Enduring Self Essay

This article is about philosophy. For conception and expression, see self-concept and identity (social science).

For other uses, see Personal identity (disambiguation) and Identity (disambiguation).

In philosophy, the matter of personal identity[1] deals with such questions as, "What makes it true that a person at one time is the same thing as a person at another time?" or "What kinds of things are we persons?" The term "identity" in "personal identity" refers to "numerical identity," where saying that X and Y are numerically identical just means that X and Y are the same thing. Personal identity is not the same as personality, though some theories of personal identity maintain that continuity of personality may be required for one to persist through time.

Generally, personal identity is the unique numerical identity of a person in the course of time.[2][3] That is, the necessary and sufficient conditions under which a person at one time and a person at another time can be said to be the same person, persisting through time;[note 1]

In contemporary metaphysics, the matter of personal identity is referred to as the diachronic problem of personal identity.[note 2][4] The synchronic problem concerns the question of: What features and traits characterize a person at a given time.[note 3] In Continental philosophy and in Analytic philosophy, enquiry to the nature of Identity is common. Continental philosophy deals with conceptually maintaining identity when confronted by different philosophic propositions, postulates, and presuppositions about the world and its nature.[5][6]


Continuity of substance[edit]

Bodily substance[edit]

Further information: Materialism

One concept of personal persistence over time is simply to have continuous bodily existence.[7] However, as the Ship of Theseus problem illustrates, even for inanimate objects there are difficulties in determining whether one physical body at one time is the same thing as a physical body at another time. With humans, over time our bodies age and grow, losing and gaining matter, and over sufficient years will not consist of most of the matter they once consisted of. It is thus problematic to ground persistence of personal identity over time in the continuous existence of our bodies. Nevertheless, this approach has its supporters which define humans as a biological organism and asserts the proposition that a psychological relation is not necessary for personal continuity.[note 4] This personal identity ontology assumes the relational theory[8] of life-sustaining processes instead of bodily continuity.

Derek Parfit's teletransportation problem is designed to bring out intuitions about corporeal continuity. This thought experiment discusses cases in which a person is teleported from Earth to Mars. Ultimately, the inability to specify where on a spectrum does the transmitted person stop being identical to the initial person on Earth appears to show that having a numerically identical physical body is not the criterion for personal identity[9][note 5]

See also: Physicalism

Mental substance[edit]

Further information: Dualism, Monism, and Mind-body dichotomy

In another concept of mind, the set of cognitive faculties[note 6] are considered to consist of an immaterial substance, separate from and independent of the body.[10] If a person is then identified with their mind, rather than their body—if a person is considered to be their mind—and their mind is such a non-physical substance, then personal identity over time may be grounded in the persistence of this non-physical substance, despite the continuous change in the substance of the body it is associated with. The mind-body problem[11][12][13][14] concerns the explanation of the relationship, if any, that exists between minds, or mental processes, and bodily states or processes. One of the aims of philosophers who work in this area is to explain how a non-material mind can influence a material body and vice versa.

However, this is not uncontroversial or unproblematic, and adopting it as a solution raises questions. Perceptual experiences depend on stimuli which arrive at various sensory organs from the external world and these stimuli cause changes in mental states; ultimately causing sensation.[note 7] A desire for food, for example, will tend to cause a person to move their body in a manner and in a direction to obtain food. The question, then, is how it can be possible for conscious experiences to arise out of an organ (the human brain) possessing electrochemical properties. A related problem is to explain how propositional attitudes (e.g. beliefs and desires) can cause neurons of the brain to fire and muscles to contract in the correct manner. These comprise some of the puzzles that have confronted epistemologists and philosophers of mind from at least the time of René Descartes.

See also: Idealism and Pluralism (philosophy)

Continuity of consciousness[edit]

Locke's conception[edit]

John Locke considered personal identity[15] (or the self) to be founded on consciousness (viz. memory), and not on the substance of either the soul or the body. Book II Chapter XXVII entitled "On Identity and Diversity" in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) has been said to be one of the first modern conceptualizations of consciousness as the repeated self-identification of oneself. Through this identification, moral responsibility could be attributed to the subject and punishment and guilt could be justified, as critics such as Nietzsche would point out.

According to Locke, personal identity (the self) "depends on consciousness, not on substance" nor on the soul. We are the same person to the extent that we are conscious of the past and future thoughts and actions in the same way as we are conscious of present thoughts and actions. If consciousness is this "thought" which "goes along with the substance ... which makes the same person", then personal identity is only founded on the repeated act of consciousness: "This may show us wherein personal identity consists: not in the identity of substance, but... in the identity of consciousness". For example, one may claim to be a reincarnation of Plato, therefore having the same soul substance. However, one would be the same person as Plato only if one had the same consciousness of Plato's thoughts and actions that he himself did. Therefore, self-identity is not based on the soul. One soul may have various personalities.

