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Locke and Descartes on Personal Identity


Locke and Descartes are two of the most influential philosophers in the field of personal identity. The matters they discussed were somewhat different, but the theories have some overlapping topics, such as the nature of the soul. The purpose of this essay is to outline the main points of the hypotheses proposed by the two philosophers, describe significant differences in the ideas, state the more preferable view, and provide an argument against the rejected view.

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Locke’s Personal Identity Theory

John Locke, who lived in the 17th century, is often considered the founder of the personal identity aspect of philosophy. He published a treatise on the topic called An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, in which he attempted to define the term “person” and discuss questions associated with it. He wrote about identity and its relation to consciousness, the nature of thought, materiality of the soul, reincarnation, and the recognition of an individual.

Locke attempted to outline the term “person” in a way that would not necessarily tie it to a specific human. According to Strawson, in Locke’s definition “the Person I am is the self that I am: ‘Person, as I take it, is the name for this self. Wherever a man finds what he calls himself, there, I think, another may say is the same person’” (58). Strawson later simplifies Locke’s concept to the necessary conditions, which consist of thought, reason, intelligence, and reflection (63). He then adds various additional requirements, such as the ability to recognize itself as itself in different times and places and self-concern.

Locke assumed that thought was a function of immaterial factors, which led him to state that it is not impossible that inanimate matter can be capable of thinking. According to Strawson, Locke established this idea to support his proposition that identity could be preserved even if the substance that contains it changed (101). The hypothesis was necessary to explain the biblical Day of Judgment scenario, where the dead would be revived, but their bodies would consist of different particles than those they had while still alive.

Locke associated identity with consciousness, saying that a person is defined by their awareness of their actions. He stated that “I am as much involved in — and as justly accountable for — an action that was done a thousand years ago and is appropriated to me now by this self-consciousness as I am for what I did a moment ago” (118). He added that with regards to that action, the person in the present would become literally the same person as the one in the past as a result of the shared consciousness. The statement has some moral implications, such as the statement that a person cannot be held responsible for actions that they had physically committed but are not conscious of.

Descartes and the Soul

René Descartes is a French philosopher and mathematician who lived in the first half of the 17th century, while Locke mostly worked in the second half. He investigated the relationship between the mind and the body and proposed the idea of substance dualism to explain it. He also considered the concept of morality and the role of the soul in its formation as well as the preservation of identity despite changes in the material body.

Descartes claimed that the soul is fully responsible for thought, actions, and feelings, equating it to the mind. According to Descartes, “it is certain that I, [that is, my mind, by which I am what I am], is entirely and truly distinct from my body, and may exist without it”. As such, the soul would leave the body after the latter became unusable, but the absence of the soul would not make the body cease functioning. Descartes claimed that the soul is indivisible and incorruptible, and the various abilities of the mind are different expressions of a single monolithic entity. The concept of the soul as a separate entity that uses the body allowed Descartes to declare life after death possible, as the mind would be able to continue existing after leaving the dead body.

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In Descartes’s theory, morality was at least partially a product of the soul that the person had since their birth. According to Sauchelli, the philosopher claimed that human virtues were habits of the soul, and they would incline the mind toward having specific thoughts (197). As a result, different souls would have various capacities for virtue, and people were not born equal. However, Descartes stated that the soul was not the only factor in determining a person’s character, and good education, as well as frequent self-reflection, could contribute significantly to forming one’s disposition.

Descartes made important statements regarding the identity of the person and the changes in their bodily substances. According to Sauchelli, “Descartes also holds that the human body is numerically identical so long as it is informed by the same soul mind” (198). However, some interpretations believe Descartes to have thought that human beings were the product of the union between a mind and a soul and would not be entirely the same person without one of the components.

Differences in Theories

The theories of Locke and Descartes have a considerable number of similar ideas, as the former was influenced by the opinions of the latter and wrote an analysis of Descartes’s theory. They agree that a person should be self-aware and capable of thought, and they believe that a mind does not necessarily have to be confined to a human body. However, Locke was more concerned with the definition of a person where Descartes investigated the nature of the soul, which leads to significant differences in their perceptions.

Descartes does not attach much importance to the concepts of memory or consciousness, mentioning them in passing and taking them for granted. However, these terms are central for Locke, as in his theory they largely define a person. As was mentioned above, Locke believed that a transfer of the memory and consciousness of an act would make one a different person with regards to that event. In Descartes’s logic, such a partial transfer could not occur because memory was a part of the indivisible soul and could not be separated.

Descartes considered the soul incorruptible and assumed that it could exist entirely separately of a material entity and retain its facilities such as thought. Locke, however, believed that a person dies completely with the death of the body, but can be revived through the transfer of their consciousness to a different medium, and considered humans corruptible beings (Strawson 99). This disagreement was possibly due to Locke’s materialist tendencies that led him to attempt to remove imperceptible, immaterial entities such as Descartes’s soul from the theories.

As a consequence of the above, Locke considers the body to be a valuable contributor to the identity of a person, as opposed to Descartes’s belief that the body is only a vessel for the soul and the mind. In Locke’s ideas, a mind should have a container to exist, even if that container may be made out of inanimate matter. Nevertheless, the body does not define the self or the person for Locke, as illustrated by his idea of consciousness transfers and their consequences. As such, Locke does not wholly disagree with Descartes’s definition of identity but attempts to move away from the idea of a separate soul to a more materialistic conception.

Author’s Opinion and Arguments

Locke’s ideas took inspiration from those of Descartes and in large part can be considered an extension of the latter’s theory. However, Locke moved away from the simplistic conception of the soul held by Descartes and expanded on the ideas of memory. While I do not agree with every aspect of Locke’s philosophy, particularly his concept of morality that is predetermined from birth, I believe that his ideas are more credible than those of Descartes, as I prefer the former’s materialistic approach.

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I believe the Lockean argument of identity to be preferable to Descartes’s because it provides an explanation of the self that goes into more detail and does not require additional constructions to explain itself. Locke attributes the highest importance to memory and consciousness of events and actions and achieves the resurrection for Judgment Day through a transfer of that consciousness to a new body. In the meantime, the mind can be contained in another medium, which does not have to be the same body in which the experience was perceived or even an animate object.

Descartes, however, attributes the mind and memory to an immaterial soul that can exist independently. This assumption would imply that the amount of the substance souls are made of is continuously growing as new souls are born, and no deaths occur as all souls are immortal. This conclusion leads to the unanswerable questions of the nature and source of this soul-matter, which undermine the credibility of the theory.


Locke based a significant part of his ideas on those of Descartes but abandoned many of the simplistic and unexplained ideas for a more concrete materialistic approach. In particular, he dismissed the concept of an immaterial soul in favor of an approach based on memory and consciousness as the main factors in the self-determination of a person. I believe that Locke’s more detailed and materialistic approach is superior to that of his predecessor.

Works Cited

Descartes, René. Meditation VI: Of The Existence of Material Things, and of the Real Distinction between The Mind and Body of Man. 2017. Web.

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. 2017. Web.

Sauchelli, Andrea. Personal Identity and Applied Ethics: A Historical and Philosophical Introduction. Routledge, 2017.

Strawson, Galen. Locke on Personal Identity: Consciousness and Concernment – Updated Edition. Princeton University Press, 2014.

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