John Locke.

An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding, Volume 1 MDCXC, Based on the 2nd Edition, Books 1 and 2 online

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a fatal error of theirs, transfer from one to another that consciousness
which draws reward or punishment with it. How far this may be an
argument against those who would place thinking in a system of fleeting
animal spirits, I leave to be considered. But yet, to return to the
question before us, 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. For the same consciousness being preserved,
whether in the same or different substances, the personal identity is

16. Whether, the same immaterial Substance remaining, there
can be two Persons.

As to the second part of the question, Whether the same immaterial
substance remaining, there may be two distinct persons; which question
seems to me to be built on this, - Whether the same immaterial being,
being conscious of the action of its past duration, may be wholly
stripped of all the consciousness of its past existence, and lose
it beyond the power of ever retrieving it again: and so as it were
beginning a new account from a new period, have a consciousness that
CANNOT reach beyond this new state. All those who hold pre-existence are
evidently of this mind; since they allow the soul to have no remaining
consciousness of what it did in that pre-existent state, either wholly
separate from body, or informing any other body; and if they should not,
it is plain experience would be against them. So that personal identity,
reaching no further than consciousness reaches, a pre-existent spirit
not having continued so many ages in a state of silence, must needs
make different persons. Suppose a Christian Platonist or a Pythagorean
should, upon God's having ended all his works of creation the seventh
day, think his soul hath existed ever since; and should imagine it
has revolved in several human bodies; as I once met with one, who was
persuaded his had been the SOUL of Socrates (how reasonably I will
not dispute; this I know, that in the post he filled, which was no
inconsiderable one, he passed for a very rational man, and the press has
shown that he wanted not parts or learning;) - would any one say, that
he, being not conscious of any of Socrates's actions or thoughts, could
be the same PERSON with Socrates? Let any one reflect upon himself, and
conclude that he has in himself an immaterial spirit, which is that
which thinks in him, and, in the constant change of his body keeps him
the same: and is that which he calls HIMSELF: let his also suppose it to
be the same soul that was in Nestor or Thersites, at the siege of Troy,
(for souls being, as far as we know anything of them, in their nature
indifferent to any parcel of matter, the supposition has no apparent
absurdity in it,) which it may have been, as well as it is now the soul
of any other man: but he now having no consciousness of any of the
actions either of Nestor or Thersites, does or can he conceive himself
the same person with either of them? Can he be concerned in either of
their actions? attribute them to himself, or think them his own more
than the actions of any other men that ever existed? So that this
consciousness, not reaching to any of the actions of either of those
men, he is no more one SELF with either of them than of the soul of
immaterial spirit that now informs him had been created, and began to
exist, when it began to inform his present body; though it were never
so true, that the same SPIRIT that informed Nestor's or Thersites' body
were numerically the same that now informs his. For this would no more
make him the same person with Nestor, than if some of the particles of
smaller that were once a part of Nestor were now a part of this man
the same immaterial substance, without the same consciousness, no more
making the same person, by being united to any body, than the same
particle of matter, without consciousness, united to any body, makes
the same person. But let him once find himself conscious of any of the
actions of Nestor, he then finds himself the same person with Nestor.

17. The body, as well as the soul, goes to the making of a Man.

And thus may we be able, without any difficulty, to conceive the same
person at the resurrection, though in a body not exactly in make or
parts the same which he had here, - the same consciousness going along
with the soul that inhabits it. But yet the soul alone, in the change of
bodies, would scarce to any one but to him that makes the soul the
man, be enough to make the same man. For should the soul of a prince,
carrying with it the consciousness of the prince's past life, enter and
inform the body of a cobbler, as soon as deserted by his own soul, every
one sees he would be the same PERSON with the prince, accountable only
for the prince's actions: 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. I know that, in the ordinary way
of speaking, the same person, and the same man, stand for one and the
same thing. And indeed every one will always have a liberty to speak as
he pleases, and to apply what articulate sounds to what ideas he thinks
fit, and change them as often as he pleases. But yet, when we will
inquire what makes the same SPIRIT, MAN, or PERSON, we must fix the
ideas of spirit, man, or person in our minds; and having resolved with
ourselves what we mean by them, it will not be hard to determine, in
either of them, or the like, when it is the same, and when not.

