Through the years, philosophers have contemplated human existence and debated on controversial issues. An example of this is ideas that deal with the mind and body. Some believe the two are separate entities entirely while others believe they are the same. Based off of these thoughts, an idea of one’s self is generated. However, before the idea is formed, one must have an understanding of personal identity. From this, the debate is where the personal identity is located. As stated earlier, some believe personal identity can be found in the body, and, chances are, they will also argue the personal identity will experience little to no change as time passes and the person matures. To contrast, others might say one’s personal identity is in the mind, and it’s composed of the person’s thoughts and experiences.
John Locke and Rene Descartes are two of the world’s most renowned philosophers who are notorious for their views on personal identity and its extent of existence. Each of these philosophers tackled the idea of a human’s sense of self, and they concluded the mind and body are separate from each other. However, their philosophies do have disagreements. Descartes way of thinking is one that is centered around thinking. He believed that, ultimately, personal identity stemmed from thinking, and he concluded the mind is non-physical; meaning it is distinct from the body. On the other hand, Locke’s ideas regarded a person’s “self” as being based on the memories a person has and experiences.
Rene Descartes ideas are widely considered to be the birth of modern philosophy due to rationalist thinking coming from them. One of these ideas, and perhaps the most famous, is evident through his statement, “I think, therefore I am” (schooloflifechannel). This statement would go on to make Descartes one of the most famous philosophers in history, and it became the cornerstone of his philosophical thoughts, including those on personal identity.
Descartes arrived at this conclusion through meditation. During his meditations, Descartes would think about the essence of his existence and purpose in life. Descartes wanted to disregard his knowledge and all things he considered to be true so that he could start with a clean slate in his new revelations and truths. Many times, he would ask himself, “What am I?” (Descartes, 5). Descartes sought out to understand the “I” he was referring to in the question, and he wondered if he could consider anything to be true since “I” was thinking about it. This idea created a problem for Descartes since he didn’t fully understand the “I”.
When considering the “I”, Descartes was able to quickly separate the mind and body. This conclusion was reached through a few different thoughts. The first was a thought that came to him “spontaneously and naturally”, and that was the body (Descartes, 4). Descartes acknowledges he has a body when he says he indeed has, “a face, hands, arms” (Descartes, 4). His distinction between the mind and body was made later when he goes on to say he has, “the whole structure of bodily parts that corpses also have” (Descartes, 4). Corpses are dead beings, so what he’s saying in this statement is that the mind is the only thing that separates him from corpses. This is a rather strong argument for Descartes because corpses have body parts, but they do not breathe, experience emotion or felling, or think. Descartes attempts to clear any confusion by calling the physical structure of one’s being “the body”. Because of this thought, Descartes is now able to probe the idea of what separates those who are living from the lifeless beings he referred to earlier.
Descartes thinking did not stop here. He goes on to say that in addition to his body, he is able to perform actions such as eating and drinking. Descartes argues that, on its own, the body won’t do such things. This idea is supported, once again, through reference to the corpses. Descartes says without compulsions such as these, there is no difference between a living being and a corpse. Building upon this logic, Descartes says, “the soul” is what separates living humans from corpses (Descartes, 4). This soul Descartes refers to can also be called the mind, and Descartes uses this to pinpoint what is responsible for the body’s ability to do such things. To Descartes, actions such as feeling, eating, and moving are powered by the soul, and this is the difference between living and non-living beings. After this, Descartes begins to think more in depth about the soul, and he even begins to consider what it might look like.
Because he could not know what exactly the soul looked like, Descartes started to focus more on the body. After more meditation, he concluded if it were not for his soul, he would not be able to do anything that defined him. Through his senses, Descartes said his body could deceive him though false perceptions. This argument was justified through the act of dreaming. Descartes said that when he was dreaming, he perceived things he “later realized [he] had not perceived in that way” (Descartes, 5). He meant he would occasionally dream things that he thought actually happened but would later realize they hadn’t happened, and instead he was remembering a dream he had. Using this thought process, Descartes concluded that the body this responsible for performing the five senses, but the soul is what analyzes that information that is brought into the body. This idea is what he deemed was the real meaning of existence, which was if something is able to think, then it does exist.
John Locke is most famous for giving the world its “first crisp formulation” of personal identity (Shields, 3:05). While there is still ambiguity in Locke’s philosophies on personal identity, it can be argued that they are not as ambiguous as Rene Descartes’. Locke’s ideas put forth a clear idea of personal identity and its origin. He explains the identities of different species such as vegetables, animals, and man. Locke admits there are similarities between each of them, and he says one of these similarities is that the idea that there is “one coherent body” (Locke, Chapter XXVII). From this quote, Locke means there is a body that exists throughout the subject’s life, but he says the difference of these organisms can be found in each one’s “personal identity” (Locke, Chapter XXVII).
