John Locke Discusses Identity


I recently came across a clip from the 2003 movie called Identity. It was the pivotal moment where the man comes to terms with his true identity. I instantly thought of John Locke and his theory of 'diversity of identity. But, to understand the mind of John Locke, let me explain his background a little bit. 

During the Age of Discovery, it was said the sun never set on the British Empire. Not to be outdone by the Brits, Spain, United States, Belgium, China, and Germany each raced to secure colonies of their own. Backing up a bit, by the end of the 1500s, empires established a 'We/Them' attitude when England first introduced the idea of race into the world. Colonialism sorted and ranked people into categories based on their visual appearance, dominion, class, and resources. This class-based system is still in use today - 400 years later with no very few stopping signs. John Locke was a 1600s political philosopher who believed a person's rights should be balanced with a sovereign state. He questioned his empire's prison systems, colonialisms, and treatment of the races and gender. His identity and race observation sparked much controversy during an era not too keen on seeing everyone as equals.

According to Psychology Today, an identity is a multiple-faceted form of a person's total being, "Identity encompasses the memories, experiences, relationships, and values that create one's sense of self. This amalgamation creates a steady sense of who one is over time, even as new facets are developed and incorporated into one's identity."

Locke believed identity is a matter of psychological continuity that begins at birth and ends in physical death. But the question that Post interested him was if we are the same person from birth to death, that's one thing, but what if we have amnesia or ripped from our culture and transplanted to a new country? Who are we then?

Locke began his theory simply:

  • A thinking, intelligent being
  • With the ability to perform reason and reflection
  • Ability to consider itself as itself
  • The same thinking thing, in different times and places
  • And has a Consciousness (which is inseparable from thinking, i.e., dualism)

"Another occasion the mind often takes of comparing is the very being of things, when, considering anything as existing at any determined time and place, we compare it with itself existing at another time, and thereon form the ideas of identity and diversity."

Locke believed to establish an identity theory; we must go to the beginning of the object.

When I was four years old, my identity existed under that pink shirt and white baseball cap. There was no denying that single moment was now a permanent member of my identity. However, fast forward to the stylish ten-year-old, she, too, created a single moment of identity. 

Together, those moments are creating continuity of the essence of... me.

The essence of my identity changes just slightly from moment to moment, but a piece of me moves to the next moment with each moment. 

Each of the matches is a moment of the identities' diversity, but they are not wholly the same. They are a diverse mixture of the whole essence.

This brings me to you. How is the essence of your identity moving from one moment to the next? 

John Locke didn't think (no pun intended) that consciousness was an organ in the body.

Biologists would agree that the brain is a vital organ, but can they say with certainty that the soul rests in the brain? Locke's dilemma with the soul being in the brain was, what happens if the brain is damaged? If the soul houses the identity, and the soul is housed within the brain if the brain is damaged, do we also damage the soul and the identity?

For Locke, your identity is not in the brain, nor was it in any other part of the body. Your identity sits firmly inside the consciousness. He further believed that consciousness could transfer between bodies. And he believed your consciousness could only remember so far back. Therefore, your identity was only tied to the memories you could remember.

Being the Consciousness is the powerhouse of identity. In theory, if we can move Consciousness from one body to the next, we could live forever!

On that note. I came across a fascinating article discussing a handful of mysteries of the brain by David Eagleman. He does a great job diving down the rabbit and asking fun, mind-bending questions!

10 Unsolved Mysteries Of The Brain

  • What are emotions?
  • How is time represented in the brain?
  • Why do brains sleep?
  • Can we create emotions in a lab?
  • How are memories stored and retrieved?

Kelly Perez, Adjunct Professor