What makes you You? An imaginary dialogue with John Locke

Are you the same person you were 10 years ago? What about when you were a child? And what about yesterday? And since we are talking about it – will you be the same person tomorrow? Perhaps we should start by asking what does it mean to be the same person and what a “person” is in the first place? What ensures this mysterious continuity of “You”?

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You might wonder why does it matter and isn’t it all self-evident? Well, let’s see! I try my hand (or rather my mind) at exploring the elusive notion of “self” in this short imaginary dialogue with the British philosopher John Locke. More than 300 years separate us and yet he is still considered an important thinker as far as questions regarding personal identity are concerned. He lived, worked and thought in the 17th century Britain – a time when the scientific revolution was shaking up the established views and changing how people thought about the world while the values in Britain had been shaken also by the political turmoils. The topic of life after physical death, resurrection and the Last Judgement were important but the rapid developments of science and associated influence on human thought could not be ignored. As a result, we could say that John Locke lived in the times of great change when people were redefining themselves, their values and looking for new foundations. To put it simply, the argument “Because we’ve always done it that way” didn’t work anymore (or at least it wasn’t in vogue). In roughly such context Locke was writing about the question of personal identity and much more.

This is where my fictional dialogue comes in. Of course, nobody can be sure what would a long-gone thinker actually say, so this is a product of my imagination.  Nevertheless, having read the section on personal identity in Locke’s “Essay concerning Human Understanding” (1690, as presented in the edition of John Cottingham’s Western Philosophy: an anthology, 2nd ed.) and some relevant explanatory commentaries, I have come to form my interpretation of his main ideas. Putting them into a dialogue is a method I would like to try out since it could inspire new insights and cement the acquired knowledge in a more creative way. Moreover, I really like the idea that the whole philosophy as a field of study may be seen as a very long-lasting dialogue between various thinkers stretching across space and time. So, here we go!

Me: Mr Locke, since we don’t have much time and you will be returning to your time soon, let’s just jump right in. I would really like to talk about your ideas on personal identity.

Locke: Yes, of course, let us discuss. Although, it would have been fascinating for me to learn more about your time… the 21st century! The human progress must have reached wonderful results!

Me: I suppose you would be surprised. Let’s just say, we have seen both the good and the bad of the human progress outcomes. But about your personal identity theory – would you say the most important thing for you is not so much the “what is a personal identity” for its own sake but rather for the sake of “how can we know if a person can be made responsible for whatever they did after some time”?

Locke: Indeed, I consider this from a forensic perspective mostly. What matters to me is to understand how we can establish for the purposes of reward and punishment, if a person keeps its sameness throughout time. And I am sure you have noticed that I use the word “person” in a distinct way. To me, it is that immaterial thinking thing, not the same as a “man” that I use in the meaning of a physical animal belonging to the humankind.

Me: Why is it important?

Locke: Because from the perspective of law, of our moral responsibilities, we are rational thinking agents. Our bodies do not make the decisions and choices, it is us as persons and so it is the persons and their identity (sameness) that we need to establish in order to reward or punish based on their merits.

Me: That is why you link the notion of consciousness to the idea of a person?

Locke: Correct. A person to me is necessarily a thinking being with a capacity for self-reflection, for considering itself as itself. Such thinking ability is inseparably linked to consciousness.

Me: Interesting that you use that term, consciousness. Even in our 21st century, we still struggle to understand what it is exactly. Although we use the word and often mean by it something that distinguishes us from other animals.

Locke: Fascinating! Well, to me consciousness is our ability to think of ourselves as ourselves. So, if I today am able to realize that I am me, this thinking and acting being is myself, then that is my person.

Me: And what is then your personal identity?

Locke: That would be the sameness of my conscious self over time. As long and as far into the time as I can still think of myself (be conscious of myself) as being me, as being this self that I call “I”, then that is how far my single, continuous personal identity stretches. Also into the future. That is why I am able to plan ahead and am motivated to avoid punishment and instead act in a way so as to receive a reward.

