Ricoeur on Locke on Personal Identity

“John Locke is the inventor of the following three notions and the sequence that they form together: identity, consciousness, self…. Locke’s invention of consciousness will become the acknowledged or unacknowledged reference for theories of consciousness in Western philosophy” (Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting, p. 102).  The English word “consciousness” was actually coined by Locke’s friend the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth in a work inspired by Plotinus, but it is Locke’s systematic use of it that was spread throughout the modern world by his famous Essay Concerning Human Understanding.  Ricoeur’s account significantly draws on that of Etienne Balibar in Identity and Difference: Locke’s Invention of Consciousness.

Chapter 27 of book 2 of Locke’s Essay, “Of Identity and Diversity”, lays out his unprecedented new theory of personal identity as grounded purely in a continuity of memory, rather than any underlying substance.  We tend to forget that Descartes’ cogito, as Ricoeur says, “is not a person….  It bursts forth in the lightning flash of an instant.  Always thinking does not imply remembering having thought.  Continual creation alone confers duration on it” (p. 103).  Ricoeur says that whereas Descartes had sought to conquer doubt with certainty, Locke sought to conquer diversity and difference with an unprecedented concept of pure reflexive identity.

“Proposing to define in new terms the principle of individuation… ‘so much inquired after’…, Locke takes as his first example an atom, ‘a continued body under one immutable superficies’, and reiterates his formula of self-identity: ‘For being at that instant what it is, and nothing else, it is the same, and so must continue as long as its existence is continued; for so long it will be the same, and no other’” (p. 104).

“It is consciousness that constitutes the difference between the idea of the same man and that of a self, also termed person…. The knowledge of this self-identity is consciousness” (ibid).  Locke is quoted saying “as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person; it is the same self now as it was then; and it is by the same self with this present one that now reflects on it, that that action was done” (p. 105).  

Ricoeur continues, “Personal identity is a temporal identity.  It is here that the objection drawn from forgetting and from sleep, considered as interruptions of consciousness, suggests the invigorated return of the idea of substance: is not the continuity of a substance required to overcome the intermittence of consciousness? Locke replies bravely that, whatever may be the status of the substantial ground, consciousness alone ‘makes’ personal identity….  Identity and consciousness form a circle.  As Balibar observes, this circle is not a logical fallacy of the theory: it is Locke’s own invention, supported by the reduction of substance…. It is not the soul that makes the man but the same consciousness.  With regard to our inquiry, the matter has been decided: consciousness and memory are one and the same thing, irrespective of any substantial basis.  In short, in the matter of personal identity, sameness equals memory” (ibid).

The word “self” is used by Locke in both generic and singular senses, with “no discussion concerning the status of the nominalized pronoun….  Locke had decided to disconnect ideas from names.  Yet, ‘Person, as I take it, is the name for this self’” (p. 106). “The shift to a judicial vocabulary is not far off.  The transitional concept is that of ‘person’, the other ‘name for this self’…. What makes it a synonym for the self, despite its ‘forensic’ character?  The fact that it signifies that the self ‘reconciles’ and ‘appropriates’, that is to say, assigns, allocates to consciousness the ownership of its acts” (p. 107).

Locke thus not only completely rethought the notion of persons in terms of a pure logical identity in consciousness and an analogy with atoms in a void, but also formulated a radically new notion of ethical agency and responsibility, based on an analogy with the exclusive ownership associated with private property.  The ownership model of agency and responsibility leaves no room for more subtle considerations of “power to”.  Indeed, Ricoeur notes that Locke’s approach to politics is entirely grounded in “power over”.

From a purely logical standpoint, Locke successfully avoids many arguments against the putative total self-transparency of consciousness, by making its self-transparency a matter of definition rather than an empirical claim.  Locke’s position is internally consistent.  From a practical standpoint, however, any claim that total self-transparency actually applies to real life is, to say the least, fraught with difficulty.  Total self-transparency seems to me to be more extravagantly supernatural than the Latin medieval notion of a substantial intellectual soul that it replaced.  Also, real people are not atomic unities. From the point of view of more recent physical science, even atoms are not atomic unities. (See also Ego; Personhood; Meaning, Consciousness; Mind Without Mentalism; Aristotelian Identity; Narrative Identity, Substance; Ricoeur on Memory: Orientation; Ricoeur on Augustine on Memory.)

