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Locke and the issue of personal identity

John Locke (1632–1704) was a renowned philosopher, academician, and researcher in the medical field of Oxford. Locke’s most famous work is entitled “Essay on the Understanding of Human Nature” (1689) and can easily be considered one of the first great defenses of modern empiricism, which seeks to determine the limits of human understanding in a broad spectrum of topics.

The issue of personal identity and the multitude of sensitive aspects surrounding this subject has been a challenging topic for many philosophers. The theory of personal identity is the philosophical confrontation with the final questions of our own existence, such as “who are we?” and “is there life after death?” This type of personal identity analysis provides a set of necessary and sufficient conditions to be able to correctly determine a person’s identity over time.

John Locke was one of the philosophers who opposed Descartes’ Cartesian theory that the soul represents personal identity. Locke argues that personal identity is a matter of psychological continuity. Arguing both on Augustine’s view of man as initially sinful and on the Cartesian position, which holds that man knows basic logical propositions, Locke presents an “empty” mind, a “tabula rasa,” which is shaped by experience, and sensations and reflections, data from the outside that have been internalized are, practically, the sources of all our ideas.

Locke adopts the third term to designate a connection, a bridge between soul and body. The brain, like the body and like any substance, can change, while consciousness remains the same. Therefore, personal identity is not in the brain, but in consciousness. However, Locke’s theory also reveals our duty to theology and the “day of judgment,” which apologizes in advance for any failure of human justice and, therefore, the miserable state of humanity. The issue of personal identity is at the heart of discussions about life after death and immortality. To exist after death, there must be a person after death who is the same person who died.

Locke argues that this consciousness can be transferred from one soul to another and that personal identity is one and the same. Although the distinction between man and person is controversial, Locke’s distinction between soul, what he thinks in us, and consciousness is even more radical. One answer would be that the distinction solves the problem of the resurrection of the dead, initially identified in biblical texts, which states that we will have the same body in the resurrection as in this life. Locke defined the famous legal term “person” as, “the appropriation of actions and their merit; and thus it belongs only to the intelligent agents capable of a law, happiness and misery ”(Feser, 2007).

This means that an account of people’s identity over time will have medical-normative implications. In this case, we run into some problematic issues because since personal identity is based on conscience and knowing that only a man himself can be aware of his conscience, external human judges can never know whether to judge — and punish — the same person or simply the same body.

In other words, Locke argues that you can only be judged for the deeds of your body because this is obvious to all but God; however, we are really only responsible for the acts of which we are aware. This is the basis for the defense of defendants who claim to be insane because it would be immoral to hold someone accountable for acts that were unconsciously committed, and these things continue to spark heated debate.

There are several philosophers who have criticized Locke’s theory and stated that it is circular and illogical. Joseph Butler accused Locke of a “wonderful mistake,” claiming that he did not recognize that the relationship of consciousness presupposes identity and therefore cannot create it “(Butler, 1736).

Basically, I can only remember my experiences, but not my memory is an experience that makes it mine; rather, I remember it only because it is already mine. So, although memory may reveal my identity to a past experimenter, it does not make me an experimenter.
“What I remember,” Butler insists, “are the experiences of a substance, the very substance that constitutes me now.”

Thomas Reid was against Locke’s theory of memory and tried to reduce it to the absurd (Reid, 1785). First, Reid believed that personal identity is something that could not be determined by operations and that personal identity should be determined by something indivisible. He also said that Locke’s main problem was confusing the evidence about something with the matter itself.

Thomas Reid was against Locke’s theory of memory and tried to reduce it to the absurd (Reid, 1785). First, Reid believed that personal identity is something that could not be determined by operations and that personal identity should be determined by something indivisible. He also said that Locke’s main problem was confusing the evidence about something with the matter itself.

Reid presented the officer’s paradox in an attempt to reduce Locke’s memory theory to the absurd. Suppose that while stealing food from the enemy, a brave 40-year-old officer remembered stealing apples from a neighbor’s orchard when he was 10 years old; and then suppose in addition that, at the age of 80, a retired general remembered that he had stolen the enemy’s supplies as a brave officer, but he no longer remembered that he was stealing his neighbor’s apples.

From Locke’s point of view, the general should be identical to the apple thief (because of the transitivity of the identity relationship: he was identical to the brave officer, who himself was identical to the apple thief) and was not identical to the thief. apples (since he had no direct memories of the boy’s experiences).

What Butler and Reid share with Locke, however, is the belief that identity underpins certain types of concerns. According to Reid, “Identity” is the foundation of all rights and obligations, as well as of responsibility, and the notion of it is fixed and precise “(Reid, 1785).

The aspect about which they disagreed is only that of identity. So if Locke’s view were correct, Reid and Butler say, it would require a series of radical changes in our practices of accountability and projective deliberation. But because making such changes would be crazy — we are firmly committed to the correctness of our current ways of doing things — Locke’s point of view cannot be correct.

And while Locke disagrees that the implications of his vision are insane, he agrees with the basic methodology. So while he admits that he has made some assumptions “that will seem strange to some readers” (Locke, 1694, p. 51), he points out that our practices are already in line with the implications of his opinion, for example, human law emphasizes the need for continuous consciousness. “It does not punish the mad man for the actions of the sober man, nor the sober man for what the mad man did” (Locke, 1694, p. 47). And this is a methodological assumption held by most theorists about identity and ethics.

Locke also argues that the “associations of ideas” we make when we are young are more important than those made later because they are the foundation of the self: they are, in other words, what marks the “tabula rasa” first. In his Essay, in which both concepts are introduced, Locke warns against allowing “a reckless maid” to convince a child that “elves and spirits” are associated with the night because “darkness will bring with it these frightening ideas and will be so so closely bound in his mind that he will no longer bear any of them.

“Associationism,” as this theory was called, exerted a strong influence on eighteenth-century thinking, especially educational theory, because almost every educational writer warned parents not to allow children to develop negative associations. It also led to the development of psychology and other new disciplines.



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Letitia Dan

Letitia Dan

Savvy explorer of the mind, psychology & philosophy wordsmith.