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Locke on personal identity


To: Anthony L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Locke on personal identity
Date: 21 November 2006 11:09

Dear Tony,

Thank you for your email of 12 November with your University of London Essay in response to the question, 'Outline and evaluate Locke’s account of persons and their identity.'

Locke's account of personal identity is remarkable because of the way he poses the question of identity. He says that personal identity is a 'forensic' concept. This is absolutely crucial. (Yet this word does not even occur in your essay!)

I wonder whether you wouldn't have felt more 'on top' of this subject if you had approached Locke from this point of view, rather than going through all that Locke says about identity in general. However, there is still a lot of good work here, and if the question came up in an exam I am confident that you would do well.

It is OK to struggle with a question. From my experience, papers which struggle tend to score higher marks than those which glibly present the standard 'objections and replies'.

Regarding identity in general, the 'same what' point is important and certainly worth mentioning. You say, 'The horse you see now may not be the same lump of matter as the horse you saw ten years ago, but it might for all that be the same horse.' There was a dispute about 'relative identity' some time ago between Peter Geach ('Reference and Generality') and David Wiggins ('Identity and Spatio-Temporal Continuity' later expanded as 'Sameness and Substance'). Geach cites examples like yours as cases of relative identity. The problem is that this leads to logical contradiction: A=B and not-(A=B).

However, you can retain the point about 'same what' by paying close attention to what is being referred to. Ten years ago, you saw a horse, Nellie, and you also saw a lump of matter. Today, you see Nellie but you do not see that lump of matter. That is because 'Nellie' refers to the horse, not to the lump of matter. Nellie IS a lump of matter, but this 'is' is the 'is' of constitution, not of identity. Hence, no 'relative identity'.

How do we decide criteria of identity? You cite functional considerations (watches), organism (trees), matter (boulder). In each case, the decision is based on our 'interest', the point of the concept of a 'mechanism' or 'organism' or 'lump'. Decisions are not hard and fast. Is a dead tree still the 'same tree'? How much can you chip off a boulder? and so on.

When we come to persons, the question of the point of the concept is paramount. This is Locke's idea. The point of identifying persons is forensic. We are interested in praise and blame, punishment and reward, promises and property.

By attending to what he sees as the point of the concept, Locke is able to formulate his remarkable thought experiment regarding the prince and the pauper. As you correctly point out, he doesn't have to commit himself to physicalism or dualism. Like the identities of artefacts, organisms and lumps it can sometimes be vague or indeterminate whether we have the 'same person' or not. But this in itself is not an objection in principle to using the forensic criterion of 'same consciousness'.

But there are objections. I am the man who married Jane, because I remember saying, 'I do'. However, it is not enough to remember this being said by someone, I must remember MY saying it, which begs the question. You might think that whether I said 'I do' or someone else said it can be represented in memory. But then we have to reckon with the Proust-style example of someone who honestly says, 'I remember 'my' saying 'l love you', but *I* am not (do not feel myself to be) the person who said that.' Or Myra Hindley saying, 'I remember "my" switching on the recording machine as the children were tortured but *I* am not (do not feel myself to be) the one who did that.'

This leads to a distinction which is not marked in ordinary English, between 'I remember X-ing' and 'I "remember" X-ing', where in the latter case I have knowledge via memory but I fail, or refuse to identify myself with the individual who X-ed.

So the objection is not that using memory to define personal identity is 'circular', but rather that memory is necessary but not sufficient. In addition, there must be an act of 'self-identification', which is an attitude which one takes or fails to take towards a past self.

The second line of objection cuts deeper, because it questions Locke's account of memory itself. According to Locke, all it takes for the truth of a memory claim is faithfulness to the events remembered. However, this ignores a necessary condition for knowledge, namely the existence of an underlying causal or material basis for the memory. Otherwise, we have no means to distinguish between memories which truly represent events which happened in the past which are not 'true memories', and memories which truly represent events which happened in the past which are 'true memories'.

All the best,