Personal Identity


Fora long time, philosophers have given the concept of memory andpersonal identity considerable attention as they attempt to explainhow the two aspects influence each other (Nimbalkar 268). Personalidentity is concerned with the philosophical questions that ariseabout individuality based on human experiences. Personality issometimes described under the idea of self, which implies a level ofconsciousness. Philosophers have proposed conflicting hypothesis todescribe how people form identities and retain memories of pastexperiences. Some claim that personal identity is simply the idea ofself while others give opposing viewpoints arguing that individualityis exclusive to one’s body (Perry 5). On the contrary, somephilosophers contend that it is impractical to conjure a theory aboutself. However, most theories of personal identity have metaphysicaland ethical implications. Therefore, some philosophers have tried tosolve the problem of personal identity while others have dedicatedthemselves to metaphysical systems (Stanford encyclopedia ofphilosophy). Until the 17th century, the philosophical historyexplaining the connection between identity and ethics was about therelation between self-centered concerns and identity. Later, JohnLocke made explicit effort to link personal identity with extensivemoral issues (Perry 33). Consequently, he was the first philosopherto separate the issue of personal identity from the larger subject ofethics using memory as the basis of his explanation.


Accordingto Locke, personal identity can be explained as an equivalent to arational being. He proposes that personality extends only up to theirlevel of consciousness, which corresponds to memory (Stanfordencyclopedia of philosophy). Therefore, he makes the assumption thatidentity extends backward to any thought or action (Locke 336).According to this theory, change in personality signifies atransformation in personal identity. Locke further explains that theidea of self is only possible when there is a contemplation processbecause perception is always accompanied by thoughts (Locke 335).Locke’s view of personal identity explains self-reflectiveconsciousness, which is a crucial condition of moral agency.Therefore, if a person cannot remember an act then, it is mostlikely that he or she did not undertake that particular action.

Thenagain, Locke argues that memory is necessary for personal identity toexist. Hence, the current identity is similar to past personality andthe same will be present in the future. In some instances, peopleforget previous actions thus, Locke explains that this indicatesthat an individual is losing touch with his or her past self(Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy). According to Locke, memory isessential when forming an identity (Stanford encyclopedia ofphilosophy). Therefore, his theory indicates that an individual hasto remember the events that took place in their past for him or herto be considered the same person.

Moreover,Locke claims that personal identity is free from all substances(Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy). However, he does not indicatethat consciousness can exist without a soul or a body, but rather, itis irrational to think that perception is tied to material substance.Thus, Locke argues that it is possible to transfer consciousness fromone mind or body to another. For example, an elderly person has aconnection and remembers the action of his youths thus, he is thesame person. Nonetheless, if this individual fails to remember whathe did during childhood, it means that he is not the same self(Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy). On the other hand, as a youngperson, he remembers the events of his childhood, which means he wasthe same person.

Locke’stheory proposes a way of identifying individuality by unifying a selfthat is always changing due to various experiences. Therefore, hisview provides a pattern that connects distinct experiences in aperson’s lives. He relies on psychological criterion rather thanthe physical attributes when defining people (Stanford encyclopediaof philosophy). Locke claims that consciousness can be altered due tolack of memory, but the soul or identity remains unchanged. Underthis situation, different people can have the same soul, but thiscannot happen at the same time. These claims support Locke’s viewthat same thoughts or soul is not necessary to support anindividual’s identity over time. Therefore, it is essential to havea thought process, but in the end, it is not essential to have thesame soul to maintain personal identity. Locke argument shows that hedoes not believe that individuals can redefine their soul despitevarious experiences. He asserts that if people were always awakethen. It would be possible to maintain the same soul (Stanfordencyclopedia of philosophy). However, consciousness contains naturalpauses due to periods when a person is sleeping. Locke argues thatthere is no definite way to determine if one soul has beensubstituted for another during that interval of unconsciousness.Therefore, if having the same soul is a requirement for personalidentity, people would never be assured that they are the same asbefore they slept (Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy).

Inhis theory, Locke points out a difference between man and person. Healso makes a distinction between soul and consciousness. Thehypothesis claims that perception can be transferred from one soulthus, personality is changed although consciousness remains constant.Hence, personal identity is preserved despite the transformation(Locke 13). Therefore, Locke believes that the uniqueness of livingthings varies from that of the non-living things because the idea ofself is only transferred through continuity of life (Locke 331). Assuch, a non-living thing will never change its form or nature, butliving things keep on changing due to various experiences.Consequently, Locke does not compare people with immaterialsubstances.

Thenagain, this philosopher believes that consciousness is necessary forjustice to exist in the society. Therefore, a person should only bepunished if he or she remembers doing the wrong thing. For example, aperson should be free of all charges if he or she was not the sameindividual who committed the crime (Locke 118). Otherwise, if he orshe has recollection about the crime, it is prove that he was thereand probably took part in it. The actions that one’s consciousnesscannot recall are as though they did not occur (Stanford encyclopediaof philosophy). Consequently, two soul-phases are continuous if theyare part of the same personality, each of which should have animmediate connection with its predecessor and successor (Locke 113).Locke explains that conscious memory involves the perception of thepast behavior to determine current actions. Hence, when a person isdetermined to do something, his or her mind is always conscious ofit.

