Personal Identity (Fall 1999) / Notes / Circularity objection

Circularity objection

12 October

The main point

Whether a present mental state that represents a past mental state counts as a memory or not seems to depend on whether both mental states were had by the same person. But that means that Locke's theory is circular: he defines personal identity over time in terms of memory, but memory presupposes personal identity.

There are two options for Locke. (1) Deny that the alleged circularity amounts to an objection or (2) Give an account of memory that does not depend on references to persons.

Is circularity a problem?

Circularity would certainly be a problem if Locke were trying to show how the entities we call continuing, temporally extended persons are composed of more basic entities: memories and other conscious states. The circularity objection points out that memories are not more basic than persons who remain the same over time. (This is what both Butler and Reid believe that Locke was trying to do).

But is that what Locke is trying to do? Some of his language certainly suggests that it is.

But when I think about Locke's view more broadly, I sometimes think that what he really wanted was an argument that personal identity is independent of the identity of substances. Even if his account were circular in the way suggested, wouldn't he have still succeeded in his main goal: giving necessary and sufficient conditions for a person to remain the same over time that make no references to substances?

I'm not fully satisfied with this. There still seems to be something inadequate about a circular account, even with respect to meeting this more modest goal. But I'm having trouble articulating my dissatisfaction.

An alternate account of memory

The other option is to define memory in such a way as to avoid the references to persons. We walked through the first few steps of such a definition. What is crucial is that the link between the original experience and the putative memory. One thing we might want to say is that the original experience has to cause the memory, in the right way.

Those defending Locke's account have to impose some conditions on what counts as a genuine memory. They cannot rest content with what the putative memory seems to be like. Otherwise, I could come to be Napoleon simply by virtue of having delusions and thinking that I remember Napoleon's experiences.

As David pointed out, there is a tendency of one of the replies to the substance objection to run into trouble here. If we insist that all that matters is my sense of who I am, then we may well wind up saying I can be identical with whomever I think I'm identical with. That's going to be too loose for most of us: there is such a thing as being deluded about your identity.

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