'My view is that Locke links a moral account of personhood (rather than a moral account of personal identity) with a psychological account of personal identity. To explain why I interpret Locke this way, it is helpful to return to his kind-dependent approach to questions of identity over time. Locke’s view is that we have to spell out what we mean by ‘person’ before we can turn to questions of personal identity over time and specify the persistence conditions for persons.'
'Hume does not share Locke’s moral and religious background beliefs that inform Locke’s account of personal identity and I argue that these moral and religious differences are relevant for understanding why Hume has not much scope for conceptually distinguishing persons from human beings in Book 2. As already mentioned above, Locke was a Christian believer who wanted to take the possibility of an afterlife seriously. Moreover, Locke regards divine law as the true basis of morality. Hume, by contrast, opposes moral views that are based on divine law.'
'Reid’s explanation of some of our social interactions in terms of social operations and their counterpart structure is far more robust than the views developed by many of his contemporaries. Whether or not one is willing to agree with Reid’s view, will likely depend on whether one is happy to share his rather optimistic account of human nature, which assumes that we are equipped by nature with social operations and that fidelity and trust play a fundamental role in our constitution and development.'
Ruth Boeker is interested in early modern philosophy and her research lies at the intersection between metaphysics, philosophy of mind, and ethics. Here she discusses Locke's theory of personal identity, the ‘kind-dependent’ approach to identity, the irrelevance of modes or substances to the issue, appropriation, Galen Strawson’s forensic account, Locke’s religious beliefs concerning the afterlife, the ‘simple memory’ account, the materiality or immateriality of the mind, consciousness, linking a moral account of personhood with a psychological account of personal identity, religious differences between Hume and Locke, Shaftesbury on personal identity, consciousness and character development, Locke, Shaftesbury, Hutcheson on agency and liberty, and finally Reid on social operations.
3:16: What made you become a philosopher?
Ruth Boeker: Well, I don’t have one short and simple answer to this question and believe that a combination of things helped me to start my journey into the world of philosophy. Instead of just learning facts I have been more interested in trying to understand why things are the way they are for a long time. Philosophy provides a space to engage with these deeper questions that fall outside the scope of many other disciplines. It also creates space to consider other perspectives, or other worlds—if you like. These may be better than our own and thereby philosophy can offer resources for change and improvement. My first detailed introduction to philosophy was Jostein Gaarder’s book Sophie’s World , which I read soon after its publication. Additionally, I benefitted from growing up in a university town and was able to sit in in several lectures to get a taste of different subjects offered at universities around the time when I finished high school. I soon felt more drawn towards philosophy than the various other subjects that I also considered. Beyond this, I was lucky that I had scholarships that supported me to pursue my intellectual interests and teachers and mentors that helped and encouraged me become a professional philosopher.
3:16: You’re an expert in Locke and the early moderns. You’ve come up with a new approach to Locke’s approach to personhood and personal identity so let’s look at this. So firstly, you propose to see Locke in terms of what you call a ‘kind-dependent’ approach to identity, and to distinguish his account of personhood from his account of personal identity over time. So we get our bearings, can you say what this kind-dependency is about and why making the distinction makes your account different from previous discussions?
RB: I wouldn’t claim that I’m the first one to describe Locke’s account of personal identity as kind-dependent, but since other interpretations have received more attention over the last few decades, I believe that it is important that we return to Locke’s writings and don’t attribute views to him that lack textual support. Please allow me to introduce my preferred interpretation of Locke’s approach to identity, which I call kind-dependent, by contrasting it with other approaches.
First, I want to contrast the kind-dependent approach with present-day debates about the self and personal identity such as neo-Lockean views. Second, I want to contrast the kind-dependent approach with two other interpretations that have dominated the secondary literature on Locke’s account of identity, namely Relative Identity and coincidence interpretations. A common way to set up debates about personal identity in twentieth and twenty-first century philosophy is by considering whether a psychological account of personal identity is to be preferred over a biological account of personal identity, immaterial soul views, or certain other competing accounts of personal identity. These views tend to be seen as rival theories and the debates aim to identify the most convincing candidate for personal identity. Such approaches to debates about personal identity are often paired with the underlying assumption that it is important to settle whether a self or person is a psychological subject of experience, a human animal, an immaterial soul, or whether it has some other metaphysical constitution. Locke, by contrast, accepts that there are many different ways how the term ‘person’ can be defined. He chooses to offer a definition of a person that aligns well with his overall moral and religious project in the Essay. A person for Locke is a moral agent who is accountable for their actions and capable of reward and punishment.
As I argue in my book, Lockean persons can be regarded as subjects of accountability. However, I take it that Locke wouldn’t share the assumptions that are common in present-day debates about personal identity. Giving an account of personal identity does not exclude that we can also give an account of the identity of human beings, if by ‘person’ and ‘human being’ we refer to different kinds of beings. If by ‘person’ we mean moral subjects of accountability and by ‘human being’ a living biological organism, then it is plausible to argue, so Locke would say, that personal identity consists in sameness of consciousness and the identity of a human being in the continued existence of the biological organism (note to experts: I’m simplifying here; Locke’s own understanding of ‘man’ is more complex). This example is one illustration of Locke’s kind-dependent approach to questions of identity over time. More generally, Locke accepts that the persistence conditions can vary depending on the kind of being under consideration. To elaborate on this, he holds that we first have to decide which kind of being we intend to focus on, namely kind F (rather than kind G ) and spell out what characteristic features we associate with kind F, before we can in a further step specify the persistence conditions for members of kind F . This is the sense in which I call his general approach to questions of identity kind-dependent.
