If someone in class today was asked what their personal identity was, they would likely respond with an affiliation to one or several groups that would reflect physical appearance or the perception they had of themselves. The person may respond by associating themselves with a gender, age, ethnicity, or sexual orientation that most closely aligns with how they view themselves. John Locke, a modern empiricist philosopher, argues that personal identity is solely dependent on consciousness and not on any of the categories described above —those relate to a different type of identity for Locke.
A human is considered to have the a personal identity if they have a continuous consciousness, which is heavily reliant on memory to recall past experiences and tie past consciousness into the present. This theory of personal identity presented by Locke is also rooted in the idea that no person can have two separate beginnings. That means that once the consciousness becomes discontinuous (the past memories are no longer available in the present), there is a new beginning and, therefore, a new personal identity. The primary weakness in Locke’s theory is how he considers continuous consciousness critical for personal identity.
Other flaws include his ambiguous terminology and that Locke considers consciousness, and therefore personal identity, to be transferable. Locke has received heavy criticism on his theory of personal identity by other philosophers. As previously stated, the continuous nature in the theory of personal identity poses issues for Locke. The continuity of consciousness refers to “… any intelligent being [that] can repeat the idea of any past action with the same consciousness it had of it at first, and with the same consciousness it has of any present action… ” (Locke 139). In other words, it is the ability relive past actions as a memory.
If a person can recall a past action, then they are considered the same self and the past and present version share a personal identity. The problem arises in scenarios like the sober man and the madman (Locke 145). The sober man can recall all his actions. The madman is drunk and cannot recall his actions. Locke claims these distinct consciousness are incommunicable, despite being in the same body, because the sober man cannot recall the actions of the drunk man. If one person cannot have two beginnings, then it is not possible for the sober man to lose his personal identity while he is drunk and regain it when he becomes sober.
Holes in the existence of the person arise. A similar issue appears when sleep is considered. Since people are not conscious in their sleep, they experience disruption in their personal identity every night. This, again, violates the principle that a person can have only one beginning. Locke tries to justify this problem by claiming that it is not a disruption concerning personal identity but rather self. However, this argument is invalid because personal identity requires one to repeat the idea of a past action. An idea cannot be repeated if there was not conscious thought registered, which there is not when one is asleep.
Thomas Reid, a Scottish philosopher, realizes this disruption and heavily criticizes Locke’s theory of personal identity. The most famous example of his critique is the “Brave Officer”. In the example, a small boy is punished for stealing an apple. As a young officer, he still remembers the punishment for stealing the apple. As an old general, he remembers acting bravely as a young officer, but he no longer remembers being punished for stealing the apple. According to Locke, the young officer is the same person as the young boy, and the young officer is the same person as the old general.
But, the old general and the young boy are not the same person. He makes this claim because the young officer can remember the punishment, the old general can remember being a young officer, but the old general cannot remember being punished. The consciousness is discontinuous. However, since A (young child) is the same person as B (young officer) and B (young officer) is the same person as C (an old general), then A (young child) must be the same person as C (an old general) due to basic transitive properties (Shoemaker 2017).
This “Brave Officer” example is concrete evidence that Locke’s personal identity theory cannot be upheld because his logic refutes basic mathematical knowledge that is almost universally accepted. Additionally, the idea of consciousness being tied almost exclusively to memory is too fragile to be applied to a real scenario. Since memories fade and people do not have the ability to recall every moment they have ever experienced, it is unjust to exclusively consider consciousness through memory.
Another weakness is Locke’s theory is his lack of consideration for people with a degenerative mental health issue or dementia. People with these conditions go through cycles where they can vividly remember their past life and can easily relate to past events. There are other parts of the cycle where the person cannot relate to anything in the past. According to the theory of personal identity, this person would also have two distinct incommunicable identities within the same body, like the sober man and the madman.
In the case of complete dementia, where the person completely forgets who they were, then a new personal identity, and basically a new person, would exist in accordance with Locke’s theory. However, the person, despite not have direct memories, could still have the same tendencies and characteristics as they had prior to losing their memory so it could be argued that the are indirect memories still present and, therefore, just one identity exists without the creation of the second.
This concept of direct memories versus indirect memories could have prevented Locke from such heavy critique, because with indirect memories, there would be less disruptions. Take the example of the “Brave Officer”. If Locke incorporated indirect (transitive) memories into his theory, Reid would not have had a basis for his argument because the continuity throughout time would make the young boy have the same personal identity as that of the old soldier. Another issue in Locke’s theory is that he claims that personal identity can be transferred.
Assume a pinky finger was severed from the body, and it took the memories and consciousness of the person who is was attached to with it when it was detached. The pinky would become the person who it was attached to; this would mean that the pinky would take upon the personal identity of the original person (Locke 144). This is contradictory to Locke’s definition of personal identity because it states that the being can repeat the idea of a past action with the same consciousness as it has in the present.
By transferring the consciousness to the pinky, any memory from the past is not actually the pinky’s, since it did not have first-hand experience, but that of the body’s. By only having the inherited personal identity, the pinky can recall the body’s past actions but it will not be with the same consciousness because the pinky did not have that initial consciousness. While Locke provided many revolutionary ideas in his chapter “Of identity and diversity” in the Essay, like the different types of identities and the distinction between man and person, the theory of personal identity cannot be applied or upheld when analyzed closely.
The premise of the thinker’s theory relies on a person’s ability to recall their own memory from past experiences throughout their lifetime. In other words, the person must be able to recall all memories from their past to have a continuous consciousness and, therefore, one personal identity. Any disruption results in coexisting personal identities that cannot communicate (sober man and madman) or the creation of a new personal identity (Brave Officer). This is problematic considering that memory fades throughout time.
Reid highlights Locke’s inability to respond to this problem and points out that Locke also does not consider transitive or indirect memories. If Locke considered these alternative to the issue, then many of his critics would not have a basis for their argument and his theory would be more concrete. However, since he lacked these alternatives, the theory of personal identity is very fragile and is not applicable to a real scenario. In conclusion, I cannot support Locke’s theory of personal identity as presented in the Essay.