Tuesday, August 12, 2014

You’re not who you think you are

If I’m not me, who the hell am I?

Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in Total Recall

If you know the work of Philip K. Dick, then you know that one of its major themes is the relationship between memory and personal identity.  That is evident in many of the Dick stories made into movies, such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (which was adapted into Blade Runner, definitely the best of the Dick film adaptations); “Paycheck” (the inferior movie adaptation of which I blogged about recently); and A Scanner Darkly (the movie version of which is pretty good -- and which I’ve been meaning to blog about forever, though I won’t be doing so here). 

Then there are the short stories “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (the first part of which formed the basis of the original Total Recall and its pointless remake), and “Impostor” (the basis of a middling Gary Sinise movie).  These two stories nicely illustrate what is wrong with the “continuity of consciousness” philosophical theories of personal identity that trace to John Locke.  (Those who don’t already know these stories or movies should be warned that major spoilers follow.)

What is it that makes it true that you are one and the same person as your 8-year-old self, despite the bodily and psychological changes that you have undergone since you were that age?  What could make it true that someone existing after your death in heaven or hell would be one and the same person as you?   Locke’s view, famously, is that neither continuity of your body nor continuity of some Cartesian immaterial substance could suffice in either case.  Rather, it is in his view continuity of consciousness, and in particular memory, which does the trick.  You remember, or are conscious of, having done what your 8-year-old self did, which is why you are the same person as that 8-year-old.  And if someone after your death was conscious of or remembered doing what you are doing now, that person would be the same person as you, so that you could be said to have survived your death. 

Butler, Reid, and others since have raised various objections to this account, and philosophers sympathetic to Locke’s basic idea have modified it in various ways to deal with these objections.  But the two Dick stories in question offer scenarios which point to what I take to be the key problem with Lockean theories of personal identity. 

Start with “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.”  Douglas Quail (renamed “Quaid” in the movie versions) is bored with his humdrum life and decides to visit the REKAL (pronounced “recall”) corporation, which will implant false memories of anything you want them to, make you forget you had them do it, and also plant various pieces of evidence around your house etc. to reinforce the illusion that what you think you remember really happened.  Quail’s request is that REKAL implant in him memories of having been a secret agent on a trip to Mars.  In the course of beginning the implantation, however, REKAL employees discover that Quail already has repressed but genuine memories of having been a secret agent on Mars -- that he really was such an agent and that his memory of being one has been imperfectly erased.  Realizing that it risks getting itself involved in some matter of government intrigue, REKAL tries to disassociate itself from Quail altogether, and as his memories slowly return Quail attracts the attention of government agents, who seek to kill him in order to maintain the cover-up of the work he had been involved in while a spy.

What is of special interest for present purposes is a scene in Dick’s original story where Quail desperately begs the government agents to consider, as an alternative to killing him, a deeper memory wipe than they had attempted in their first, failed effort.  Their reply is as follows:

“Turn yourself over to us.  And we’ll investigate that line of possibility.  If we can’t do it, however, if your authentic memories begin to crop up again as they’ve done at this time, then -- “  There was silence and then the voice finished, “We’ll have to destroy you.  As you must understand.  Well, Quail, do you still want to try?”

“Yes,” he said.  Because the alternative was death now -- and for certain.  At least this way he had a chance, slim as it was.

End quote.  It isn’t clear just how thorough the proposed memory wipe is supposed to be, but Quail certainly seems willing to let it be complete if necessary.  Note the stark, implicit contrast with what a Lockean theory of personal identity would lead us to expect.  If Locke were correct, then for a person’s memories to be wiped away and replaced would be, in effect, for that person to go out of existence and for a new and different person to take his place.  For Quail, though, such erasure and replacement is precisely a way for the original person to survive.  Quail believes that he will still be Quail, that he will still exist, even if he gets a set of false memories, and that continued existence -- rather than continuity of consciousness or memory -- is what matters most to him.

Now consider “Impostor.”  In this story, the protagonist (played by Sinise in the movie version) is accused of being an android duplicate of government scientist Spence Olham, sent by the Martian enemy as an infiltrator.  On the run, he hopes to find a way to prove that he really is the true Olham, as he certainly believes himself to be.  And he does indeed find a way to convince his pursuers of this.  It turns out, however -- as he and his pursuers discover, too late and to their horror (given what the discovery entails in the context of the story) -- that the true Olham is dead and that our protagonist really was an impostor after all.  The Martian plot was so perfect that even the infiltrator himself wasn’t “in on it.”

Here the impostor remembers perfectly, or seems to anyway, being Olham, doing the things Olham did, and so forth.  He, and eventually others too, are convinced that he really is Olham.  He has no memories of being anyone else, nor is there anyone else who has Olham’s memories.  A Lockean theory (at least if not heavily qualified in ways that have been explored by Locke’s followers) would seem to entail that he is Olham.  And yet he is not.  (I put to one side the question of whether a robotic duplicate could in the first place really be said to think or have even pseudo-memories the way we might -- I think a robot could not in fact be said literally to do so -- because that is irrelevant to the present point.)

