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  • Locke's Mythical Thinking:Metempsychosis in the Theory of Personal Identity
  • Mary-Helen Mcmurran

In "Identity and Diversity," which appears in the second edition of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke famously asserts that personal identity consists in consciousness alone.1 For Locke, identity simply means the condition of sameness and person, unlike the conventional use of the term, is not synonymous with the human individual. Indeed, Locke's first step in the argument is to distinguish the identity of the "man" or individual, which consists in the continuity of an organized and vital bodily form, from the person's identity, which consists in a consciousness that can "consider it self as it self" (2.27.9). The bulk of Locke's chapter does little more than reinforce this fundamental distinction from various angles. In standard accounts, the significance of Locke's theory is drawn from the philosopher's final remarks, which seem to explicitly state its implications. Locke writes that person is a "Forensick Term," which appropriates "Actions and their Merit; and so belongs only to intelligent Agents capable of a Law, and Happiness and Misery" (2.27.26). As William Uzgalis states, person is "designed to account for the fact that we are creatures who are capable of operating the machinery of the law" on earth and at the final judgement, for Locke adds that "[s]entence shall be justified by the consciousness" without regard to the substance in which it appears (2.27.26).2

Locke's chapter, which constitutes something of an independent treatise on the idea of personhood, is customarily acknowledged to be a game changer. It represents an unprecedented break with philosophical tradition by liberating the idea of person from the principles of corporeal and incorporeal substance to rely instead on the notion of consciousness as a self-reflexive and a self-possessing mental activity. Locke's person not only defeats scholastic theological-philosophical ideas of personhood, it lays the groundwork for nearly all subsequent theoretical and scientific theories of mind and consciousness.3 I am not interested here in the novelty of Locke's theory, however, but with his method of conveying its singular claim that the person's identity emerges as a virtuality rather than an actual entity. As Henry Allison [End Page 919] explains, Locke must address two questions about the relation of the person and the man: "1) whether the same person can remain throughout a change in the thinking substance, 2) whether the same substance can at different times have different persons annexed to it?"4 As Allison rightly remarks, "consistency requires that Locke answer both questions in the affirmative."5 Thus, according to Locke, the person retains an identity despite a change in whatever it is that the consciousness inhabits; second, a substance can play host to more than one person over time. Consistency may require it, but Locke enlists several peculiar thought experiments to illustrate his definition of person. Readers consistently remark that these thought experiments, which lace Locke's otherwise stiff prose, are dizzying and their logic bewildering. Treating them as outliers if not entirely dispensable to the theory of personal identity, scholars have come to little agreement about their meaning, explanatory value, or even whether Locke is aware of their effects. Étienne Balibar, for example, notes that these scenarios stem logically from Locke's distinction between the man and the person, but calls them "paradoxes" and thus suggests they test the limits of that logic.6 Balibar forgoes further comment on the thought experiments and instead pursues a subtle and insightful argument that Locke's self is both differential and totalizing. Jonathan Lamb's important consideration of Locke's theory contrasts "vaporous fancies" with "credible fictions."7 Putting Locke's chapter in the context of late seventeenth-century scientific discourse, Lamb suspects that the "painfully small degree of certitude" of the thought experiments nearly undermines their purpose.8 The person nevertheless manages to be a "credible semblance of identity and reality" in Lamb's larger narrative about the "agentive form of loose things" to which humans are subjected.9

The striking aspect of Locke's many thought experiments is that they seem ripped from...