Ricoeur on Forgiveness

The epilogue to Ricoeur’s Memory, History, Forgetting is entitled “Difficult Forgiveness” (after this I’ll return to the beginning).  Forgiveness is “an eschatology of the representation of the past.  Forgiveness – if it has a sense, and if it exists – constitutes the horizon common to memory, history, and forgetting.  Always in retreat, this horizon slips away from any grasp” (p. 457).  

Forgiveness results in “unbinding the agent from the act”.  “In order to be bound by a promise, the subject of an action must be able to be released from it through forgiveness” (p. 459).   Nonetheless, some acts are completely unjustifiable; in particular, crimes against humanity.  In these cases, “justice must be done” (p. 473).  “My thesis here is that a significant asymmetry exists between being able to forgive and being able to promise” (p. 459).   In general, we should not too easily forgive ourselves.  And “The commandment to love one’s enemies begins by breaking the rule of reciprocity and demanding the extraordinary” (p. 482).  “[F]orgiveness has a religious aura that promising does not” (p. 487).

Ricoeur recalls Jacques Derrida’s paradox that “forgiveness is directed to the unforgiveable or it does not exist” (p. 468).  He returns to the theme of “fault”, originally developed 40 years earlier in Fallible Man: “[S]elf-recognition is indivisibly action and passion, the action of acting badly and the passion of being affected by one’s own action” (p. 462).   His analyses have been “an exploration of the gap opened between the unforgivable fault and this impossible forgiveness” (p. 490).  He agrees with Derrida that “forgiving the guilty person while condemning his action, would be to forgive a subject other than the one who committed the act” (ibid).  

Still, he thinks there could be “a more radical uncoupling… at the heart of our very power to act – of agency – namely, between the effectuation and the capacity that it actualizes” (ibid).  This would be an instance of Aristotle’s distinction between actuality and potentiality.  Several times in his later works, Ricoeur pointed out the importance of actuality and potentiality in Aristotle, though he tended to assimilate potentiality to a more Platonic notion of power in the sense of “power to”.  This is what is in play in Ricoeur’s oft-expressed concern for “the capable human”.  Plato’s association of being a being with this kind of “power to” was already richly provocative, but Aristotle took the same word dynamis and gave it a much more subtle and developed meaning, which I summarized as “multiple alternative concrete possibilities of realization already implicit in current reality” (see The Importance of Potentiality).  But either way, forgiveness can be understood as a kind of trust in someone’s potentiality over against past actuality. (See also Fallible Humanity; Middle Part of the Soul.)

Personhood

We intuitively grasp a kind of unity of each human person, but have no special, privileged mode of knowledge of persons as individuals. Common sense tends to be rather dogmatic, and glosses over many distinctions in such matters. Plato compared the soul to a city, a sort of community of thoughts and desires — a kind of unity to be sure, but a relatively weak one. In Kantian terms, human persons seem to be distinguished from everything else by somehow being the nexus of combination of otherwise very distinct empirical and transcendental domains.

Considerations of change over time further complicate the picture, but may also provide a kind of guiding thread. A factual “me” is mainly a retrospective construction. A normative “I” on the other hand has both retrospective and prospective aspects. Brandom’s and Pippin’s readings of Hegel emphasize that we should think of agency and acts as always comprising both a partially constituted, retrospectively constructed past and a yet-to-be-determined future. Ricoeur has developed a temporally extended, retrospective and prospective notion of self as an ethical aim or promise rather than an existing actuality. Such an aim or promise, it seems to me, can have a much stronger unity than we could legitimately claim as an existing actuality.

Rather than conflating the empirical and transcendental, as in the Latin medieval notion of an “intellectual soul” — or inflating a notion of empirical self to fill the whole space of subjectivity, in the common modern way — we can tie the unification of empirical and transcendental elements to that prospective aim or promise, without asserting it in the present. (See also Empirical-Transcendental Doublet?; Two Kinds of Character; Narrated Time; Hegel’s Ethical Innovation; Hegel on Willing.)

What We Really Want

Aristotle distinguished willing from unwilling actions, noting that there are mixed cases in which we do something we ordinarily would not do, in order to avoid a greater evil or to further a greater good. Hegel suggested that what we actually do is the best guide to understanding what we really want. Does this make Aristotle’s distinction meaningless? I want to say no.

