Front Page Titles (by Subject) Locke on Personal Identity - Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1980, vol. 3, No. 3
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
Locke on Personal Identity - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1980, vol. 3, No. 3 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
This work is copyrighted by the Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, and is put online with their permission.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Locke on Personal Identity
“Locke's Theory of Personal Identity.” Philosophy 54(April 1979):173–185.
It is widely held that John Locke viewed personal identity primarily as a function of consciousness and memory. Objections have been raised against this reputed position by numerous modern philosophers including Anthony Flew, J.L. Mackie, and Bernard Williams. Some contend, for example, that Locke's theory must be supplemented by the notion of bodily continuity either because memory alone is not sufficient or because the concept of memory is itself dependent on bodily conditions. Others claim that, since memory is faulty, forgetfulness according to Locke's theory would entail a partial loss of personal identity.
Oddly enough, Locke treats these and other standard objections to memory in the Essay and dismisses them as not bothersome. For Prof. Helm, those perennial criticisms ignore what was, in Locke's mind, the relationship between consciousness and memory in the make-up of personal identity. In Locke's theory, Helm asserts, identity consists of the “spatiotemporal continuity of consciousness.” The philosopher himself explicitly states: “...Since consciousness always accompanies thinking and it is that that makes everyone to be what he calls self...in this alone consists personal identity, i.e. the sameness of a rational being.”
Within this framework, memory gives evidence of the spatio-temporal continuity of consciousness, but it itself is not the essence of one's identity. The role of consciousness in identity is thus logical and metaphysical, while memory plays an epistemic role, as a test for the continuity of consciousness.
Recognizing the fallibility of memory, Locke could declare: “Ideas in the mind quickly fade and often vanish quite out of the understanding, leaving no more footsteps or remaining characters of themselves than shadows do flying over fields of corn...” Nonetheless, there are three senses (requiring careful delineation) in which Locke regards memory as necessary to personal identity.
First of all, while it is not logically necessary that one remember certain events of the past, remembering (especially of oneself) remains an essential component of consciousness. Secondly, in a forensic sense, memory is required for an individual to have evidence that he is identical with someone in the past and thus responsible (in his own and others' eyes) for certain past actions. Augmented or ideal memory (as on the day of the Last Judgement) would allow for perfect justice in assessing actions. Barring divine inspiration, however, humans must content themselves with provisional justice in this world. Thirdly, a logically sufficient condition for identity is that the individual consciousness can recall some past action, not that it does recall it. This point is made in the chapter “On Retention” in the Essay.
Thus, the relation between memory, consciousness, and personhood assumes a much more complicated character in Locke than is normally assumed. The basic error of many interpreters is to hold that Locke posited perfect memory as a condition for identity and responsibility. More complex objections usually rest upon this fundamental misapprehension. These evaporate, however, with an understanding of Locke's more subtle position.