Discuss in Light of his Treatment of Identity

Who are you, according to Locke? Discuss in light of his treatment of identity (including the identity of inanimate things, living things, and human beings – “man” and “person”) and the prince and the cobbler example.


For centuries, philosophers have been intrigued by the question of identity, which investigates the conditions under which one’s identity can be made consistent throughout space and time. The 17th century English thinker John Locke, being one of these philosophers, proposes a theory answering this very question. In this essay, I’d like to briefly examine Locke’s theory of identity, in which he makes distinctions among the identity of inanimate beings, animate beings, and most importantly, persons. As the discussion develops, I will address a renowned objection to Locke’s argument that consciousness makes the personal identity.

Identity of the Inanimate and the Animate

Locke’s account of identity condition for inanimate beings is quite straight- forward and easy to understand, especially when we are familiar with modern physics – for Locke, an individual inanimate being remains the same throughout time as long as it is composed of the exact same matter during that span of time. For example, a pile of sand at a certain time A is the same pile at time B if the pile does not gain nor lose a particle from time A to B1. Therefore, even if all particles of this pile of sand are rearranged, the identity of this pile is preserved so long as each particle remains numerically the same. Here, Locke’s use of the term inanimate being seems to refer to something very specific – it is “a mass of matter” such as a pile of sand and a piece of clay, rather than other lifeless objects like Theseus’s ship and bicycles, for the latter’s identity is clearly affected by the proper arrangement of each part.

A bicycle would not be a bicycle at all, even with every part of it being numerically the same, if the wheels, saddle, and bike chains are not assembled in a certain fashion. Additionally, we tend to agree that a bike can maintain its identity even if we replace one part with the other. This example in fact helps one to understand Locke’s clarification on identity of animate beings. According to Locke, the identity of living creatures is not determined by having the exact same matter, for “in them the variation of great parcels of matter does not alter the identity”2. What’s essential for a living creature to maintain its identity then, in Locke’s view, is that it “partakes of the same life”3, meaning that all the parts of this creature are organized in a way that it allows the creature to function properly as its kind is supposed to. Therefore, unlike inanimate beings, all living creatures, including plants and animals, can undergo a continuous change in matter without changing its identity.

Identity of Man and Person

As Locke’s theory of identity develops, he makes an important distinction between the terms “man” and “person”. According to Locke, a man is “nothing else but of an animal of such a certain form”4. Therefore, the identity condition of a man follows from the identity condition of living creatures as illustrated above. As for the definition of person, like Descartes, Locke also contends that a person is a thinking thing, a rational being. Yet unlike Descartes, Locke further defines this intelligent being as “…that can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing in different times and places”5. To better explain this distinction between man and person, consider Locke’s example of a rational parrot and “dull, irrational man”6. A parrot, however intelligent and rational like a person, can never be a man, for it has a body of a parrot, not of a man.

A person can only perform the tasks of “considering itself as itself…”, Locke then argues, thanks to his or her consciousness. Since we cannot perceive or think without being conscious of us perceiving or thinking, consciousness always accompanies the acts of perceiving and thinking. Consequently, we as persons can only recognize our unique identities and distinguish ourselves from other intelligent beings due to our consciousness. Locke then concludes that the identity of person is preserved throughout time only by the person being conscious of his or her past thoughts and experiences. In other words, person P at time A is the same as person P’ at a later time B as long as P’ is conscious of, or remembers, P’s thoughts and experiences at time A. Therefore, P’ remembering an earlier person P’s thoughts and experiences is necessary and sufficient for P’ being the same person as P.

In order to better grasp how his idea about personal identity works, we can take a closer look at the relation between human body and person by the example of waking and sleeping Socrates as well as the example of the prince and the cobbler. For Locke, one man, that is, one human body, can bear two different persons at different

times due to the very nature of person and man. If waking Socrates is not conscious of, or remembers, being the sleeping Socrates, the waking Socrates and sleeping Socrates are essentially two different persons, even though they share the same human body7. Likewise, one person can be in different bodies at different times. If, Locke proposes, a prince woke up in a cobbler’s body with all his princely thoughts, that is, with all his consciousness and memories of being a prince, the prince’s identity maintained despite of being in a different human body8.


Although Locke’s view on personal identity is revolutionary in the sense that it rejects the idea that the sameness of body or soul is essential to the sameness of person, this theory still has flaws, as Thomas Reid, a subsequent philosopher points out. The famous example begins with allegedly the same person P at three different stages of his life – a boy, a soldier, and a general. Suppose this person P, as a young boy, was caught for stealing at a store. Later in his life, P joined the military and won a few battles. A few decades later, P was promoted to be a brave general because of his contributions. As a young soldier, P remembered being caught for stealing when he was little, and general P remembered winning the battles as a this young soldier. Sadly, due to his growing age, P as the general can no longer remember being caught as a young boy.

According to Locke’s theory, the soldier P is identical to the boy P when stealing because the soldier can remember the stealing. Similarly, the general P is identical to the soldier P because the general can recall winning the battles on the battlefields. However, if Locke were right, the general P would not be identical to the little boy, for the general does not recall doing so. In other words, P as the general is not conscious of being the boy who was caught because of stealing, thus the general P cannot be the same person as the little boy. This example picks out some serious inconsistency in Locke’s theory of personal identity – on one hand, following Locke’s logic and by doing some simple logical deduction, we know that the general must be identical to the boy, yet on the other hand, Locke’s theory says it cannot be the case that they are identical.

In Locke’s work Of Identity and Diversity, not only did he makes an important and interesting distinction between man and person, he also sheds light on the nature of personal identity, as well as the identity of other kinds of beings as well. However, his argument that consciousness alone is both necessary and sufficient for the sameness of person is perhaps too strong, if not wrong.

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