To further explain as to why I believe that the kind-dependent interpretation best captures Locke’s approach to questions of identity over time, it is helpful to contrast this interpretation with two other interpretations that have received much attention in the secondary literature on Locke, namely Relative Identity and coincidence interpretations. Let me illustrate the differences with an example. Let us assume that two years ago I planted a small orange tree. Since then the tree has grown, blossomed, grown fruits, lost leaves, and grown new ones. Locke’s account of identity aims to explain that the orange tree today is still the same orange tree as it was two years ago, but that the mass of matter composing the tree is not any longer the same mass of matter.
Defenders of Relative Identity and coincidence interpretations disagree about how Locke would understand such examples. Defenders of Relative Identity argue that today there is one thing that is both an orange tree and a mass of matter, even though considered diachronically it can be the same orange tree, but not the same mass of matter. By contrast defenders of a coincidence view argue that today there are two distinct things, one an orange tree and one a mass of matter. More generally, the disagreement concerns the question whether at a particular place and time there exists one thing that is both F and G , where F and G are different kinds, or whether two distinct things exist at this place and time, one F and one G . I believe that defenders of Relative Identity and coincidence interpretations both make different metaphysical assumptions that are not clearly supported by Locke’s text.
In my view, Locke’s text does not settle whether at a time there is one thing that is both an orange tree and a mass of matter, as defenders of Relative Identity interpretations have it, or whether there are two things, one an orange tree and one a mass of matter, as defenders of coincidence interpretations claim. However, this is not a weakness of Locke’s view. Instead if we acknowledge that Locke offers a kind-dependent approach to questions of identity over time, then it becomes clear that his main task is to specify persistence conditions for members of the kind under consideration. As I argue in my book, there is no need for him to settle whether one thing or two things exist at a particular time, because such metaphysical details are not significant for Locke’s main task. Thus, I believe that the kind-dependent interpretation is not only better supported by Locke’s text than Relative Identity and coincidence interpretations, but it also has the advantage that it avoids unnecessary metaphysical commitments.
3:16: Why do some think that it is important to decide whether Locke thought persons were modes or substances, and why do you think the issue is not really relevant?
RB: Locke distinguishes complex ideas into ideas of substances, ideas of modes, and ideas of relations (see Essay II.xii). Ideas of substances represent substances, ideas of modes represent modes, and—though this is a bit more controversial—ideas of relations represent relations. Given that Locke introduces these distinctions, it is fair to ask whether Lockean persons are substances, modes, or relations. Edmund Law (1703–1787), who was an eighteenth-century philosopher and theologian, explicitly argued that Lockean persons are modes in his A Defence of Mr. Locke’s Opinion concerning Personal Identity (1769). Law develops a Ciceronian reading and considers a person as a particular quality or character of a human being. One problem with such an interpretation is that it presupposes that persons depend upon human beings, because they are seen as qualities or modes of human beings. However, Locke’s text does not commit him to accepting such a metaphysical dependency (though it does not rule it out either). I take it that Locke would be reluctant to endorse Law’s metaphysical claims because they conflict with his tendency to remain agnostic about metaphysical claims that transcend the boundaries of human understanding.
More recently Antonia LoLordo, following Law, defended a mode interpretation of Lockean persons. Other Locke scholars like Jessica Gordon-Roth, Samuel Rickless, and Kenneth Winkler reject the mode interpretation and argue instead that Lockean persons are substances. Yet the question remains whether Locke would be willing to take a stance on this metaphysical issue or whether he would prefer to remain agnostic, as Peter Anstey and Margaret Atherton have suggested. Although I am willing to acknowledge that the question of whether Lockean persons are modes or substances is an interesting metaphysical question in its own right, I do not consider it as central to Locke’s primary concerns in his chapter ‘Of Identity and Diversity’ ( Essay II.xxvii). As I read the chapter, Locke is mainly focused on specifying persistence conditions for different kinds of beings, including persons. I believe that in order to specify the persistence conditions for persons it is not relevant to decide first whether a person at a time is a mode or a substance. Even if it turns out to be the case that a person at a time is a substance (or a mode), it does not follow from this that personal identity over time has to consist in the continued existence of a substance (or the continued existence of a mode). As Locke argues repeatedly, personal identity consists in sameness of consciousness and sameness of substance is neither necessary nor sufficient for personal identity.
3:16: What’s appropriation and does it have a role in his account of persons and personal identity?
RB: Locke mentions appropriation not only in the Essay in his chapter ‘Of Identity and Diversity’ but also in his Two Treatises of Government . In Two Treatises he speaks of ‘appropriation by labour’. By contrast, in the Essay, he speaks of ‘appropriation by consciousness’. At first, it is not immediately obvious whether his references to appropriation in these two texts are related. I suggest that it is helpful to consider the parallels. Building on the natural law tradition, in Two Treatises ‘to appropriate something’ means to make it one’s own. More precisely, Locke’s view is that by investing labour, I can make something my own. For instance, by harvesting fruits I make them my own. How can this understanding of appropriation in Two Treatises shed light on Locke’s account of appropriation in the Essay ? There Locke claims that we appropriate actions by consciousness.