You might say that what the two stories illustrate is that, contrary to the implications of Locke’s theory, you are not (without qualification, anyway) who you think you are.  If Quail’s memories were completely wiped, he would no longer think he is Quail; but he would be Quail.  The Olham doppelgänger thinks he is Olham; yet in fact he is not Olham.  If the view implicit in Dick’s stories is correct, then who you really are can be different from who you think you are. 

I think there is a sense in which this is correct.  That might sound like an expression of skepticism, but it is not; quite the opposite.  To see why not, consider a parallel example, that of pain and its relationship to behavior like wincing, crying out, etc.  Pain and pain behavior are not the same thing, as can be seen from the fact that pain can exist in the absence of the behavior we usually associate with it, and the behavior can exist in the absence of the pain (as when someone is determined to pretend that he is in pain).  Thus the behaviorist is incorrect to identify pain with dispositions to behavior of the sort in question.  However, the relationship between pain and behavior is nevertheless not a contingent one, as the Cartesian might suppose.  As Wittgenstein pointed out, pain behavior is normatively associated with pain.  Pain and behavior of the sort in question are associated with one another in the standard case, even if there are aberrant cases in which they come apart.

The way a Scholastic metaphysician might put this is to say that behavior of the sort in question (wincing, crying out, etc.) is a proper accident (or “property,” in the technical Scholastic sense) of pain.  A proper accident is not part of the essence of a thing, but nevertheless flows from its essence -- the stock example being the capacity for laughter, which is not part of the essence of man as a rational animal, but nevertheless flows from rational animality.  Because a proper accident or property flows from the essence, things that have the essence tend to exhibit the proper accident (so that most people laugh from time to time, most dogs have four legs, etc.).  But because the proper accidents or properties are distinct from the essence from which they flow, they might fail to manifest themselves if the flow is “blocked” (so that there are occasionally people who rarely if ever laugh, dogs which are missing a leg, etc.).  Hence pain behavior in the normal case flows from pain in such a way that the connection between them is not merely contingent, but there can nevertheless be cases where such behavior does not manifest itself.  (For discussion and defense of the Scholastic approach to essence and properties, see Scholastic Metaphysics, especially chapter 4.)

Now, in the same way, you might say that memory is something like a proper accident of personal identity (though this would have to be tightened up in a more technical presentation, since accidents are, properly speaking, accidents of substances).  That is to say, in the ordinary case, B’s being the same person as an earlier person A is associated with B’s remembering doing the things A did.  The connection between memory and identity, as Locke rightly sees, is not merely contingent.  Still, there can be cases where the “right” memories don’t manifest themselves even though personal identity is preserved, and this is what a Lockean account misses.  Just as behaviorism mistakenly identifies pain with what is really only a proper accident of pain (i.e. pain behavior), so too does Locke identify personal identity with what is really only something like a proper accident of personal identity (i.e. memory).

As to skepticism: Suppose the behaviorist argued that by identifying pain with pain behavior and other mental states with other sorts of behavior, he was solving the problem of skepticism vis-à-vis the existence of other minds.  You could never doubt whether another person is in pain, or thinking about the weather, or what have you; as long as pain behavior is present, pain itself is present, since pain just is the behavior.  But this would, of course, “solve” the problem of skepticism vis-à-vis other minds only by stripping pain and other mental states of what is essential to them.

Or, to take yet another example, consider Berkeley’s claim that his idealism undermines skepticism about the existence of physical objects.  The skeptic says that it might be, for all we know, that there is no table there even if we all have perceptual experiences of seeing the table, feeling it, etc.  Berkeley responds that since the table just is (he claims) the collection of our perceptions of it, there can be no doubt that the table is there as long as the perceptions are there.  This “solves” the problem of skepticism about the existence of physical objects only by stripping physical objects of the mind-independent ontological status usually thought essential to them.

Similarly, in assimilating personal identity to memory, Locke is in effect doing something parallel to the behaviorist’s assimilation of pain to pain behavior or Berkeley’s assimilation of physical objects to our perceptions of them.  And the purported response to skepticism afforded by the assimilation is as bogus in this case as it is in the others.  At first glance it might seem that if you are, without qualification, whoever you think you are -- whoever you seem to remember yourself being -- then skepticism about personal identity is ruled out.  If B seems to remember doing what A did, then B is the same person as A and that is that; there would be no gap between memory and identity for the skeptic to exploit.  But that would make the Martian impostor identical to the real Olham, and it would mean that the Quail who results from a complete memory wipe and replacement would not really be identical to Quail -- consequences that are as extreme and implausible as the behaviorist’s identification of pain with pain behavior and Berkeley’s identification of physical objects with our perceptions of them.