Locke’spersonality theory also explains the idea of psychological continuity(Locke 114). He implies that a person existing at one time isidentical to an individual existing at another occasion, but only ifhe or she remembers past experiences to connect them to the present(Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy). Locke bases his theory on thenotion that the same thing cannot exist in two different places atthe same time. Therefore, when the existence of one thing begins in adifferent location, it means the termination of the same entity inanother area (Perry 33). The theory indicates that personal identitycan be static or unified, but contains complex memories that keep onchanging. As such, if one consciousness uses more than one soul orbody, then that perception can be used to define personal identity.He explains that consciousness extends to different parts of thebody. For example, he indicates that every event taking place in allparts of the body has to be registered in the consciousness for thoseparts to become part of personal identity. Therefore, if there is apart of the body that is not sending ideas to the consciousness, thenit is not part of the self (Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy).

Locke’sargument is based on the idea that people are constantly changingthus, there is a need for an explanation of what constitutesindividualism over time (Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy). Ifsuch an account is unavailable, then it would be hard to explain whyhuman life is so important. Additionally, Locke’s theory aims toexplain people’s responsibility for their actions. When peopleperceive identity in terms of actions, their consciousness will beconcerned and accountable. Thus, interest in personality identity isrooted in the search for happiness, which is easier to attain if aperson has a clear notion of self (Locke 120). As such, spiritualsubstance cannot explain personal identity (Perry 57).


Locke’sexplanation of personal identity is highly influential because ithighlights the importance of a psychological criterion (Locke 143).However, it has been criticized over the centuries by his peers andmodern scholars due to his claim that memory is necessary forpersonal identity to exist (Nimbalkar 273). The disapproving claimsstate that just because a person cannot remember some experience itdoes not necessarily mean that the individual did not undertake thoseactivities. Furthermore, Locke’s concept fails to explain whathappens when some portions of life as forgotten. Hence, critics claimthat the idea of memory being a necessity in personal identity isproblematic. Additionally, others argue that Locke’s conceptof personal identity would require the current self to have total andaccurate memory where they can recall everything that occurs in theirpast life (Nimbalkar 273). However, this definition is too broadbecause it includes all things that a person claims to rememberwhether they took part in them or not (Nimbalkar 274). Critics alsoindicate that Locke’s theory is not plausible because sometimes aperson can recall events that occurred, but that does not necessarymean they participated (Nimbalkar 264). For example, if an individualremembers the events that took place during the early Americanhistory, in Locke’s view, this would mean that the individual tookpart in it. Nevertheless, this is not always the case because theinformation could have been acquired through studying and laterrecalled. Consequently, during the 20th century Anthony Quinton andH. P Grice proposed revisions to Locke’s personal identity theory(Perry 2).


Quinton’sview of individuality is based on observable virtues, which are notuniversal components of short-term personal experiences. Therefore,if a person forgets some events in their past experiences or changestheir beliefs or emotions, it is not to say that his or her personalidentity changes (Perry 54). Quinton holds that spiritual substanceis a permanent and constant component of a person’s conscious life,but this concept is unobservable thus, it is ineffective when makinga personal identification (Perry 55). He also argues against theclaim that physical attributes are a necessary condition whendefining personal identity. Instead, his view contends that there isneed to construct a logically adequate concept of the soul, which hassome possible utility even when considering the knowledge of causalconditions of human life.

Overthe centuries, philosophers have tried to explain the constituents ofa person’s inner conscious life, as an element that determinespersonal identity through time. Moreover, philosophers do not proposean extensive explanation about the soul (Perry 53). Thus, thespiritual substance is not considered a criterion when definingpersonal identity (Perry 67). However, Quinton claims that when theydismiss the soul, they reject the consequences of the belief thatpeople have in it. Quinton believes that an individual’s past isexpected to influence the choice he or she makes in the future.Therefore, events other than just memory should be included whenexplaining personal identity. He also claims that the soul is thedistinguishing aspect of human beings, plants, and animals. Besides,Quinton holds that spiritual substance is a mental state thus, anunderlying part of personal identity (Perry 53).

UnlikeLocke, Quinton explains that personal identity constitutes allcontents that ever passed through a person whether they are consciousor not (Perry 54). According to Quinton, an individual comprises ofindirectly continuous series of psychological characteristics thatbelong to the brief consciousness. According to Quinton, it is notnecessary to have a spiritual substance on top of the perception thatmake up a person’s self. Thus, spiritual substance does notnecessarily determine personal identity through time (Perry 55).

Nonetheless,Quinton’s explanation of spiritual substance as part of personalidentity has been criticized due to apparent weaknesses. First, theconcept does not accept freedom of religion in the same way itexplains identity using physical components (Perry 54). Additionally,the theory lacks an observable mental entity that can serve as ameasure for explaining identity. Thus, it is difficult to distinguishbetween two individuals (Perry 54).


