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Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 12.4 (2005) 349-354

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Salvaging Locke's Self

personal identity, Locke, unconscious, narrative self, narrative theory

Continuing Commentary

This feature in PPP is intended to provide ongoing commentary on main articles previously published in PPP. The essay by Phillips below is a response to Marya Schechtman's paper in "The Unconscious" thematic issue, Philosophy, Psychiatry & Psychology 12, no. 1:9–22.

Let me begin by acknowledging Marya Schechtman's admirably clear presentation of Locke's view of personal identity, the problems inherent in that view, the efforts of "psychological continuity theorists" to rectify the flaws in Locke's argument, the problems in their attempted rectifications, and finally her own proposals for rescuing Locke's view of personal identity. My comments focus on the problems I see in her use of the psychoanalytic unconscious to preserve Lockean personal identity and on my own suggestions for sustaining her argument.

In her paper, Schechtman first describes Locke's account of personal identity and its problematic dependence on a notion of overlapping conscious memories. She then outlines the unsuccessful attempts of Locke's descendants—the psychological continuity theorists—to make good on his account. In the final section, "An Alternative Account," Schechtman offers her own proposal to compensate for the inadequacies of Locke's account of personal identity by introducing the notion of the unconscious. The gaps in memory that render Locke's version of the self fragmented and discontinuous can be filled in by substituting for Locke's conscious self a self that includes unconscious content. ". . . [I]t is necessary to give an account of the attribution of particular actions and experiences that allows for the attribution of unconscious elements as well as conscious ones" (Schechtman 2005, 18).

Schechtman marshals her argument in two steps. First, she argues for replacing a rather passive view of the self as witness to one's past through memory with a version of the self that is actively engaged in making sense of one's life.

To have the kind of self-conception that constitutes personal identity on the view I am urging (call it the "self-understanding view"), one must not just know about some collection of past experiences and think of them as hers, she must see life as unfolding according to an intelligible trajectory, where present states follow meaningfully from past ones, and the future is anticipated to bear certain predictable relations to the present.
(2005, 18)

In a second step, she recognizes that this effort at active self-understanding will come up against roadblocks of incomprehension. Careful self-examination does not reveal why one feels or acts the way one does. It is at this point that Freud and the unconscious enter the picture.

"In postulating inner sources for our experiences and actions we recognize that there are [End Page 349] parts of ourselves that we are not conscious of, but that are yet part of our psychological lives in an importantly intimate way. These experiences impact the nature of our conscious experience, and hence should be part of the purview of our self-interested concern. They also influence what we do, and lead to experiences of guilt, shame, or pride, and so are connected to our moral agency. To have an identity-constituting self-conception, then, a person must demand (at least implicitly) a kind of coherence and intelligibility to the course of her life" (2005, 20).

It appears that Schechtman salvages the Lockean self by invoking the Freudian unconscious and putting it into the service of expanding Locke's self to include an unconscious dimension. In his classic defense of the unconscious in "The Unconscious" (Freud 1957/1916), Freud articulates a similar argument:

It [the unconscious] is necessary because the data of consciousness have a very large number of gaps in them; both in healthy and in sick people psychical acts often occur which can be explained only by presupposing other acts, of which, nevertheless, consciousness affords no evidence. These not only include parapraxes and dreams in healthy people, and everything described as a psychical symptom or an obsession...


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