Neither is self-identity founded on the body substance, argues Locke, as the body may change while the person remains the same. Even the identity of animals is not founded on their body: "animal identity is preserved in identity of life, and not of substance", as the body of the animal grows and changes during its life. On the other hand, identity of humans is based on their consciousness.[note 8]

But this interesting border-case leads to this problematic thought that since personal identity is based on consciousness, and that only oneself can be aware of his consciousness, exterior human judges may never know if they really are judging – and punishing – the same person, or simply the same body. In other words, Locke argues that may be judged only for the acts of the body, as this is what is apparent to all but God; however, are in truth only responsible for the acts for which are conscious. This forms the basis of the insanity defense: one cannot be held accountable for acts from which one was unconscious – and therefore leads to interesting philosophical questions:

personal identity consists [not in the identity of substance] but in the identity of consciousness, wherein if Socrates and the present mayor of Queenborough agree, they are the same person: if the same Socrates waking and sleeping do not partake of the same consciousness, Socrates waking and sleeping is not the same person. And to punish Socrates waking for what sleeping Socrates thought, and waking Socrates was never conscious of, would be no more right, than to punish one twin for what his brother-twin did, whereof he knew nothing, because their outsides were so like, that they could not be distinguished; for such twins have been seen.[16]

Or again:

PERSON, as I take it, is the name for this self. Wherever a man finds what he calls himself, there, I think, another may say is the same person. It is a forensic term, appropriating actions and their merit; and so belong only to intelligent agents, capable of a law, and happiness, and misery. This personality extends itself beyond present existence to what is past, only by consciousness, --whereby it becomes concerned and accountable; owns and imputes to itself past actions, just upon the same ground and for the same reason as it does the present. All which is founded in a concern for happiness, the unavoidable concomitant of consciousness; that which is conscious of pleasure and pain, desiring that that self that is conscious should be happy. And therefore whatever past actions it cannot reconcile or APPROPRIATE to that present self by consciousness, it can be no more concerned in it than if they had never been done: and to receive pleasure or pain, i.e. reward or punishment, on the account of any such action, is all one as to be made happy or miserable in its first being, without any demerit at all. For, supposing a MAN punished now for what he had done in another life, whereof he could be made to have no consciousness at all, what difference is there between that punishment and being CREATED miserable? And therefore, conformable to this, the apostle tells us, that, at the great day, when every one shall 'receive according to his doings, the secrets of all hearts shall be laid open.' The sentence shall be justified by the consciousness all person shall have, that THEY THEMSELVES, in what bodies soever they appear, or what substances soever that consciousness adheres to, are the SAME that committed those actions, and deserve that punishment for them.[17]

Henceforth, Locke's conception of personal identity founds it not on the substance or the body, but in the "same continued consciousness", which is also distinct from the soul since the soul may have no consciousness of itself (as in reincarnation). He creates a third term between the soul and the body - and Locke's thought may certainly be meditated by those who, following a scientistideology,[note 9] would identify too quickly the brain to consciousness. For the brain, as the body and as any substance, may change, while consciousness remains the same.[18][19] Therefore, personal identity is not in the brain, but in consciousness.

However, Locke's theory of self reveals[20][note 10]debt to theology and to apocalyptic "great day",[21][22][23][24] which by advance excuse[note 11] any failings of human justice and therefore humanity's miserable state.[note 12] The problem of personal identity is at the center of discussions about life after death and, to a lesser extent, immortality. In order to exist after death, there has to be a person after death who is the same person as the person who died.

See also: spiritual enlightenment, existentialism, and metaphysics

Philosophical intuition[edit]

Bernard Williams presents a thought experiment appealing to the intuitions about what it is to be the same person in the future.[25] The thought experiment consists of two approaches to the same experiment.

For the first approach Williams suggests that suppose that there is some process by which subjecting two persons to it can result in the two persons have “exchanged” bodies. The process has put into the body of person B the memories, behavioral dispositions, and psychological characteristics of the person who prior to undergoing the process belonged to person A; and conversely with person B. To show this one is to suppose that before undergoing the process person A and B are asked to which resulting person, A-Body-Person or B-Body-Person, they wish to receive a punishment and which a reward. Upon undergoing the process and receiving either the punishment or reward, it appears to that A-Body-Person expresses the memories of choosing who gets which treatment as if that person was person B; conversely with B-Body-Person.

This sort of approach to the thought experiment appears to show that since the person who expresses the psychological characteristics of person A to be person A, then intuition is that psychological continuity is the criterion for personal identity.

The second approach is to suppose that someone is told that one will have memories erased and then one will be tortured. Does one need to be afraid of being tortured? The intuition is that people will be afraid of being tortured, since it will still be one despite not having one's memories. Next, Williams asked one to consider several similar scenarios.[note 13] Intuition is that in all the scenarios one is to be afraid of being tortured, that it is still one's self despite having one's memories erased and receiving new memories. However, the last scenario is an identical scenario to the one in the first scenario.[note 14]

In the first approach, intuition is to show that one's psychological continuity is the criterion for personal identity, but in second approach, intuition is that it is one's bodily continuity that is the criterion for personal identity. To resolve this conflict Williams feels one's intuition in the second approach is stronger and if he was given the choice of distributing a punishment and a reward he would want his body-person to receive the reward and the other body-person to receive the punishment, even if that other body-person has his memories.