18. Consciousness alone unites actions into the same Person.

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, as far as ever it can be extended - should it be to
ages past - unites existences and actions very remote in time into the
same PERSON, as well as it does the existences and actions of the
immediately preceding moment: so that whatever has the consciousness of
present and past actions, is the same person to whom they both belong.
Had I the same consciousness that I saw the ark and Noah's flood, as
that I saw an overflowing of the Thames last winter, or as that I write
now, I could no more doubt that I who write this now, that saw the
Thames overflowed last winter, and that viewed the flood at the general
deluge, was the same SELF, - place that self in what SUBSTANCE you
please - than that I who write this am the same MYSELF now whilst I write
(whether I consist of all the same substance material or immaterial, or
no) that I was yesterday. For as to this point of being the same self,
it matters not whether this present self be made up of the same or other
substances - I being as much concerned, and as justly accountable for
any action that was done a thousand years since, appropriated to me now
by this self-consciousness, as I am for what I did the last moment.

19. Self depends on Consciousness, not on Substance.

SELF is that conscious thinking thing, - whatever substance made up
of, (whether spiritual or material, simple or compounded, it matters
not) - which is sensible or conscious of pleasure and pain, capable of
happiness or misery, and so is concerned for itself, as far as that
consciousness extends. Thus every one finds that, whilst comprehended
under that consciousness, the little finger is as much a part of himself
as what is most so. Upon separation of this little finger, should this
consciousness go along with the little finger, and leave the rest of
the body, it is evident the little finger would be the person, the same
person; and self then would have nothing to do with the rest of the
body. As in this case it is the consciousness that goes along with the
substance, when one part is separate from another, which makes the same
person, and constitutes this inseparable self: so it is in reference to
substances remote in time. That with which the consciousness of this
present thinking thing CAN join itself, makes the same person, and is
one self with it, and with nothing else; and so attributes to itself,
and owns all the actions of that thing, as its own, as far as that
consciousness reaches, and no further; as every one who reflects will

20. Persons, not Substances, the Objects of Reward and Punishment.

In this personal identity is founded all the right and justice of reward
and punishment; happiness and misery being that for which every one is
concerned for HIMSELF, and not mattering what becomes of any SUBSTANCE,
not joined to, or affected with that consciousness. For, as it is
evident in the instance I gave but now, if the consciousness went along
with the little finger when it was cut off, that would be the same self
which was concerned for the whole body yesterday, as making part of
itself, whose actions then it cannot but admit as its own now. Though,
if the same body should still live, and immediately from the separation
of the little finger have its own peculiar consciousness, whereof the
little finger knew nothing, it would not at all be concerned for it, as
a part of itself, or could own any of its actions, or have any of them
imputed to him.

21. Which shows wherein Personal identity consists.

This may show us wherein personal identity consists: not in the identity
of substance, but, as I have said, in the identity of consciousness,
wherein if Socrates and the present mayor of Queenborough agree, they
are the same person: if the same Socrates waking and sleeping do not
partake of the same consciousness, Socrates waking and sleeping is
not the same person. And to punish Socrates waking for what sleeping
Socrates thought, and waking Socrates was never conscious of, would be
no more of right, than to punish one twin for what his brother-twin did,
whereof he knew nothing, because their outsides were so like, that they
could not be distinguished; for such twins have been seen.

22. Absolute oblivion separates what is thus forgotten from the person,
but not from the man.

But yet possibly it will still be objected, - 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? To which I answer,
that we must here take notice what the word _I_ is applied to; which, in
this case, is the MAN only. And the same man being presumed to be the
same person, I is easily here supposed to stand also for the same
person. But if it be possible for the same man to have distinct
incommunicable consciousness at different times, it is past doubt the
same man would at different times make different persons; which, we see,
is the sense of mankind in the solemnest declaration of their opinions,
human laws not punishing the mad man for the sober man's actions,
nor the sober man for what the mad man did, - thereby making them two
persons: which is somewhat explained by our way of speaking in English
when we say such an one is 'not himself,' or is 'beside himself'; in
which phrases it is insinuated, as if those who now, or at least first
used them, thought that self was changed; the selfsame person was no
longer in that man.

23. Difference between Identity of Man and of Person.

But yet it is hard to conceive that Socrates, the same individual man,
should be two persons. To help us a little in this, we must consider
what is meant by Socrates, or the same individual MAN.

First, it must be either the same individual, immaterial, thinking
substance; in short, the same numerical soul, and nothing else.

Secondly, or the same animal, without any regard to an immaterial soul.

Thirdly, or the same immaterial spirit united to the same animal.

Now, take which of these suppositions you please, it is impossible to
make personal identity to consist in anything but consciousness; or
reach any further than that does.

For, by the first of them, it must be allowed possible that a man born
of different women, and in distant times, may be the same man. A way of
speaking which, whoever admits, must allow it possible for the same man
to be two distinct persons, as any two that have lived in different ages
without the knowledge of one another's thoughts.