I suggest that action appropriation by consciousness in the Essay can be understood analogously. When I am performing a voluntary action in the present moment I am conscious in two respects. First, I am conscious of my volition to perform the action, and, second, I am conscious of performing the action. Thereby I invest cognitive and physical labour respectively (assuming the action is a bodily action; non-bodily actions merely involve cognitive labour). On this basis, I suggest that the appropriation of an action performed in the present moment can be explained in terms of the intimate awareness of the cognitive and/or physical labour that I invest. In the Essay Locke speaks of the appropriation of past actions. I propose that a past action is appropriated when one remembers the previous volition and performance of the action and one’s former awareness of willing and performing the action, which includes remembering the cognitive and/or physical labour that one invested. This means that past actions are appropriated in virtue of remembering the initial act of appropriation.
A person can be conscious of many thoughts and actions, but need not appropriate all of them. For instance, if I perceive that a car passes by on the street outside my window this is input that I passively receive through my senses, but if I do not actively process it, it makes sense to say that I do not appropriate such content. If we understand appropriation in the sense I suggested, it can provide a helpful tool for zooming in on specific contents among all the thoughts and actions we are conscious of, namely voluntary appropriated thoughts and actions. These can be seen as important candidates for considerations of moral accountability. Understood this way, appropriation offers resources for giving special weight to appropriated actions in considerations of personal identity and questions of moral accountability. However, I believe that it is a mistake to explain Locke’s account of personal identity in terms of appropriation. He never claims that personal identity consists in appropriation. Had he meant to hold such a view, he could have said so. Instead he argues repeatedly that personal identity consists in sameness of consciousness.
3:16: Do you agree with Galen Strawson’s forensic account of personhood in Locke or is his not considering the kind dependency approach a limitation of his account?
RB: In my view Galen Strawson is right in emphasizing that for Locke ‘person’ is a forensic term in his book Locke on Personal Identity: Consciousness and Concernment. There is, of course, scope for debating the nuances of Strawson’s interpretation. I have reservations about describing ‘person’ as a property term or a moral quality of a human subject of experience, as Strawson does following Udo Thiel. My worry is that this reading overlooks other metaphysical possibilities regarding the relation between persons and human beings that the kind-dependent interpretation leaves open.
Strawson (like various other interpreters) turns immediately to Locke’s account of persons and personal identity and does not situate this discussion within Locke’s more general approach to questions of identity over time, which is the focus in the first half of Locke’s chapter ‘Of Identity and Diversity’ and which I call kind-dependent. Taking seriously Locke’s kind-dependent approach to identity, gives me additional resources for explaining how Locke’s approach to persons and personal identity fits into his general approach to questions of identity and for avoiding unnecessary metaphysical commitments that are not supported by Locke’s text.
3:16: How important is it to take into consideration Locke’s religious beliefs concerning the afterlife, in particular when considering issues around the transitivity or non-transitivity of personal identity?
RB: Insofar as my project aims to offer an interpretation of Locke’s views that does justice to his own intentions, I think it is important to acknowledge that Locke was a Christian believer and that he intended to offer an account of personal identity that can make sense of the religious belief in an afterlife and a divine last judgement. It is worth noting that Locke makes clear that faith does not have the same epistemic status and certainty as knowledge. For instance, he acknowledges that we cannot know with certainty that there will be an afterlife, but since it is revealed in Scripture Locke holds that we should take the possibility of an afterlife seriously. Yet he makes clear that this is a matter of faith rather than knowledge.
Let me turn to the second part of your question, namely what role Locke’s religious beliefs play with regard to issues concerning transitivity. One of the best known objections against Locke’s account of personal identity is the problem of transitivity. Thomas Reid is often credited for raising this objection against Locke’s view, though George Berkeley and an anonymous author raised this problem before Reid. Following these eighteenth-century critics, several other interpreters have assumed that an account of personal identity must be transitive, because identity is a reflexive, symmetrical, and transitive relation. They object that Locke’s consciousness-based account of personal identity violates the transitivity of identity, because consciousness (or memory) is not a transitive relation. More recently Galen Strawson and Matthew Stuart both challenged this reading of Locke and argued that failure of transitivity is not a problem for Locke’s view, but rather it is his theory. They emphasize that Locke’s view aims to address questions of moral accountability.
I believe that Strawson and Stuart both offer interpretations that provide helpful insight into Locke’s view, but I worry that their non-transitive interpretations do not properly take the religious context of Locke’s theory into consideration. In particular, I show in my book that non-transitive interpretations cannot easily avoid problems of divine justice (such as judging multiple individuals for one and the same action or neglect of actions) that can arise at a last judgement. This leads me to propose a hybrid interpretation that combines insights of transitive and non-transitive interpretations and is better suited to avoid problems that arise for other interpretations.
3:16: What’s the ‘simple memory’ account and does Locke hold such an account?