Psychological continuity[edit]

In psychology, personal continuity, also called personal persistence, is the uninterrupted connection concerning a particular person of his or her private life and personality. Personal continuity is the union affecting the facets arising from personality in order to avoid discontinuities from one moment of time to another time.[note 15][26] Personal continuity is an important part of identity; this is the process of ensuring that the qualities of the mind, such as self-awareness, sentience, sapience, and the ability to perceive the relationship between oneself and one's environment, are consistent from one moment to the next. Personal continuity is the property of a continuous and connected period of time[27][28] and is intimately related to do with a person's body or physical being in a single four-dimensionalcontinuum.[29]Associationism, a theory of how ideas combine in the mind, allows events or views to be associated with each other in the mind, thus leading to a form of learning. Associations can result from contiguity, similarity, or contrast. Through contiguity, one associates ideas or events that usually happen to occur at the same time. Some of these events form an autobiographical memory in which each is a personal representation of the general or specific events and personal facts.

Ego integrity is the psychological concept of the ego's accumulated assurance of its capacity for order and meaning. Ego identity is the accrued confidence that the inner sameness and continuity prepared in the past are matched by the sameness and continuity of one's meaning for others, as evidenced in the promise of a career. Body and ego control organ expressions.[30][31][32][33][34] and of the other attributes of the dynamics of a physical system to face the emotions of ego death[35][36] in circumstances which can summon, sometimes anti-theonymistic, self-abandonment.[30][37][38][39][40][41]

Identity continuum[edit]

See also: § The no-self theory, and Self-discovery

It has been argued that from the nature of sensations and ideas there is no such thing as a permanent identity.[42] Daniel Shapiro asserts that one of four major views on identity does not recognize a "permanent identity" and instead thinks of "thoughts without a thinker" − "a consciousness shell with drifting emotions and thoughts but no essence". According to him this view is based on the Buddhist concept of Anatta − "a continuously evolving flow of awareness".[43]Malcolm David Eckel states that "the self changes at every moment and has no permanent identity"[44] − it is a "constant process of changing or becoming", a "fluid ever-changing self".[45]

The bundle theory of the self[edit]

David Hume undertook looking at the mind–body problem. Hume also investigated a person's character, the relationship between human and animal nature, and the nature of agency. Hume pointed out that we tend to think that we are the same person we were five years ago. Though we've changed in many respects, the same person appears present as was present then. We might start thinking about which features can be changed without changing the underlying self. Hume, however, denies that there is a distinction between the various features of a person and the mysterious self that supposedly bears those features. When we start introspecting, "we are never intimately conscious of anything but a particular perception; man is a bundle or collection of different perceptions which succeed one another with an inconceivable rapidity and are in perpetual flux and movement".[46]

It is plain that in the course of our thinking, and in the constant revolution of our ideas, our imagination runs easily from one idea to any other that resembles it, and that this quality alone is to the fancy a sufficient bond and association. It is likewise evident that as the senses, in changing their objects, are necessitated to change them regularly, and take them as they lie contiguous to each other, the imagination must by long custom acquire the same method of thinking, and run along the parts of space and time in conceiving its objects.[47]

Note in particular that, in Hume's view, these perceptions do not belong to anything. Hume, similar to the Buddha,[48] compares the soul to a commonwealth, which retains its identity not by virtue of some enduring core substance, but by being composed of many different, related, and yet constantly changing elements. The question of personal identity then becomes a matter of characterizing the loose cohesion[note 16] of one's personal experience.[note 17]

In short, what matters for Hume is not that 'identity' exists but that the relations of causation, contiguity, and resemblances obtain among the perceptions. Critics of Hume state in order for the various states and processes of the mind to seem unified, there must be something which perceives their unity, the existence of which would be no less mysterious than a personal identity. Hume solves this by considering substance as engendered by the togetherness of its properties.

The no-self theory[edit]

The "no-self theory"[note 18] holds that the self cannot be reduced to a bundle because the concept of a self is incompatible with the idea of a bundle. Propositionally, the idea of a bundle implies the notion of bodily or psychological relations that do not in fact exist. James Giles, a principal exponent of this view, argues that the no-self or eliminativist theory and the bundle or reductionist theory agree about the non-existence of a substantive self. The reductionist theory, according to Giles, mistakenly resurrects the idea[note 19] of the self[49] in terms of various accounts about psychological relations.[note 20] The no-self theory, on the other hand, "lets the self lie where it has fallen".[50] This is because the no-self theory rejects all theories of the self, even the bundle theory. On Giles' reading, Hume is actually a no-self theorist and it is a mistake to attribute to him a reductionist view like the bundle theory. Hume's assertion that personal identity is a fiction supports this reading, according to Giles.

The Buddhist view of personal identity is also a no-self theory rather than a reductionist theory, because the Buddha rejects attempts to reconstructions in terms of consciousness, feelings, or the body in notions of an eternal/permanent, unchanging Self[51] since our thoughts, personalities and bodies are never the same from moment to moment.[52]

According to this line of criticism, the sense of self is an evolutionary artifact,[note 21] which saves time in the circumstances it evolved for. But sense of self breaks down when considering some events such as memory loss,[note 22]split personality disorder, brain damage, brainwashing, and various thought experiments.[53] When presented with imperfections in the intuitive sense of self and the consequences to this concept which rely on the strict concept of self, a tendency to mend the concept occurs, possibly because of cognitive dissonance.[note 23]

See also[edit]