The Scholastic metaphysician’s distinction between essence and properties allows for a more nuanced and plausible account of the relationship between personal identity and memory -- a consideration which might be taken to be a further argument for that distinction.


Anonymous said...

Cool post.

Your intro to scholastic metaphysics arrived at my door today, Dr. Feser. I shall read it. :)

Michael said...

You extrapolated all of that from what you observed pertaining to recurring themes in the works of Philip K. Dick, right?

The problem(?) of defining 'who we are' is superficial at best. Excluding supernatural events, our perception is limited to the material existence, even if our consciousness is in fact immaterial. Life is a prolonged series of experiences, relationships, et al, the amalgamation of such presented in a series of memories which create predisposition to specific actions and reactions. We define existence according to our capacity to think, observe, believe, rationalize and formulate.

If your memory is "erased," assuming your other faculties remain unchanged, would you still be yourself or would you become an empty vessel of a person? If the answer is the former, you're still uniquely you, despite your memories, i.e. accumulative past experiences, being lost. However, if the latter is true then it begs the question: are we merely the product of what we have the capacity to remember ourselves as being?

Charles said...

Memory as a property of personal identity seems wrong to me. Memory is here used ambiguously; for the scholastic, there are three powers of the soul that can answer to the name memory: imagination, memory (in the Aristotelian sense) and the possible intellect. All three can be called "memory" because all three retain cognizable species. I would say, rather, that personal identity is the proper accident of a being capable of reflecting on its own acts of cognition.

Ian said...

the stock example being the capacity for laughter, which is not part of the essence of man as a rational animal, but nevertheless flows from rational animality.

Very interesting. What is it about laughter that requires rationality? Why can't non-human animals exhibit laughter?

Timotheos said...

@ Ian

"Very interesting. What is it about laughter that requires rationality? Why can't non-human animals exhibit laughter?"

By laughter here, Dr. Feser doesn't mean the bare physical activity of laughter; i.e. making a certian noise, feeling happier, etc., since these things could be done by a mere animal, like a chimp for instance.

What he means is the "understanding of a joke" combined with this sort of physical activity. Thus, a chimp can't truely laugh because he can't understand a joke; what he can do is act like he was laughing, maybe even do so in response to his fellow chimp slipping on a banana peel, but this isn't the same kind of activity as when we might tell a knock-knock joke or something.

JesseM said...

I think this only shows a problem with the "continuity of consciousness" notion of identity if you define "memory" solely in terms of episodic memory (remembering things that have happened to you), as opposed to all other cases where the brain updates its wiring with experience, like learnings skills, context-dependent understanding of which behaviors are most appropriate in which situations, emotional associations and 'gut' level attitudes, etc. It's really just a quirk of language that all these things are lumped together under the term memory, they don't form a particularly "natural" category given what's known about how memory loss works; for example, people with forms of specific brain damage that leave them unable to form new episodic memories can still retain abilities that don't depend on recalling such memories, and can also learn new skills (a person may not remember that they've been practicing the piano but continually get better as they practice for example). I would imagine that if you could map every synaptic connection in a person's brain before and after such a form of amnesia, the vast majority would be unchanged, in which case "continuity of consciousness" still seems perfectly viable as a perspective on personal identity.

Anonymous said...


I'm not sure how or even if it affects your argument, but I don't agree that our perception is necessarily limited to the material existence. There is such a thing as mystical experience, which many throughout human history have interpreted as experience of divinity. Interestingly, even atheists occasionally have such experiences. Barbara Erenreich recently wrote a book in which she recounts such an experience and then spends the rest of the book attempting (weakly) to explain it away.

Fred (posting as anonymous because it's simpler than the rigamarole of opening an account and signing in)

Scott said...


Just FYI for possible future reference, it's just as easy to use the "Name/URL" option and type in a name (the URL is optional) as it is to use the "Anonymous" option.

Scott said...

Come to think of it, the posting option to "Choose an identity" seems strangely appropriate to the thread topic.

Jim S. said...

I seem to recall (!) that the bad guys in "Impostor" weren't Martians but Alpha Centaurians or something.

Myles said...

I think we're all missing the most important point, though:

Does shooting your wife in the head with a snappy one-liner properly constitude a divorce?

Michael said...

Fred, of course I believe in the spiritual experience. However, it is better to frame the discussion in real-world scenario so as not diverge too much into the realm of what can only be inferred through belief, i.e. certain effects within what is observable to human perception that defy logical explanation or play into Biblical revelation.

Unless of course that's the intended goal of the discussion.

Glenn said...

Jim S.,

I seem to recall (!) that the bad guys in "Impostor" weren't Martians but Alpha Centaurians or something.

