Memory Theory of Personal Identity

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Many individuals tend to wonder what it truly means to have a personal identity. We often find ourselves asking who am I? What truly makes us who we are? Is it our memory or our physical appearance? According to our textbook, Bertrand Russell states, “Many philosophers, it is true, have held that philosophy could establish the truth of certain answers to such fundamental questions” (Russell 11). The true meaning of personal identity has been a subject of debate between many philosophers for quite a few centuries. One of the most common traditional theories of personal identity is the memory theory. Most individuals know what memory is, but they do not know how it can help define one’s personal identity. A well-known philosopher John Locke described his beliefs on this theory during the 16th century. The memory theory of personal identity is that any experience an individual remembers doing in the past and is aware of, it must belong to that individual.

This means that if an individual can remember something they experienced in the past, then that memory must belong to that individual which can help in defining the individual’s personal identity. According to our handout, the philosophical puzzle of the memory theory is “X = Y if and only if X and Y are psychologically continuous with one another.” Since I will be discussing John Locke’s memory theory it is important to understand his definition of Person, Personal Identity, and most importantly Consciousness. According to Locke, “A person is a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing at different times and places. Personal Identity means the sameness of a rational being; and as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person. Consciousness always accompanies thinking and makes everyone to be what he calls ‘self’ and thereby distinguishes himself from all other thinking things” (Locke 115). Although the memory theory seems to be believable for many reasons, it does have its many criticisms. Therefore, an individual’s memories are a necessary part in defining an individual’s identity. This helps conclude that the memory theory of personal identity is correct. In this paper, I will demonstrate the many criticisms this theory has and how they apply in determining an individual’s true personal identity.

To begin with, the memory theory of personal identity has a few pros which helps determine the truth in this theory. An individual’s personal memories are formed by real past experiences. For example, if an individual gets in a car crash when they were a teenager and they still remember it several years later, that is their personal memory from a real past experience. John Locke defends this statement by saying, “it is the same self now that it was then; and this present self that now reflects on it is the one by which that action was performed” (Locke 115).

Within this statement, I believe John Locke is correct because he is simply saying if an individual does not remember the action that was performed then the individual did not experience the action. Another pro that helps determine the truth in this theory is personal identity can be defined in terms of one’s memory. John Locke states, “it is impossible for personal identity to consist in anything but consciousness” (Locke 119). As individuals grow and develop throughout life, what they do within their lifetime helps define their personal identity. This means that an individual’s memories of themselves from the past also defines the individual’s personal identity. A third pro that helps determine the truth in this theory is how individual’s stay connected to the past with memories. For individuals to stay connected to their past, they must reflect on memories of their past. For example, if an individual’s mother dies when they are young, the only way that individual can stay connected to their mother is through the old memories. Since the individual’s mother has died, they can no longer create new memories with their mother. Therefore, they must reflect on old memories of their mother in order to stay connected with her. Altogether, these pros help determine the truth in the memory theory of personal identity.

Furthermore, even though the memory theory of personal identity does have its pros, it also has a few cons. One of the most debatable claims is that losing memory of your past means you are a different person. Thomas Reid criticizes John Locke’s claim by using his example of a brave officer. Reid states, “Suppose a brave officer was beaten as a child at school. During his first battle he captures an enemy standard and later in life he becomes a general. When he took the standard, he was still conscious of being beaten as a child and when he became a general, he was conscious of his taking the standard. However, he had absolutely lost the consciousness of his beating” (Reid 147, 148). Reid is stating that even though the brave officer lost his memory of his past beating at school as a child, he is still the same person. Another debatable claim is when Locke speaks of consciousness. Thomas Reid questions if Locke meant memory when he uses the word consciousness.

Thomas Reid states, “It is impossible to make sense of this unless ‘consciousness’ means memory, the only faculty by which we have an immediate knowledge of our past actions” (Reid 148). Lastly, Joseph Butler another well-known philosopher also criticized Locke’s thoughts on memories and consciousness. Although he did agree with Locke that memories are insights to the past stages of the same identity, he did not believe that memoires constitute identity. Butler states, “And one should really think it Self-evident, that Consciousness of personal Identity presupposes, and therefore cannot constitute, personal Identity, any more than Knowledge in any other Case, can constitute Truth, which it presupposes” (Butler). According to Joseph Butler, this means that consciousness presupposes identity; however, it cannot constitute identity. Overall, these philosophers have continuously criticized Locke’s memory theory of personal identity but have failed to change my opinion of the memory theory.

Nevertheless, there are a lot of criticisms against the memory theory; however, I will now defend my position of the memory theory. Thomas Reid’s example of a brave officer was indeed a great example, but I do find some inconsistencies with his example. I would say that physically the officer is still the same person, but his consciousness/memory is most definitely different therefore it makes him a different person. I do not believe that every individual is the exact same person as they were in the past. As humans grow, our past memories begin to fade, this leads us to becoming different as adults than we were as a child. I believe his theory is also a good example for individuals who have amnesia or Alzheimer’s. If John Locke was alive today, I believe he would also consider an individual with amnesia or Alzheimer’s a different person as well. As the disease progresses the individual loses all memory of their past. Therefore, the individual is now without a personal identity because they are different than they were before. Similarly, Thomas Reid questions if John Locke’s definition of consciousness means memory.

Throughout Locke’s theory, he gives several examples of consciousness which allows any reader to strongly assume that he does, in fact, mean memory. It is known that Thomas Reid spent most of his time criticizing Locke’s every word. I believe Reid should have automatically known that by using the word consciousness Locke meant memory. Lastly, Joseph Butler also criticized Locke’s memory theory simply because he believed that consciousness cannot constitute identity. I disagree with Butler because Locke gave more believable examples of how consciousness does help define an individual’s identity. Every individual has past experiences that helps create part of their personal identity. If the individual cannot remember (for whatever reason) their past experiences, then they must be a different person despite any physical changes. All in all, regardless of the many criticisms against John Locke’s theory, I still believe that his theory plays a key part in defining an individual’s personal identity.

As can be seen, there are many pros and cons to John Locke’s memory theory of personal identity. Personal memories are formed by real past experiences, personal identity can be defined in terms of one’s memory, and we stay connected to the past with memories are all pros that help define the truth in Locke’s memory theory. Although these truths help define the memory theory, they did not provide enough evidence for some philosophers such as Thomas Reid and Joseph Butler. Thomas Reid criticized Locke’s memory theory the most simply because in his eyes the theory did not make any sense. Joseph Butler did agree that memories are insights to the past stages of the same identity; however, he criticized Locke’s memory theory because he believed that consciousness cannot create personal identity.

After reading the objections from both philosophers, I believe they both had inconsistencies in their objections because none of their theories were perfect. By using several theoretical situations, I believe any philosopher could argue against Thomas Reid and Joseph Butler’s theories. Despite creating good arguments against John Locke’s memory theory, they failed to change my position on the theory. Just because Locke’s theory was written several decades before Thomas Reid and Joseph Butler’s theory, it does not mean that it was entirely incorrect. If John Locke were alive today, I am sure he could provide great answers to their objections and any other philosopher that disagreed with his theory. Overall, I believe an individual’s memories are a necessary part in defining one’s identity because without memories, we have no personal identity.

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Memory Theory of Personal Identity. (2021, Mar 27). Retrieved April 18, 2024 , from

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