Abstract object, Nominal identity, Open individualism, Personal life, Self-Schema, Self (philosophy), Self-concept, Identity and change, Mind/brain identity, Ship of Theseus, Narrative identity
Mindstream, Consciousness, Dependent origination, Introspect, Meme, Mnemonic, Percept, Perdurantism, Synchronicity, Noumena, Neuroplasticity (Spike-timing-dependent plasticity), Hebbian theory, Dogen (being and time), process philosophy
Søren Kierkegaard, Philip K. Dick, Daniel Kolak, Gottlob Frege, Derek Parfit, Anthony Quinton, David Wiggins, Sydney Shoemaker, Bernard Williams, Peter van Inwagen, Carl Jung, Erik Erikson, Hugo Münsterberg, Wilhelm Wundt, Paul Ricœur, James Marcia, Mario Rodríguez Cobos
Metaphysical necessity, Otium, Personally identifiable information, Personal life, Privacy, immaterialism, Personhood, Gender systems (Social construction of gender difference), The Persistence of Memory (short story), The Persistence of Memory, Transhumanism

References and notes[edit]

  1. ^"Personal Identity - Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy". www.iep.utm.edu. Retrieved 22 October 2017. 
  2. ^Personal Identity (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  3. ^Identity (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  4. ^An Essay Concerning Human Understanding; Volumes 1-3. By John Locke
  5. ^Self and Subjectivity; "Identity, Sex, and the Metaphysics of Substance". Edited by Kim Atkins. p257.
  6. ^Cultural Theory: An Anthology. Edited by Imre Szeman, Timothy Kaposy. p481. "Identity, Sex, and the Metaphysics of Substance"
  7. ^The Human Animal: Personal Identity Without Psychology. By Eric T. Olson Lecturer Cambridge University
  8. ^What Are We? : A Study in Personal Ontology: A Study in Personal Ontology. By Eric T. Olson Professor in Philosophy University of Sheffield
  9. ^Chris Durante, A Philosophical Identity Crisis | Issue 97 | Philosophy Now
  10. ^The Christian Library, Volumes 3-4. By Jonathan Going. 1835. p786+. (cf., p803 "Now all would believe in the separate existence of the soul if they had experience of its existing apart from the body. But the facts referred to proves that it does exist apart from one body with which it once was united, and though it is in union with another, yet as it is not adherent to the same, it is shown to have an existence separate from, and independent of that body.")
  11. ^Descartes, R. (2008). Meditations on First Philosophy (Michael Moriarity translation of 1641 ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780191604942. 
  12. ^Robert M. Young (1996). "The mind-body problem". In RC Olby; GN Cantor; JR Christie; MJS Hodges. Companion to the History of Modern Science (Paperback reprint of Routledge 1990 ed.). Taylor and Francis. pp. 702–11. ISBN 0415145783. 
  13. ^Robinson, Howard (Nov 3, 2011). Edward N. Zalta, ed. "Dualism". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition). 
  14. ^Henrik Lagerlund (2010). "Introduction". In Henrik Lagerlund. Forming the Mind: Essays on the Internal Senses and the Mind/Body Problem from Avicenna to the Medical Enlightenment (Paperback reprint of 2007 ed.). Springer Science+Business Media. p. 3. ISBN 9048175305. 
  15. ^An Essay Concerning Human Understanding; Volumes 1-3. By John Locke
  16. ^https://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?pageno=205&fk_files=3276103
  17. ^https://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=3276103&pageno=209
  18. ^Encyclopædia Britannica. Volume 18. Edited by Hugh Chisholm.p225+253.
  19. ^Nimbalkar, N (2011). "John locke on personal identity". Mens Sana Monogr. 9 (1): 268–75. doi:10.4103/0973-1229.77443. PMC 3115296. PMID 21694978. 
  20. ^Sheridan, Patricia, "Locke's Moral Philosophy", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). (cf. "James Tyrell, one of those who attended that evening, is a source of enlightenment on this matter — he later recalled that the discussion concerned morality and revealed religion. But, Locke himself refers to the subjects they discussed that fateful evening as ‘very remote’ from the matters of the Essay.")
  21. ^The Great Day of Atonement. By Charlotte Elizabeth Nebelin. Gould and Lincoln, 1859.
  22. ^The great day; notes on the book of Revelation. By Rev. Thomas Graham.
  23. ^The Great Day of the Lord. By Alexander Brown. Elliot Stock, 1894.
  24. ^Dies iræ: the judgment of the great day viewed in the light of Scripture and Consciousness. By Robert Baker Girdlestone.
  25. ^Bernard Williams, The Self and the Future, in Philosophical Review 79. No. 2. (Apr., 1970), p. 161-180
  26. ^Identity and self-image. martinfrost.ws. Mar 2009.
  27. ^A Treatise of Human Nature. VII., Of contiguity and distance in space and time. 427+432. By David Hume.
  28. ^An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Volumes 1-3. Chapter XXVII. p46+69. By John Lock.
  29. ^The Consequences of Modernity. "Modernity, Time, Space". By Anthony Giddens.
