Questions concerning the nature and existence of the self are as old as philosophy. Plato noted in The Symposium that our common practice of taking ourselves and others to be identical, enduring entities is subject to question. For we all change as we grow old; for example, psychologically. It is not obvious how that change is consistent with continued existence (Velasquez, 98). Indeed, while Plato could not have known this, every cell in each of our bodies is replaced over time. Nevertheless, there is a persistent tradition in philosophy that insists that one’s self can endure through almost any sort of change. This paper will defend Locke’s view of the nature of the self as being intimately bound up with memory. After presenting a brief account of the motivation that supports a view such as Locke’s, two objections will be faced. The first was made directly to Locke by Thomas Reid. The second was part of a more general attack on the enduring self by David Hume. It will be argued that these objections can be refuted, though effectively rebutting them will require a modification of Locke’s view which makes it a rather less impressively reductionist account of the self.

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There is clearly a close connection between psychological states generally and the nature of the self (assuming, for the sake of argument, at this point, that there is such a thing as the self). This is surely obvious to each of us concerning his or her self, but it applies after a fashion to the way that we regard others. While we may not be able to perceive anything in another person other than his or her behavior, we understand that behavior is, at least in many cases, a partial manifestation of the other’s mental states. Among mental states, furthermore, memory is special. It is plausible to regard it as the ‘glue’ that holds our psychologies together. As Locke notes, we can imagine ourselves enduring through almost any sort of change. However, if a person were to have no knowledge whatever of his or her former experiences through memory, we would certainly hesitate to regard the person as being identical with the person we might naively take to be his or her former self (Velasquez, 101).

Locke took not only memory but consciousness to be central to personal identity. He went so far, indeed, as to regard lapses in consciousness as being incompatible with continued existence. On what appears to be his official view, that is, we cease to exist every time we go to sleep. It is not necessary to follow him in this regard, however. We can allow that a completely uninterrupted stream of consciousness is not necessary for continued existence. This is not ad hoc because on the view defended here the key to personal identity is not consciousness but memory, and memories can certainly persist through lapses of consciousness.

Reid had an ingenious objection to Locke’s account. Suppose Tom is 30 years old at present. When he was 20, he would remember a certain experience that he enjoyed at age 10. On Locke’s view, then, Tom at 20 is identical with Tom at 10. Suppose as well that Tom at age 30 remembers being 20. Then Tom at 30 is identical with Tom at 20. Now suppose, however, that 30-year-old Tom does not remember being 10. We are then saddled with a contradiction. For identity is transitive: if a=b, and b=c, then a=c. But Tom-at-10 is said to be identical to Tom-at-20; and Tom-at-20 is on Locke’s view identical with Tom-at-30. Then it follows that Tom-at-10 is identical with Tom-at-30—but this contradicts our hypothesis that Tom, at age 30, does not remember being 10, and so this last identity cannot hold (Velasquez, 102).

The solution to this paradox is to relax further the conditions that Locke puts upon the continuity of identity. Not only is it not the case that we cease to exist when we drift off to sleep, but we need not remember everything that happens to us, over time, in order to remain the same person. What is required is merely that substantial portions of our earlier experiences are remembered. This does not make Locke’s view trivial. An older person who loses all competence in memory does seem to lose his or her identity, his or her self.

Another famous objection to the view that we have enduring selves focused not on memory but the self itself, as it were. David Hume complained that, try as he might, he could not locate a self within his mind. There were plenty of ideas there, as well as volitions, desires, fears, and so forth. Yet Hume could not find a self. He concluded that what we loosely call the ‘self’ is actually just a bundle of impressions (impressions and ideas derived from them being what Hume thought ideas or mental states were) (Velasquez, 105).

It seems that Hume is here involved in what philosophers used to call a ‘category mistake.’ Gilbert Ryle was good at spotting category mistakes, and he provided a famous example of one. Suppose you have a friend who wants to see your college or university. So you take your friend to the campus, displaying the various buildings, classrooms, and other features of the campus. Your friend then complains. He or she did not merely want to see buildings and ponds and classrooms. It is the university that excited the interest. Your friend would then have made a category mistake. For a university is not a concrete object like a building, pond, or classroom. To see the campus just is to see the university (Ryle). Likewise, Hume’s complaint that he could not introspect a self seems to involve a category mistake. The various ideas and impressions that Hume found when he looked inward are the analogs of the buildings and classrooms in our example. His complaint that he could not find the self in introspection is analogous to your friend’s complaint that he or she had not been shown the university. Indeed, the analogy is rather sharper than this indicates. For just as a university requires, but does not consist in, various buildings and classrooms, having a mind requires having mental states—in Hume’s terms—ideas and impressions. But it is quite mistaken to imagine that a university, or a mind, is an entity of the same category as buildings or ideas. The university, if you like, is the substrate that is made possible by the buildings. Similarly, mental states are made possible, in part, by a person or a self.

In conclusion, this brief essay has defended the view, associated with Locke, that there is such a thing as a self, and that it is closely associated with memory. We have departed from Locke on two points. First, absolute, unbroken psychological continuity is not necessary for the continued existence of a self. Not only is such a requirement clearly objectionable, but it does not follow from the idea that memory is a central key to personal identity. Second, memory need not be perfectly reliable in order to support the continued existence of the self. Finally, Hume’s famous argument against the existence of a self was argued to suffer from a rather crude category mistake.

  • Ryle, Gilbert. The Concept of Mind. London: Routledge, 2009.
  • Velasquez, Manuel. Philosophy: A Text with Readings. Twelfth edition. Canada: Wadsworth, 2011.