RB: There are two issues that are helpful to consider in response to this question. First, is Locke’s account of personal identity best understood in terms of memory? Second, if Locke’s account of personal identity is a memory theory, does he endorse a simple memory theory or a memory continuity theory? Let me address both questions in turn. Locke argues repeatedly that personal identity consists in sameness of consciousness. Had he intended to defend a memory theory he could have said that memory makes a person the same over time. While memory certainly plays a part in Locke’s account of personal identity, I think there is good evidence that Locke’s account of personal identity cannot be reduced to memory relations. One reason for this is that I can be conscious of present experiences, but it does not make sense to say that I remember experiences that I have in the present moment.
Moreover, Locke believes that consciousness can extend into the future when he states that it is possible that a person ‘may exist, as it has done, Months and Years to come, without any certain bounds to be set to its duration; and may be the same self , by the same consciousness, continued on for the future’ ( Essay II.xxvii.25). Any interpreter who ascribes a memory theory to Locke cannot easily make sense of such passages. Nevertheless, following Thomas Reid, who accused Locke of confounding consciousness and memory, several other interpreters have ascribed memory interpretations to Locke, which in my view are incomplete, if not mistaken. One recent and very detailed defence of a memory interpretation has been given by Matthew Stuart in his book Locke’s Metaphysics . Stuart distinguishes between a simple memory theory and a memory continuity theory and argues that Locke holds the former. The simple memory theory focuses on direct memory connections between a person S at time t 2 and a mental or physical action A at time t 1. It consists of a necessity and a sufficiency claim. In Stuart’s words, ‘the necessity claim says that it is a necessary condition of S’s having performed A that S can remember having performed A. The sufficiency claim says that if S can remember having performed A, then S did perform A’ ( Locke’s Metaphysics , 346).
By contrast, the memory continuity does not require direct memory connections between a person S and a past action A, but rather chains of direct memory connections between S and A are sufficient when no direct memory connections exist. The simple memory theory is non-transitive, while the memory continuity theory is transitive. Putting aside the general worries that I raised against memory interpretations, when we want to assess whether the simple memory theory or the memory continuity theory offers the more plausible interpretation, similar considerations apply like the considerations given above for assessing issues of transitivity (see response to previous question).
3:16: You’re concerned to defend a nonmaterialist account of mind in Locke that isn’t Cartesian aren’t you? Can you say what reasons Locke has for denying the materiality of mind and why you think he doesn’t therefore go in for a simple Cartesian dualism? Is he rather some sort of Platonist?
RB: Please allow me to clarify upfront that the way you describe my position is not fully accurate. I argue that Locke remains agnostic about the materiality or immateriality of the mind, which means that he regards both material and immaterial views of the mind as possible. Locke believes that I have access to my experiences such as feeling hungry, hearing a birdsong, believing that 2+2=4, and so on, but he questions that we can know the exact metaphysical constitution of the entity in which these experiences take place. He further argues in his correspondence with Stillingfleet that experiences cannot float around freely, but rather must inhere in some substance. However, due to the limitations of human understanding we are not in a position to know whether thinking substances are material or immaterial. Locke emphasizes that it is important to distinguish knowledge from probability.
As far as knowledge is concerned, his claim is that we cannot know whether the mind is material or immaterial. Nevertheless, we can assess the probability of the different metaphysical options. In chapter i of Book II of the Essay Locke challenges philosophical views that claim that the soul (or mind) always thinks as highly unlikely. Most likely these arguments target Descartes and some of his followers, because Descartes’s claim that thinking is the essence of the mind can be understood as the claim that the mind always thinks. Indeed, there is a letter by Descartes that confirms that he believes that the mind always thinks, even in the mother’s womb. Locke compares the Cartesian view that the soul always thinks with the alternative hypothesis, namely that the soul does not always think, for instance during dreamless sleep. He argues that this alternative hypothesis is far more probable. Locke’s criticism that the Cartesian views that the soul always thinks is highly unlikely does not entail that he also has to reject the view that the mind is immaterial. Yet Locke does not endorse it either, since he explicitly argues for the view that it is possible that minds are material, which is sometimes called the thinking matter hypothesis.
To appreciate the ingenuity of Locke’s philosophical views, I think it is important that we resist the tendency to apply common metaphysical classifications. Instead the strength of his account of personal identity in terms of sameness of consciousness is that it holds irrespective of whether materialism or immaterialism turns out to be correct.
3:16: What do you think a good account of Lockean consciousness looks like? You don’t think it’s a form of self-consciousness do you?
RB: The first part of this question can be understood in two ways. First, it can concern a good interpretation of Locke’s account of consciousness that is well supported by textual evidence and aims to bring to light his intentions. Second, it can focus on a good philosophical account of consciousness that is inspired by Locke’s view. In my book I focus on the former and will do the same here. When Locke discusses consciousness, he not only considers consciousness that is part of individual mental states, but he also speaks of ‘same consciousness’, which has a richer and more complex structure. Let me say more about each in turn. For Locke ‘consciousness’ refers in the first instance to awareness that is built into individual mental states. I am in agreement with Shelley Weinberg, Udo Thiel, and other Locke scholars, that consciousness is an inherent part of every perception for Locke and not a higher order mental state such as reflection.