It may be that Hegel would reject Aristotle’s secondary distinction between unwilling actions and mixed cases. Hegel might even say that all of Aristotle’s “willing” and “unwilling” actions are better thought of as mixed. Paul Ricoeur has somewhat similarly argued that agency always involves a combination of active and passive aspects.

Aristotle said that we should either judge mixed cases by the particulars of the relevant tradeoffs, or simply consider them as occasions calling for forgiveness. I think this is compatible with Hegel’s perspective. What we actually did in some situation is not necessarily the key to what we really wanted, full stop, but rather the key to what we really wanted under the applicable conditions. (See also Context; Rethinking Responsibility; Brandomian Forgiveness.)

Naturalness, Mindedness

I’ll be devoting several posts to Robert Pippin’s important book Hegel’s Practical Philosophy: Rational Agency as Ethical Life (2008). Pippin suggests we translate “philosophy of Geist (Spirit)” in a non-metaphysical way as “practical philosophy”, taking “practical” in the ethical sense. He will be centrally concerned to elaborate Hegel’s notion of freedom — which avoids any kind of dualism or voluntarism — and to explore the significance of Hegel’s claims that freedom is the most important thing in ethics. He calls Hegel’s account of the real possibility of freedom the most ambitious in the history of philosophy.

Pippin says he wants to suggest with Hegel that we are free when we can recognize our deeds and projects as expressing our own meaningful agency. According to Hegel, even organic life already involves purposes as distinct from causal relations, but freedom in the sense of arbitrary choice is a delusion. Rather, freedom for Hegel involves “a certain sort of self-relation and a certain sort of relation to others; it is constituted by being in a certain self-regarding and a certain sort of mutually recognizing state” (p. 39). Hegel’s name for these normative relations is Spirit.

For Hegel, things like spirit and individual soul are distinguished from simple nature “logically” rather than ontologically or metaphysically. They are not separate “substances” in the medieval or early modern sense, but “way[s] of being” (pp. 39-40). Freedom — said to be the essence of spirit — does not involve “having a special causal origin or being undertaken by a causally exempt being” (p. 40).

Pippin suggests that when Hegel talks about “the concept”, he effectively means normativity. Freedom involves a kind of normative self-determination. “[T]he truth that will set spirit free will not be a revelation or a discovery but its coming to act as fully what it is, a being constrained and guided by self-imposed norms” (ibid). He quotes Hegel saying it is freedom that makes spirit true, and that the philosophy of spirit can be neither empirical nor metaphysical.

Kant’s dualism was ethical rather than metaphysical, Pippin says, but it was strict. Hegel develops a continuity between nature and spirit, while enthusiastically embracing Kant’s critique of so-called rational psychology and his conclusion that the soul is not a thing, but rather to be identified with the “I” and with freedom. Hegelian Spirit is a form of activity .

Hegel says in freedom we are “with self in another” (p. 43). Pippin says this means “an achievement in practices wherein justificatory reasons can be successfully shared” (ibid). What could count as free action depends on this achievement of shareability of reasons.

Spirit’s self-legislation — in which we participate — can be identified with “the unconditioned”. Spirit as realized freedom is a historical achievement, related to the extension of freedom from a few to all. Spirit’s “production of itself”, while not reducible to natural terms, occurs as a result of the agency of natural beings. This must be distinguished from all empirical or philosophical psychologies. Hegel is quoted saying reason constitutes the substantial nature of spirit.

Nature is not a manifestation of cosmic spirit, or a mere appearance or illusion. Hegel’s complex view of teleology is not as a sort of providence or any kind of neoplatonic unfolding. Hegelian Spirit always presupposes nature. “Natural beings begin to understand themselves in ways not explicable as self-sentiment or mere self-monitoring because the form of their reflexive self-relation is an aspect of what is to be represented, not a separable, quasi-observational position” (p. 46). Once we begin talking about what a being takes itself to be, we have moved beyond simple nature. Wilfrid Sellars is quoted saying to think of someone as a person is not to “classify or explain, but to rehearse an intention” (p. 61).

