Personal Identity (Fall 1999) / Notes / Historical background on Locke

Historical background on Locke

What's this?

This material wasn't presented in class. But it helps us to see what Locke was trying to do.

Historical background 1: consciousness and conscience

You might have noticed that Locke has a tendency to run together an individual's ability to feel guilty over a crime with his actual guilt: see section 26, for example.

That's a little odd: can't there be hardened criminals who feel no remorse or fail to remember all of their numerous crimes? Such people would still be guilty of their crimes, wouldn't they?

Here, roughly, is a possible reason why Locke took this odd position. Locke believed in natural law and natural law, in turn, was thought to have been given to man by God so that man could live according to God's plan. Natural law accomplished this by virtue of being written into our minds: we all know what the natural law is, so we can all live according to it.

Where was the natural law supposedly written? In a faculty of the mind called the "conscience." Your conscience knows what's right and wrong and it makes you feel bad if you do the wrong thing. Conscience is a sub-set of consciousness: it can't tell you what to do if you aren't aware of it. To be incapable of knowing whether you did right or wrong would be like being born without the possibility of following God's law. Since God is benevolent, He wouldn't do that.

Today, no one thinks there is much significance to the connection at all: consciousness reigns on as a subject of philosophical inquiry, conscience doesn't.

Historical background 2: resurrection and the Trinity

Locke's first notes about personal identity concern the possibility of resurrection after death. Here are some problems with holding that it's possible to resurrect a person if persons are material: when you're resurrected, which parts of matter do they take to put your body back together again? You've shed enough stuff to make many bodies throughout your life. What's more, you probably have incorporated some of the matter from other people's bodies; when the Last Day comes, which one of you gets the matter?

Of course, you have even larger problems with the assertion that resurrection involves the return of an immaterial soul if you're unsure that you believe in immaterial substances (as Locke was).

Locke's response was, of course, that what's essential for resurrection isn't the particular bits of matter or even any substance at all, but rather the resurrection of consciousness, which could then, in turn, make any old hunk of matter or immaterial substance into a person.

As for the Trinity, the problem is this: Christian doctrine holds that God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are all distinct and yet the same thing. How can three things be one?

One of Locke's friends, William Sherlock, argued that the solution lay in consciousness. Specifically, God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are all distinct because they are all self-conscious, but one because they are mutually conscious of one another's thoughts. God is aware of himself and also aware of everything that Jesus thinks.

In other words, self-consciousness distinguishes each of these characters from the other but mutual consciousness brings them together.

Again, the original concerns with the possiblity of resurrection and the trinity have been replaced (in secular philosophy, anyway) with questions about consciousness itself, but the problem continues to be framed almost exactly as Locke did.

Source: Michael Ayers, Locke. Volume II: Ontology. London: Routledge, 1991.

Page and author information

This page was originally posted on 10/17/99; 6:11:57 PM and was last built on 10/17/99; 9:19:52 PM.

Copyright by Michael J. Green, except where noted.

How to contact me: email, mailing address, phone number, and office hours.


Next page: The substance objection

Previous page: Locke's memory theory

List of all pages in this section

Site outline