However, I do not follow the view that Shelley Weinberg presents in her book Consciousness in Locke , namely that consciousness for Locke is identical with self-consciousness. Like Weinberg, I accept that for Locke every perception involves self-consciousness, namely awareness of oneself as perceiving subject. However, in contrast to Weinberg, I believe that a perceiving subject is not only conscious of oneself as having a perception, but also conscious of the idea perceived. I believe that there is good textual evidence for this reading, since Locke claims that a person is (or at least is able to be) conscious of her thoughts and actions. Let me now briefly comment on my interpretation of Locke’s account of sameness of consciousness. By sameness of consciousness he not only means that a subject can be aware of the same contents of mental states at different times, which is made possible by memory; nor does he merely make a point that different mental states are mine, which can be explained by means of self-consciousness that is an inherent part of every mental state; but rather his account of same consciousness additionally accounts for structural relations among different mental states, namely their togetherness (or ‘unity’ as Locke calls it) and their temporal order (or ‘duration’).
Various other interpreters have attempted to explain what Locke means by sameness of consciousness in terms of memory, appropriation, unity, or duration. Many of these interpretations offer helpful insight into Locke’s view, but they often neglect important other aspects of his view and are incomplete on their own. In my view it is a mistake to reduce Locke’s account of sameness of consciousness to one of these aspects. Instead the clue to understanding his view lies in realizing that it is richer and has a more complex structure. I believe that revival of past actions through memory, mineness, togetherness, and temporality are all important and intertwined aspects of his account of sameness of consciousness.
3:16: How does he link a moral with a psychological account of personal identity and do you think that this is actually a better way to account for personal identity than just a psychological account? Should contemporary thought take note of this link?
RB: Just to clarify, my view is that Locke links a moral account of personhood (rather than a moral account of personal identity) with a psychological account of personal identity. To explain why I interpret Locke this way, it is helpful to return to his kind-dependent approach to questions of identity over time. Locke’s view is that we have to spell out what we mean by ‘person’ before we can turn to questions of personal identity over time and specify the persistence conditions for persons. In principle, Locke’s kind-dependent approach leaves scope for a variety of different definitions of the term ‘person’. That’s why it’s so important for Locke that we clarify what we mean by ‘person’ before we can turn to questions of personal identity over time. Locke chooses to focus on one particular understanding of the term ‘person’ and characterizes persons as moral agents, who are capable of a law and happiness and misery. I argue that it is plausible to regard Lockean persons as subjects of accountability and this leads to my view that Locke offers a moral account of personhood.
The next question to consider is how we can specify persistence conditions for persons, given his moral account of personhood. I believe that it is helpful to turn to his examples concerning drunkenness and sleepwalking as they shed light on his thinking about moral accountability. Assume that Mr X gets really drunk and commits a criminal act while intoxicated. Assume further that Mr X is unable to remember the criminal deed afterwards when he is sober again. Now the question arises whether Mr X should be held accountable for the crime? Locke argues that just like it is unjust to hold a sleepwalker accountable for any deeds done during nocturnal walks so it is unjust to hold a drunkard accountable for actions they are unable to remember. Why does he hold such a view? I take it that he believes that it is important that a person from a first-personal internal perspective can understand the justice of reward and punishment. For Locke this requires consciousness at the time the action was performed and the ability to be conscious of it again at a later time. More generally, these considerations suggest that Locke regards sameness of consciousness as a necessary condition for personal identity.
It is worth noting that not all of Locke’s contemporaries were willing to agree with Locke’s reasoning. For instance, neither William Molyneux nor Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz are willing to accept Locke’s reasoning about the drunkard. Both Molyneux and Leibniz believe that getting drunk is voluntary and those who decide to get drunk should also be held responsible for any criminal action they may do under the influence of alcohol. As Locke points out in his correspondence with Molyneux, such a view undermines Locke’s view that personal identity consists in sameness of consciousness. Those who follow Molyneux’s and Leibniz’s reasoning have to explain what personal identity consists in on their view. The important lesson of such disputes is that it is possible to think differently about the conditions of moral accountability and that this can have implications for one’s understanding of personal identity. For instance, it is possible to agree with Locke that persons are subjects of moral accountability, but if one prefers an alternative understanding of moral accountability then one may also reject Locke’s view that personal identity consists in sameness of consciousness.
To return to the question of how Locke links his moral account of personhood with a psychological account of personal identity, I have so far outlined that his particular and controversial understanding of moral accountability explains why he regards sameness of consciousness as necessary for personal identity. To see why he regards sameness of consciousness also as sufficient for personal identity a closer examination of his understanding of sameness of consciousness is needed. In my book I consider these issues in detail and suggest that Locke’s account of sameness of consciousness provides resources for responding to insufficiency worries.
I believe that understanding Locke’s account of persons and personal identity within the framework of the kind-dependent approach to identity opens a range of conceptual possibilities for understanding the relation between personhood at a time and personal identity over time. Locke offers a moral account of personhood and links it with a psychological account of personal identity over time. Another possibility would be to offer a moral account of personhood and link it with a moral or normative account of personal identity. Carol Rovane offers such a view, which she considers to be inspired by Locke. Although traditionally it has been more common to assume that a psychological account of personal identity goes along with a psychological account of personhood, Locke’s view opens space for other conceptual options, which—in my view—deserve more consideration.
