John Locke Theory on Personal Identity

Topics: René Descartes, Consciousness, Mind Pages: 7 (1121 words) Published: May 18, 2012
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 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 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 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 of person is different to

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