  30. ^ abPersonality: Critical Concepts. Edited by Lawrence A. Pervin, Cary L. Cooper.
  31. ^Thinking Bodies. Edited by Juliet Flower MacCannell, Laura Zakarin
  32. ^Body and will. By Henry Maudsley
  33. ^The Four Temperaments. By Rudolf Steiner.
  34. ^The Book of the Law, or Liber AL vel Legis. By Aleister Crowley, Aiwass
  35. ^Managing Vulnerability: The Underlying Dynamics of Systems of Care. By Tim Dartington.
  36. ^Human Behavior in the Social Environment: A Multidimensional Perspective. By José B. Ashford, Craig Winston LeCroy, Kathy L. Lortie
  37. ^Abandonment to Divine Providence. By Jean-Pierre De Caussade
  38. ^The Principles of Psychology, Volume 1. By William James
  39. ^The Loss of Self. By Donna Cohen, Carl Eisdorfer.
  40. ^The Legacy of Abandonment In Borderline Personality Disorder. By A. J Mahar.
  41. ^The Guide. By R.K. Narayan.
  42. ^MacFarquhar, Colin; Gleig, George (1797). Encyclopædia britannica: or, A dictionary of arts, sciences, and miscellaneous literature. A. Bell and C. Macfarquhar. Retrieved 15 January 2017. 
  43. ^Shapiro, Daniel (2016-04-19). Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts. Penguin. ISBN 9781101626962. Retrieved 15 January 2017. 
  44. ^Eckel, Malcolm David. Buddhism: Origins, Beliefs, Practices, Holy Texts, Sacred Places. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195219074. 
  45. ^Schneider, Kirk J.; Pierson, J. Fraser; Bugental, James F. T. (2014-02-14). The Handbook of Humanistic Psychology: Theory, Research, and Practice. SAGE Publications. ISBN 9781483322827. Retrieved 15 January 2017. 
  46. ^A Treatise of Human Nature, I, IV, vi
  47. ^A Treatise of Human Nature, 4.1, 2.
  48. ^Buddhism: Way of Life & Thought. By Nancy Wilson Ross. p29.
  49. ^The No-Self Theory: Hume, Buddhism, and Personal Identity. James Giles
  50. ^James Giles, No Self to be Found: The Search for Personal Identity, University Press of America, 1997, p. 10
  51. ^James Giles, 'The No-Self Theory: Hume, Buddhism, and Personal Identity, Philosophy East and West, 42, 1993
  52. ^Wrasman, Andy (2014-01-13). Contradict: They Can't All Be True. WestBowPress. ISBN 9781490829814. Retrieved 15 January 2017. 
  53. ^"Staying alive game - Examples of thought experiments on personal identity"
  1. ^or, the essence of a self-conscious person, that which enables the person to be uniquely what him- or herself, and which further persists over time, despite superficial modifications, making him or her same person at different times.
  2. ^Greek: Διαχρονικός (Diahronikos)
  3. ^.
  4. ^See also: Disjunctive syllogism, Affirming a disjunct, Proof by assertion.
  5. ^For a discussion of these issues, see the 2013 article by Chris Durante in Philosophy Now, accessible here
  6. ^These faculties enable consciousness, perception, thinking, judgement, and memory
  7. ^This may be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.
  8. ^Take for example a prince's mind which enters the body of a cobbler: to all exterior eyes, the cobbler would remain a cobbler. But to the prince himself, the cobbler would be himself, as he would be conscious of the prince's thoughts and acts, and not those of the cobbler. A prince's consciousness in a cobbler's body: thus the cobbler is, in fact, a prince.
  9. ^Not to be confused with Scientism
  10. ^Locke's concept of self being ‘very remote’ from the matters of "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding", and not presumably on "The Reasonableness of Christianity, as Delivered in the Scriptures" nor "A Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity".
  11. ^Not to be confused with rationalization (making excuses).
  12. ^Or, the human conditions of unhappiness, suffering and/or pain.
  13. ^The synoptical collage of an event or series of actions and events are:
    • One has memories erased, and are given new "fake" memories (counterfeit), and then one is to be tortured;
    • have one's memories erased, are given copies of another's memories, and then are to be tortured;
    • have one's memories erased, are given another's genuine memories, and then one is to be tortured;
    • have one's memories erased, are given another’s genuine memories, that person is given one's memories, and then one is to be tortured.
  14. ^With the supposed superfluous information included in the last scenario.
  15. ^For more, see: consciousness.
  16. ^See also: structural cohesion
  17. ^In the Appendix to the Treatise, Hume stated that he was dissatisfied with his account of the self, yet he never returned to the issue.
  18. ^See also: Nihilism, Post-left anarchy theory of self
    Not to be confused with Anatta.
  19. ^And, presumably, resurrection.
  20. ^See also: Psychological entropy.
  21. ^See also: Phenotypic traits, Society (Social artifact), Culture (Cultural artifact), evolutionary psychology (criticism of evolutionary psychology).
  22. ^See also: Alzheimer
  23. ^Though, this does not address the loose cohesion of self and other similar epistemological views.

