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3.5.1: I

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    It is widely held that Locke propounded a theory of personal identity in terms of consciousness and memory. By 'theory' here is meant a set of necessary and sufficient conditions indicating what personal identity consists in. It is also held that this theory is open to obvious and damaging objections,[1] so much so that it has to be supplemented in terms of bodily continuity, either because memory alone is not sufficient, or because the concept of memory is itself dependent upon considerations of bodily continuity.[2] Alternatively it has been suggested that Locke's theory could be modified by allowing that for the purposes of personal identity 'remember' should be regarded as a transitive relation. So if A remembers the experiences of B but not those of C, and B remembers the experiences of C, then A, B and C can be regarded as belonging to the same unit of consciousness.[3]

    What will seem odd about this orthodox criticism of Locke to any reader of the Essay is that the objections about the inadequacy of memory which are regarded as damaging to Locke are very similar to criticisms which Locke himself considers but which he does not regard as being bother- some. One of the current criticisms of Locke's account is that memory has gaps. We remember some of the things that we have done, but not all.[4] But if memory and consciousness are together regarded as logically necessary and sufficient conditions of personal identity then forgetfulness ensures the loss of, or an interruption in, personal identity, and this is surely implausible. That is, it is implausible to hold that my past identity as a person should depend on the present vagaries of my memory.

    But we find Locke himself making a similar point about forgetfulness. For instance at Essay II, xxvii, Io, he recognizes that consciousness is often interrupted by forgetfulness, 'even the best memories losing the sight of one part whilst they are viewing another; and we sometimes, and that the greatest part of our lives, not reflecting on our past selves, being intent on our present thoughts, and in sound sleep having no thoughts at all'. Locke introduces the fact of forgetfulness as an objection to the view that personal identity consists in being 'the same identical substance'. 'Consciousness being interrupted, and we losing sight of our past selves, doubts are raised whether we are the same thinking thing, i.e. the same substance, or no'. The view Locke seems to be combating here might be expressed as the following: personal identity consists in sameness of spiritual substance if and only if every conscious action is directly remem- bered (i.e. remembered 'from the inside') at every subsequent moment to its performance. Locke is easily able to show that this condition is not met. But the evidence he adduces ought also to count (as Locke himself would say) fatally against his own view, at least in the eyes of his current inter- preters. The same point about memory could also be made regarding the drunk-sober example later in the same chapter (section xxii). It may be that Locke is simply careless about such matters, and that he forgets what he has written a couple of pages earlier. But if we proceed on this assump- tion the task of interpreting Locke becomes a hopeless one. Instead I want to argue that Locke does have a theory of personal identity and that memory does not not play quite the role in it that is widely assumed in contemporary discussions of personal identity. So the question is, what sort of theory of personal identity must Locke have held if forgetfulness does not count against it?


    Locke's account of personal identity forms part of a wider discussion of identity in general, or to be more specific, a wider discussion of the identity of particulars, including finite intelligences, bodies, and God.[5] Locke holds that an individual thing A existing at a particular time and place is identical with B if A and B are the same kind of thing, and there is a continuous spatiotemporal history between A and B. The principium individuationis, according to Locke, 'is existence itself, which determines a being of any sort to a particular time and place, incommunicable to two beings of the same kind' (section iii). Reference to kinds is necessary because Locke holds that it is possible that two things of different kinds should exist at the same place at the same time. Further, Locke insists that finite spirits are included in this general account of identity. 'Finite spirits having had each its determinate time and place of beginning to exist, the relation to that time and place will always determine to each of them its identity, as long as it exists' (section ii).[6]

    Locke then applies this general account to (among other things) persons, and he defines a person in terms of consciousness. 'For since consciousness always accompanies thinking, and it is that that makes everyone to be what he calls self, and thereby distinguishes himself from all other thinking things: in this alone consists personal identity, i.e. the sameness of a rational being' (section ix). In understanding Locke's view at this point it is quite crucial to fit these last remarks into his general view of identity. Given that there is a man at a series of times and places tip1. . .. taps how do we know whether or not there is also a person at these times and places? Locke's answer is: by reference to consciousness. Consciousness at those times and places indicates that there is one (or more) persons. But how do we know whether or not there is more than one person that has existed at those times and places? Might there not have been a succession of twenty people? It is here that memory becomes relevant. In so far as it is reliable memory gives evidence of that spatiotemporal continuity of consciousness which according to Locke personal identity consists in. Memory is the (as yet) imperfect and incomplete recaller of this continuity of individual consciousness.

