Phil 89: Notes on Locke

Our main reading selection (Essay Book II Chapter 27) was added to the second edition of Locke’s major work in metaphysics and epistemology, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689/1694).

Important Concepts

Locke uses all of these notions, and they each can mean something different for him:

  1. immaterial substances, which he calls “spirits” and we’ve been calling “souls”
  2. material or corporeal substances
  3. what he calls “bodies”
  4. what he calls “man” but we’ll call “humans”
  5. persons
  6. consciousness

Most of the selection is spent arguing for Locke’s picture of how (e) and (f) are related, and that they shouldn’t be equated with the others.

As preparation, it’ll be helpful for us to get clearer about how he’s understanding (a) through (d).

Locke on Immaterial Souls

Locke believed God existed and was a soul/immaterial substance. He thought angels might also exist.

He was officially agnostic about whether you and I have souls. The short reading selection from his Chapter 23 says we are “apt to think” that the operations of our mind exist in and are supported by an immaterial substance. We’d only understand that in a limited way, but Locke says that’s true for material substances too.

Locke doesn’t think that our thought/experience can be reduced or explained in material terms, but he says (later in the Essay but see also §§17 and 27 in our selection) that for all we know, God could have as easily added the power to think/experience to certain configurations of matter as he could add them to an immaterial soul. Remember the van Inwagen discussion about whether the dualist has better explanations of these powers than the physicalist does.

When Locke says “thinking substance,” this reflects his agnosticism about whether it’s matter or souls that think.

Locke on Material Substances and Living Organisms

Consider (1) observable material objects like: humans, other animals like horses, trees, watches, ships, statues, bricks, rocks, stars.

Locke argued these had (2) real internal constitutions or essences, that make them what they are. Along with scientists like Boyle and Newton, he thought these were the textures, shapes, sizes, arrangements, and motions of their atomic parts.

When Locke talks about material substances, he sometimes means (1); and sometimes means (3) the “matter” or material stuff that makes objects up, and has the properties in (2).

He also has another notion (4), that he calls “substratum” or “substance in general.” This may be part of our understanding of any particular substance. Like other philosophers, he thought that an object’s qualities cannot “subsist” in themselves, so need something to “support” the qualities and hold them together. It’s unclear how this “supporting” works, to Locke as well as his readers. As we saw in the Chapter 23 selection, Locke thinks our understanding of (4) is obscure and limited. Scholars dispute what exactly Locke thought the relation was between (4), (3), and (2).

When Locke talks about bodies, he often means any material substance, including those of type (1), or also smaller unobservable objects. Sometimes he talks about human bodies in particular, but that’s not the only way he uses the word “body.” Sometimes Locke uses “body” in a more limited way, to mean one or more joined atoms — what we’ll call (b) in a moment, which contrasts with how he understands most items of type (1).

Among objects of type (1), Locke understands the first six or so in a special way.

He’s sympathetic to the kind of view that says a statue and the clay it’s made of are two things that exist at the same time.

This does raise some difficulty about how to understand Locke’s principle “no two things of the same kind in the same place at the same time” in §1. Would the statue and the clay be “different kinds”? That’s not the impression of what the kinds are that §2 gives.

In §§3–4, Locke distinguishes:

  1. living organisms like animals or plants: their identity is a matter of their organization, which can persist through some kinds of changes in which atoms make them up. They have an “organization of parts in one cohering body, partaking of one common life”; they have a “continuity of insensibly succeeding parts united to the living body” (§4); they have the “unity of one continued life” (§10).

    In §5, Locke argues that maintained artifacts like watches can be understood this way too, and though he doesn’t explicitly discuss ships or statues, arguably they’d group with watches.

  2. the mass of matter/collection of joined atoms that make (a) up: its identity is a matter of which atoms it includes (cannot lose/gain any atoms), regardless of their organization

When it comes to notions like “man” or “human,” Locke acknowledges that it’s disputed how to understand them (he discusses some alternatives at §§21 and 29). His own approach in §§6 and 8 is to equate them with something like (a), the kind of living animal bodies we have. I’ll call these our “organic human bodies” (not trying to match Locke’s own use of the term “body”).

A rational parrot might also be a person, but because it doesn’t have an organic human body, it wouldn’t be “a man.”

Locke sometimes uses expressions like “the same cobbler” and “the man Socrates” as attaching to these organic human bodies (§§15, 21), though he uses “the Prince” and “Socrates” elsewhere (§14) to name persons.

