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.)


Rights are an important legal concept, and in the interest of justice in an imperfect world sometimes need to be defended, but ethics should guide law, not the other way around. Mutual recognition makes the blunter instrument of unilateral “rights” superfluous for ethical purposes. Kantian respect for others and the Aristotelian spirit of friendship already do so. If we respect others in our actions and treat them in a friendly way, they need not worry about enforcing any putative rights in relation to us. (See also Leibniz.)

If we examine what Hegel called “positive” (actually existing) law, it is often not guided by good ethics as it should be. All too much law is devoted to institutionalizing unilateral privilege (etymologically, “private law”) of one sort or another. We are supposed to be consoled that by the fact that everyone is assigned at least a few privileges, but the whole model of unilateral privilege is ethically deeply wrong.

It is an unsavory fact that the unilateral, unconditional privileges associated with modern ownership and sovereignty historically descend from medieval European libertas or “liberty”, or the arbitrary “right” claimed by the Master to rape the peasant’s daughter and generally do as he pleases, with no regard for others. This kind of “liberty” is an ugly voluntarist fantasy associated with what Plato called the worst sort of character, that of a tyrant. Just such ugliness is recalled by, e.g., the old British Tory slogan “liberty and property”. It is the liberty of the privileged to walk over the rest of us.

Years ago, I was shocked to learn that the classic modern development of the notion of rights explicitly models all rights on unilateral property rights, making reciprocal rights of people a derivative afterthought. (See, e.g., C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism.) Hobbes and Locke did this, and specifically on the question of rights Kant and Hegel unfortunately followed suit, even though their views provide resources for a much better, people-first account, based on respect or mutual recognition.

All rights deserving of legal recognition should be grounded in respect. If we respect property, it should be rationally related to respect for people. No one has a “right” to be a billionaire. (See also Freedom from False Freedom.)