Hegel vindicates “the oldest and original premise of ancient rationalism, that to be is to be intelligible” (p. 49; emphasis in original). Pippin characterizes his reading as “clearly neo-Aristotelian”. He concludes that there is no “missing ontology” in a position like this. Moreover, “the issues that dominate so much of the modern post-Cartesian, post-Kantian discussion about nature and mentality do not ever arise for Hegel: subjective self-certainty, raw feels, intentional states, mental objects, … and the problem of spontaneous causation in action” (p. 57).

Ascription of Actions

After the disappointing result from traditional analytic semantic approaches to action, Ricoeur turns to the pragmatics of action, and to applying Strawson’s notion of ascription to persons.

He discusses Aristotle’s distinctions of willing and unwilling actions and choice at some length. Unlike Donald Davidson, who only had a modern notion of (physical) cause to work with, Aristotle had a neutral concept of arche or “principle” that applies equally well to ethical and physical instances, like his broad notion of “cause” as a reason why. According to Ricoeur, Aristotle ascribes actions to a principle that is a “self”. Ricoeur also notes that Aristotle speaks of us as synaition (co-responsible for, or co-causing in Aristotle’s broader sense) our dispositions and character.

Aristotle himself did not actually use a word like “self” in this context, but attributed choice to “either intellect fused with desire, or desire fused with thinking, and such a source is a human being” (Nicomachean Ethics, Sachs translation, p. 104). Even the term “fused with” turns out to be an interpolation by the translator here — the Greek just has “intellect and desire”, and says nothing about how they are related. I agree there is a kind of reflexivity within the thought and desire involved here, but I’ve been taking it to be of the adverbial sort. I have so far used the term “self” either adverbially, or for a matter-of-fact emotional constitution inter-articulated with an intimate but anonymous transcendental but historical ethos. (Later note — in an earlier work, Ricoeur had proposed a notion of ethical Self as an aim, which I am now adding into my own view. Such an interpolation seems at least compatible with the broad spirit of Aristotle, despite its anachronistic character at a literal level.)

I’m awaiting further clarification of how Ricoeur’s ipse identity is supposed to work in a positive sense (through a sort of continuity of development?); how that would apply to the combination that is mentioned but not elaborated on by Aristotle; and whether the application of ipse identity — which I suspect would be warmly welcomed in a Thomistic context — is intended to be understood as historically Aristotelian, or as a post-Aristotelian original thought. The novel semantic category of ipse identity seems well suited to capture intuitions uniting self with responsibility, and potentially to solve some difficulties with which I have struggled. But so far, its application here is not fully explained. (For the beginning of a resolution, see Narrative Identity. For an actual resolution, see Self, Infinity.)

Turning to Strawson, Ricoeur argues that ascription of actions to persons is different from logical attribution of properties to objects, and that it implicitly involves the kind of reflexivity found in self-designating utterance. (I can grant the difference between ascription and attribution, but it is as yet unclear to me in what way he wants us to see that ascription necessarily involves reflexivity, since ascription does not involve self-designation.) He says we first ascribe actions to persons, and only then do we ask about their intentions. Motives, he says, are mainly relevant in hindsight when we ask about an action that has occurred. Also, the “who” behind an action is expected to have a definite answer, whereas motives depend on other motives, and so on indefinitely. The notion of an agent as the “who”, Ricoeur says, is this time successfully reached. Its actual meaning depends on the whole related network of the “what”, “why”, and “how” of the action.

Ricoeur nonetheless finds a difficulty in Strawson’s approach as well. The “who” again turns out to be subordinated to an ontology that reduces away its specificity — this time, an ontology of generalized “somethings”. Ricoeur had argued previously that the reflexivity of a self makes it not properly analyzable as a thing at all, because “things” are understood as having the simple idem kind of identity, but selves have the reflexive, ipse kind of identity. He makes the further point that ascription of an action to a self differs from ordinary description, in that it implies an attribution of responsibility.

He notes that for Aristotle, ascriptions of actions have ethical or juridical significance from the start. He also notes that ascription of an action implicitly involves a judgment that the action is within the agent’s power. Then, there are questions of how we assess responsibility for the whole chain of effects of an action, and how we apportion shared responsibility among multiple agents. He concludes that we still have work to do to understand the thinking initiation of actions, and that the framework of simple ascription of actions to selves is still too abstract to do the job.

Meaning, Consciousness

I generally translate talk about consciousness into talk about meaning and related commitments. It doesn’t seem to me that anything is lost in the conversion; all the content is still there.

