Why Only Physical?

In Book 2 of “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” by John Locke, Locke talks about how “the variation of great parcels of matter alters not the identity”, and then he goes on to give the example of the oak tree, and how “an oak growing from a plant to a tree… is still the same oak”, and that a “colt grown up to a horse, sometimes fat, sometimes lean, is all the while the same horse”. (Ch. 27, 3) This I completely agree with and understand. However, it appears to me that Locke is being a bit narrow in his argument. Locke is only focusing on the physical aspect identity instead of looking at the spiritual or emotional aspects identity, which I believe, when concerning humans, are the things that play the biggest part in altering one’s identity.

If I applied Locke’s argument about how physical variation does not alter identity to humans, he would be completely correct. Humans go from being an infant to an adult to a person of old age. Throughout this entire physical process, it is true that this person is the same. Their identity is not altered. If they were to take fingerprints when they were eight years old and then when they were eighty-eight years old, the prints would match because they are still the same person. However, from the age of eight to eighty-eight, the person has gone through a lot of spiritual and emotional changes. What they used to do and how they acted and what they believed in as a child changed when they became an adult, and may have even changed some more when they became elderly. And this change is what truly alters a person and causes them to not have the same identity as they did when they were of younger age.

This is the only problem that I have with Locke’s argument. I wish that when he talked about physical traits not altering identity that he would have compared it to spiritual and emotional aspects and how they do alter a person’s identity

3 responses to “Why Only Physical?

  1. I think that the examples of objects and their identity can mainly only be described through it’s physical identity. The flaw is not that he is only speaking about the physical aspect, but his examples can only describe the change in identity in a physical sense. Other than this, I completely agree that Locke does not provide good insight on spiritual identity.
    I wonder if physical changes actually change identity. Identity is not only a means for people to see you as, but also a way to see yourself. A change in physical appearance can effect how you see yourself, which, consequently, may change your identity. Maybe not in a drastic manner, but it definitely can alter it.

  2. I think you pose an interesting argument concerning the other aspects of the identity outside of the physical. When I think of identity, I instantly consider the more internal factors such as emotional and spiritual, as you mentioned, as well as social to uncover what makes up a person’s identity. However, I do also believe that Locke’s reasoning for focusing on the physical relies on the fact that it is what an observer sees first. A person looking from the outside at another person will consider the physical first simply because they have no other insight to other aspects of the person’s identity. Locke’s argument is focusing on an observer’s perspective and so his description of identity makes sense. When assessing identity, I also believe it’s easier to uncover the full realm when starting from the outside (physical) and then working your way in (emotional, spiritual, etc.).

  3. Jasmine, Allen, and Lauren —

    I want to weigh in here on an important distinction. We all come to the idea of “identity” by thinking about the identities we claim for ourselves, how we see ourselves in terms of the characteristics we have and how we fit in to the world around us. Yet there is a more precise sense of identity that Locke and other philosophers have tried to grapple with at the core of this more loose sense in which we apply it to our lives daily.

    Changes in our beliefs and feelings over our lives does not get at the idea that we do have something unchanging about us that makes us the same person at 88 as we were at 8. He is not denying the fact of change at all in our lives — in many ways, there is a lot about us at 88 that would not be the same as at age 8. However, the mere fact that I hold the two in common, as two versions of the same person ​means that I think of myself as persisting over time as a singular identity. And if it is true that we are indeed constantly changing in our physical form and our spiritual and emotional character, then what actually stays the same and makes us the same person?

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