Selected bibliography[edit]


Primary sources
  • Vere Claiborne Chappell, The Cambridge Companion to Locke. Cambridge University Press, 1994. 343 pages. ISBN 0-521-38772-8
  • Shaun Gallagher, Jonathan Shear, Models of the Self. Imprint Academic, 1999. 524 pages. ISBN 0-907845-09-6
  • Brian Garrett, Personal Identity and Self-Consciousness. Routledge, 1998. 137 pages. ISBN 0-415-16573-3
  • James Giles, No Self to be Found: the Search for Personal Identity. University Press of America, 1997.
  • J. Kim & E. Sosa, A Companion to Metaphysics. Blackwell, 1995, Page 380, "persons and personal identity".
  • G Kopf, Beyond Personal Identity: Dogen, Nishida, and a Phenomenology of No-Self. Routledge, 2001. ISBN 0-7007-1217-8
  • E. Jonathan Lowe, An Introduction to Philosophy of the Mind. Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • E. Jonathan Lowe, The Possibility of Metaphysics: Substance, Identity, and Time. Oxford University Press, 2001. 288 pages. ISBN 0-19-924499-5
  • E. Jonathan Lowe, A Survey of Metaphysics. Oxford University Press, 2002, chapters 2,3, 4.
  • Harold W. Noonan, Personal Identity. Routledge, 2003. 296 pages. ISBN 0-415-27315-3
  • Eric Todd Olson, The Human Animal: Personal Identity Without Psychology. Oxford University Press, 1997. 189 pages. ISBN 0-19-513423-0
  • H. B. Paksoy, Identities: How Governed, Who Pays?ISBN 0-9621379-0-1
  • Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, part 3.
  • John Perry (ed.), Personal Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008 (2nd edition; first edition 1975).
  • John Perry, Identity, Personal Identity, and the Self. Indianapolis, Hackett, 2002.
  • John Perry, A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality. Indianapolis, Hackett, 1978. ISBN 0-915144-53-0
  • Andrea Sauchelli, Personal Identity and Applied Ethics. London, Routledge, 2017. ISBN 978-1138185692
  • A. E. Pitson, Hume's Philosophy of the Self. Routledge, 2002. 224 pages. ISBN 0-415-24801-9
  • Mark Siderits, Personal Identity and Buddhist Philosophy. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2003. 231 pages. ISBN 0-7546-3473-6
  • Marc Slors, The Diachronic Mind. Springer, 2001. 234 pages. ISBN 0-7923-6978-5


  • N Agar, Functionalism and Personal Identity. Nous, 2003.
  • E J Borowski, Diachronic Identity as Relative Identity. The Philosophical Quarterly, 1975.
  • SD Bozinovski, Self-Neglect Among the Elderly: Maintaining Continuity of Self. DIANE Publishing, 1998. 434 pages. ISBN 0-7881-7456-8
  • Andrew Brennan, Personal identity and personal survival. Analysis, 42, 44-50. 1982.
  • M. Chandler, C. Lalonde, B. W. Sokol, D. (Editor) (eds.) Personal Persistence, Identity Development, and Suicide. Blackwell Publishing, 2003. ISBN 1-4051-1879-2
  • WE Conn, Erikson’s “identity”: an essay on the psychological foundations of religious ethics.
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What does it take for a person to persist from moment to moment — for the same person to exist at different moments?
A Treatise Of Human Nature: Being An Attempt To Introduce The Experimental Method Of Reasoning Into Moral Subjects. For John Noon, 1739

John Locke on Personal Identity**

Namita Nimbalkar, Ph.D.*

*Head, Department of Philosophy; Director, Gandhian Studies Centre, Birla College, Kalyan, Maharashtra, India.

**Revised and peer reviewed version of a paper presented at an International Seminar on Mind, Brain, and Consciousness, Thane College Campus, Thane, India, January 13-15, 2010.

Address correspondence to: Dr. Namita Nimbalkar, CD-112/D-12, Shrirang Society, Thane (W) Maharashtra 400601, India 400601. Email:moc.liamg@raklabmin.atiman

Author information ►Article notes ►Copyright and License information ►

Received 2010 Dec 8; Revised 2010 Dec 23; Accepted 2010 Dec 23.

Copyright © Mens Sana Monographs

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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John Locke speaks of personal identity and survival of consciousness after death. A criterion of personal identity through time is given. Such a criterion specifies, insofar as that is possible, the necessary and sufficient conditions for the survival of persons. John Locke holds that personal identity is a matter of psychological continuity. He considered personal identity (or the self) to be founded on consciousness (viz. memory), and not on the substance of either the soul or the body.

Keywords: Personal Identity, Consciousness, Self, Memory, Survival after death


The issue of personal identity and its determents has always been of concern for many philosophers. Questions are raised as to what does being the person that you are, from one day to the next, necessarily consist of. Personal identity theory is the philosophical confrontation with the ultimate questions of our own existence, such as who are we, and is there a life after death? This sort of analysis of personal identity provides a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for the identity of the person over time. In the modern philosophy of mind, this concept of personal identity is sometimes referred to as the diachronic problem of personal identity. The synchronic problem is grounded in the question of what features or traits characterise a given person at one time. There are several general theories of this identity problem. In this paper, the views of John Locke and a criticism of his theory of personal identity are presented.

Against Cartesian Theory

John Locke (29 August 1632-28 October 1704) was one of the philosophers who were against the Cartesian theory that soul accounts for personal identity. Chapter XXVII on “Identity and Diversity” in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Locke, 1689/1997) has been said to be one of the first modern conceptualisations of consciousness as the repeated self-identification of oneself, in which Locke gives his account of identity and personal identity in the second edition of the Essay. Locke holds that personal identity is a matter of psychological continuity. Arguing against both the Augustinian view of man as originally sinful and the Cartesian position, which holds that man innately knows basic logical propositions, Locke posits an “empty” mind, a tabula rasa, which is shaped by experience, and sensations and reflections being the two sources of all our ideas.