'Tis true that the Martians in Philip K. Dick's 1953 short story actually were Alpha Centaurians, just as 'tis true that the Martians of István Hargittai's 2006 non-fiction book -- Theodore von Kármán, Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, John von Neumann, and Edward Teller -- actually were Hungarians. (Uninteresting factoid of the day: Edward Teller is My Favorite Martian.)

Then there are the Babe Ruths of the Minors -- some of whom, in addition to not actually going by the name of Babe Ruth, actually were adults. (Interesting factoid of the day: Both Babe Ruth and Billy Martian [sic] played for the New York Yankees. **)

- - - - -

** One of the less salubrious things for which Mr. Martian [sic] was known was getting blasted, and there has been some speculation that Mr. Dick's keen eye for the future may have caught a glimpse of what was yet to come. This speculation, however, has but scant support, being based, as it is, primarily on the closing statements of his aforementioned short story ("He did not complete the sentence, only the first phrase. [And his being] blast[ed] was visible all the way to Alpha Centauri.")

Ian said...


Thank you for the explanation of laughter.

By the way, are there non-human animals that exhibit the "bare physical activity of laughter"? Do chimpanzees 'laugh' when a fellow chimp slips on a banana peel?

Timotheos said...

@ Ian

Not much of a biologist, but I have heard that monkeys will often "prank" their zookeepers by stealing their stuff or by throwing "monkey chocolate" at them. And often times, primates will make noises that sound like human laughter, so if you put those two things together in sequence, that would be an example.

Glenn said...

Ian and Timotheos,

Interesting exchanges.

From Dr. Peter Chojnowski's Humor and the Thomistic Mind (subtitle-able, perhaps, as Or Peeling Away Peals of Laughter):

"The affirmation involved in laughter is not a validation of what is, but rather, a forced recognition that what is is capable of becoming what is not yet. To laugh is to avoid despair. Why is it that laughter is the expression of an intellectual insight which is particularly Thomistic? Moreover, why is it the hardy laugh, in which one is 'out of one's senses,' which shows itself to be the most profound of all the various responses to humor?

"The answer to these questions is properly metaphysical. To ache with laughter is the fitting response to the infinite disparity between the various manifestations of being which we experience around us and the infinite perfections of Him who is Self-Subsisting Being or Ipsum Esse Subsistens. To 'lose oneself' in laughter is to recognize that disparity and to yearn for that gap to be closed to some extent. If we did not experience around us the comically base, along with having a conceptual insight into the divine perfection and the capacity of the Divine Mind to bring all things to their own specific state of perfection, we would not laugh in this 'immoderate' way. Just as the infinite goodness and beauty of God makes it impossible to love God "too much," so too, the difference between that which has being in a certain limited respect and He who is Existence-Itself, justifies the uncontrollable laughter which can only be provoked by the best of wits.

"This ability to experience the comically base, along with intelligible perfection, is a ratification of St. Thomas's hylomorphic understanding of man. Only man laughs. Hyenas do not really laugh. The reason why man laughs is because of the unity of his body and his soul. If there existed an identity between his body and his soul he would not laugh. If his body and soul were not ontologically distinct principles (i.e., one being physical and one being spiritual), he would not laugh either. It is only because man can experience the limitations of material creation with his body at the same time that he is grasping the proper perfection of the thing with the intellectual powers of his spiritual soul, that he identifies the disparity and breaks out in raucous laughter."

Ian said...


Interesting article, thank you!

Your quotation from the linked article answers what my next question was going to be: whether or not angels can 'laugh', since they too are rational creatures. I guess not!

cda said...

I wonder whether Dr. Feser is answering the same question that Locke asked. Locke could be asking two very different questions:

(1) What makes any individual human animal numerically one and the same over time?

(2) How do I know that I am numerically one and the same thinking thing over time?

The problem is that Dr. Feser seems to treat Locke as if Locke were asking (1), which is an ontological question, whereas, given the general thrust of modern philosophy, Locke is most likely asking (2), which is an epistemological question. Does this difference really constitute "heavy qualification"?

Granted, the two types of questions (ratio essendi and ratio cognoscendi), might be often conflated, especially in the modern period. Nevertheless, even if conflated, that conflation is no reason not to take the question in its most compelling form.

And, granted, there is a further complication of underlying competing ontologies (i.e., for the scholastic, only the whole human animal, body and soul, is substance, whereas for the modern, the body and soul/mind are each substance). That is, from the scholastic perspective, at best, question (2) asks about personal identity only in part (i.e. the identity of the thinking part, which is actually merely a power of one part, viz., the intellectual power of the human soul). But the modern tends to ask the question in part because the question tends to be epistemological. That is, I must ask about how I know myself to be the same consciousness over time before I ask how I know myself to be/have the same body (and, further, how I know myself to be the same consciousness with the same body) because knowing is a function of consciousness.

