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.)

Ego

Literally since childhood, I’ve been concerned about ethical issues involving ego or egoism in a plain ordinary dictionary sense. This involves a number of related aspects. At the grossest level, there is selfishness and arrogance. Beyond that, there are many kinds and degrees of self-centeredness. At the subtle end of the spectrum, there are various kinds of self-involvement that impair our attention to the concerns of others. What these all have in common is that with varying degrees of seriousness, they result in failures of reciprocity in social relationships, failures to apply the golden rule. As a young person, this led me to investigate various spiritual teachings about ego and self and what to do with them. This still stands as a backdrop to my philosophical interest in questions related to subjectivity, and in related questions of historical interpretation.

Philosophically, ego in the ordinary sense is not at all the same thing as a Subject, but the two are commonly confounded. Both are problematic, and require careful handling. Modern common-sense views of such things most often implicitly reflect a very specific historical “mentalist” philosophical view shared by Descartes and Locke, which tends to simply identify the two. In my view, this identification of ego-self-subject-mind as one simple thing is utterly wrong, and makes it impossible to adequately address the serious issues with each separate concept.

Historically, the rise of Cartesian-Lockean mentalism was closely tied to the rise of possessive individualism, of which Locke, along with Hobbes, was one of the main theorists (see Rights). This gave egoism in the ordinary sense a new kind of respectability that it did not have in premodern society. On this theory, people could claim ethical justification for egoistic behavior, and claim additional support from theories like Adam Smith’s invisible hand. This created a further slippery slope, leading to all manner of extensions and abuses of these principles that Locke or Smith would not have condoned. (See also Desire of the Master; Freedom Without Sovereignty.)

In sound ethics, reciprocity comes before self. This does not imply any extreme self-denial, just appropriate consideration of others, who should give the same consideration to us. (See also The Ambiguity of “Self”; Individuation; What Is “I”?)