In Book II of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke established one of the first methodical treatments of the issue of personal identity as it relates to the realm of philosophy. Reflecting back on Locke's theory, it is clear that his work, while not impenetrable to its critics, did have a large amount of historical significance. It was significant because he was the first major theorist in the history of modern philosophy to pose and examine the philosophical problem of personal identity. After posing his theory, many well-known philosophers that came after him established their own criticisms of Locke's account, many of which found great flaws in his theory. Unfortunately for Locke's legacy though, many of these theorists did not consider the context in which Locke's theory was devised, and therefore it unnecessarily discounted the historical significance of his work.
[...] Because the earthly idea that man is separate from the soul or immaterial substance is not adequate for Locke as it fails to provide a basis for personal or moral accountability, he saw it as necessary to make a supplementary distinction between the notion of man, and that of person. For Locke, a person's identity is rooted in their self-consciousness, thus effectively separating the idea of person and identity. When a person dies, their substance remains, but their consciousness does not. [...]
[...] He then considers the ethical implications by saying that personal identity is the main source of right and justice. Moral responsibility is rooted in the idea of personal identity, and this refers to consciousness and memory. (Wedeking, 1987). Locke is aware that this supposition raises clear objections, and in anticipation of these objections he addresses them. One might say that if a man loses memory or consciousness of whole or part of their life, is that man a different person? [...]
[...] Just like Locke, he understood that the question of identity came as a consequence of the difficulty concerning the idea of the thinking substance, and that memory must have a crucial role in a feasible evaluation of the problem. Hume differs in a way though, as what Locke calls problematic, he calls nonsense. Locke's investigation arose out of the need to establish the limits of moral responsibility, whereas Hume did so in an effort to uncover the origin of a belief. [...]
[...] By taking away one aspect of the concrete man, and referring to that as the person, he is able to account for moral responsibility and personal identity, but in achieving this seemingly easy victory, it could be said that he might have ignored the more serious dilemma of the responsibility and identity of the man. (Wedeking, 1987). Locke has attempted to root personal identity in consciousness, and this quickly was the source of much opposition by his critics, mostly because in the eyes of his critics, he failed to give an acceptable basis for his doctrine. [...]
[...] The historical and philosophical significance of Locke's theory ought not to be evaluated in terms of what it achieved, because as has been pointed out in this essay, it does have its weaknesses. Rather, it ought to be evaluated in terms of the problems it addressed. Most of the problems that can be identified in Locke's theory are a result of the vague relationship to the theories of Descartes. This is a relation that that is a characterization of not only the chapter on personal identity, but on the whole Essay itself. [...]
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