will result in a change in the person.Some of the implications of John Locke’s theory of personal identity consist of problems when people are faced with loss of memory.
Locke suggests, failure to remember, rids them of their identity; an example Locke uses is ‘a total amnesiac will have identity at an instant if they are conscious, rational and self-aware, but no identity over time’ (Locke, 1690, Chapter XXVII). Furthermore his theory in light of people, who have memory loss, isn’t applicable as these individuals carry the same mind throughout the span of their lifetime.This is also evident when he says that ‘God would find someone innocent of a crime, if they had forgotten committing it’ (Locke, 1690, Chapter XXVII). While the framework of consciousness may appear to be stable, we see the substance is in continuous flux. The historical significance of this theory is seen through the influence of Locke’s book (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding), which has had influence on other philosophers.Gottfried Leibnitz was one of the many who was influenced by Locke’s work, who also criticised his theory. Leibnitz published a rebuttal to Locke’s work, and in it wrote the following called, A New Essay Concerning Human Understanding and in this he attacks Locke’s theory, chapter to chapter he goes on to disproof Locke’s theory (Leibnitz, 1698, p, 13-20).
Since Locke’s theory of personal identity was one of the first to analyse the conception of consciousness and that of the self, his criticisers such as Leibnitz had a similar empirical concept of the matter regarding personal identity. Nonetheless Locke’s theory is well known among philosophical scholars and his work is greatly appreciated, Having influenced philosophers like Leibnitz it is evident that his theory is still valid to those today, such as functionalists, who outline a person in relation to a set of mental functions.Reference list:-Descartes, R, (2007), Mediations on First philosophy, Nu Vision Publications, Sioux Falls, SD USA, pp, 7-17.-Leibnitz, G, (1698), New Essays Concerning Human Understanding, (publisher NA), pp, 13-20.-Locke, J, (1690), Chapter XXVII, book II, An Essay concerning Human Understanding.-Skirry, J, (2006), Rene Descartes: The Mind-Body Distinction, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, viewed 15 April 2012, <
>-Uzgalis, W, (2010), “John Locke”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), viewed 15 April 2012 <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2010/entries/locke/>.- http://essaylab.com/blog/an-essay-concerning-human-understanding>
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