The notion of consciousness as a sort of generalized transparent medium of immediate presence that is somehow also tied to our sense of self and agency may seem intuitive, but it is actually the product of a long cultural development. It seems to belong to what Lacan called the Imaginary. Plato and Aristotle addressed the full range of human experience without any dependency on something like this. (See also Intentionality.)

Essential Goodness

By essential goodness I mean a kind of multiple potential that is always there. With Aristotle, I don’t assume there is a single Platonic form of the Good. I also don’t assume that the potential for goodness is evenly distributed, but it seems to be plentiful. As befits its potential status, it is simultaneously over- and underdetermined. There is more than one way for a situation to turn out well. This is not automatic, and usually requires our cooperation and active participation.

Part of what makes meanings meaningful to us is their involvement with contingency. Contingency means that what we do matters, but it also means there will always be things beyond our control that we passively experience.

A few of these may be terrible. We lose loved ones. After seeing horrors like the Nazi concentration camps, some people lost their faith, because God did not prevent those things from occurring. This was based on a wrong expectation of a universally present guiding hand in events. Enough wonders do come to us in life that metaphors of providence speak to us, and hope is a good thing. But providence does not necessitate anything, because goodness is a potential that typically requires a cooperating agent(s) for its realization.

Acts in Brandom and Žižek

Both Brandom and Žižek recognize what Brandom has called the “world’s stubborn recalcitrance to mastery and agency”, and yet hold out for the possibility of transformative action.

Brandom ingeniously secures the practical reality of choice through the indirect route of an Enlightenment idea that we can only be bound by values to which we have at least implicitly committed ourselves. The recalcitrance of the Real prevents this from becoming a subjectivism, specifically by virtue of his complementary thesis that the meaning of our commitments is not up to us. But actively taking responsibility for things beyond our power turns out to indirectly have a kind of efficacy. Retrospectively, this may change meant reality.

A lengthy article by Fabio Vighi and Heiko Feldner discusses agency in Žižek from various angles. This account at least is happily free of the Badiouian narrowing of consideration to a few inflationarily conceived “exceptional” acts that afflicts some of the Žižekians (see “Hard” Kantianism?). The concern is with acts in general, and subjectivity in general. Here I can find a good deal more common ground.

For Žižek, our desires are not our own, but the split in the subject that makes us never fully ourselves also connects us with the social. A subject is contrasted with subjectivation. Although passive, alienating subjectivation is inescapable, it also can never be complete. A subject is positively constituted by its own nonidentity or “impossibility” (i.e., impossibility of complete identity with itself). According to Vighi and Feldner, “this decentred kernel of otherness embodies my self-consciousness, the only place where I have a chance to locate the truth about myself”. The conscious activity of individuals is said to be not free, but we can nonetheless accomplish a free act through identifying with the destabilizing effect of what is “in us more than ourselves”. They argue that Žižek does not hypostatize an abstract negativity in the way that I think Sartre did.

Žižek himself wrote that “To ‘pass to the act’ means to assume the risk that what I am about to do will be inscribed into a framework whose contours elude my grasp” (Tarrying with the Negative, p. 31). This connects agency with the Lacanian Real. He also wrote that freedom corresponds to “my ability to choose/determine which causes will determine me. ‘Ethics’, at its most elementary, stands for the courage to accept this responsibility” (The Parallax View, p. 203).

So, despite huge differences in approach and terminology and Žižek’s negative comments about Brandom, on this question at this level of abstraction, there is a similar practical import.

Practice

Some people have argued that a fundamentally ethical notion of practice is not sufficient to ground a full, well-rounded account of the varieties of human activity. I used to be one of them, but no longer.

Judgments of utility may on the surface seem mainly to involve various sorts of calculation, but ultimately they involve considerations of what is better or worse for the realization of some purpose.

Judgments of fact may also appear on the surface to be value-neutral, but ultimately they involve questions of what it is reasonable to believe, which also involves judgments of value.

What about physical operations? Physical operations always implicitly involve questions of how to proceed, and answers to these questions involve judgments of utility and judgments of fact, both of which involve judgments of value. (See also Practical Judgment; Choice, Deliberation; Expansive Agency; Brandomian Forgiveness; Meta-Ethics as First Philosophy; Normative Monism.)