Throughout the years, the notion of personal identity has captured the attention of many philosophers. One such philosopher, John Locke, attempted to solve the problem in his book, Essays Concerning Human Understanding, in which he provides his definition of what personal identity should be considered as. This idea has not come without its fair share of criticism, however. Antony Flew, a contemporary English philosopher, attempted to show that Locke’s notion of personal identity was severely flawed. It is my intention to show that Locke was not incorrect in his ideas, but rather the apparent flaws in his work are merely due to his writings being misinterpreted by Flew.
Before delving into Flew’s objections, I feel it necessary to explain the original ideas put forward by Locke with regards to personal identity. Locke argues that ‘identity’ is not a one-size-fits-all term, and that it’s meaning is contextually dependent. For instance, a mass of matter is said to have the same identity (according to Locke) if it retains all of its parts, no matter their organization. On the other hand, an organism is said to be identical to itself if and only if the organization of its parts remains the same (Locke). In this latter sense, it does not matter if there is a change in the actual parts themselves, so long as they all are oriented towards the same path as the organism as a whole. To illustrate this point, he gives an example of an oak tree. He states that an oak sapling that grows into a tree, and is then cut down, is still the same oak tree, even though there have been parts added and taken away (Locke). Rather, the reason that it retains its identity is that all of the parts associated wit...
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...aises questions as to what this means if someone cannot factually remember some of the past events in his/her life. However, this does not imply, as Flew would attest, that consciousness be reducible to memory; as memory is simply a subcategory of consciousness as a whole. Instead, consciousness is more closely related to the thinking of a rational being, and certainly it seems we would want to say that in order to have memories of anything, the individual must be perceptually aware of it (which requires mental activity i.e. thinking). Once we clear this confusion up, Flew seems to not have much of a ground for his objections, as they are based on a misinterpretation. If we decided to give Locke a charitable reading, and further examine the apparent ambiguity of his passages, it would seem that Locke is more careful to clean up after himself than many would proclaim.
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