Notes for Class 8 (Today!)
Locke on Personal Identity and the First Person
(7) The Sortals for Man and Soul
One of the misconceptions Locke is most concerned with is the confusion of self and person with man. At the same time, the relations between self and person, on the one hand, and human being, on the other, are crucial to show whether and how Locke’s consciousness-based conception of self and person fits in the framework of natural and moral philosophy.
(i) The content of the sortal: Man, or Human being is: a living organized being, an animal with a body of a certain shape and typically but not necessarily with distinctive mental capacities, including rationality and language. Such mental capacities are not necessarily part of the nominal essence of man.
«I think I may be confident, that whoever should see a Creature of his own Shape or Make, though it had no more reason all its Life, than a Cat or a Parrot, would call him still a Man; or whoever should hear a Cat or a Parrot discourse, reason, and philosophize, would call or think it nothing but a Cat or a Parrot; and say, the one was a dull irrational Man, and the other a very intelligent rational Parrot» (E 2.27.8).
Human beings are therefore primitively individuated as animals, in terms of their distinctive living bodies. Only this animal characterization of the identity of man allows giving the right answers to questions about the sameness of «an Embryo, one of Years, mad, and sober»; and avoid conflating in one and the same man a multiplicity of men supposedly sharing the same soul (by transmigration) (E 2.27.6). Locke’s critical target are those who hold that «the Identity of Soul alone makes the same Man» (E 2.27.6); or «a thinking and rational being alone».
(ii) Just as in the case of human beings, it is crucially important for Locke to distinguish between selves and persons and thinking beings; and at the same time to specify rightly their relations.
Locke is, on grounds of conceivability and in terms of metaphysical possibilities, a mind-body dualist. The soul is a substance, a thinking substance; this substance can be conceived as immaterial and only contingently conjoined to the body (E 2.23.32). Alternatively, the thinking substance can be conceived as material: but the capacity for thinking and rationality would still be only contingently conjoined to the human being, because it is only by a special decision of God that thinking can be superadded to matter (E 4.3.6).
We are ignorant about the nature of the thinking substance, just as we are about the nature of substance in general. But we have a clear conception of its general character and of its properties, because we have the necessary ideas from reflection. «The substance of Spirit is unknown to us; and so is the substance of Body»; but «we know, and have distinct clear Ideas of two primary Qualities, or Properties of Spirit, viz. Thinking, and a power of Action; i.e. a power of beginning, or stopping several Thoughts or Motions» (E 2.23.30).
The nominal essence of our thinking substance, what thinks in us (E 2.27.16), the sortal in whose terms we individuate and re-identify it, is the subject of our thoughts and the agent of our actions. The relations between the conscious self and this sort of thinking being (which Locke also regards as the mind, see for instance E 224.12) are central to the metaphysics of Locke’s account of personal identity.
(iii) The crucial point in Locke’s theory of personal identity is his rejection of Descartes’ view that the soul always thinks or, equivalently, that thinking is the real essence and not only the operation of the soul. This may not be immediately clear. But it unveils, in Locke, a crucial distinction in the concept of thinking.
Suppose the soul (the thing that thinks) always thinks: How could otherwise be a thinking substance? Then, some thinking activity should go on at any time such substance exists. How can Locke deny that this is so, while at the same time holding fast to the concept of a thinking being? Because he distinguishes, within the sortal: Thought, two different aspects.
One is thought as a logical (semantic, cognitive) process, realized in operations over and relations among ideas, and bringing about interactions between mental states and actions. This is what the thinking substance does: the thinking substance that we are, not differently from how we are human beings.
The other is thought as consciousness and subjective experience, the apprehension of ideas and the understanding of their relations, as well as feeling and willing things the sense of actions being our own.
Let us call the first, thinking as process. In this sense, the thinking substance always thinks; and in this way, it is a thinking substance. But the thinking substance (soul or brain) does not always think in the second sense; and that sort of thinking is not essential to it and is not made necessary by it. In particular, thinking in the second sense does not entail that it is done by a substance. Let us call this thinking as consciousness.
Descartes’ error was to fail to distinguish these aspects in the common genus of thinking and to conflate both in the essence of thinking substance. Locke, by contrast, distinguishes these two aspects of thinking and of the thinking subject. Thinking as process identifies and isidentified by thinking substance. The other aspect of subjectivity, thinking as consciousness, also must identify and be identified by some sortal. With a modal difference with thinking substance. This is the conceptual domain of self or person.