In other words, there are two different senses of "personal identity" operative here:

(1) that by which an individual human animal (qua first substance) is numerically one and the same over time

(2) that by which an individual thinking thing (qua knower) knows himself to be numerically one and the same thinking thing over time

Contrary to what Dr. Feser writes, Locke probably does not "identify personal identity with what is really only something like a proper accident of personal identity (i.e. memory)". That would be for Locke to identify memory as the ratio essendi of personal identity, whereas it is far more likely that Locke is merely identifying memory as the ratio cognoscendi of personal identity. (Admittedly, however, there is the further complication of third sense of "personal identity", viz., my sense of self, of who I am, in a word, memoria).

Then again, the subtext of Dr. Feser's post might be that Locke is asking the wrong question. But asking the wrong question and merely asking a different question are two very different things (e.g. asking what the angle of a circle is is very different depending on whether by "angle" one means the degree of distance between two intersecting straight lines or the degree of curvature of one and the same line). I wonder how often moderns simply tend to ask different questions, which both scholastics and moderns often mistake for the same question, with the predictable result that each walks away from the other thinking, "They just don't understand."

Indeed, I am not merely who I think I am, but how do I know that? To quote the movie Total Recall, "I just had a horrible thought. What if this is all a dream?"

Brandon said...


I'm not sure why, though, given what Locke actually says, one would interpret him as asking only the epistemological question. Certainly his contemporaries did not take him to be restricting his scope in this way (Butler and Reid both clearly take him to be addressing the ontological question), and his account looks very different from that of, say, Hutcheson, who does explicitly take consciousness only to answer the epistemological question.

Charles R. Cherry said...

I would like to read Dr. Feser's take on the evolved Cylons of Battlestar Gallactica (the ones who have assumed human form and exhibit human-like behavior and emotions).

Anonymous said...

There should be a betting market for when Gifford's will is *finally* carried out: and solid natural theology is presented. And so who among Oderberg, Feser etc is a Gifford Lecturer but doesn't yet know it.

cda said...


My response to your specific questions below is an example of the mess that Dr. Feser understandably attempts to sidestep by being careful to add "without qualification" or the like when referencing Locke's theory. My concern is merely that his analysis avoids the root problem, which is epistemological, and, further, that Locke's account of personal identity will remain formidable until it is.

For example (and perhaps I should have restricted my comments to this--live and learn, I suppose), both the examples proffered (Quail and Impostor) could be construed as begging the question. How does Quail know that this is not all part of the Rekall 'experience' as advertised? Quail can be sure of nothing except perhaps that he is the same person who experienced going to Rekall. What is the difference between transferring one's consciousness into a robot and duplicating it? Continuity of consciousness? The thesis of continuity of consciousness has a good deal of room to maneuver in those scenarios.

cda said...


To your specific questions:

First, it need not be the case that Locke is "asking only the epistemological question", but merely that the epistemological question is the primary question. And the primary question affects the scope, sense, and rationale of subsequent claims. For example, the biologist, anthropologist, theologian, etc. will each have different answers to the question "what is man?" because their primary questions (what is material life? what is distinctively human? what is God? respectively) are different.

Second, one would read Locke as addressing primarily the epistemological question for several reasons. First, again, the primacy of epistemology is a common trait of modern philosophy. Second, Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding is ostensibly, and as a whole, a work concerning epistemology.

Third, given what Locke actually writes in II.xxvii, the chapter begins (sec. 1) epistemologically. That is, identity is regarded insofar as it results from some comparison in the mind.

Fourth, the views of a philosopher's contemporaries are not a sure sign of interpretive accuracy. To take a clearer example (but still somewhat contentious), the initial reaction to Kant's First Critique was that it was merely an elaborate version of Berkeleyian idealism (esse is percipi). Kant found this charge bewildering, and it motivated some of the revisions in the B edition, especially the added "Refutation of Idealism". Or again, Kant complains in the Prolegomena that Reid, among others, simply "missed the point of his [Hume's] problem". (Ak. 4:258) Of course, Kant could be wrong about himself and, a fortiori, about Hume. The point is merely that contemporaries can be wrong.

Admittedly, Locke's text is multi-faceted. Together with the likely epistemological rationale for his claims, there is attack on the Cartesian claim that the soul is the bearer of personal identity, the problem of the identity of those resurrected at final judgment, and, more generally, of reward and punishment. (See William Uzgalis, "The Immateriality of the Soul and Personal Identity" Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy) But the reason that Locke cannot accept the Cartesian claim is that it conflicts with Locke's empiricism (i.e. Cartesian knowledge of the soul would be a counterexample to Locke's empiricism). In short, Locke's motivation for rejecting the Cartesian claim is epistemological. And addressing the problem of the general resurrection and of reward and punishment serves the purpose of demonstrating that the account of identity that is consistent with his empiricism can serve the same conceptual functions in theology and ethics formally served by the soul. In short, Locke's point might be that one loses nothing by 'dumping' the Cartesian account of identity.

