Locke on Personal Identity: Consciousness and Concernment

Locke on Personal Identity: Consciousness and Concernment

Locke on Personal Identity: Consciousness and Concernment

Locke on Personal Identity: Consciousness and Concernment


John Locke's theory of personal identity underlies all modern discussion of the nature of persons and selves--yet it is widely thought to be wrong. In his new book, Galen Strawson argues that in fact it is Locke's critics who are wrong, and that the famous objections to his theory are invalid. Indeed, far from refuting Locke, they illustrate his fundamental point.

Strawson argues that the root error is to take Locke's use of the word "person" only in the ordinary way, as merely a term for a standard persisting thing, like "human being." In actuality, Locke uses "person" primarily as a forensic or legal term geared specifically to questions about praise and blame, punishment and reward. In these terms, your personal identity is roughly a matter of those of your past actions that you are still responsible for because you are still "conscious" of them in Locke's special sense of that word.

Clearly and vigorously argued, this is an important contribution both to the history of philosophy and to the contemporary philosophy of personal identity.


This book began as a paper in the autumn of 1994, when I reread Locke’s discussion of personal identity in book 2, chapter 27 (2.27) of his Essay concerning Human Understanding, three hundred years after its first publication in 1694, and realized that I’d been misrepresenting him in tutorials at Oxford for fifteen years. I should have inferred this from the fact that Michael Ayers’s chapter on personal identity in volume 2 of his book Locke (1991) had a year earlier seemed bizarrely peripheral to the subject I thought I knew and in any case taught. Reading Ayers is one of the things that sent me back to Locke’s text—for better or for worse.

I set out to correct my errors in writing (with some enthusiasm, because I knew many held the same false views as I had), but was sidetracked early in 1995 by an invitation to give a lecture on the notion of the self in the 1996 Wolfson College lecture series “From Soul to Self.” This led to an attempt to work out the necessary conditions of self-consciousness and, eventually, to a book called Selves:

This resulted in “‘The Self’” (1997) and “The Self and the Sesmet” (1999b).

This appeared in abridged form in “Self, Body and Experience” (1999c) and forms part 3 of Selves (2009).

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