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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.4 (2002) 563-576

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Damaris Cudworth Masham, Catharine Trotter Cockburn, and the Feminist Legacy of Locke's Theory of Personal Identity

Kathryn J. Ready

While there is now a fairly well established body of research on John Locke and Enlightenment feminism, surprisingly little of it has focused on his theory of personal identity. Sheryl O'Donnell notes the attraction of "Locke's empiricism . . . to Restoration and eighteenth-century women who struggled with problems of epistemology and personal identity," 1 but she does not analyse his theory of personal identity. Yet from the very beginning women took a direct interest in the debate Locke initiated over personal identity. Among the earliest champions of Locke's theory of personal identity were two female philosophers, Lady Damaris Cudworth Masham (1659-1708) and Catharine Trotter Cockburn (1679-1749). 2 In my view, women had a special stake in the continuing controversy over personal identity. Locke made it possible to conceptualize the self in terms other than the body and the soul—concepts that had long been implicated in arguments in favour of women's subordination. He shifted interest away from the body and soul toward the mind, which he believed was not gendered at birth. The definition of a person in the chapter "Of Identity and Diversity" in the second edition of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1694) implicitly accepts men's and women's claims to the same faculties of reason and reflection, and the appearance of this definition would have provided fuel for demands to improve female education and challenges to the sexual hierarchy. However, the special historical significance of Locke's theory of personal identity lay in providing a tacit philosophical foundation for an emerging Enlightenment feminist ideology that sought to renegotiate the relationships between the mind, body, and [End Page 563] soul without violating Christian orthodoxy or posing too radical a challenge to the status quo. Although Locke questioned the capacity of the orthodox Christian view of the self to explain personal identity, he never denied its fundamental truth, an aspect of his theory that both Masham and Cockburn appreciated. It is arguably through the interest that he sparked among early modern female philosophers like Masham and Cockburn in the nature and identity of the self that he played his most complex and seminal role in the evolution of Enlightenment feminism, influencing the way in which issues like female education and marriage were debated well into the British Romantic period. 3

At the beginning of the chapter "Of Identity and Diversity," Locke defines identity as the criterion by which we determine the sameness of a thing existing at a particular time and place with itself at another time (and perhaps another place). He goes on to challenge prevailing assumptions concerning the identity of the self, asserting "that self is not determined by Identity or Diversity of Substance . . . but only by Identity of consciousness" (2.27.23:345). 4 The term substance first appears in Aristotle's definition of man as a vital union of matter and substance, a definition later absorbed into the orthodox Christian view of man as a vital union of body and soul, or material and immaterial substance. While not denying the existence of substance outright, Locke considers it an inadequate foundation for a theory of personal identity. As he argues, substance is beyond the reach of human knowledge and therefore cannot assure us of the continuity of the self. Only our knowledge of consciousness can give us confidence in the continuity of the self. In section 2.27.25, Locke affirms the necessity of having a clear principle of explanation for the sameness of the self over time in order to guarantee moral responsibility and accountability. This recognition of the dependency of moral responsibility and accountability on identity emerges as a main impetus for his interest in this subject.

By seeming to displace the orthodox Christian conception of identity, the theory of self-in-consciousness found itself quickly embroiled in controversy. Within a few...


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