    So the role of consciousness in personal identity is logical and meta- physical. Personal identity at a time consists in consciousness at that time. Personal identity over a period of time consists in the spatiotemporal continuity of an individual consciousness. The role of memory, on the other hand, is epistemic. It is one sort, no doubt for Locke the main sort, of evidence for personal identity. That memory is limited and fallible has repercussions for our knowledge of personal identity, but not for personal identity as such, in just the same way that (for Locke) our limited and sometimes misleading sensations limit our knowledge of bodies, but not the metaphysical or ontological reality of bodies. So that when Locke introduces memory, with the words 'as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person' (section ix), memory is being used to retrace the previous spatio- temporal history of that individual consciousness. Memory is a test (and in this sense a criterion) of personal identity whereas personal identity consists in consciousness (and so consciousness is a criterion of personal identity in a much stronger sense, being that in which personal identity consists). So much for the respective roles of consciousness and memory. I shall return to the implications of the fallibility of memory later.

    The second argument regarding the place of memory in Locke's theory of personal identity concerns the possibility of paramnesia. Locke discusses s the question of why 'one intellectual substance may not have represented to it, as done by itself, what it never did, and was perhaps done by some other agent' (section xiii). That this will not happen is due, Locke thinks, to the goodness of God 'who, as far as the happiness or misery of any of his sensible creatures is concerned in it, will not, by a fatal error of theirs, transfer from one to another that consciousness which draws reward or punishment with it' (section xiii). XWhat Locke is here supposing is that the goodness of God will prevent one person (what he here calls a thinking (or intellectual) substance) from being conscious of (i.e. remembering) what another intellectual substance did. What Locke seems to be saying is that it may, in the nature of things, be impossible for such transfer of memory from one thinking substance to another to take place, but that until we are clearer about just what is and is not possible in this area we had better say that, due to the goodness of God, such transfers cannot take place. If it turns out that there is a necessary connection between being a thinking substance and remembering certain things then the invocation of God's goodness will have been unnecessary.

    The standard comment on Locke's argument at this point is to say that the possibility that Locke invokes God to actualize is not a possibility at all. Flew says that the assistance for which Locke supplicates is beyond even the resources of omnipotence, for 'if anyone can remember doing something then necessarily according to Locke's account he is in fact the same person as did that deed'.[7] Mackie says that Locke's defence is useless because 'it presupposes that there is something else which really constitutes personal identity, which is the true bearer of responsibility, and which therefore needs to be protected from the unjust effects of a transfer of consciousness .[8] But this is a mistake, at least if by the words 'transfer of consciousness' here Mackie means 'transfer of memory'. For what the goodness of God is being invoked to prevent is the possession by a particular consciousness ('thinking substance') of a memory ('a present representation of a past action') of doing something that it did not do and for which it is liable to be punished. This view does not presuppose that there is something else besides consciousness that really constitutes the personal identity, only that there is something else besides the 'memory' of these particular actions that constitutes personal identity. Such a presupposition is perfectly in order, for what constitutes personal identity in such a case is a certain spatiotemporal continuity of consciousness. Further, what the goodness of God is being invoked to prevent is not the falsity of

    1. iThere are no misrememberings
    2. Someone will be punished (or rewarded) on the grounds provided by a misremembering.

    Locke may or may not be mistaken on the question of fact, but he is right to claim that on his view this represents a possibility.

    The third argument is more general, having to do with what, according to Locke, are the capabilities and limitations of the human memory. Any account of personal identity that Locke provides will presumably be consistent with his account of memory in general, and this is important for the following reason: if it is a fact about the human mind that it is forgetful then it would be implausible to define personal identity in terms of memory. But if, on the other hand, it is a fact that the human mind is forgetful it can hardly be a criticism of the role that memory plays in Locke's theory of personal identity that the role is consistent with human forgetfulness, if that role is the modest epistemic and evidential one that we have suggested.

