Ask someone who he is and he will probably point to his body and say something like: ‘I’m John and I’m tall, of slim build and bright eye, and I have long grey hair. I was brought up in Somerset.’ He might go on to say where he went to school, what he studied at university, and who he married.
Who we are is a question that preoccupied the English philosopher John Locke, who was tall and slim with long grey hair and went to Westminster School and then on to Oxford University. Locke who qualified in medicine and who had many friends and no wife was puzzled about the problem of human identity.
In his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding Locke considers the problem of how consciousness relates to identity with some delightful examples that range from a remarkable parrot that can speak Brazilian to a philosophical fairy tale about a prince who exchanges places with a cobbler. Locke also muses on the effects of cannibalism on the continuity of the soul and the attributes of his little finger.
Eccentric as this may sound, Locke was known as a common-sense philosopher and his wide-ranging interests and philosophical work covered almost every area of human thought from politics to freedom, education, human rights and property. His views were hugely influential and informed the writing of the American Constitution.
His thinking on identity follows on from his arguments on how ideas are formed from experience. Locke claim is that we are born knowing nothing, our minds are tabula rasa, blank slates upon which we chalk the marks of experience. There is no such thing as innate knowledge. We are all born equally ignorant.
For Locke, human and animal minds have a starting point of existence, and that remains fixed as part of the identity of that specific mind. Aristotle was born in 384BC and that means that his mind existed then and only during the period that he lived. His mind can’t transmigrate to the 21st century. If you happen bump into someone tomorrow in the Post Office who claims to be Aristotle, you probably aren’t going to be inviting him home to discuss human happiness. Bodies are another matter, though. For we know that bodies do change, and some bodies become unrecognisably altered.
Locke’s enquiry poses many questions. He wonders about oak trees and asks whether an acorn that develops into a great tree remains the same tree. He also muses on horses and considers whether a playful young colt that grows into a mature horse is the same animal even though he now looks completely different. The oak tree is more than its roots, branches and leaves. For Locke, its identity consists of the rather wonderful phrase ‘the vegetable life.’ An acorn, a sapling and an old tree have all partaken of the same life. Young and old are entrained in this life.
My horses now have a completely different shape to when they were born, at present massive grass bellies, and the particles and cells of their bodies have all renewed themselves many times over. Similarly as the oak trees in their field, they have partaken of the same life; the young colts and the mature horses are on a continuum; young and old have lived the same animal life. When I look at them I see them as they are, but I also remember them as young colts. The arc of their lives is knowable only to someone who has experienced them through time.
When it comes to humans, though, Locke’s ideas get a bit bizarre. He argues that when we say ‘man’ we really just mean human-shaped container. If that human shape had no more reason than a cat or a parrot we would still think of it as a man. A reasoning super-intelligent parrot who spoke not only English, but French, Dutch and Portuguese would still be thought of as a parrot and not a man, however uncanny its powers of speech.
“It is not the idea of a thinking or rational being alone that makes the idea of a man in most people’s sense, but of a body so and so shaped, joined to it; and if that be the idea of a man, the same successive body not shifted all at once must, as well as the same immaterial spirit, go to the making of the same man.”
For Locke, man and person are two entirely different things. Locke’s definition of a person is a ‘thinking intelligent being that has reason and reflection and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing in different times and places; which it does only by that consciousness which is inseparable from thinking…’
Locke goes on to say that ‘when we see, hear, smell, taste, feel, meditate, or will anything, we know that we do so.’
In other words, we are our present sensations and our perceptions, and this is what Locke calls the ‘self.’ There is no inner ‘us.’ We cannot be conscious of what we are, we can only be conscious of what we are thinking about, or feeling, or experiencing.
Locke argues that what makes us the same person is not just our body, but consciousness. We need to be aware of our own experiences in order to form a sense of self. Our memories of our childhood form part of our identity, but what we can’t remember is not part of us. The blank parts of our unremembered lives remain inaccessible and don’t form part of who we are.
In order to demonstrate that identity is rooted in consciousness, Locke describes a thought experiment in which he imagines the thoughts, memories and life experience of a prince entering the body of a cobbler. This cobbler would have a prince’s memories, hopes dreams, fears, all of his recalled experiences. Wouldn’t that cobbler then become the prince? Similarly, a prince wakes up with the memories and consciousness of a cobbler, and he feels that he is the cobbler. The fact that he still looks, talks and walks like a prince does not matter. If he has the memories of the cobbler, then he is the cobbler. If the cobbler had committed a crime in his original embodiment and remained unpunished then it is the prince who will go to prison. As Steve pointed out during last night’s seminar, if you are inhabited by someone else then you are no longer you.
Our enquiry touched on beliefs and values as markers of identity. As our beliefs and values can change, it seems that so too can our identity. Most adult people are not the same ‘person’ as they were at six. When I look at a photograph of myself as a twelve-year-old, I’m looking at almost another version of me. What links me to that younger version is a sense of having moved and grown on, in oak tree terms, a branching out. As we grow older we habitually distance ourselves from childhood. As Gordon memorably put it: “when I look back on my life, I remember me.”
This raises the intriguing question: who is the person that we remember? How can we remember ourselves when it is us doing the remembering? And if memory is such a strong indicator of consciousness and identity, as Locke held, then people who suffer from false memory syndrome are condemned to a false consciousness. Locke’s theory of identity led him to conclude that people could not be punished for crimes they could not remember committing. We wondered last night how it would be possible to tell whether someone was lying or not about what they remembered and the implications of this in the law courts. Locke does not consider that forgetting is also part of human identity. Indeed it could be argued that what we forget is perhaps as important to making us who we are as what we remember.
my horses enjoying the vegetable life
more on memory and forgetting here: