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The Concept of Identity by John Locke

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In chapter XXVII of the essay Identity and Diversity, the author John Locke discusses numerous types of identities and provides multiple examples for these identities. However, to understand identity and its many components we must first grasp the concept of identity itself as understood by Locke. Locke states when comparing anything that exists at any time or place, we compare it with the context of it existing at another time or place and when we see anything at any given time, we are sure it is that thing that exists and it does not exist in another place at the same time. This is what the idea of identity consists in, therefore, it follows that one thing cannot have more than one beginning and two things of the same kind may not exist in the same place or time.

In total, Locke puts forth four types of identities that may be applied to the individual, self, or even in the case of Melanie. First, Locke discusses the structure and organization of particles and their ability to remain unchanged overtime as an identity. “Let us suppose an atom, i.e. a continued body under one immutable superficies, existing in a determined time and place; it is evident that, considered in any instant of its existence, it is in that instant the same with itself.” Here, Locke is stating that atoms are continued bodies which reside within their designated space and they exist through determined times and places so it follows that if two atoms were to join together to produce the same mass, every single atom would remain the same under the forging rule according to Locke. However, if one atom were to be subtracted or added, it would no longer be the same body.

Second, Locke discusses the idea of identity in living creatures and that their identity is not predicated on the mass of the same particles. “An oak growing from a plant to a great tree, and then lopped, is still the same oak; and a colt grown up to a horse, sometimes fat, sometimes lean, is all the while the same horse: Though in both these cases, there may be a manifest change of the parts; so that truly they are not either of them the same masses of matter, though they be truly one of them the same oak, and the other the same horse. When certain organisms age, their mass increases and the particles once attached to their body can fall off and no longer be associated as a part of the animal, for example, the antlers of a deer that fall due to weight. Living creatures may change shape and size over time, but they ultimately remain the same creature overtime. This means regardless of mass or a change in shape or size, the identity of a being remains the same.

Third, Locke discusses the identity of complex bodies such as machines, then makes a comparison to how this can be observed in animals. “What is a watch? It is plain it is nothing but a fit organization or construction of parts to a certain end, which when a sufficient force is added to it, it is capable to attain. If we would suppose this machine one continued body, all whose organized parts were repaired, increased, or diminished by a constant addition or separation of insensible parts, with one common life, we should have something very much like the body of an animal”. Locke is saying that humans, like machines, are organized and constructed in such a fashion that when force is applied, we are able to attain and function. For a watch, the motion is created artificially, however, humans possess a soul which enables them to make such movements naturally.

Fourth and finally, Locke discusses the identity of persons and consciousness. “it must be allowed, that if the same consciousness (which, as has been shown, is quite a different thing from the same numerical figure or motion in body) can be transferred from one thinking substance to another, it will be possible that two thinking substances may make but one person.” This means as long as the consciousness of individual A remains intact and is transferred into individual B then individual A would have successfully transferred their identity into individual B’s body. I believe the second and fourth identities are most relevant to Melanie’s situation, In the second identity, Locke states identity is not predicated on the mass of the same particles and in the fourth identity, Locke states consciousness can be transferred from one body to another. These specific examples can attempt to explain what has happened and which individual is who accounting for the change in identities concerning Melanie because as long as her consciousness remains the same and intact, she is the same person regardless of body.

Locke presents various examples of interesting identity issues, I believe there is one example which is most relevant in the case of Melanie waking up in the body of her friend, Aisha. Locke describes a story of a man who has been convinced that he has acquired the soul of Socrates, Locke says let us assume that this man has an immaterial spirit which can think for the man, but the man remains the same on the outside. Would this man be able to think of Socrates’s actions as his own? According to Locke, he is no more himself than he is Socrates and to everyone, the man has remained the same. “But though the same immaterial substance or soul does not alone, wherever it be, and in whatsoever state, make the same man; yet it is plain consciousness”. Locke is stating that it is not just a soul or a substance that makes one the same man/woman in another body, it is the entirety of the consciousness. This is relevant to the case of Melanie because similarly to the man acquiring Socrates soul, Melanie wakes up in the body of another person, her friend Aisha and according to Locke, Melanie’s consciousness would have needed to remain intact and placed into Aisha’s body for Melanie to say she is in fact in another body. In both cases, it seems that the immaterial soul/spirit, as well as the consciousness, has been transferred into a new body and because the criterion is the same for Socrates’s consciousness and Melanie’s consciousness, what Locke says about the man can also be applied exactly the same way to Melanie.

According to Locke, when you look at the woman in the hotel room you see the physical body of Aisha but the mind (consciousness) will be that of Melanie. Locke discusses an example that is very similar to that of Melanie’s situation. Locke says that the soul of a prince, along with the memories of his past enters the body of a cobbler. Everyone the cobbler sees, the prince does as well and everything the prince does, good or bad, the prince is accountable for. “But who would say it was the same man? The body too goes to the making the man, and would, I guess, to everybody determine the man in this case; wherein the soul, with all its princely thoughts about it, would not make another man: But he would be the same cobbler to every one besides himself.” Unfortunately, this scenario is not in the cobbler’s best interest. To everyone else, the cobbler remains the cobbler, however, the cobbler is the only one who knows that the prince is inside of his body. Therefore, if the prince commits atrocious crimes, the cobbler would ultimately be held responsible regardless of his claim of innocence. Similarly, if Aisha’s friend visits her, the friend would be under the impression that she is in the presence of Aisha because he/she would observe the physical body of Aisha and would not have a reason to believe otherwise.

There are two critical objections that may be raised for Locke’s views on this type of case. Locke states in some cases when we forget certain things that we have done because we are tired, restless, forgetful, or being under the influence of a substance that alters perception, focus, and ability to perform tasks, we are not necessarily the same person. “Suppose I wholly lose the memory of some parts of my life beyond a possibility of retrieving them, so that perhaps I shall never be conscious of them again; yet am I not the same person that did those actions, had those thoughts that I once was conscious of, though I have now forgot them?” Locke is saying if he were to lose his memory on certain aspects of his life without the ability to retrieve them, then the actions he committed under the state of forgetfulness, he should not be held accountable for because he does not remember partaking in such actions. “But is not a man drunk and sober the same person? Why else is he punished for the fact he commits when drunk, though he be never afterwards conscious of it? Just as much the same person as a man, that walks, and does other things in his sleep, is the same person, and is answerable for any mischief he shall do in it.” The same goes for being intoxicated under a substance. If one were to become severely intoxicated and commit a murder, is Locke essentially saying that instead of charging them like we normally do, we should not hold that person responsible because they are not the same person while intoxicated? It’s interesting because Locke is very strict when it comes to holding individuals responsible for their own actions. If Melanie, now in the body of Aisha committed a murder, it seems Locke would say that Aisha should not be prosecuted for crimes that she has no memory of, she should not be held accountable. I believe Locke would respond by saying only Aisha would be aware that there was another consciousness in her body, but only she would know that she is indeed innocent. Her peers would prosecute Aisha for Melanie’s actions, I believe this based on the story Locke tells of the prince entering the cobbler’s body.

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