Further, admittedly, the genesis of Locke's addition of personal identity in the second edition can be traced to Locke's correspondence with William Molyneux, who urges expansion on the metaphysical problem of individuation and not on epistemological origin of identity. (Edwin Curley, "Leibniz on Locke on Personal Identity" in Leibniz and Locke: Critical & Interpretive Essays, ed. Michael Hooper, p. 302) But this is balanced by the admission that "it is natural to assume that the chapter was meant to fill that gap" concerning the origin of the idea of identity. (p. 303) Moreover, execution need not be limited by genesis. As was said above, Locke has epistemological motivations for displacing the Cartesian soul with what Locke calls "person".

Again, a mess, but I hope that somewhat responds to your questions.

Brandon said...

I don't think 'primarily' is enough here. For one thing, there is no sharp line between epistemological and metaphysical; one may with entire legitimacy answer epistemological questions on metaphysical grounds and metaphysical questions on epistemological grounds, and the major worry in either case is not irrelevance but circularity. And, indeed, the hallmark of the modern period is not raising epistemological questions, which have been raised in philosophy from the very beginning, and at times have even been the primary questions, but the systematic use of epistemology to answer metaphysical questions. For another, if Locke is answering the metaphysical question at all, the irenic solution you suggested at first simply doesn't work: this isn't a case of asking different questions, but asking the same questions and not evaluating their importance in the same way, which means an even greater disagreement: not only are the answers to each question in disagreement, but there isn't even agreement about which question is key.

Contemporaries can be wrong, but this is no different from the fact that any evidence can be wrong; they cannot be dismissed, however, any more than any genuine evidence can be dismissed -- if evidence is misleading, this must be established on grounds of other specific evidence. And the rest of your comment shows some of the reasons to think that Locke does, in fact, take the metaphysical question seriously, and for exactly the kinds of reasons his contemporaries took him to be doing so.

cda said...


First, I think you might be characterizing some points of agreement as disagreement.

Yes, there is "no sharp line between epistemological and metaphysical" with regard to the matter of a particular question, just like there is no sharp line between biology, anthropology, and theology on the matter of the question "what is man?".

Yes, "the hallmark of modern period is ... the systematic use of epistemology to answer metaphysical questions." In other words, in the modern period, the epistemological question is primary, just as the question "what is God?" is the primary question in theology.

Second, the claim that "if Locke is answering the metaphysical question at all, the irenic solution you suggested at first simply doesn't work" is a non sequitur. That is, moderns may indeed be answering the same question materially, but not formally. And that formal difference does indeed make an 'irenic' solution possible (though admittedly not without a fight and, in what I suspect would be another tacit point of agreement, ultimately not in Locke's particular case).

Analogously, the biologist and the theologian might both answer "what is man?", which is materially the same question, but their answers will differ because of a formal difference. And their answers, though different, do not contradict one another, again, on account of the formal difference. Admittedly, the biologist might get out of hand and become a raging new atheist and the theologian might get out of hand and declare impossible the next great biological discovery. But this is all the more reason to draw sharp lines and force each to stay within their formal limits.

cda said...

Brandon (cont'd),

Third, it might be the case that "the major worry is not irrelevance but circularity". But this would be a case of mistaken priorities. Now, to be clear, I would not say "irrelevance" should be the major worry merely in the sense that 'not enough people care'. Rather, again, relevance is indexed to the question.

For example ...
Biologist: What is man?
Philosopher: An animal.
Biologist: I know that, but I want to know what kind of animal.
Philosopher: Rational.
Biologist: That's not what I'm asking.
The philosopher's answers are correct, but irrelevant to the biologist because of a formal difference in what is materially the same question.

There is an analogous formal difference between modern and scholastic, or even common sense, philosophy. This difference is the reason that Locke's thesis gives way more readily to skepticism about personal identity rather than to opposing theses.

In other words, our concerns are likely different. My concerns are likely more general, or strategic, and yours may be more specific, or tactical. My concern is that there is a reason that the canon reads (on the empiricist side) Locke, Hume, Kant and not otherwise. There is a reason that Locke's contemporaries are regarded primarily as Locke's contemporaries and not per se.

As a matter of scholarship, is it valid and interesting to leverage Locke's contemporaries for a certain interpretation and critique of Locke? Certainly. Will it dislodge Locke and his thesis from their place in the Western canon? Possible, but not likely because, again, the prevailing formal question, which is epistemological, works constantly to preserve the relevance of Locke's thesis.

Is this being dismissive? I prefer to think of it as choosing my battles, but perhaps so, and yet, not without reason. And further, in my defense, I did give an overview, however summary, of the identity chapter and reasons why one would trace the major moves back to epistemological concerns. I do not think such considerations are decisive, but rather merely make it a wash, which was sufficient given my concerns.

Gail F said...

There is no need to rely solely on fiction. In rare but real cases, people lose all their memories. These people don't remember what they like to eat, what kind of music they listened to, etc. -- in fact, they can prefer DIFFERENT foods than their healthy selves. Are they the same person?

