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Locke and Personal Identity

In this selection from Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, we are presented with his criterion persons and identity. Do we have a reason to believe that Locke’s criteria for personal identity still apply if we downloaded into a computer? Are you still yourself if you exist only within the confines of a computer program? On the part of Locke, this is an attempt to answer the question of whether there is such a thing as the immortal and immaterial soul. ‘Soul’ should be understood in the same sense here as it is discussed throughout Christianity. What is entailed by this theory is an explanation for memory, and consequentially, consciousness. Such a theory allows for us to account for why each of us can exist from moment to moment and still be identified as ourselves

Give exposition to Locke’s position, and then consider the example of Prince and the Cobbler that he provides. Should we accept Locke’s argument that there is a distinction between persons and bodies? Do we require a unified substance, or third unifying substance to be who we are?

Required Reading: John Locke, “Of Identity and Diversity” 

Recommended Reading: “John Locke on Personal Identity,”


The final section of the course, Section IV, will involve four readings on the topic of personal identity. Students will be asked to observe both classic and contemporary positions on the matter.

Discussion Board 12 will consist of a reading from John Locke’s “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding”. For Locke, what fundamentally distinguishes a “self” from all other “selves” is an identity relation; i.e., a notion of “personal identity.” Students will be asked to give an exposition of the Prince and the Cobbler thought experiment that Locke uses, as well as identity whether or not there is a difference between “bodies” and “persons.”

Discussion Board 13 is the first of three contemporary perspectives on personal identity, and involves a discussion of Marya Schechtman’s article, “Personal Identity and the Past”. Schechtman agrees with Locke’s position on personal identity, but states that a temporal component is necessary for understanding the relation of past, present, and future memories that constitute a person’s notion of themsleves. Students will be asked to give exposition of Schechtman’s position; determine how this position allows us to make future plans; and finally whether not we should accept Schechtman’s account of personal identity.

Discussion Board 14 adds an additional classic perspective on personal identity, that of Scottish philosopher, David Hume. Unlike Locke, Hume does not think we ever have experience of a ‘self,’ but rather, a series of perceptions that continue over time. This position is commensurate with Hume larger notion of arbitrary causal relations between phenomena. Concerning our reading from James Giles’ article, “The No-Self Theory: Hume, Buddhism, and Personal Identity,” Giles attempts to further Hume’s position using Eastern philosophy – Buddhism. The student will again be asked to explain Giles’ (and Hume’s) position on personal identity, and whether we should accept Locke and Schechtman, or Hume and Giles account of personal identity.      

For the final discussion board, Discussion Board 15, the course will conclude with a reading from Daniel Dennett’s article “The Origin of Selves”. Straying from what has been the usual course of inquiry for the last few discussions; Dennett attempts to give an account of the ‘self’ using evolutionary psychology, stating that notions of personal identity have developed in humans a means of self-preservation. Students will be asked to give exposition to Dennett’s position; explain how Dennett’s position might impact our understanding of clinical psychology; and then provide an argument for whether or not Dennett’s position is to be preferred over James Giles’s position from the previous week.


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