Notes for Class 7 (today). Interim.
Locke on Personal Identity and the First Person
The best introduction to the self-constitutive character of personal identity is provided by Locke’s theory of personal identity (second edition, 1694. of the Essay, II, 27).
Personal identity is an important issue for and only for early modern, modern, and contemporary western philosophy. (Together with self, self-consciousness; but I want to concentrate on personal identity.) Earlier stages of western philosophy (Aristotle) had a different agenda, concerning subjectivity (in a broad sense):
(i) Making sense of the ontological status and of the nature of human beings: material substances (matter suitable for a living body; a living body); a form defined by biological and psychological functions (sensation, perception, imagination and memory, intellect);
(ii) Making sense of rational thinking and rational action, their conditions and their limits.
On this rich conception of subjectivity, the criteria of individuation and identity are all too evident. Notice also that individuation and identity of thinkers and agents/human being is not by self-constitution. It is a perfectly objective matter, continuous with the general metaphysics of material substances (even living beings grown and support themselves, but do not constitute themselves). The breakdown of hylomorphist metaphysics and the shift to a materialist, dualist, or idealistic one, applied to subjects of thought and action, changes the picture.
Their individuation will now depend on the body, or on the unclear relations between the body and the mind, or on mental entities (like ideas). On all accounts, individuating a thinker and an agent and determining whether it is the same or not becomes a difficult question.
Something about subjectivity that escapes the objective, real, metaphysical constitution of thinkers and agents, in all these views (and did not escape the earlier one). Something about the unity of the constituting elements and unity of thinking and acting humans. This has put pressure on the philosophy of the individuation and identity of subjectivity. And this pressure has been in the direction of insulating some sort of pure element of subjectivity; and, ultimately, of self-constitution.
(More or less from U. Thiel, The Early Modern Subject, 2011.)
Why does Locke give a decisive turn to the philosophy of thinking and acting subjects, in the directions of personal identity, of the first person, and of self-constitution? A complex combination of conceptual factors.
(i) Locke is dissatisfied with all the alternative metaphysical views just mentioned. In particular, he is dissatisfied with Descartes dualism, which combines the contrast between thought and extension with the ascription of substantial status to thought. Basically, Locke thinks that we do not know enough to tell something sensible about substance in general, thinking substance in particular.
(ii) Locke ascribes a crucial importance to consciousness, “perception”, or subjectivity, in thinking, acting, and cognition. Whatever can bear upon these functions (=the Human Understanding), does so because it is subjectively apprehended or present to awareness.
(iii) It is this latter consideration, rather than any metaphysical construct, that should have priority in defining the individuation and identity of thinkers and agents. But consciousness, or awareness, seems to have a fleeting character: it essentially changes across time. The central problem of the philosophy of subjectivity then becomes that of identity across time. Locke addresses it in a way that goes in the direction of self-constitution.