John Locke’s Theory of Personal Identity

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John Locke (1632-1704) said ‘To find wherein personal identity consists, we must consider what person stands for …’ (Locke, in set book, p. 275). Therefore, to recapitulate Locke’s philosophy on personal identity it is necessary to clarify how he inimitably used the term ‘person’ and consequently other words, such as ‘substance’ and ‘man’, which he utilized to form his philosophical ideas. Furthermore, his work on personal identity inspired debate amongst many subsequent philosophers and motivated disagreement and as such, it is important to counter Locke’s views with opposing arguments.

The primary way in which Locke argued and elucidated his ideas was through the thought experiment, which Locke carefully fashioned as an imaginary scenario to reveal the human intuition on a philosophical question. He used them to illustrate the unique way in which he used certain words, such as ‘substance’. For Locke, ‘substances’ were immaterial or material things that existed independently and he had sub-categories within them. One sub-category of this term was the immaterial ‘substance’, such as the ‘soul’. A particular thought experiment he used to explain his ideas on the ‘soul’ is regarding Nestor or Thersites; where someone believed that their soul once inhabited one of these men of the Trojan legend. Of this he says; ‘But yet the soul alone, in the change of bodies, would scarcely to anyone … be enough to make the same man’ (Locke, in set book, p, 277). Establishing, that he believed the soul was an immaterial ‘substance’, although not necessarily what constitutes to a continuing conscious; a radical idea, as the majority believed during this century that the ‘soul’, bequeathed to man by a deity was the continuing awareness that mad...

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‘Personal identity’, audio recording, (2011). ‘The self’, Exploring Philosophy, Milton Keynes, The Open University.

Bennet, J. (2007), paraphrase of Locke, J. (1690) An Essay concerning Human Understanding, Bk II, ch. 27, paragraphs 17-22, in Warburton (2011), ‘The Self’, Exploring philosophy, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 107-109.

Mackie, J.L. (1976) Problems from Locke, Oxford, Oxford University Press, pp. 173-7, in Warburton (2011), ‘The Self’, Exploring philosophy, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 110-114.

Uzgalis, William, "John Locke", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .

Warburton, N. (2011) ‘The Self’, Exploring philosophy, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 7-51.
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