Locke creates a third term between the soul and the body, and Locke’s thought may certainly be meditated by those who, following a scientist ideology, would identify too quickly the brain with consciousness. For the brain, as the body and as any substance, may change, while consciousness remains the same. Therefore, personal identity is not in the brain, but in consciousness. However, Locke’s theory also reveals his debt to theology and to Apocalyptic “great day”, which in advance excuses any failings of human justice and therefore humanity’s miserable state. The problem of personal identity is at the centre of discussions about life after death and immortality. In order to exist after death, there has to be a person after death who is the same person as the person who died.

Consciousness Can Be Transferred from One Soul to Another

Locke holds that consciousness can be transferred from one soul to another and that personal identity goes with consciousness. In section 12 of the chapter “Identity and Diversity”, he raises the question, “…if the same Substance which thinks be changed, it can be the same person, or remaining the same, it can be a different person” (Locke, 1689/1997). Locke’s answer to both of these questions is in the affirmative. Consciousness can be transferred from one substance to another, and thus, while the soul is changed, consciousness remains the same, thereby preserving the personal identity through the change. On the other hand, consciousness can be lost as in utter forgetfulness while the soul or thinking substance remains the same. Under these conditions, there is the same soul but a different person. These affirmations amount to the claim that the same soul or thinking substance is neither necessary nor sufficient for personal identity over time.

Though the distinction between man and person is controversial, Locke’s distinction between the soul or the thing which thinks in us and consciousness is even more radical. One answer is that the distinction solves the problem of the resurrection of the dead. What is this problem? The problem begins with Biblical texts asserting that we will have the same body at the resurrection as we did in this life.

The Prince and the Cobbler

Locke explicitly tells us that the case of the prince and the cobbler (Feser, 2007, p 66-68) shows us the resolution of the problem of resurrection. The case is one in which the soul of the prince, with all of its princely thoughts, is transferred from the body of the prince to the body of the cobbler, the cobbler’s soul having departed. The result of this exchange is that the prince still considers himself the prince, even though he finds himself in an altogether new body. Locke’s distinction between man and person makes it possible for the same person to show up in a different body at the resurrection and yet still be the same person. Locke focusses on the prince with all his princely thoughts because in his view, it is consciousness which is crucial to the reward and punishment which is to be meted out at the Last Judgment (Uzgalis, 2007). Locke famously called “person” a forensic term, “appropriating actions and their merit; and so belongs only to intelligent agents capable of a law, and happiness, and misery” (Feser, 2007, p70). This means, then, that an account of the identity of persons across time will have forensic - normative - implications. And so it does.

But this interesting border case leads to this problematic thought that since personal identity is based on consciousness, and that only oneself can be aware of his consciousness, exterior human judges may never know if they really are judging - and punishing - the same person, or simply the same body. In other words, Locke argues that you may be judged only for the acts of your body, as this is what is apparent to all but God; however, you are in truth only responsible for the acts for which you are conscious. This forms the basis of the insanity defence: one cannot be held accountable for acts of which one was unconscious - and therefore leads to interesting philosophical questions and criticisms.


There are several philosophers who criticised the Lockean memory theory and stated that it was circular and illogical. Joseph Butler accused Locke of a “wonderful mistake”, which is that he failed to recognise that the relation of consciousness presupposes identity, and thus cannot constitute it (Butler, 1736). In other words, I can remember only my own experiences, but it is not my memory of an experience that makes it mine; rather, I remember it only because it’s already mine. So while memory can reveal my identity with some past experiencer, it does not make that experiencer me. What I am remembering, then, insists Butler, are the experiences of a substance, namely, the same substance that constitutes me now.

Thomas Reid was against Locke’s memory theory and tried to reduce it to absurdity (Reid, 1785). He criticised his theories for several reasons. Firstly, Reid believed that personal identity was something that could not be determined by operations, and that personal identity should be determined by something indivisible. Also, he stated that Locke’s main problem was confusing evidence of something with the thing itself. Finally Reid introduced the officer paradox in an attempt to reduce Locke’s Memory theory to absurdity. Suppose that as he was stealing the enemy’s standard (“standard” is the food store or food provisions), a 40-year-old brave officer remembered stealing apples from a neighbour’s orchard when he was 10 years old; and then suppose further that when he was 80 years old, a retired general, he remembered stealing the enemy’s standard as a brave officer but no longer remembered stealing the neighbour’s apples. On Locke’s account, the general would have to be both identical to the apple-stealer (because of the transitivity of the identity relation: he was identical to the brave officer, who himself was identical to the apple-stealer) and not identical to the apple-stealer (given that he had no direct memory of the boy’s experiences).

Another objection is based precisely on the link between identity and ethics: how can identity - sameness - be based on a relation (consciousness) that changes from moment to moment? A person would never remain the same from one moment to the next, “and as the right and justice of reward and punishment are founded on personal identity, no man could be responsible for his actions” (Reid, 1785, p117). But such an implication must be absurd. Also, Butler concurs, expanding the point to include considerations of self-concern.