By the second and third, Socrates, in this life and after it, cannot be
the same man any way, but by the same consciousness; and so making
human identity to consist in the same thing wherein we place personal
identity, there will be difficulty to allow the same man to be the same
person. But then they who place human identity in consciousness only,
and not in something else, must consider how they will make the infant
Socrates the same man with Socrates after the resurrection. But
whatsoever to some men makes a man, and consequently the same individual
man, wherein perhaps few are agreed, personal identity can by us be
placed in nothing but consciousness, (which is that alone which makes
what we call SELF,) without involving us in great absurdities.


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. Human laws punish both,
with a justice suitable to THEIR way of knowledge; - because, in these
cases, they cannot distinguish certainly what is real, what counterfeit:
and so the ignorance in drunkenness or sleep is not admitted as a plea.
But in the Great Day, wherein the secrets of all hearts shall be laid
open, it may be reasonable to think, no one shall be made to answer for
what he knows nothing of; but shall receive his doom, his conscience
accusing or excusing him.

25. Consciousness alone unites remote existences into one Person.

Nothing but consciousness can unite remote existences into the same
person: the identity of substance will not do it; for whatever substance
there is, however framed, without consciousness there is no person:
and a carcass may be a person, as well as any sort of substance be so,
without consciousness.

Could we suppose two distinct incommunicable consciousnesses acting the
same body, the one constantly by day, the other by night; and, on the
other side, the same consciousness, acting by intervals, two distinct
bodies: I ask, in the first case, whether the day and the night - man
would not be two as distinct persons as Socrates and Plato? And whether,
in the second case, there would not be one person in two distinct
bodies, as much as one man is the same in two distinct clothings? Nor
is it at all material to say, that this same, and this distinct
consciousness, in the cases above mentioned, is owing to the same and
distinct immaterial substances, bringing it with them to those bodies;
which, whether true or no, alters not the case: since it is evident the
personal identity would equally be determined by the consciousness,
whether that consciousness were annexed to some individual immaterial
substance or no. For, granting that the thinking substance in man must
be necessarily supposed immaterial, it is evident that immaterial
thinking thing may sometimes part with its past consciousness, and be
restored to it again: as appears in the forgetfulness men often have of
their past actions; and the mind many times recovers the memory of a
past consciousness, which it had lost for twenty years together.
Make these intervals of memory and forgetfulness to take their turns
regularly by day and night, and you have two persons with the same
immaterial spirit, as much as in the former instance two persons with
the same body. So that self is not determined by identity or diversity
of substance, which it cannot be sure of, but only by identity of

26. Not the substance with which the consciousness may be united.

Indeed it may conceive the substance whereof it is now made up to have
existed formerly, united in the same conscious being: but, consciousness
removed, that substance is no more itself, or makes no more a part of
it, than any other substance; as is evident in the instance we have
already given of a limb cut off, of whose heat, or cold, or other
affections, having no longer any consciousness, it is no more of a man's
self than any other matter of the universe. In like manner it will be
in reference to any immaterial substance, which is void of that
consciousness whereby I am myself to myself: so that I cannot upon
recollection join with that present consciousness whereby I am now
myself, it is, in that part of its existence, no more MYSELF than any
other immaterial being. For, whatsoever any substance has thought or
done, which I cannot recollect, and by my consciousness make my own
thought and action, it will no more belong to me, whether a part of me
thought or did it, than if it had been thought or done by any other
immaterial being anywhere existing.

27. Consciousness unites substances, material or spiritual, with the
same personality.

I agree, the more probable opinion is, that this consciousness is
annexed to, and the affection of, one individual immaterial substance.

But let men, according to their diverse hypotheses, resolve of that as
they please. This every intelligent being, sensible of happiness or
misery, must grant - that there is something that is HIMSELF, that he is
concerned for, and would have happy; that this self has existed in a
continued duration more than one instant, and therefore it is possible
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. And thus, by this
consciousness he finds himself to be the same self which did such and
such an action some years since, by which he comes to be happy or
miserable now. In all which account of self, the same numerical
SUBSTANCE is not considered a making the same self; but the same
continued CONSCIOUSNESS, in which several substances may have been
united, and again separated from it, which, whilst they continued in a
vital union with that wherein this consciousness then resided, made a
part of that same self. Thus any part of our bodies, vitally united
to that which is conscious in us, makes a part of ourselves: but
upon separation from the vital union by which that consciousness is
communicated, that which a moment since was part of ourselves, is now no
more so than a part of another man's self is a part of me: and it is
not impossible but in a little time may become a real part of another
person. And so we have the same numerical substance become a part of two
different persons; and the same person preserved under the change of
various substances. Could we suppose any spirit wholly stripped of all
its memory of consciousness of past actions, as we find our minds always
are of a great part of ours, and sometimes of them all; the union or
separation of such a spiritual substance would make no variation of
personal identity, any more than that of any particle of matter does.
Any substance vitally united to the present thinking being is a part
of that very same self which now is; anything united to it by a
consciousness of former actions, makes also a part of the same self,
which is the same both then and now.