Unlike TV and movie versions of total amnesiacs, at least as far as I know, such people do not appear to others to be normal people. They only seem to be partly "there." Documentaries on the man whose real life story inspired a romantic drama a couple of years ago about a man who lost all his memories the day of his wedding show him to be practically a zombie, with almost no emotion -- until after his recovery.

What does that say about memory? He is the same physical person, obviously. But was he the same person when he couldn't remember anything AT ALL about his life? It sounds as if Locke would say no, but if so, then who was he?

Brandon said...


In other words, in the modern period, the epistemological question is primary, just as the question "what is God?" is the primary question in theology.

I don't think this is correct; it again treats as an end what is in fact a means. What can be known has a very different role in modern philosophy from the role "What is God?" has in theology. To use primarily epistemological means to answer metaphysical question is simply not the same as treating epistemological questions as primary relative to metaphysical questions. I think this is particularly important with Locke; I think you are reading back into Locke a degree of emphasis on epistemology that we only actually get with Hume and Kant.

I don't understand at all what your argument about the canon is. The common progression Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, is an imposition after the fact arising from a contingent feature of how philosophy was taught, not something intrinsic to the interpretation of Locke; and even within that progression, Locke's place is precisely to be the one who is least interested in epistemology itself.

Sami said...

Can someone explain the reasoning behind supposing that identity lies exclusively with the form in Aquinas/Aristotle's philosophy? It makes sense intuitively to me, but when I try to parse it out it seems to be at odds with the idea that things or substances are matter form composites. If the whole thing is this form and this matter why is it not a change of identity when the form is the same but the matter is different? If identity is with the form then isn't it kinda like a ghost possessing different materials (that's not a criticism by the way, just kinda looks that way to me). Or another way of saying the same thing but shorter: How is it both true that substances are matter form composites and yet that those same substances' entire identity is in its form? It would seem that there is a disconnect between what a thing is (its being) and what a thing is (its identity). would really enjoy a clarification on that.

cda said...


I think the problem you raise is a consequence of conflating three distinct questions. In other words, the word "identity" can be taken in three different ways:

(1) Identity of kind. What kind of thing is it? The answer to this question is the form.

(2) Identity of the individual composite substance at a given time (principle of individuation). What makes this thing this thing as opposed to others of the same kind? The answer to this question is the matter.

(3) Identity of the individual composite substance over time. What makes this thing the same thing as it was before? As you pointed out, the answer to this must be the form, since the matter changes (as it does in, e.g., growth and decay).

However, form must be regarded at different levels of determination in (1) and (3). In (1), form need not be regarded as that form is individuated by some matter because form alone is sufficient to distinguish an individual of one kind from that of another (as Aquinas argues is the case with angels). However, in (3), form must be regarded as already individuated in some matter because form alone is not sufficient to distinguish one individual composite substance from another of the same kind.

In other words, the answer to (3) presupposes the answer to (2) just as the answer to (2) presupposes the answer to (1). Matter is the answer to distinguishing individual composite substances that are presumed to be of the same form (otherwise, the form would be sufficient to distinguish them). Similarly, form is the answer to identifying the same individual over time presuming that the form is individuated by some matter (otherwise, the individual could be any individual of the same kind).

Consequently, attributing identity of a composite substance over time 'exclusively' to the form might not be entirely correct, depending upon whether by "form" one means a form presumed to be individuated by some matter or not.

Hope that helps.

cda said...


Your patience, if not also your prodding, is admirable.

First, "[t]o use epistemological means to answer metaphysical questions" may mean two different things, depending on whether "metaphysical questions" is meant materially or formally.

If meant materially: using epistemological means to answer what are materially metaphysical questions is legitimate insofar as what are materially metaphysical questions are regarded formally as epistemological questions. This was the focus of my previous response.

Admittedly, asking what are materially metaphysical questions when what is being answered are the same questions formally regarded as epistemological ought to be avoided on account of the confusion it might create. But that is an ideal that was often not met in the modern period.

If meant formally: to use epistemological means to answer metaphysical questions may or may not be legitimate. For example, on the one hand, if the question "Is God a trinity of persons?" it is legitimate to answer this epistemologically by saying "Whether God is a trinity of persons cannot be known philosophically." However, on the other hand, it would not be legitimate to answer the same question by saying "No, because it cannot be known philosophically" (ad ignorantiam), or by saying "The argument by which I know God to be one precludes God being a trinity of persons" (non sequitur), etc.

I imagine that the concern is that modern philosophy is often, if not always, of the latter type (viz. illegitimately using epistemological means to answer metaphysical questions). However, I would urge caution in asserting such, and would recommend reading modern philosophers, wherever possible, as at least trying to do the former. That is, just as Aquinas will restrict himself from answering philosophically whether God is a trinity of persons, whether the world has a beginning, etc. on epistemological grounds so too do moderns limit their answers to metaphysical questions(the difference being that those epistemological limits and their grounds of determination are a central matter of debate for moderns).