Locke says personal identity is best defined as the thing that “distinguishes from all other thinking things” (Locke Chapter XXVII). Using this definition, Locke argues that due to personal identity, people can be the same over a given period of time, but they can also be experiencing change during this same period. Similar to Descartes philosophy, Locke says, “consciousness always accompanies thinking” (Locke Chapter XXVII). Locke believed memory was the essential factor of the mind that connects “the different parts of our lives” (BBC Radio, 0:57). Contrary to Descartes, Locke’s ideas emphasized the mind and its properties, and this established the idea of the mind being a separate entity from the body.
Locke is famed for his memory theory. He strongly believed memories played a crucial aspect in one’s personal identity. He believed this to the point where he said that if he lost “the memory of some parts of life, beyond a possibility of retrieving them,” he would be a completely different person (Locke, Chapter XXVII). This idea is known as Locke’s memory theory, and it is potentially the most debated idea of Locke’s philosophies. Locke believed if a person committed a crime, but could not remember committing the crime, then they should not be held accountable for such actions. Locke’s theory suggests the “man” or the “body” committed the crime, but the “person” did not. He justifies this because he says the body would remain the same, but the person, or mind, is constantly changing, which means the person who committed the crime is no longer in the body. Because of this, he says the one who committed the crime should not be punished.
Descartes and Locke were both able to agree that the mind and body are separate entities. Descartes approached this by examining his own existence while Locke searched into the part of us that makes us unique, the mind. How Locke defines personal identity shows that he and Descartes believe the idea that “thinking constitutes consciousness”. Again, this provides more evidence towards their belief that the mind and body are distinct from each other. Thinking originates from the mind but physical aspects of humans are of the body. Even though they both agreed in the separation of the mind and body, Locke thought the mind was more self-sufficient than Descartes did.
I believe, at first glance, it is very probable to agree with Locke’s philosophy. People are different from others because of experiences and their memories from those experiences. It is almost impossible to be the same person without those two things. Just as Locke stated, a person’s memories are not always accurate, and there can be fallacies. Since memories aren’t always accurate, it can be argued one’s personal identity is inaccurate. In addition to this, Locke credits too much power to the mind.
Descartes’ philosophy says senses are taken through the body, and once this happens, the soul analyzes the senses. Where there are fallacies in Locke’s argument, Descartes’ philosophy has the ability to counterargue them. For example, many suffer from diseases or accidents to the brain that cause memory loss or even irrational behavior. Such scenarios are acknowledged through Descartes’ ideas. Because of weaknesses and strengths in both arguments, the best definition and explanation of one’s self is when both philosophies are combined together as one.
As stated earlier, where there are weaknesses in one argument, there are strengths in the other. What unites the two is the thought that thinking constitutes consciousness. Locke’s belief of memories effecting personal identity does have flaws, but through Descartes philosophies, the flaws are corrected. While memories can be inaccurate, the inaccuracy is what makes every individual unique. This is most evident in an event that two people experience but remember differently. The way the event is remembered is what makes them who they are today. Independent thinking, meaning their own memories of events, is what’s responsible for personal identity. Therefore, Descartes ideas on thinking is what makes the memories significant, and they’re what make up one’s personal identity because of memories and thoughts; however, Locke’s ideas of memories is equally important in the make up of self as well.
- BBCradiofour. “John Locke on Personal Identity.” YouTube, YouTube, 19 Jan. 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=e1iy8fMCe0o&index=4&list=PL5HdNzbsrL–qSIYDedF5e5Vn_vHRr2_e%2B.
- Descartes, Rene. Meditations on First Philosophy, in the version by Jonathan Bennett presented at www.earlymoderntexts.com
- Edmond, David & Walburton, Nigel with Christopher Shields. Philosophy Bites. www.philosophybites.com. Podcast retrieved from https://securehwcdn.libsyn.com/p/4/d/1/4d1ef63c04775f9e/Christopher_ Shields_on_Personal_Identity.mp3?c_id=1779526&expiration=1517901598&hwt=902e67fe0c7ff0813983709e85162a5c
- John Locke: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, enlightenment.supersaturated.com/johnlocke/BOOKIIChapterXXVII.html.
- schooloflifechannel. “PHILOSOPHY – René Descartes.” YouTube, YouTube, 11 Sept. 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=CAjWUrwvxs4.