Similarly,Paul Grice, a British philosopher, proposed further amendments toLocke’s theory. He claimed that personal identity comprises ofcontinuity of memory. The life of a person can be described in briefstages of consciousness. Unlike Locke, Grice indicates that it is notnecessary to remember all events of the past in order for a person tobe the same self. In this view, memory connection is interchanged bypsychological continuity, which incorporates recollection betweendifferent phases in human life. Besides, Grice believes that self canbe substituted with body without losing or changing the meaning ofpersonal identity. For example, if something happens to the body, thesame thing is happening to the self as well. Therefore, unlikeLocke’s view, it shows that there is no distinction between selfand body.

Gricesuggests that use of a new term, total temporary state, whichcontains all the experiences an individual is having at anyparticular time (Perry 136). Hence, he fixes the problem oftransition apparent in Locke’s hypothesis. Grice suggests thatevery total temporary state contains aspects belonging to that personwhether they are remembered or just an impression. Grice amendmentclarifies that memory is necessary for personal identity, but only tothe extent that total temporary states share some transitive element(Perry 140). Therefore, the total temporary states have to belong tothe same person for them to make up an identity because an individualcan only remember his or her experiences. Grice also explains thatthe delusion of having some knowledge of the past is not the same ashaving the experienced it. Accordingly Grice incorporates otherthings apart from memory by first generalizing human behaviorresulting from memory patterns. Subsequently, he introduces arelationship between memories which forms the basis of individuality(Perry 77).

Thenagain, Grice opposes the idea that self is a subject ofpsychological, but not physical aspects. He contends that suggestingself is a substance is the same as claiming that identities havecausal properties and is changeable (Perry 76). Grice argued thatmemory could be analyzed without linking it to the concept ofpersonal identity. Hence, he claims that actions can only bedistinguished to be facts or imaginary depending on whether an eventoccurred or not. Sometimes, people recall events that they did notwitness such as various historical events. Unlike Locke, he claimsthat it is not possible to form a personal identity based on suchfactual information. Hence, a person can only have memories of eventsthat took place or which he or she consciously participated.

Onthe other hand, Grice examines the issue of pure ego of self whenexplaining the problem of personal identity (Perry73). He claims thatit is possible to substitute identity with body without losing orchanging the meaning. Grice uses the example of identity and body,which he replaces with each other to determine if it will facilitateany changes. However, he claims that he cannot switch body with selfbecause it will no longer make sense although it will still retainthe same meaning. For example, he indicates that it is not logical tosay that “my body heard the noise” (Perry 74). Instead, peopleuse the identity of self such as the term “I” to describe theirexperiences. On the other hand, the body can be substituted with selfand still retain the same meaning thus, it shows that identity islinked to some physical attributes (Perry 74). Although Grice’samendment is reasonable, he still neglects to provide a sufficientdefinition of personal identity.

Inconclusion, the matter of personal identity has always been a concernfor many scholars. Locke’s concept was revolutionary and it stillinterests modern philosophers because it was the first to contain anon-substantial explanation of personal identity. The theory claimsthat memory is the primary basis for individuality. Thus, theproblems encountered in the relationship between body and mind doesnot necessarily determine a person’s identity. Therefore,personality continues into the past and the future only as far asconsciousness extends. Locke implies that for a personto be considered identical to their young self, they must rememberall the events and activities that occurred during that time. Thus,the idea of self unites an individual’s identity, with his or herthoughts and actions. However, Locke’s view has been criticizedbecause memory cannot be the basis for personal identity since someclaims cannot be verified. Consequently, H. P. Grice and AnthonyQuinton proposed other hypotheses to analyze personal identity usingmemory. Grice claimed that the physical attributes are essential whendefining personal identity. He supports his claim by arguing thatbody and self are interchangeable without necessarily loosing meaningand personality. According to Grice, identity is continuous becauseit is based on memory that occurs in short-term stages that areinterconnected. Therefore, it is not important for a person toremember all the events that took place in the past for them to beconsidered the same self. The opinion contradicts Locke’s view thata person has to remember everything that happened in their past forthem to be considered identical to their younger self. Although Griceagrees that memory is essential when forming personal identity, healso indicates that the concept of physical attributes cannot bedismissed when defining individuality. Therefore, he analyses memorywithout connecting it to personal identity because sometimes peoplerecall issues that they did not experience. Grice contends Locke’sopinion that self is a substance. Instead, he explains thatindividuality can be a content and logical construction. Likewise,Quinton argues that personal identity is best described usingobservable virtues. He agree that memory has a significantcontribution to personal indentify, but it does not necessarily meanthat when a person forgets something in the past that theirself-identity has changed. Quinton also asserts that spiritualsubstance is a permanent and unchangeable aspect of personalidentity. Unlike other philosophers, he embraces the idea of the soulwhen defining individuality despite the lack of recollection onvarious past events. Consequently, despite the contradicting detailsexplaining how recollection plays a part in forming a personalidentity, philosophers Locke, Grice, and Quinton agree thatindividualism is based on memory.


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