Topic 2: Personal Identity

In this essay I intend on giving an account of why Locke believes we must understand personal identity as a ‘unity of consciousness’ via an explanation and evaluation of his reasoning and make a comparison with David Hume’s ‘bundle theory’. Moreover I will outline why I believe Hume account to be more the more plausible, and yet doesn’t quite go far enough in giving us a complete understanding of personal identity.

John Locke was concerned with providing a theory of personal identity, or ‘self’, in order to gauge how moral responsibility could be accredited to a person and thus a justification of guilt found.  To him, the self wasn’t a substance of the body, or the soul, but rather was to be based in a human’s consciousness. To the extent that a person is conscious of past and future thoughts and actions, in the same manner as they are present thought and actions, then according to Locke they can be said to be the same person. Thus the self could be identified to be that which has repeated acts of consciousness or thoughts and that can also identify and reach into the past through memory of previous thought and actions. Through this continuous and self-conscious chain of memory we can be said to have a ‘unity of consciousness’. Since self-conscious awareness invariably accompanies all thought it alone can distinguish a self from other selves, and moreover preserve an identity through time.

Locke’s argument relies on the law of identity that states that no two things can exist in the same time and the same place, and that therefore that no two things can have the same origin or that a single thing can have two origins; that identity is retained through continuous history. He separates the idea of substance, organism and  ‘person’. The identity of a substance consists merely in its matter-- a mass of atoms keeps its identity as long as the amount of atoms remain the same. A living organism, such as an animal’s identity is somewhat different, and is not just a mass of matter because it is constantly losing and gaining material—in a human’s case this is what Locke calls “man”— the physical body. The identity of a person rest within their consciousness however, a rational thinking thing that Locke calls “person” (E II, xxvii, §9). He is not claiming that consciousness can exist independently from the physical body, but that there is no reason to assume it is connected to any particular body or mind. An example is given to demonstrate this self-evidence: When a finger is physically removed, then it is no longer part of a persons consciousness and that person is no more conscious of that particular finger than of anybody else’s. Locke continues that what is true of the finger is true of any and all body parts. If we were somehow able to transfer the consciousness to another body—as in the Parfit (1984, p.253) thought experiment with the twin brother where a brain is transplanted-- then that ‘person’ would be in the new body.

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Locke uses the example of the cobbler and the prince in which he theorizes that say a princes mind were to enter a cobbler to demonstrate self-identity is not based on a body. To people viewing him he would remain a cobbler. However, the cobbler would be have the thoughts of the prince and thus be a prince, claims Locke.

 The problem stems when Locke goes on to posit that the self is also separate from immaterial substance, or minds, it seems. He claims that consciousness although requiring a mind is not tied to any one mind ...

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