23 Aug 2022


John Locke's View on Personal Identity and Consciousness

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Who are we? This is a question that appears too easy for one to answer on any grounds. On Philosophical grounds, the question arouses a lot of arguments. Most philosophers have sought to respond to the question basing on personal identity, as in what makes the personal identity? What makes what a person is now and tomorrow? John Locke is one of those philosophers whose theory of personal identity has aroused a lot of arguments over time. Locke considers personal identity which he mostly refers to as the self to be a result of the conscious. According to him, consciousness constitutes of memory which is a very integral part of human existence. He explores personal identity through time and reality as continuous. This essay presents the views of John Locke on consciousness as a major constitute of personal identity and the issue of existence as continuous.

One of Locke’s concepts is psychological continuity. In psychological continuity, man is considered to be originally made with an empty mind (Nimbalker, 2011). The empty mind is then filled and shaped by experiences that one goes through in life. One experience leads to another, and the thinking during one event will influence the next. For that reason, our ideas and reasoning as human beings are as a result of our experiences and sensations that we have acquired in the course of life. Hence our psychology is ever growing as we experience new things. Locke holds that psychological continuity makes personal identity to that effect.

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Locke’s theory is, therefore, devoid of the concepts of the soul as part of personal identity (Nimbalker, 2011). His approach focuses on memory in a person mind. This leads to the idea of the brain in the context of the self. The brain is held responsible for the memory. According to Locke, the brain may change, but that does not alter a person’s experiences. He accounts for the brain about consciousness. The brain is part of the body while consciousness is not. Hence the brain does not make personal identity, but consciousness does.

In further explaining what personal identity is, Locke considers the meaning of a person. A person is considered as a thinking and intelligent being (Locke, 1974). A person reflects and reasons and considers itself as itself. The same person can exist in different times and different places, but it still possesses a thinking and a perception of things. Thinking and reflections are only made possible by consciousness. Consciousness is inseparable from thinking. A person cannot perceive without perceiving and without him knowing that he is perceiving. In every person’s activity in the present, they are always aware that they are doing that which they are doing thus the responsibility of the conscious. It is conscious that makes one consider to themselves what they will call the self.

Consciousness always accompanies thinking hence it is what distinguishes one person from the other (Locke, 1974). As thinking things, we have different thinking’s basing on different perceptions hence we are different from each other. As Locke Puts it the same self that reflects on the same events that happen a long time ago constitutes a same rational being. The same self-existed a while ago and went through and experience that it is trying to reflect on now. Being shaped by past thoughts sensations and experiences the self now has a unique identity that doesn't share with another thinking person. Personal identity is therefore made of the uniqueness of everyone’s thoughts, sensations, experiences and perceptions that constitute a person’s consciousness.

Evidently, consciousness is what makes a personal identity. Nonetheless, there are always inquiries on the sameness of the consciousness about memory. The unity of consciousness is affected by memory. A person’s thinking should always remain present in mind; this means that for consciousness to be present, then a person's reflections and thoughts should always be present in mind.one of the greatest setbacks to this though is that people are subject to forgetfulness (Locke, 1974). Often people will not have a train of thoughts on events that happen in the person. Some things are forgotten in a matter of seconds. For instance, one might be looking at one thing in this instant then immediately shift their focus to another view. The view of the previous object may be completely forgotten as the person reflects on the new view which has caught particular attention.

It’s evident that our self is always interrupted since our consciousness may not remain the same when we lose memory.it can be uncertain whether the same thinking person is identical in moments when the conscious is interrupted. Locke explains that personal identity constitutes consciousness which is united in a person’s continuous life. In moments of memory loss, a person does not lose identity but instead, it is preserved, and it will continue as the person lives. The consciousness remains the same consciousness of the same person. A personal identity is therefore always preserved since it’s the same consciousness that makes a person identify himself as himself only, personal identity depends on that consciousness and nothing other than that. The notion of the brain not being part of personal identity is therefore clear. Since the mind forgets and the brain is subjected to memory loss, the brain does not make a part of a person’s consciousness as it stands on its own. A person’s identity is only determined by consciousness and not on the brain.

The existence of an individual is made up of a succession of several aspects. In all these successions there is one thing that will always remain which is consciousness. As far as a person can report the same idea from a past action with the same consciousness that the person had in the past or with a consciousness that exists in the present, then it is the same person with the same identity. Therefore the person will remain the same as long as their awareness will influence the ideas of the past the present or of things that are yet to come. Nonetheless, a man does not become a different man because of changing clothes. It is the ability of the consciousness to unite the past the present and the future into one continuous life that makes a personal identity.

Locke, therefore, holds that a continuity of ‘self’ exists in time. Since one experience influences the next experience, the thinking is always influenced by a chain of events that means that is the same ‘self’ experiencing different things from which it denotes some thoughts. The same consciousness, therefore, is always present to experience and have perceptions of different events. This means that the same ‘self’ continues and develops over time.

The answer to who we are depends on a person’s identity. We know who we depend on our consciousness. Everyone has a discernment of what they consider as the self. Our past has a part to play in engineering our self or our present identity. Though we may forget some of the things that happen in life, we do not lose our identity our consciousness is merely interrupted. Hence, consciousness goes hand in hand with self-identity, and one does not exist without the other. To sum it all up, consciousness makes a person’s identity, and memory has a very crucial part to play in the creation of consciousness and consequently in our identity as thinking individuals.


Nimbalker, N. (2011). John Locke on personal Identity. Brain, mind, and consciousness: An international disciplinary perspective, 1 (9), 268-275. doi:10.4103/0973-1229.77443

Locke, J. (1974). An essay concerning human understanding: Vol. 2 . London: Dent.

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