28. Person a forensic Term.

PERSON, as I take it, is the name for this self. Wherever a man finds
what he calls himself, there, I think, another may say is the same
person. It is a forensic term, appropriating actions and their merit;
and so belongs only to intelligent agents, capable of a law, and
happiness, and misery. This personality extends itself beyond present
existence to what is past, only by consciousness, - whereby it becomes
concerned and accountable; owns and imputes to itself past actions, just
upon the same ground and for the same reason as it does the present. All
which is founded in a concern for happiness, the unavoidable concomitant
of consciousness; that which is conscious of pleasure and pain, desiring
that that self that is conscious should be happy. And therefore whatever
past actions it cannot reconcile or APPROPRIATE to that present self by
consciousness, it can be no more concerned in than if they had never
been done: and to receive pleasure or pain, i.e. reward or punishment,
on the account of any such action, is all one as to be made happy or
miserable in its first being, without any demerit at all. For, supposing
a MAN punished now for what he had done in another life, whereof he
could be made to have no consciousness at all, what difference is there
between that punishment and being CREATED miserable? And therefore,
conformable to this, the apostle tells us, that, at the great day, when
every one shall 'receive according to his doings, the secrets of all
hearts shall be laid open.' The sentence shall be justified by the
consciousness all persons shall have, that THEY THEMSELVES, in what
bodies soever they appear, or what substances soever that consciousness
adheres to, are the SAME that committed those actions, and deserve that
punishment for them.

29. Suppositions that look strange are pardonable in our ignorance.

I am apt enough to think I have, in treating of this subject, made some
suppositions that will look strange to some readers, and possibly they
are so in themselves. But yet, I think they are such as are pardonable,
in this ignorance we are in of the nature of that thinking thing that is
in us, and which we look on as OURSELVES. Did we know what it was; or
how it was tied to a certain system of fleeting animal spirits; or
whether it could or could not perform its operations of thinking and
memory out of a body organized as ours is; and whether it has pleased
God that no one such spirit shall ever be united to any but one such
body, upon the right constitution of whose organs its memory should
depend; we might see the absurdity of some of those suppositions I have
made. But taking, as we ordinarily now do (in the dark concerning these
matters,) the soul of a man for an immaterial substance, independent
from matter, and indifferent alike to it all; there can, from the nature
of things, be no absurdity at all to suppose that the same SOUL may at
different times be united to different BODIES, and with them make up
for that time one MAN: as well as we suppose a part of a sheep's body
yesterday should be a part of a man's body to-morrow, and in that union
make a vital part of Meliboeus himself, as well as it did of his ram.

30. The Difficulty from ill Use of Names.

To conclude: Whatever substance begins to exist, it must, during its
existence, necessarily be the same: whatever compositions of substances
begin to exist, during the union of those substances, the concrete must
be the same: whatsoever mode begins to exist, during its existence it
is the same: and so if the composition be of distinct substances and
different modes, the same rule holds. Whereby it will appear, that the
difficulty or obscurity that has been about this matter rather rises
from the names ill-used, than from any obscurity in things themselves.
For whatever makes the specific idea to which the name is applied, if
that idea be steadily kept to, the distinction of anything into the same
and divers will easily be conceived, and there can arise no doubt about

31. Continuance of that which we have made to be our complex idea of man
makes the same man.

For, supposing a rational spirit be the idea of a MAN, it is easy to
know what is the same man, viz. the same spirit - whether separate or in
a body - will be the SAME MAN. Supposing a rational spirit vitally united
to a body of a certain conformation of parts to make a man; whilst that
rational spirit, with that vital conformation of parts, though continued
in a fleeting successive body, remains, it will be the SAME MAN. But
if to any one the idea of a man be but the vital union of parts in
a certain shape; as long as that vital union and shape remain in a
concrete, no otherwise the same but by a continued succession of
fleeting particles, it will be the SAME MAN. For, whatever be the

Online LibraryJohn LockeAn Essay Concerning Humane Understanding, Volume 1 MDCXC, Based on the 2nd Edition, Books 1 and 2 → online text (page 29 of 34)