For millennia, questions relating to the concept of the self of personhood have occupied the minds of philosophers from all around the globe. How then, can we define the human sense of self based on our understanding? In a bid to clarify this issue, this paper will examine Rene Descartes’ and John Locke’s arguments on personal identity by drawing from their respective essays Meditations of First Philosophy and An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Also this paper will focus on contrasting the respective position held by the authors, in addition to showing the elements that make Locke’s argument more superior.
To begin with, Descartes largely relies on doubt and skepticism in his thinking on meditation. While he borrows from the prevailing understanding of concepts of God and reality, he focuses more on the ends as opposed to the means. For instance, by rooting his argument on methodological doubt, Descartes argues that reason persuades him to withhold “an assent from matters which are not entirely certain and indubitable than from those which appear to me manifestly to be false,” (Descartes, 6). By labelling his doubt as impartial, Descartes can therefore move to present his skepticism about all the principles that once supported everything he believed in; note that this not only allows Descartes to doubt his dreams, but to argue on the possibility of doubting objectivity should a higher evil being deceive him. Thus, accordingly, the object to human objectivity is shrouded in doubt, and must therefore be discarded for an accurate determination of the known.
Furthermore, by relying on rationalism, Descartes’ self-thought ceases to be an object of thought, but rather becomes the subject of thought. In fact, his subsequent theory of self-identity is a direct consequence of his postulated self-thought. According to Descartes, humans are not more than things that think. Yet, a thing which thinks is “a thing which doubts, understands, (conceives), affirms, denies, wills, refuses, which also imagines and feels,” (Descartes, 10). However, such definition is too broad to infer an accurate definition of thought. Descartes argues for the existence of an intimate connection between thought and consciousness of the mind and the body, and held that the body and the mind are an essential extension of thought. This then means that consciousness is a necessary condition for thinking. But that is as far as Descartes argument goes. He fails to pontificate the intricate details surrounding such identity.
Locke’s theory of personal identity, on the other hand, seeks to address both sensory perception and sensory reception of experience. He seeks to define personhood based on an individual’s awareness to the present and ability to remember or make connections with past memories. In his presentations, Locke argues that identity, and by extension ideas, are too complex concepts to be innate. And that since an individual receives and perceives an idea through spatial and temporal experiences, it cannot be innate. As such, idea as a concept is formed when “considering anything as existing at any determined time and place, we compare it with itself at another time, and thereon form the ideas of identity and diversity” (Locke, 311). This understanding implies that identity is largely a factor of existence over a given period.
For Locke, the definition of personhood must draw from the intrinsic relationship among three relevant aspects, namely experience, memory and consciousness. According to Locke, the relational existence of memory, which can be represented as a transfer from point A to point B, is what defines personhood. Identity, therefore, entails “being one thing to be the same substance, another the same man, and a third the same person,” (Locke, 316). Based on this understanding, Locke deduces that a human to an organized body that successively participates in the same life, that is, what constitutes someone is the ration of reasonable thinking complimented by the ability to be between two temporal points. Thus, while Locke agrees with Descartes that reason of existence is linked with personhood, he understands that the ability to think, reflect and exhibit self-awareness are not innate.
Specifically, this marks the point of divergence between Locke’s and Descartes perceptions of personhood. According to Locke, while a person is the same thinking thing, this thinking thing is different at different times and places. Locke understands personhood from the perspective that it is largely a factor of what the person can remember. A person’s continuity, therefore, is the awareness of present thoughts and the conscious memory of thoughts related to past events. As such, Locke broadly describes a person as a human, and narrowly as a being that is perceptive and self-aware of the present, and most importantly, as one receptive of past memories of time and place.
However, it is this thinking that exposes Locke’s incoherence, and therefore, a fundamental weakness of this theory. Locke seem to lead us to presuppose that if one is unable to remember certain past events perfectly, then their identity as a person could be questionable. Also, Locke seems to overlook the idea that while an individual’s material organization harbor the potential to provide valuable insight on continuity between the self at different ages, identity as a person terribly fails such a test. That he does not attempt to provide a response to these fundamental concerns shows that he never considered them to be of any remarkable importance. Yet, Locke’s extensive and detailed insights on the concept of the self-dwarfs the rather simplistic Cartesian understanding.
In Descartes theory, the concept of self is largely a subset of, and therefore contained in, the simple words “I think”. That is, the self is part of consciousness, which is an extension to the body-mind dualism. The body-mind dualism concept argues for the interdependence between the consciousness of a thinking mind and the body, which together make up the self. Interesting is that in so arguing, Descartes fails to take into consideration the need for a person to be self-aware, something that Locke tackles with remarkable enthusiasm. As mentioned earlier, Locke agrees with Descartes proposition that thinking is a fundamental requisite for personhood, but extends it by noting that of even greater importance is not the mere ability to think or reason, but the ability to understand. Thus, while Locke’s understanding of personhood involves self-awareness, thinking, and the ability to perceive both the present and the past, its introduction of the mundane variable distinguishes it from Descartes proposition, which focuses more on natural ideas, regarding which author present based on personal experiences.
Finally, central to my understanding of which of the two theories is the more superior draws from proposed means of overcoming their respective shortcomings, and the feasibility or longevity thereof. Foremost, we have to acknowledge the fact that Descartes offer an apparent truth, whose only limitation is that it isn’t as natural as he seems to argue. Specifically, Descartes’ failure to incorporate such sensory experiences as perceiving and receiving with time and space concepts denies his theory the ability to utilize empirical epistemology in elaborating on the principles that underlie our understanding of the concept of self. On the other hand, the memory gap that is the limitation of Locke’s theory can be easily overcome by applying a transitive relation to the concept of personhood. That is, even with a lapse in memory, a situation in which A equals B and B equals C should imply, with no contradiction, that A equals C. Thus, Locke’s argument, by virtue of providing answers to relevant ethical questions surrounding personhood, is the more practical.