Locke on Identity

John Locke is an English philosopher best known for his idea of natural law. In his work An Essay concerning Human Understanding, he goes on to question the qualities that make up the things we observe. He begins by explaining his own definition of “identity” in respect to time, which he describes as “when we see anything to be in any place in any instant of time, we are sure (be it what it will) that it is that very thing, and not another” (329). Locke expresses here that when we see something (for instance an apple on the table), we are certain that it exists in front of our eyes and not in another place. To continue, he argues that “it follows, that one thing cannot have two beginnings of existence, nor two things one beginning; it being impossible for two things of the same kind to be or exist in the same instant, in the very same place, or one and the same thing in different places” (329). He expands on identity as a single object cannot be in the exact same place as a different object. From here, we can classify and figure out what exists at a certain place at a certain time.

Locke takes his thinking from small objects to the individual. His case for consciousness is intriguing because he presents our five senses as evidence for perception, even though our perception can be blurred. This is important to identity because even though our different senses are considered separate from each other, they combine to make up our body as a whole and thus form our identity.

Lastly, Locke asks an intriguing question about different states of consciousness. He declares, “But is not a man drunk and sober the same person? Why else is he punished for the fact he commits when drunk, though he be never afterwards conscious of it?” (344). This is interesting because while a man who is drunk and the same man while sober are in different states of consciousness, the sober man will have to endure the punishment that his drunk side committed. This could ask a question about how mental patients should be treated. Should split-personality persons face different punishments from persons who are consistently mentally ill?

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