Personal Identity

Personal Identity
What makes each of us the same person over
John Locke (1632-1704)
An early British Empiricist,
wrote An Essay
Concerning Human
Understanding (1690)
An important
enlightenment figure.
Developed influential
views on the ‘social
contract’ and ideas about
The puzzle of identity
We all change over time.
What changes certainly doesn’t stay qualitatively
identical, that is, it doesn’t have the same properties
at all times.
But we also say that we remain one and the same
person through our changes.
This notion of personal identity (a form of numerical
identity) is important to much of what we do.
But it’s hard to say just what makes me the same
person from one day to the next…
Locke’s criterion
Lots of things continue over time, despite
changing in various ways.
Our bodies are an obvious example.
But what binds us together as one being over
time, for Locke, is not sameness of body.
The same body could fail to ‘contain’ the
same person. (cf. Sheckley, “Mindswap”)
What about souls, then?
Souls, or minds as Descartes might prefer, also seem
to persist as one and the same thing over time.
So could possessing or ‘being animated by’ the same
soul over time be what makes us the same person?
Locke rejects this response as well: what counts is
not the substance in which our consciousness
inheres, but the continuity of consciousness, whether
in one substance or many: “Which… concerns not
personal identity at all.” (366)
Locke’s view
“For as far as any intelligent being can repeat the
idea of any past actions with the same
consciousness it has of any present action; so
far it is the same personal self.” (366).
 For Locke, this link of consciousness and
memory is the basis for responsibility, too:
“I being…as justly accountable for any action
that was done a thousand years since, … as I
am for what I did the last moment.”
Loss of memory (complete permanent) constitutes a
different person.
A madman is not accountable for what he did when
A sane person is not accountable for what she did
when insane.
We have to be careful about our meanings here,
since we tend to muddle together sameness of soul
(same spirit), sameness of living body (same animal
or man), and sameness of consciousness (same
Thomas Reid (1710-1796)
18th Century
philosopher, wrote
against Hume’s
Here, he pursues some
of the odder
implications of Locke’s
link between personal
identity and memory.
The General
Here we have overlapping sets of memories,
connecting the child to the young man and the
young man to the General.
This leads to an important logical point.
Identity has certain logical properties:
Reflexivity: A=A.
Symmetry: If A=B then B=A.
Transitivity: If A=B and B=C, then A=C.
Memory vs. Consciousness
Reid imposes a distinction Locke isn’t
concerned about:
When we know what we’re thinking or
sensing or doing right now, that’s
When we know what we thought or sensed or
did at some point in the past, that’s memory.
Evidence and Fact
Another distinction Reid insists on:
 Memory may be the evidence that supports our
conviction that we are the same person now as the
person who did something in the past.
 But we shouldn’t confuse this with the fact this
evidence is evidence for, i.e. with what makes us that
same person:
“Consciousness is the testimony of one faculty; memory
is the testimony of another faculty; and to that that
the testimony is the cause of the thing testified, this
is surely absurd…” (369)
Third, Reid worries about the fact that
consciousness, the ground (according to
Locke) of our identity, is itself always in flux,
always changing.
If consciousness itself has no continuing
existence, surely it’s impossible to rely on it
as constituting the identity of the person
whose consciousness it is.
The puzzle of memory
Finally, Reid worries about what makes a certain ‘apparent’
memory a real memory.
If having a memory of doing x presupposes that you are
really the person who did x, then ‘being the same person’ is
implicitly built into the idea of memory, and using memory as
the criterion for being the same person is circular.
Worse, dispensing with this requirement drops the idea of
personal identity altogether, in favour of an idea of similarity
(of a certain kind) between what must be different persons,
due to the ever-changing nature of consciousness.
Daniel Dennett (1942- )
An influential
philosopher of mind,
he has also written on
evolution and religion:
Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,
Breaking the Spell.
 Instigator of the
Philosophers’ Lexicon.
Yorick, Hamlet and Points of View
Dennett undergoes a brain-extraction.
Then he wonders, ‘where am I?’.
The answer is surprisingly hard to sort out…