Second, regarding your claim that I read "back into Locke a degree of emphasis on epistemology that we only actually get with Hume and Kant." I could quibble with this by repeating the grounds for such a reading. However, again, in the larger scheme of things, this simply does not matter. That is, even if I am "reading back a degree of emphasis on epistemology" greater than is in the texts proper, it is the emphasis and trajectory of the tradition as it has been handed down. One could attempt to overturn that emphasis, but, even if successful (which is not likely), such a change of emphasis still leaves one open to the questions that the former emphasis merely forced to the surface.

In other words, one most likely cannot close the door to Hume, Kant, et al. (whether generally or on the issue of self-knowledge) by minimizing the epistemological strain in Locke (again whether generally or concerning the personal identity thesis). Consequently, one might as well deal with that epistemological strain.

cda said...

Brandon (cont'd),

Third, this brings me to your claim that "The common progression Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, is an imposition after the fact arising from a contingent feature of how philosophy was taught ..." Indeed, it is contingent. But just because something is contingent does not mean that it is without its reasons.

For example, the English victory at Agincourt was contingent. And yet, we can attribute the victory to the effectiveness of the longbow, which was particularly enhanced by the terrain (namely, the heavily armoured French could not maneuver in the narrow field recently soaked by rain). Indeed, if the terrain were different, the longbow's effectiveness would have been reduced and the battle might have turned out differently. But listing ceteris paribus the advantages of heavily armoured knights over longbowmen will not change the terrain.

Analogously, the terrain of modern philosophy is what it is: epistemology bogs down metaphysics. On any other day, a straightforward metaphysical analysis might be able to close the distance before Locke's thesis becomes unexpellable, but, unless I missed something (which is possible), today is not that day.

There are reasons that later on, e.g., Hegel's claim that the self is, in part, the self-relation of time ("I=I"), Heidegger's claim that being toward death (as a future possibility that is always only mine) properly individuates existence (Dasein) as solitude, etc. were found compelling--one major reason being that such claims are epistemologically informed and, moreover, in a way that might explain both the strengths and relative deficiencies of Locke's thesis. (This is not to say that, e.g., Hegel, Heidegger, etc. were responding directly to Locke, but merely that they were responding to a tradition into which Locke's thesis, its promise and its problems, had been absorbed.) And it is for the same reasons that a Thomistic, or even common sense, critique of Locke's thesis, even if charitably received, will appear strangely out of place, or discordant.

Fourth, Locke is the positive face of empiricism, which, of course, is a theory of epistemology. (Berkeley is its idealist face, and Hume the negative face.) Consequently, even if it is true that Locke is "the least interested in epistemology", it will not matter in the broader scheme of things unless one can divorce Locke from that empiricist image (which, given Locke's Essay, is likely impossible), or at least divorce his thesis concerning personal identity from that empiricism (which, given the trajectory of modern philosophy, is very unlikely).

In other words, why can one not decouple Locke's thesis on personal identity from Locke's epistemology as easily as one decouples Locke's political philosophy from Locke's epistemology? In the abstract such a separation is relatively simple to do, but in an actual discourse, with is entire array of prejudices--some justified, some not--it will prove rather difficult.

Perhaps we disagree on whether, in what respect, and/or to what degree any priority of epistemology over metaphysics can be justified? Perhaps we disagree on the degree to which local contextualism can alter the more global context? Perhaps we disagree on what the global context is? Other? Some combination? All the above?

Juan H said...

It's funny that you use Total Recall and Impostor as films that contradict the idea that personal identity is identical to memory, because I thought that these films show the idea that personal identity is identical to memory.

Total Recall supposed to change memories involves a change of identity. Douglas Quaid and Hauser differ only in their memories, but one is good and one bad, which I think is enough to consider two different people, even if they have the same body. And Impostor assumed that if the memories do not change, does not change the identity. The replica of Olham behaves as Olham, so he is Olham, even with a bomb in his chest. At least this is my impression to see both films; short stories may point in another direction.

A film that supports the idea that personal identity is not identical to memory is Dark City: aliens implanted memories of a murderer in protagonist to find out if the man becomes murderer, but the man does not become a murderer, overriding its true identity from his memories, so identity and memory are not identical.

But on the relationship between memory and personal identity, I agree with you: personal identity is not identified with memory or with the body or anything concrete, but can not be completely separated from memory, etc.

Scott said...

@Juan H:

"It's funny that you use Total Recall and Impostor as films that contradict the idea that personal identity is identical to memory[.]"

Actually he's using the short stories on which those films were based, and in the case of "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale," he specifically quotes a scene that isn't in the film at all. (The film is quite different from the short story in many ways.)