John Locke on Personal Identity

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  • 0:01 Locke
  • 0:37 Identity
  • 1:09 Memory
  • 2:11 Prince & Pauper
  • 3:35 Questions
  • 4:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson explains John Locke's theories on personal identity. In doing so, it highlights the prince and pauper argument as well as the day man and night man theory.


As a tomboy, I climbed to the top of trees, cliff dove, and rode my bike no-hands down the biggest hills I could find. As a mom, I'm now afraid of heights, I tell my kids they can only swim by lifeguards and make them wear helmets while riding their bikes! Goodness, what in the world has happened to me? Makes me wonder, 'Am I still the person I once was?'

According to John Locke, the famous 17th-century philosopher, the answer is yes! I am still the same Jessica that once risked life and limb just to have fun. To explain this assertion, let's take a look at Locke's ideas on personal identity.


For starters, let's define identity. Although there are many definitions, many philosophers agree identity means being one thing and not another. It's what makes you you and me me. Of course, this leads to all sorts of questions. For instance, if time seems to change all of us, how can you know that you're still you and how can I know that I'm still me?

To answer this one, we have Locke's principle of individuation, the idea that a person keeps the same identity over time. In other words, I'm still the same tomboy who petrified my parents.


When discussing this topic, Locke would go to great lengths to discuss what identity is not. For instance, identity is not made up of material substance. In other words, our physical being does not give us our identity. If it did, what would happen to those who lost an arm or a leg? Would they be a different person simply because their physical body had been altered? Locke would answer, 'Of course, not!'

Rather than being tied to our physical bodies, Locke believed our identity was tied to our consciousness. In one of his works, he stated consciousness is the perception of what passes in a man's own mind. To boil this down, most philosophy teachers or students agree this rather verbose quote simply means consciousness equals memories.

In other words, whether we gain weight, lose hair, go blind, or get a facelift, our memories remain the same. Therefore, Locke tells us our memories give us our identity. Making it personal, because I remember my childhood stunts, I am still the same person who performed them!

Prince & Pauper

To illustrate this, Locke used a pauper, a prince, and some serious mental gymnastics. Using some serious what-ifs, he asked, 'What if you took the memories of a prince and gave them to a pauper and vice-versa?'

Which then would be the prince? Wouldn't it be the one who had the memories of the prince despite the fact that his physical body looked like a pauper? With his memories intact, he'd still remember how to rule, stand royally, and hold his head high. On the contrary, just because the pauper's memories had a princely shell, this doesn't mean he'd know how to ride a war horse or write up a treaty. In short, their memories and not their physical bodies would be what determined their identities.

Of course, this leads to some problems. Speaking practically, what about my son who walks and talks in his sleep but has no memory of it in the morning? Would Locke say he's the same person at night that he is in the morning?

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