The metaphysical fact of consciousness in locke's theory of personal identity

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Locke's theory of personal identity was philosophically groundbreaking for its attempt to establish a non-substantial identity condition. Locke states, "For the same consciousness being preserv'd, whether in the same or different Substances, the personal Identity is preserv'd" (II.xxvii.13). Many have interpreted Locke to think that consciousness identifies a self both synchronically and diachronically by attributing thoughts and actions to a self. Thus, many have attributed to Locke a memory theory of personal identity. But memory theories taken as metaphysical theories stumble on circularity. In response, some have attributed to Locke an appropriation theory of personal identity. Appropriation theory interpretations, however, are insufficient for Locke's moral theory insofar as he is committed to a theory of divine rectification. God must have something objective to look to in determining our eternal rewards. The common problem is that for coherence Locke's theory seems to demand an objective, or metaphysical, fact of a continuing consciousness that does not appeal to a traditional notion of substance for the continuity.

I am suggesting something new. In II.xxvii of the Essay, we see an ambiguity in Locke's use of the term 'consciousness'. Locke seems to see consciousness as both a mental state by means of which we are aware of ourselves as perceiving and as the ongoing self we are aware of in these conscious states. The first sense of consciousness is a momentary psychological state of myself as perceiving, say, past and present ideas. The second sense of consciousness is the objective fact of an ongoing consciousness. First, I make the textual argument why we should read Locke as having a conception of a metaphysical fact of a continuing consciousness that does not appeal to thinking or bodily substance to establish its continuity. That is, consciousness is something that endures through our momentary conscious states of ourselves even if the full duration of a continuing consciousness is known only by God. I then argue that the metaphysical fact of an enduring consciousness is revealed to us as a phenomenological fact of experience. Due to the nature of certain kinds of perceptual situations we have an experience of ourselves as temporally extended. Nevertheless, the metaphysical fact of consciousness is philosophically distinguished from the phenomenological fact. Although the text bears out that Locke seemed to think there is a fact of an ongoing consciousness, I argue that it is consistent with his reluctance elsewhere that he makes no further epistemological or ontological claims about it. Finally, I provide an account of Locke's understanding of memory and its relation to consciousness that supports the claim that consciousness is something ontologically distinct from either thinking or bodily substance.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)387-415
Number of pages29
JournalJournal of the History of Philosophy
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy


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