Ego Theory of the Self and Bundle Theory of Personal Identity — Locke and Hume

John Locke’s path to realizing personal identity goes through several checkpoints. According to Locke, personal identity sleeps not in the cradle of the person who physically exists, but in the core that we might refer to as the soul, the characteristic of which is the immutability of personal identity. This is what we also label as the Cartesian view. Our awareness of the self comes as a result of our personal interpretations enabled through our senses. We perceive not because we choose to do so, but because we know not how to not do so. Personal identity is the conscious result that the thinking being comes to, when evaluating that he/she is a separate entity from other thinking beings, and is to herself what she might not be to the other. The complexity of personal identity is bundled throughout one’s life, but is essentially unchangeable from beginning to end, despite the changes in experience. This is referred to as the Cogito argument, which insinuates a fixed identity of the existing thinking being as the pillar to the unavoidable nature of shifting thoughts. Locke’s “I” points to an enlightened thing that is essentially programmed to think and perceive in a conscious way, without choosing to do so but being able to perceive that is doing so. Consciousness is interlocked with the broken chain of memory, which in itself interferes with the concept of personal identity, given the fact that we have no essential capacity to remember, sense, and imagine in absolute. What makes the “I” is the complexity of being a thinking substance unchangeable by elements gained through experience throughout one’s life. It is the mental substance and not the body that define personal identity. The only experience important in expounding personal identity is the inner experience, which is consciousness itself. According to Locke, a ‘man’ is not a person; for it is a compound physical entity such as is a tree, a dog, a mountain. Its existence is defined by the fact that it lives, while a person’s existence is a particular type of consciousness which is manifested by awareness: awareness of the present mental state, that of being inside a physical body that is not important to the essence of [my] existence, and the awareness of having a past. Personal identity is unavoidably fixed by the awareness of the past, where forgetfulness plays an important role yet it does not change its linear nature.

In the famous ‘the prince and the cobbler’ example, Locke argues that if these two entities [made up of the man and the person] swap bodies, the person will be where consciousness is, that is the mind that inhabits the new body will carry with it the complexity of the personal identity of the prince to the cobbler and vice versa. Keeping in mind that both the prince and the cobbler live in a society, this personal identity and the awareness that comes with inhabiting this new body is evident only to them, as to the world the prince is still a prince and the cobbler still a cobbler, for personal identity is detached from the physical world. The identity on display has little to do with the person and a lot to do with the man. But in the event that these two entities have swapped bodies, their personal identity will function just the same as it did in the previous body. It will come with the awareness of the current state [the swap], the awareness of belonging to a body [despite it being a new one], and the awareness of the past [the prince is still a prince and the cobbler still a cobbler]. If we take for granted that only inner experience, that of the consciousness, is what defines our personal identity, then it is undoubtedly true that the prince will transfer his consciousness into the cobbler’s body and vice versa. In all this equation, it is memory that which puts personal identity to test.

Yet, there is a dissenting view which challenges Locke’s Ego Theory, and that is David Hume’s Bundle Theory. This theory acknowledges many of the elements voided by the ego theory in what is personal identity. If the ego theory says that personal identity is created in and by a spiritual/thinking/soul-like substance, the bundle theory holds that experiences, events, thoughts, feelings, sensations and the like are all linked in a bundle that ultimately defines personal identity. Keeping in mind Hume’s cardinal idea that no idea comes without a corresponding impression, do we have an impression of this consciousness that Locke claims remains unchanged over time? If we are not a constant person [as per Locke’s definition of such] throughout time, we are a bundle of our own ever-changing personal impressions. For example, with age a man’s hair turns grey. This is a change drawn out over a long period of time, thus the gradualism of this change makes it unnoticeable in the moment, yet our impressions of it are in a constant change and they all pitch in the building of the personal identity. This means that these impressions make up a series of such strung together, thus defying Locke’s claim of immutability.

The contemporary philosopher John Perry, in the Three-night Dialogue, creates a discussion wrapped around the connection of the soul with personal identity. He gives an example of Julia and Mary, two women found in a horrible accident. One loses the mind, the other the body — the mind of Julia can be saved, and so can the body of Mary. If the doctor succeeds in transplanting Julia’s mind into Mary’s body, who is Mary? Is she Julia? The answer seems simple to most, but when Mary wakes up and believes she is Julia, because the brain now inside her body remembers and comes with an identity, it could also be perceived that Mary is delusional in thinking she is Julia, for the others see Mary and can maybe just recognize the confusion as an identity crisis, or post-traumatic crisis. The event is embedded in one’s life timeline, and it is clinically proven that they have an effect in one’s personality. Now, if we have a firm belief in personal identity, this wouldn’t even be a question. But the complexity of the issue results in a rocky road to ultimately understanding if personal identity lies in the body or the mind or both. Our minds affect our body’s behavior, I believe they interlock to defining who we are as the thinking being trapped in a specific body for the period of time we call life.

One important thing to keep in mind is the power of language and how it has geared us to think about these notions. In a way it defines personal identity, as without it we wouldn’t be able to think about it, let alone articulate its definition thus its existence. Yet, I believe that there is a sense of personal identity, that would be present albeit our capacity of thinking about it. If we think of caveman, would we be able to attach any sense of personal identity to each of their existence? I believe that without the need of articulating, they still found a sense of identity in building tools, in surviving — yet, we attach a more complicated view to it through language. Personal identity exists despite our ability to understand it, talk about it, articulate its complications and bring it to a philosophical meaning.

Going back to Locke’s ego theory and the example of ‘the prince and the cobbler’, we can assert that the lifestyle that the prince will lead will be that of the cobbler, because despite of personal identity being framed in consciousness, the prince will be unable to be a prince, because no one will recognize him as such. Locke would argue that one is culpable only of a crime that he remembers committing; yet this does not void the fact that the crime was committed, despite of the person remembering or not. Using memory as the test for consciousness is unreliable, and occasional false memories are proof of this. I would recall the repressed memory syndrome, which consists of memories that our brain subdues [typically traumatic events] in order to preserve the pain of consciously going back to them. We might not be affected by it anymore, as we cannot recall the event, but it has affected us to the point that our brain reacted in a self-protecting shield by deleting it. Would Locke argue that by losing memories you destroy your identity? Whenever I recall past histories, I go through a variety of filters, which bring it back to me very differently from how it actually felt and sometimes from what actually happened. The effects that the current state of consciousness has on the process of remembering is, I believe, of ample importance. We can’t have the ‘same’ consciousness now of our past experiences as they were actually experienced. The way Locke unravels the theory of personal identity is a slippery slope as he undermines the other evidence but that of memory (e.g. testimony of other people). If Locke believes that personal identity is created by the inner experience [that is the experience of the consciousness], I believe that this experience was not born in the mind, but it was a result of other impulses that might have come from the experience of the man rather than the person.

Personal identity is a work in progress, drawn out over a period of time, which we call life. I do hold dear the idea of Locke that we are substantially the same person throughout this time, yet the personal identity is like a tree, where the seed is one and unchangeable, yet its growth over time is affected by the sun, water, wind and love which make it bloom, lose leafs, bloom again, bend over, dry out.

Just an opinionated old soul, forced to find poetry and meaning in the real life version of Orwell’s 1984.

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