Me: Yes, that is how I have understood your ideas so far. But many think that your main criterion for checking whether someone still has the same consciousness of their “self” as in some past time is their ability to remember what they thought or did. So, continuous memory seems critical for your theory, but in reality, we know that our memory does not work like a continuous steady flow. You write yourself about our forgetfulness and then sometimes sudden recovery of memories. Would it then mean that we have the right to punish a criminal only while he remembers his wrongdoings and not when he suddenly forgets he did anything, for whatever reason his forgetfulness might occur?

Locke: I would not make it so simple as to hinge solely on the memory alone. Indeed, it would be absurd to try and catch a criminal purposefully in the right moment of time so as to make sure that he remembers his wrongdoings at that moment when he is caught and is thereby deserving to be punished because he is the same person who committed the crime as proven by the simple fact of his memory. No, it is not all that simple. My point was somewhat different and, granted, more complex in the application if your contemporaries still have not figured out what consciousness is.

Me: So then, your main point focuses on equating personal identity with their own consciousness identity and this does not mean simply remembering what I did?

Locke: Yes, consciousness is the crucial criterion for defining your personal identity and its sameness continuously over time. What I was saying back in my day was that you are the same person, the same you who thinks and acts, as long as you are aware of being you. So, if you are aware of being yourself now and you were similarly aware of being yourself yesterday and today you still are conscious that you will be your same self tomorrow as you are today and were yesterday, then all of this represents the same person. It is your same consciousness that defines your continuous personal identity (sameness).

Me: I see. Yes, it is indeed more complex than just having a continuous memory of my actions. And I also understand what you meant by saying that our human judges are limited in their capacity to prove lack or change of consciousness for the person and so they punish that person when they can prove a fact of wrongdoing against him. It is still an important issue in the courts today, to prove whether a person was able to understand and control their actions when they were committing the wrongdoing. Based on that the judge decides whether to punish and how to punish. There is even a whole field of science around that now. These experts are called forensic psychiatrists.

Locke: I can only say that your age is a fascinating one and I see that the ideas that kept us busy more than 300 hundred years ago are still on your minds. Let us continue our dialogue!

keep exploring!           

2 thoughts on “What makes you You? An imaginary dialogue with John Locke

  1. me is me, the PB aka

    What about the following view – a person is living for a certain period of time, at a certain period of time, in a certain environment; during the life time of a person the person is developing / changing / living, and to sum up, the whole life of a person represents the person; sure, the certain period of time (with all the available wisdom) that a person is living in is having an influence on the person (his views, thinking, believing and being); so, the idea of the ‘you is you (?)’ can be challenged (or not?); to what extent the ‘you’ can be more decisive in the development of a person rather than the environment, or vice versa is an interesting question; would like say – it depends, on the person!? Sure, we can have several perspectives, the physics and the psychics of a person, but also the society, the environment that a person is surrounded with; thinking about this, the question to what extent a person ‘needs’ to be punished because that person did something ‘wrong’ is difficult to answer, and depends in a way, also in light of the aforementioned, right? The wellknow phrase ‘a human being is the product of its environment’ refers. And the consciousness, is it selfdefined? What would be your and John’s comment on this?

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    1. Thanks for your thoughts. Indeed, environment influences our development and I suppose John would agree with that even to a greater extent than me because he was of the opinion that people are born as blank slates (tabula rasa). Nowadays we know it is not either or but a mixture of both and potentially a mutable one to some degree. The question about personal identity remains on our minds still today because it is not an easy to answer one. In this article I tried to explore Locke’s view and he was interested in the moral consequences of the term. That is why the focus is placed on punishment and reward. Sure, your views and values change over time but are you still the same person who stole an apple from a neighbor 10 years ago, for example? That is what he examines mostly, I think. Here his idea of consciousness is crucial.

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