3:16: Are the religious differences between Hume and Locke a reason for why their accounts of personal identity are so different - was an issue in the Humean account that you couldn’t make a distinction between being a human being and a person whereas you can in Locke? Can you sketch what the differences are and how religion and morals impacted on their approaches and conclusions?
RB: In Book 1 of A Treatise of Human Nature Hume claims that ‘we must distinguish betwixt personal identity, as it regards our thought or imagination, and as it regards our passions or the concern we take in ourselves’ (126.96.36.199). He focuses on the former in Book 1 of the Treatise and turns to the latter in Book 2. Given this distinction, I believe that it is helpful to consider both Hume’s Book 1 and his Book 2 accounts of personal identity. In Book 1 Hume has resources to distinguish a person from a human being, though—as will become clearer in a moment—he does not approach the issue in the way Locke does. Hume describes a Book 1 person as a bundle of rapidly changing perceptions. It is worth noting that it does not follow from this that Hume denies that a self or person exists, but rather he merely makes the claim that a self is presented to us in experience as a bundle of perceptions. A Book 1 self or person can be regarded as the mind (in Hume’s sense). Although Hume does not emphasize this point, it is possible to draw a conceptual distinction between a person (understood as mind or bundle of perceptions) and a human being understood as embodied human animal.
Further support for why Hume has resources to introduce such a conceptual distinction can be found when we turn to the three associative principles, namely resemblance, spatiotemporal contiguity, and causation, that are relevant for explaining beliefs in identity over time. With regard to our belief in personal identity, Hume argues that resemblance and causation are relevant for explaining why we form beliefs in personal identity over time, but claims that spatiotemporal contiguity can be put aside. He does not elaborate on why he regards contiguity as irrelevant, but it is possible that this is because some perceptions are not spatially located. What role do resemblance and causation play? It is not uncommon that we tend to have the same (or very similar) perceptions over certain periods of time. For example, I may continue to believe for several hours that I promised to call my friend this evening. In such cases the resemblance of the beliefs or other perceptions prompts me to ascribe identity to the succession of perceptions. However, Hume is also aware that some of our perceptions change over time. In particular, certain perceptions can lead to other perceptions.
For instance, I can feel hungry and develop a desire to eat, which in turn prompts me to believe that it is best to stop working and to go to the kitchen and prepare lunch. In this case, Hume would acknowledge that we ascribe identity to the series of changing perceptions due to their links by means of causal relations. By contrast, our belief in the identity of human beings, involves all three associative principles. In particular, spatiotemporal contiguity plays an important role because if there is a series of spatiotemporal contiguous perceptions of a human being this suggests that there are no gaps in the human beings existence and prompts us to ascribe identity. Although Hume has resources for conceptually distinguishing persons from human beings in Book 1 of the Treatise , it is worth noting that Hume never acknowledges Locke’s claim that ‘person’ is a forensic term and Locke’s moral considerations are absent in Book 1 of the Treatise . Hume turns to moral considerations in Books 2 and 3 of the Treatise and examines in detail what role emotions, or passions as he calls them, play in our lives. At first, it appears striking that Hume has less scope for drawing a conceptual distinction between persons and human beings in Book 2 of the Treatise , especially since Locke introduced such a distinction to address moral questions concerning responsibility.
However, I believe closer examination brings to light that Hume does not share Locke’s moral and religious background beliefs that inform Locke’s account of personal identity and I argue that these moral and religious differences are relevant for understanding why Hume has not much scope for conceptually distinguishing persons from human beings in Book 2. As already mentioned above, Locke was a Christian believer who wanted to take the possibility of an afterlife seriously. Moreover, Locke regards divine law as the true basis of morality. Hume, by contrast, opposes moral views that are based on divine law. Instead Hume puts more emphasis on social interaction with others. For Hume the psychological mechanism of sympathy (today we may prefer to call it ‘empathy’) plays a fundamental role in social interaction with others and is at the heart of Hume’s moral philosophy. By means of sympathy we enter someone else’s feelings and make them our own. Social interaction with others by means of sympathy contributes to the constitution of selves. Hume’s philosophy can be said to provide an example of how the focus of debates concerning persons and personal identity can shift towards the social dimension of human interaction once divine law and religious beliefs in an afterlife are rejected.
3:16: How do the views of Shaftesbury on personal identity, consciousness and character development compare with Locke’s? Presumably the stress he puts on substance and character makes a big difference?
RB: Shaftesbury criticizes psychological accounts of personal identity as not stable enough. He worries that our psychological states can change quickly and argues that memory is neither necessary nor sufficient for personal identity. Although several Locke scholars, including myself, have argued that Locke’s account of personal identity does not reduce to memory, I take it that Shaftesbury’s criticism is not merely restricted to memory accounts of personal identity and can also be extended to other versions of psychological accounts of personal identity. While there is good textual support that Shaftesbury criticizes psychological accounts of personal identity, it is less clear what his own positive approach to personal identity is. Some scholars like Udo Thiel have suggested that Shaftesbury’s view collapses into a substance view. Indeed, there are passages in his writings that offer support for such an interpretation. For instance, in one of his dialogues the two dialogue partners both accept that we can take for granted that the self is a substance. Such passages intimate that Shaftesbury is willing to accept that a person continues to exist in virtue of the continued existence of a substance.
