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  • Person, Substance, Mode and 'the moral Man' in Locke's Philosophy
  • Antonia Lolordo (bio)


In 1769, the English bishop and theologian Edmund Law published a Defence of Mr. Locke's Opinion concerning Personal Identity.1 In this work, Law attempted to 'explain and vindicate Mr. Locke's hypothesis' (301) by offering a new account of Lockean persons. Law's account centers around three key claims. First, persons are modes — very roughly, properties — rather than substances. Second, the relevant properties are those that make moral evaluation appropriate, thus taking seriously Locke's insistence that 'person' is a forensic term. And third, the fact that persons are modes is what makes a demonstrative science of morality possible.

I am not convinced that Law's interpretation actually vindicates Locke, though it does make his theory come out rather better than is typically imagined. I am, however, convinced that Law's interpretation provides the best available account of Lockean persons. I also think [End Page 643] Law's interpretation helps us understand how Locke's account of persons fits into his philosophy as a whole. Thus in this paper I advance a mode interpretation of Lockean persons and offer three arguments in its favor.2

My argument proceeds as follows. In (II), I elucidate the nature of Lockean modes by contrasting ideas of modes with ideas of substances. In (III), I use these contrasts to show that the idea of a person is the idea of a mode rather than the idea of a substance. I defend the mode interpretation from some common objections in (IV). In (V), I argue that Locke cannot justify the methodology of 2.27 unless he holds that persons are modes. In (VI), I argue that the role the idea of a person plays in Locke's ethical and political theory requires persons to be modes. Finally, in (VII), I argue that the mode interpretation provides a satisfactory way of responding to the common objection that Locke's account of personal identity is incompatible with his anti-essentialist metaphysics.


The term 'mode' had a precise definition for Descartes and his Aristotelian predecessors, but it is clear that Locke does not mean what they meant: he apologizes for using 'the word Mode, in a somewhat different sense from its ordinary signification' (2.12.4).3 Beyond this, things are rather murky. Examples of modes include things like an inch (2.13.4), a triangle (3.3.18) and a murder (2.12.4): mode is a motley category for Locke. In Locke's taxonomy, all ideas are either simple or complex, and simple ideas represent qualities while complex ideas represent modes, substances or relations.4 Hence anything that is not a substance, relation [End Page 644] or quality must be a mode.5 Locke distinguishes simple modes ('variations, or different combinations of the same simple idea' [2.12.4]) from complex or 'mixed' modes that are 'compounded of simple ideas of several kinds' (2.12.5), but we can safely set this distinction aside for current purposes.6

Locke provides numerous examples of modes. The ideas of beauty ('a certain composition of color and figure, causing delight to the beholder') and theft ('the concealed change of the possession of any thing, without the consent of the proprietor' (2.12.5)) are modes. So are feelings like joy, sorrow, hope and fear (2.20), or more complex ones such as 'pain from captious uninstructive wrangling, and the pleasure of rational conversation with a friend' (2.20.18). A wide variety of processes and events are described as modes: fencing, wrestling, printing, etching (2.22.9); dueling (2.28.15); distilling, drilling and filtration (2.18.7). So are 'remembering, imagining, reasoning, and other modes of thinking' (2.1.20). Similarly, there are modes of motion: to slide, to [End Page 645] roll, and to tumble (2.18.2). Other examples include a tune (2.18.3) and a rainbow (2.18.4).

However, the two most important sorts of modes for Locke are mathematical and moral ones. Locke writes that

To enumerate all the mixed modes, which have been settled, with names to them ... would be to make a...


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