    Locke's views on the memory can be found referred to in the chapter on identity, as when he says that consciousness is always interrupted by forgetfulness, and the best memories 'lose the sight of one part whilst they are viewing another' (section x). But they can be found at greater length in the chapter 'Of Retention' (Book II, Chapter X). Here he emphasizes the weakness of memory where, due to one of a number of factors, '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; and the mind is as void of them as if they never had been there' (section iv). Further, there is a constant decay of all our ideas, Locke says, 'Even of those which are struck deepest and in minds the most retentive: so that, if they be not sometimes renewed by repeated exercise of the senses of reflection on those kind of objects which at first occasioned them, the print wears out and at last there remains nothing to be seen' (section v). If actual memory is taken to be logically necessary and sufficient for personal identity (as on the current account of Locke it is) then these views of Locke on the limitations of memory will be taken as providing evidence for the presence of a general phenomenon which we could call 'person decay'. One's identity as a person decays as one's memory fades, but the rate of decay can be accelerated by, for example, the onset of disease or shock, or be decelerated by indulging in certain exercises to tone up the memory. But it is surely an extremely odd justification for looking at old diaries and photographs at regular intervals that one is striving to continue to be the person one once was. It is surely more reasonable, and more consistent with Locke's overall view, to describe the situation as trying to remember what one once did and was like. Consistently with his own interpretation of Locke, Mackie says that Locke should have recognized that fragmentary memories and interruptions of consciousness are as much a problem for his own theory as they are for the Cartesian view of a substance whose essence is thinking.[9] But are they? Imperfect and incomplete memories can provide evidence of personal identity even though they cannot be what personal identity consists in.[10]

    The fourth argument as grounds for a modification of the usual view of the part played by memory in Locke's account of personal identity is the significance of what he says about the Last Judgment, both in connection with the drunk-sober example (section xxii) and also in connection with the idea of a person as a forensic notion (section xxvi). lie invokes the Christian doctrine of the Last Judgment because he is concerned with the moral implications of being a person, and is answering the objection of why it is that in a court of law in seventeenth century England a drunkard is punished for doing acts that he may not have been aware of doing at the time, and so were actions that were not strictly speaking his. One thing that Locke might have said is that this sort of sentencing went on because the laws of England were not framed in accordance with the Lockean view of a person. Instead he argues that this is because, due to human ignorance, human courts cannot give the drunkard the benefit of the doubt. 'Human judicatures justly punish him, because the fact is proved against him, but want of consciousness cannot be proved for him' (section xxii). By contrast at the Great Day there will be perfect justice. Then no one will be made to suffer for what he has not done, even though this sometimes occurs now. In a similar vein he says in section xxvi that at the Great Day 'The sentence shall be justified by the consciousness all persons 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'.

    What does this bit of Lockean theologizing show? That in his eyes the present ascriptions of personal responsibility based on the likelihood of memory being reliable and of the person having been conscious at the time the action was performed are provisional. Hence there can be, at present, though not hereafter, honest but false memory claims and ascriptions of personal responsibility. At the Great Day not only will memories be jogged, but false memory claims will be corrected. On what basis will they be corrected? On the basis provided by continuity of consciousness. If I 'remember' doing an action which is not spatially and temporally continuous with my present consciousness then at the Great Day that 'memory' will be corrected. If I fail to remember doing an action which was performed by an individual whose consciousness is spatially and temporally continuous with my present consciousness then at the Great Day my store of memories will be augmented. And verdicts that were wrong because based on partial or false information will be overturned. 'In the Great Day, wherein the secrets of all hearts shall be laid open, it may be reasonable to think no one shall be made to answer for what he knows nothing of, but shall receive his doom, his conscience accusing or excusing him' (section xxii).

    Locke conceives of a situation where, by a miracle, the following is possible: every individual directly remembers all that it is logically possible for him to remember, and (presumably) has no apparent direct memories, or indirect memories, of what he did not do. There will be nothing that it is possible for an individual to remember that he will not be brought to remember should this be necessary for the forensic purposes of the Great Day.

    [1] By, for example, Antony Flew, 'Locke and the Problem of Personal Identity' in Locke and Berkeley: A Collection of Critical Essays, C. B. Martin and D. M. Armstrong (eds) (Garden City, i968); J. L. Mackie, Problems from Locke (Oxford, I976), Ch. 6; and Bernard Williams, 'Personal Identity and Indivi- duation' in Problems of the Self (Cambridge, 1973). 

    [2] On the development of this point see, for example, Terence Penelhum, Survival and Disembodied Existence (London, I970).

    [3] Mackie, op. cit., i8o.

    [4] Flew, op. cit., i6i; Mackie, op. cit., 175-I76, i8i-i83.

    [5] Essay II, xxvii, I-2. All quotations from the Essay are from the edition of John Yolton (London, i96i).

    [6] For further discussion of this and related points see Baruch Brody, 'Locke on the Identity of Persons', American Philosophical Quarterly (October I972). 

    [7] Flew, op. cit., i64.

    [8] Mackie, op. cit., I84.

    [9] Mackie, op. cit., I82.

    [10] See M. W. Hughes, 'Personal Identity: A Defence of Locke', Philosophy (I975) for a similar conclusion about the character of memory according to Locke.

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