(8) Self or Person
«This being premised to find wherein personal Identity consists, we must consider what Person stands for; which, I think, is [a] a thinking intelligent Being, [b] that has reason and reflection, [c] and can consider it self as it self, the same thinking thing in different times and places; which [d] it does only by that consciousness, which is inseparable from thinking, and as it seems to me essential to it; It being impossible for any one to perceive, without perceiving, that he does perceive» (E 2.27.9).
[a] The sortal includes as the first condition for counting as a person that of being a thinking intelligent being: that is, the kind of entity which can understand, that is, grasp ideas and operate discursively with them. This is the primitive ontological constraint on persons, the aspect of the content of the sortal that specifies how persons have their foothold in actuality: as thinking substances. (Compare: living beings are realized as masses of matter.)
[b] Reason and reflection are specific and distinctive mental powers that enable a thinking substance to count as a person. This seems to be a priori. Reflection, in particular, seems to be required for reason, for epistemic and practical enquiry and deliberation: being aware of one’s thoughts and actions is a condition for assessing them and deliberating about them. And it is, of course, the condition for thinking as consciousness.
[c] The capacity for considering oneself as oneself is the differentia trait of the sortal: Person. Being a thinking substance, having reason and reflection, are enabling conditions for being a person. What makes it so that one thinking substance (or human being with a thinking part), endued with reason and reflection, is a person, is that it can consider it self as it self.
What individuates a person, determining whether it is this or that person and whether, in certain circumstances, there is the same person as in certain others, is the character and the content of that consideration: its first-personal, immediately and consciously reflexive character; and its referential success, its capacity to pick up its subject in different circumstances and under different description.
Persons are kinds of being that can individuate themselves by first-personal consideration of themselves. Since individuation is the ground of identity, this dimension of the content of the sortal also includes the consideration of oneself as the same across time, «the same thinking thing in different times and places».
[d] The consideration of oneself as oneself, which determines individuation and identity as a person, is its in turn determined by and expressive of consciousness. This is not higher-order consciousness; it is not a separate act of perception by the understanding and it does not result in a distinct idea. Rather, it is the internal, inherent conscious dimension of any act of the understanding, which marks its nature of perception, that is, its very presence to and existence in the mind; its mental nature. Consciousness, in this sense, is inseparable from and essential to thinking. (This was part of Locke’s intended reductio of the Cartesian view that the soul always thinks.)
This internal, first-order consciousness of acts of perceiving and understanding is first-personal in character. When Locke says that «it is impossible for any one to perceive, without perceiving, that he does perceive»; or that «when we see, hear, smell, taste, feel, meditate, or will any thing, we know that we do so» (E 2.27.9), “he” and “we” must be understood with an implication of immediate self-presence: knowing it is oneself that is doing or experiencing that.
[e] I want to say something about Locke’s formula, «consider it self as it self», as a dimension of the sortal: Person. What Locke aims to express with this formula is that an aspect of the nominal essence of person, captured by the sortal: the capacity for a special, highly distinctive mode of reflexive thought and of self-reference.
In this regard, the very structure of Locke’s formula is enlightening. The first occurrence of “himself” and “it self” («being himself», «consider it self») simply marks the self-referential character of the act of thinking under exam: what is perceived or thought of, with that act, is the subject that performs that act. That subject is a thinking substance, which can also be living being and, in our case, a human being.
On this restricted understanding, the reflexive character of such an act of thinking or consideration is (to put the point in our language) purely de re: its object is as a matter of fact the thinking substance that performs the act. But, unless more is added, such reflexivity is not de dicto: if we restrict our attention to the first occurrence of the reflexive pronoun, in Locke’s formula, we have said nothing about how, in terms of what idea or mode of consideration, we refer to our thinking or human substance. Even less is reflexivity or self-reference de se or first-personal: an act making oneself immediately and explicitly present as oneself.
It is in this stronger, de se sense that consideration of oneself or self-reference or reflexive acts of thinking are included in the content of the sortal. This is made perfectly clear by the second occurrence of the reflexive pronoun, in the context of the phrases constructed with the prepositions “as” or “to” («as it self», «to himself»), which marks the differentia of the mode of reflection or self-reference import that Locke regards as a dimension of the sortal: Person. In these contexts, the reflexive pronoun occurs as an indirect reflexive: a reflexive pronoun whose antecedent is the first occurrence of the same pronoun and indirectly the subject, who is having the idea or who is engaged in the consideration.
The subject is not only referring to itself by the use of the direct reflexive pronoun but also referring to itself as who is making such (self-) reference. This is what makes of it a self or person. This is quite clearly an insight of self-constitution.
See Weinberg, 2016, 26-28, 32-33 (and the second Chapter of her book, passim) for a fully satisfying interpretation of Locke’s consciousness, including its first-personal dimension.