However, I take it that he would regard substance accounts of personal identity as incomplete. One reason for this is that Shaftesbury does not see much point in focusing on purely speculative metaphysical debates. Instead he believes that philosophy should be ethical or practical and help us improve our lives. Further support for why Shaftesbury’s thinking about personal identity is more complex can be found in an example concerning a traveler that challenges memory accounts of personal identity. The example invites us to consider a traveler who spent time in foreign countries and during their journey radically changed their character, but can still remember their former beliefs and values. If Shaftesbury held a traditional substance account of personal identity, he could respond to the example by arguing that only continued existence of substance is important for personal identity. However, this is not the lesson that he draws from it.
My own view is that Shaftesbury combines metaphysical questions of personal identity with normative questions concerning self-improvement and character development. Any substance account of personal identity that just focuses on a substance as a substratum or underlying vessel in which properties and character traits inhere does notengage in interesting ways with moral and practical questions that Shaftesbury regards as central for philosophy. If one shifts the focus and considers not merely the substance as substratum or underlying empty vessel, but also the character traits that inhere in this substance, then it becomes possible to consider how the character that a self or substance has can be improved. This enables Shaftesbury not only to account for persistence (in virtue of the continued existence of substance), but also to take seriously practical questions of self-improvement and to offer a proposal that invites his readers to focus on their personal and moral development. Shaftesbury believes that an important step towards happiness is to develop a stable character and proposes that it is best to focus on developing the character of a genuine friend, which he understands as love of humanity.
3:16: For Locke, Shaftesbury, Hutcheson and others agency and liberty were big issues and were linked in ways to debates about personal identity, character and such. Can you say how these early modern philosophers approached these issues and perhaps sketch what were the main ways in which they approached them?
RB: These questions may be better answered in a book-length study, but let me try. For Locke persons are moral agents, who are held accountable for their actions and rewarded or punished for them. There are a number of conditions that have to be in place in order for a person to be justly held accountable for an action. For instance, the person who is now held accountable for an action must be the same as the one who did the action in question. This means that personal identity is a necessary condition for just accountability. Freedom is another necessary condition. Freedom or liberty for Locke involves an agent’s ability to act in accordance with their volitions. More precisely, if an agent wills to do action A , they are able to do A and if they will not to do A , then they are able not to do A. Additionally, Locke argues that liberty consists in our ability to suspend desire. Rather than acting immediately upon desires, we have the ability to suspend desires and to examine carefully whether the proposed actions contribute to their greatest good.
In contrast to Locke who is interested in questions of moral accountability, and reward and punishment, Shaftesbury criticizes moral views that are based on divine law and reward and punishment. Moreover, consideration of moral accountability and reward and punishment are widely absent from Shaftesbury’s own positive moral views. Instead he is more interested in virtue and character development. This also shapes his thinking about liberty. Shaftesbury does not say much about liberty, but I believe that his account of liberty is best understood in terms of self-mastery. This means that he can be said to offer a version of positive liberty. Shaftesbury’s interest in character development and self-mastery also shapes his account of agency. Rather than seeing agency as something static, meaning that one either is an agent or is not, I suggest that, according to Shaftesbury, agency is a gradual process. This means that humans become moral agents. His writings further suggest that the more an individual becomes their own master, the freer they become.
It is surprising that Francis Hutcheson does not say much about liberty in his mature writings on moral philosophy, especially since questions of liberty and necessity were lively discussed by his predecessors and contemporaries. However, he engages with questions of liberty in a textbook on metaphysics that he prepared during the 1720s in Dublin. We can also assume that Hutcheson had the opportunity to discuss Shaftesbury’s philosophical writings with other members of Robert Molesworth’s intellectual circle in Dublin during these years. Hutcheson is not invested in settling or taking a stance in the theoretical debates concerning liberty, but rather, like Shaftesbury, he shifts the focus of the debates towards practical questions concerning control of desires, cultivation of habits, and character development.
3:16: You’ve examined Reid on social operations. It’s an interesting phenomenon because if right then the solitary individualistic take of Hume on things like promising is wrong. So what does Reid argue, what’s at stake and what follows if Reid is right?
RB: Thomas Reid is an outspoken critic of David Hume’s philosophy. In particular, he rejects Hume’s view that fidelity to promises is an artificial virtue. Reid believes that Hume reached this problematic conclusion, because he—like many other philosophers—does not acknowledge that there are social operations of the human mind in addition to solitary operations. Reid regards promising as a social operation and believes that social operations are an inherent part of human nature. Once we accept that promising is a social operation, Reid believes that it can be understood to be a natural part of our human constitution. Hence, Hume’s claims concerning the artificiality of promises can be avoided.
