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.)


With chapter 7 of Ricoeur’s Oneself as Another, we finally reach the territory of ethics. I think the idea behind this deferral is not to suggest that we are not always already in ethical territory in living in the world, but only to prepare the way by separately treating aspects that are analytically distinguishable, even if in real life we only find them embedded in richer contexts.

Aristotle, Kant, Emmanuel Lévinas, and Hannah Arendt provide Ricoeur’s leading inspiration here. Somewhat like I have proposed, he suggests a hybrid of Aristotelian “ethics” and Kantian “morality” that gives priority to Aristotle. Lévinas is famous in continental circles for promoting recognition of “the Other”. Arendt provides Ricoeur’s focal point for connecting ethics to political concerns.

From Aristotle, Ricoeur extrapolates the ideal of “aiming at the good life with and for others, in just institutions” (p. 172). To Aristotle is also attributed a basing of the aim of the good life in praxis (action or practice). Using Aristotle’s analysis of Greek tragedy, Ricoeur develops an expanded notion of action based on what he calls “emplotment”. A literary plot embodies a dialectical interplay of characters and actions, each informing the other. This will be related to Ricoeur’s concept of narrative identity. Narrative identity is also implicitly tied to Aristotle via the Thomist Alasdair MacIntyre’s “narrative unity of a life”. Ricoeur develops a concept of self-esteem, related to the morally good pride in Aristotelian magnanimity. The importance of self-esteem is also related to Charles Taylor’s idea that man is a self-interpreting animal. A notion of mutuality and equality is developed from Aristotle’s concept of friendship. The importance of Aristotelian practical judgment is discussed. Kantian norms and obligations serve as implementation for Aristotelian aims.

Solicitude is Ricoeur’s main term for concern for others. It is discussed mainly in terms of Aristotelian friendship, with a bit of Lévinas. The use of Lévinas seems to create a tension with Aristotelian mutuality, due to Lévinas’ asymmetric emphasis on the Other. Ricoeur says that among friends, roles are reversible but each person is irreplaceable. Feelings also play a fundamental role in solicitude.

Following Arendt, he speaks of the “ethical primacy of living together over constraints related to judicial systems and political organization” (p. 194). He refers to Aristotle’s “foray into the vast polysemy of the just and the unjust” (p. 198). Finally, he concludes that “Equality… is to life in institutions what solicitude is for interpersonal relations” (p. 202).


Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) was a tremendously original, highly influential, and troublesome philosopher. What makes his work troublesome is not only conceptual difficulty and a deliberate practice of translating the familiar into the unfamiliar, but also his never clearly repudiated attempt to influence the Nazi movement in Germany. He seems to have been a cultural and linguistic chauvinist who rejected pseudo-biological racism, but nonetheless put hopes in an “inner truth and greatness” of National Socialism as an alternative to American and Soviet materialism. This identification puts a dark cloud over the interpretation of his writing, which was, however, generally very far removed from politics. The question is, how much it is possible to detach his work from a stance that seems worse than one of mere bad judgment.

A serious and innovative reader of Aristotle who also developed thought-provoking readings of Plato, Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche, Heidegger combined a sympathetic but critical take on Husserl’s phenomenology with an interest in the hermeneutics of Wilhem Dilthey. Widely read as an “existentialist”, he sharply repudiated Sartre’s appropriation of his work. In his later works, he approached philosophy as a kind of poetic meditation.

His most famous thesis was that Western thought largely lost its way from Plato onward, neglecting the question of the meaning of Being in favor of preoccupation with things. While he made good points about the preconceptions involved in our ordinary encounters with things, I think he too sharply rejected “ontic” engagement with empirical, factual concerns in favor of a purified ontology. He also promoted a valorization of what I would call the pre-philosophical thought of the pre-Socratics Heraclitus and Parmenides. I think Plato and especially Aristotle represented a gigantic leap forward from this.

Some of Heidegger’s very early work was on the medieval theologian Duns Scotus, who seems to have originated the standard notion of ontology later promoted by Wolff and others. In sharp contrast to the tradition stemming from Scotus, Heidegger argued that Being is not the most generic concept, and wanted to emphasize a “Being of beings” in contrast to their factual, empirical presentation. He did not follow the path of Aquinas in identifying pure Being with God, either, and Aquinas probably would have rejected his talk of the Being of beings.

I think his most important contribution was an emphasis on what he called “being-in-the-world” as a way of overcoming the dichotomy of subject and object. His associated critique of Cartesian subjectivity has been highly influential. In later works, he also recommended putting difference before identity, and relations before things. Although the way he expounded these notions was quite original, I prefer to emphasize their roots in Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel. (See also Being, Existence; Being, Consciousness; Beings; Phenomenological Reduction?; Memory, History, Forgetfulness — Conclusion.)

Stubborn Refusal

Under an ideal of mutual recognition, what are we supposed to do with those who stubbornly refuse to participate, say by persistently disrespecting certain categories of people, or persistently disrespecting us in particular? What is a kind person to do when confronted with, say, Nazis? How do we deal with questions like this at a societal level? There is no easy general answer. As a child confronted by schoolyard bullies, I always turned the other cheek. This allowed me the kind of pride I cared more about, but not one of the bullies saw the errors of their ways as a result.

At a societal level, I don’t advocate affording one-sided recognition to those who consistently refuse to recognize others. What’s difficult is defining objective criteria that would yield the right outcome in all cases. For example, in the case of actual Nazis, I am more concerned that people ought to defend themselves against them than to protect the civil liberties of Nazis. There is a slippery slope here though, raising the classic question of who is to guard the guardians. In the 1960s, U.S. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover claimed that the pacifistic civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. was a dangerous subversive. This was patently outrageous, but there are many other cases in between, and I don’t claim to know how to account for all of them. (See also Kantian Respect; Fragility of the Good; Evil?)