Defining the Identity

In this section of John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, the reader gets a glimpse into the tangled terminology of “identity.”  He introduces the idea of separating one from the other to create said identity when he says “one thing cannot have two beginnings of existence, nor two things one beginning” (II. 27. 1).  Here, Locke uses the approach of dissecting the concept of existence and being, therefore designating any one thing to solely one origin and by later providing examples using the atom and the oak from a tree.

I particularly like Locke’s example of the plant growing within its environment.  In the fourth paragraph he writes, “it continues to be the same plant as long as it partakes of the same life, though that life be communicated to new particles of matter vitally united to the living plant” (II. 27. 4).  I personally saw this as a loose example that could be related to the human identity in the sense that by biological terms, humans are all the same species, living on the same planet Earth, but that each one is significantly unique to the other, representing the “new particles of matter.”  Each human being constitutes a very different identity and I saw the method of describing the plant’s growth as an interesting way to encapsulate the meaning of identity in the text.

Regardless of Locke’s methods to determine the meaning of identity, I feel like such a task is very difficult to achieve and by no means concrete.  Identity is such a complex word and it can have a slightly different meaning from one person to the next, not to mention the fact that the identity itself can be equally defined by everything it is as by all the things that it is not.  The role of the identity of course revolves around the person or object involved but can get altered perceptibly when viewed by other identities as well.

2 responses to “Defining the Identity

  1. You are absolutely right in that determining identity is no easy task. Locke’s connection between human and plant identity, while thought-provoking, is not the only way to approach the question of identity. The strengths of the plant’s view of identity is that it correctly describes the problems of identity with an organic object. An inorganic object would only be changed through artificial means or strong forces of nature. An organic object, however, has many interactions with its environment and thus changes its physical makeup constantly. Even as a plant goes through its daily routine, we would still consider it a plant at the end of the day. Like people, it is similar to other members of the same species but still retains its own identity. A question that can be raised for plant identity is how to describe smaller plants within larger plants. For example, if pollen is blown away from a plant and ends up producing a new plant, does that pollen still associate to the original plant? These questions could be further explored in detail.

  2. You brought up a really good point about the validity of Locke’s definitions when you stated that identity “can get altered perceptibly when viewed by other identities as well.” I also question how isolated Locke’s mechanisms of identity appear to be and I agree that identity is much more complicated than that. Locke maintains that identity is derived by relating a thing to itself, however, looking back at my own experiences I want to say that this is not the case. How other people, other identities, view me has had a big impact on my own consciousness. I have found that interacting with other people is really one of the best ways to gauge myself and I do not think that a persons consciousness can exist independent of the rest of the world. Is the identity of a flower really not affected if the rest of the world considers it a weed?

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