Both Reid and Butler, then, wind up rejecting Locke’s relational view in favour of a substance-based view of identity (Shoemaker, 2008). What Butler and Reid retain in common with Locke, though, is the belief that identity grounds certain of our patterns of concern, both prudential and moral. As Reid puts it, “Identity… is the foundation of all rights and obligations, and of accountableness, and the notion of it is fixed and precise” (Reid, 1785, p-112). What they disagree over is just what identity consists of. So, if Locke’s view were right, say Reid and Butler, it would require a host of radical changes to our practices of responsibility attribution and prudential deliberation. But, continues the argument, because making such changes would be crazy - we are strongly committed to the correctness of our current ways of doing things - Locke’s view cannot be right. And although Locke disagrees that the implications of his view are crazy, he does agree with the basic methodology. So, while he admits that he has made some suppositions “that will look strange to some readers” (Locke, 1694, p51), he is also at pains to show that our practices are actually already in conformity with the implications of his view, for example, human law emphasizes the necessity of continuous consciousness, “not punishing the mad man for the sober man’s actions, nor the sober man for what the mad man did” (Locke, 1694, p47). And this is a methodological assumption that has been retained by most theorists on identity and ethics since.

Nevertheless, even if this objection to Locke is thwarted, the others remain in force. For one thing, memory does seem to presuppose personal identity, and so cannot constitute a criterion of it. For another, identity is a transitive relation, while memory isn’t, so the latter cannot be a criterion of the former. Finally, there is the obvious worry that identity seems to persist through the loss of memory: it’s hard to believe that I would cease to exist were I to undergo amnesia. It’s for all these reasons that contemporary theorists working in the Lockean tradition have had to make significant changes to the theory to make it a viable contender for the relation between identity and ethics (Shoemaker, 2008).

Concluding Remarks [see also Figures ​1 and ​2]

Figure 1

Flowchart of paper - the problem

Figure 2

Flowchart of paper - the resolution

Locke’s account of personal identity turned out to be revolutionary. His account of personal identity is embedded in a general account of identity. Locke also wrote, “the little and almost insensible impressions on our tender infancies have very important and lasting consequences” (Locke, 1996, p10). He argued that the “associations of ideas” that one makes when young are more important than those made later because they are the foundation of the self: they are, put differently, what first mark the tabula rasa. In his Essay, in which is introduced both of these concepts, Locke warns against, for example, letting “a foolish maid” convince a child that “goblins and sprites” are associated with the night for “darkness shall ever afterwards bring with it those frightful ideas, and they shall be so joined, that he can no more bear the one than the other” (Locke, 1689/1997, p357).

“Associationism”, as this theory came to be called, exerted a powerful influence over 18th-century thought, particularly educational theory, as nearly every educational writer warned parents not to allow their children to develop negative associations. It also led to the development of psychology and other new disciplines, with David Hartley’s attempt to discover a biological mechanism for associationism in his Observations on Man (Hartley, 1749).

Take Home Message

Personal identity for Locke is psychological continuity. But his theory is criticised by both Butler and Reid as a “wonderful mistake” or “reduced to absurdity”. However, Locke’s theory has had a profound influence in the field of education and the development of psychology.

Questions That This Paper Raises

  1. Apart from memory or consciousness, can any other trait of personal identity persist after the death of an individual?

  2. How can a link between identity and ethics be established based on Locke’s model of personal identity?

  3. What is the impact of Locke’s theory of identity in the field of education and its implications in formulation of education policy in the current scenario?

About the Author

Namita A. Nimbalkar, M.A., Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor and Head, Department of Philosophy, and Director, UGC Sponsored Gandhian Studies Centre and Coordinator, Centre for Yoga - Philosophy and Practice at Birla College, Kalyan (M.S.) India. She was awarded Research Fellowship by UGC, New Delhi, and awarded Ph.D. degree in July 2009 by University of Mumbai on “Gandhi’s Concept of Religion and Communal Harmony”. She had been invited as resource person both at National and International level to give talks on Mahatma Gandhi, Peace and Women Empowerment. She has presented a number of research papers at National and International Seminars and Conferences. She has completed two Research Projects and is working on two projects awarded by University of Mumbai and UGC, New Delhi. Under Faculty Exchange Programme, she visited Clayton State University, Atlanta, USA, and in 2010 was invited to deliver a talk on Mahatma Gandhi.


Conflict of interest: None declared


This is original, unpublished work, not submitted for publication elsewhere.

CITATION: Nimbalkar N., (2011), John Locke on Personal Identity. In: Brain, Mind and Consciousness: An International, Interdisciplinary Perspective (A.R. Singh and S.A. Singh eds.), MSM, 9(1), p268-275.


1. Butler J. ’Of Personal Identity’ in ’The Analogy of Religion. Reprinted in Perry, John, 1975, ’Personal Identity’. Berkeley: University of California Press; 1736. p. 100.

2. Feser E. Locke. Oxford: Oneworld Publications; 2007.

3. Hartley D. Observations on Man, his Frame, his Duty, and his Expectations. 2 vols. Bath and London: Samuel Richardson; 1749.

4. Locke J. Of Identity and Diversity. In: Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Reprinted in John Perry John, (1975), Personal Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press; 1694. p. 51.

5. Locke J. Grant and Nathan Tarcov. In: Ruth W, editor. Some Thoughts Concerning Education and Of the Conduct of the Understanding. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing; 1996. p. 10.

6. Locke J. In: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Woolhouse R, editor. London: Penguin; 1689/1997. p. 357.

7. Reid T. Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man. Edinburg: John Bell; 1785. pp. 317–318. London: G.G.J. and J. Robinson.

8. Shoemaker D. Personal Identity and Ethics. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Available from: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/identity-ethics [last accessed on 2010 Dec 20]

9. Uzgalis W. John Locke, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2007. Available from: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/locke/supplement.html [last accessed on 2010 Dec 21]

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