Although social operations play an important role in our social lives, it is worth noting that Reid does not restrict human sociability to the presence of social operations. For instance, sociability can also be expressed through social affections and Reid distinguishes social affections from social operations. Social affections, like social operations, are directed towards other intelligent beings, but social affections, in contrast to social operations, do not require a reaction from the intelligent being to whom they are directed. What are social operations of the human mind and how does Reid distinguish them from solitary operations? According to Reid, social operations necessarily require interaction with of some other intelligent being who takes part in the social operation. Examples of social operations include asking a question, testifying a fact, giving a command, or making a promise. Reid further argues that social operations must be ‘expressed by words or signs, and known to the other party’ (EAP, V.6, 330). Solitary operations, by contrast, ‘may be performed by a person in solitude, without intercourse with any other intelligent being’ (EAP, V.6, 330). For instance, seeing, hearing, remembering, judging, or reasoning are examples of solitary operations. They each do not presuppose the presence or existence of another intelligent being, nor do they need to be expressed.
In my paper ‘Thomas Reid on Promises and Social Operations of the Human Mind I consider in what sense social operations are ‘social’ for Reid. Social operations have a particular content. Let us focus on promising for a moment. When I make a promise, I promise something. For example, I can promise to my friends that I won’t eat the snacks that they bought for a party tomorrow. However, this promise is not social in virtue of its content, because I can have different mental attitudes towards the same content. For instance, I can also hope or believe that I won’t eat the snacks and hoping and believing are solitary operations, according to Reid. Thus, the content is not a plausible candidate for making a an operation social. Reid emphasizes that social operations require the presence of two or more intelligent beings who take part in the operation. However, the presence of two or more intelligent beings is by itself not sufficient to make an operation social. For instance, assume that I ask a friend to help me carry furniture. In this case, two intelligent beings, namely my friend and I, take part in the act of carrying furniture. Yet Reid would argue that this is not a social operation, because a strong individual can carry furniture alone without the help of others. Reid’s point is that a social operation necessarily involves two (or more) intelligent beings who take part in it.
What then makes social operations social, according to Reid? I argue that it is important to acknowledge the counterpart structure of social operations. By this I mean that for Reid every social operation is paired with a counterpart operation. For instance, promising is paired with accepting a promise, commanding is paired with obeying, asking a question with answering, or testifying a fact with testimonial belief. On the view that I ascribe to Reid, at least two intelligent beings take part in a social operation and the social operation does not come into existence until both the social operation and its counterpart operation have been exercised and the relevant mental thoughts made known to the other being by words or signs. With regard to promising this means that a that another intelligent being takes part in a social operation not merely by being present but by reacting to the act of expression and by making their response known. More precisely, Reid would argue that if intelligent being A utters ‘I promise you to φ’, directed at another intelligent being B, it is important that B understands the act of expression and reacts to it by accepting (or not accepting) what is promised and by making this response known to A. Anyone who encounters Reid’s account of social operations for the first time, may worry that his view makes too strong assumptions or offers a too narrow account of promises. I address several objections that can be raised against his view in my paper. Here I just want to highlight one problem that several colleagues and students have raised. If the account of promises that I have just sketched is correct, it follows that a self-promise is not a promise for Reid because it does not involve another intelligent beings. Many find this implausible, at least initially. However, I believe that Reid is happy to accept this consequence.
I take it that he would argue that a self-promise is better understood as a resolution and that resolutions (or self-promises) should be distinguished from promises. These are two different mental operations just like believing and hoping are different mental operations. What makes his view plausible? If promisor and promisee are identical, then the promisee can release the promisor from fulfilling the promise. By contrast, if two distinct intelligent beings engage in a promise, then the promisee’s acceptance of the promise makes it binding and confers a right on the promisee. To further illustrate this point, let’s consider a new year’s resolution. Despite all good intentions, it can be rather easy not to follow through with one’s resolution. This speaks to Reid’s point that it makes sense to distinguish promises from resolutions, because promises once accepted by the promisee are binding in a way that resolutions are not.Reid makes an interesting contribution to early modern debates concerning human sociability. His account of social operations is based on his metaphysics of the human mind. If we take seriously the counterpart structure of social operations, we can see that social operations are inherently social insofar as they cannot be reduced to solitary operations of the human mind.
Reid’s explanation of some of our social interactions in terms of social operations and their counterpart structure is far more robust than the views developed by many of his contemporaries. Whether or not one is willing to agree with Reid’s view, will likely depend on whether one is happy to share his rather optimistic account of human nature, which assumes that we are equipped by nature with social operations and that fidelity and trust play a fundamental role in our constitution and development.
3:16: And finally, for the curious readers here at 3:16, are there five books other than your own that you can recommend that will take us further into your philosophical world?
RB: Yes, I’m happy to do that.
Udo Thiel, The Early Modern Subject: Self-Consciousness and Personal Identity from Descartes to Hume , Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Anik Waldow, Experience Embodied: Early Modern Accounts of the Human Place in Nature , New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.
Jacqueline Taylor, Reflecting Subjects: Passion, Sympathy & Society in Hume’s Philosophy , Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Jacqueline Broad ; Karen Detlefsen (eds.), Women and Liberty, 1600–1800: Philosophical Essays , Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.
Sophie de Grouchy’s Letters on Sympathy: A Critical Engagement with Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, edited by Sandrine Bergès and Eric Schliesser, New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.
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