John Locke was a 17th century Philosopher who opposed the Cartesian theory, which states that the soul is the creator of our identity. He defended his argument with the essay titled “Identity and Diversity” in which he debates the first conceptual idea that, consciousness is how one is aware of oneself. He also debates that identity is the substance of psychological continuity, which means that a person in different stages of his/her life, is the same person, only if he/she constantly remembers his/her experiences equally.
Locke disagrees with the reasoning of the Augustinian idea that humans are sinful from birth and also against the Cartesian idea that humans are born with immediate basic logic. Instead John Locke suggests that humans are born with an empty mind, or rather “tabula rasa” which takes shape from future experiences, which give sensation and reflection becoming the origin of our ideas. Regarding this suggestion Locke stated that:
“the little and almost insensible impression on our tender infancies have very important and lasting consequences”
This is the ideology behind Locke’s theory of “Associationism” which means that our foundations of the self, starts to be constructed at a very young age, which is also the most delicate. If an association of an idea is introduced at this stage of life it will leave a larger imprint on a “tabula rasa”, rather than if it was introduced at an later stage, as it would affect us in the future. An association of ideas could easily be, convincing a child that monsters are in some way connected with the night or darkness, this later resulting in the child believing that the night brings with it negative ideas.
In Section 12 of the Essay “Identity and Diversity” Locke also states that consciousness, which includes our identity, can be transferred from one soul to another, due to the reason that consciousness can be transferred from one substance to another. The soul changes but consciousness remains as is, which in turn conserves personal identity with it.
According to the Philosopher, this ideology could “solve” the issue his Contemporaries had with the idea of resurrection of the dead, in relation to the Biblical text, in which it states that we will have the same body which we left behind after judgement day. His reasoning made it possible for the same person to come to life during Judgment Day, for God to decide if the individual should be priced or punished. The difference is that the person doesn’t need to be resurrected in their respective body, as only consciousness defies the person while the body is simply secondary.
Locke also wanted to state that we judge others on actions of the body, while God judge’s in the truthful way by looking at actions decided by our consciousness. This statement was the foundation of to days “insanity defence” in which a criminal who is found to be legally insane when the crime was committed, is not found guilty due to his/her insanity.
Many other Philosophers found flaws in John Locke’s argument, for example Joseph Butler states that one can only remember ones experience, but it’s not the recollection of the experience that makes it belong to the individual, instead the individual can recollect it, because the experience is already his/hers. To put in simpler terms, memory can retrieve ones identity from past experiences, but the past person who had the experiences doesn’t create the current person.
Thomas Reid was another Philosopher who didn’t agree with John Locke, regarding his version of psychological continuity, in which he counter argued with his “Officer Paradox” in which he states that, one does not need to remember all their experiences equally at once, as Locke stated, but rather in stages. This can be explained further with Reid’s Officers memory metaphor which states, if the Officer at 10 years of age stole an apple from his neighbours, at 40 years of age stole the enemies standard and at 80 years of age the officer is a retired General, the 40 year old version will only need to remember the event that happened when he was 10 years old and the 80 year old version will only need to remember the event that happened when he was 40 years old.
In conclusion John Locke’s theories led to other developments in other fields, such as in Psychology, with his “associationism” theory, as well as in education, and Philosophy itself. Today current Theorists who analyse the Lockean custom , reconstruct it to make it more practicable in this day and age.
- Namita Nimbalkar, 2011. John Locke on Personal Identity. [Online] Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3115296/ [Accessed 15th May 2017].
- BBC Radio 4, 2015. John Locke on Personal Identity. [Video Online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e1iy8fMCe0o [Accessed 15th May 2017].