So, on Locke’s picture, we have:

One of the last two will be the substance that currently does your thinking/experiencing.

But he’ll argue that none of these should be equated with:

What does Locke think persons are?

Just as living organisms can be made up of different masses of atoms at different times (because of the organizing role their life plays for them), Locke thinks persons can also be made up of different organic bodies and whatever their thinking substances are (because of the organizing role their consciousness plays for them). This parallel is most explicit in §10.

Locke defines a person as “a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection [Perry explains as “introspection”], and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing in different times and places” (§9).

Which past thoughts, experiences, and actions are yours goes back exactly as far as your consciousness/memory does (§§9-10, 14, 16-17, 24-26). A person is roughly a coherently memory-linked sequence of mental states (what we called Proposal #4 in our discussion of Perry’s Dialogue).

Can consciousness be transfered from one thinking substance to another? For all Locke knows, yes (§§10, 12-13, 25).

Locke supports his proposal with three kinds of considerations:

Consciousness Is How I Experience Myself

Consciousness is how you (automatically) know/are aware of all your current thoughts/experiences, and how you know/are aware of, and can “own” or “appropriate” or “attribute” or “impute” to yourself, your past thoughts/experiences. (Reid says Locke must mean “memory” by “consciousness of past states”; some scholars argue that isn’t quite right.)

Locke claims consciousness is inseparable from and essential to thinking, that is, whenever you have any thought/experience, you are conscious of it/know you have it.

Relation between Consciousness and Self-concern

Relation between Consciousness and Accountability

§§15-19 and 26 connect the question of what counts as one person with the question of what one can take credit/be properly blamed for.

Compare the notion of a “legal person,” which needn’t be a human being, but could be for example, an animal, temple, ship, deceased human’s estate, a political state, corporation, and so on.

You can’t be accountable for earlier actions, if you can’t possibly remember them (§§22, 26). Objection: then why do we punish sober people for what they can’t remember doing when drunk? Locke’s reply: human justice is imperfect, and we can’t know what people are really unable to remember. But divine justice won’t punish you for things you can’t remember.

Locke’s Imaginary Cases

Some Interpretive Puzzles

  1. The difficulty noted above about organisms and their mass of atoms occupying same place at the same time, which §1 may prohibit.

  2. Locke says: Identity of persons does not consist in identity of substance (§§10, 16, 19, 23, 25).

    What then are persons? What ontological category do they belong to?

    Some scholars think Locke understood them to be a different kind of substance than organic human bodies or immaterial souls. Others thought Locke took them to be “dependent objects” or “modes,” like the “wrinkle in the carpet” we discussed in earlier classes. Others thought Locke was moving towards a view that says A and B can be “the same organic human body” but “different persons,” or vice versa: that is, you can’t talk about being-the-same-period, you have to talk about being-the-same-K.

    Each of these options has difficulties, and doesn’t perfectly fit all of what Locke says.

  3. Locke says: Identity of persons does consist in identity/sameness of consciousness (§§10, 13, 19, 23, 25)

    But §2 says “there can be no question” of identity for “things whose existence is in succession,” such as motion/thought. Those particular events last only a moment. Can we talk about the identity over time of processes or sequences of such events? Isn’t consciousness such a sequence? Observe that Locke does talk about “identity of consciousness.” On the other hand, he admits that consciousness is “always interrupted” by sleep and forgetfulness (§§10 and 23). (Later this week, we’ll see Reid complain about this.)

  4. In §13, Locke suggests it’s a problem if a consciousness were transferred to another thinking substance, “draw[ing] reward or punishment with it”; but by his own lights, accountability should attach to consciousness not to thinking substances.

Despite these unclarities, this chapter of Locke’s was imaginative and revolutionary, and profoundly influenced later discussions of personal identity — both in the 1700s and in the 20th/21st century (recent examples including Quinton, Grice, Perry, Sydney Shoemaker, David Lewis, Parfit).


The place-time-kind principle (§1): no two things of same kind in one place at the same time, and no single thing can be in different places at the same time.

Another §1 principle we’ll discuss later this week: one thing can’t have two beginnings of existence.

Particular mental events like headaches can’t be transferred between thinking substances (§§2, 13).

Locke thinks that while we’re awake, we’ll be confident of keeping the same soul. But interruptions of forgetfulness or sleep can raise doubts whether we are the same thinking substance. Discussion of sleep without any thoughts/memories at all (§10).

Can we have false memories? (§13)