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Locke and Hume’s Discussions of the Idea of Personal Identity Essay


The idea of personal identity has been discussed by both Locke and Hume firstly on a more general sense to the general idea of identity before narrowing down specifically to the subject itself.

As such before I narrow down to the idea of personal identity, it is important that I first take a look at how they present their claims with regard to this general idea of identity.

Some surprising claims by Locke suggest that, identity is an impression or idea we come to arrive at when we tend to associate and one thing at a particular time with the same thing as it exists in a different time. In his essay, Concerning human understanding, he says;

When we see anything to be in any place in any instant of time, we are sure, (be it what it will that it is that very thing, and not another, which at that same time exists in another place, how like undistinguishable soever it may be in all other respects: and this consists identity, when the ideas it is attributed to vary not at all from what they were that moment, wherein we consider their former existence, and to which we compare the present. (Locke, I, XVII, 5)

In his conceptualization of identify, Locke brings forth the notion that something at a particular time is of the same identity in a derivative sense as one would come to think of its transitive sense being a derivative of it.

He quickly brings forth as is suggested in the above quoted text the concepts of place and time in identity and diversity. He claims that not two things could be assumed or taken to have come at the same time and place and as such the identity of something in its first application comes forth taken in terms of location by time and its space.

To prove his claim, Locke introduces the distinction between God, finite intelligence’s and bodies. He says that, since God is without a traceable start, perpetual, unalterable and omnipresent, his identity is of no doubt.

However, concerning finite spirits that each have their particular place and time they started to exist, their likening will always be in relation to that time and place in which they started to exist as long that place remains to exist. Similarly, bodies for which no addition or subtraction of matter has been made could not be two at the same place and time.


Of unity of consciousness and personal identity

From the surprising claim in which Locke defines the identity of bodies, there arises the concept of individuation or personal identity. According to Locke change of mass does not necessarily distort the identity of a body, so long as it remains contact with all particles of matter as is in the place and time of the beginning of its existence.

As such in living things, the identity lies not in the various parts that makes up the body but on the spirit that that gives life to that body that is constant even if the various part of the body may change. Life however that makes that living thing live and that makes it be what it is, remains constant despite the change of part.

He brings forth the account of the identity of a human being. He argues that, the identity of a soul alone in an embryo of man is one and same that is the identity of it in a fully grown up man.

It should not whatsoever arise a time when an embryo with the identity of a soul of man be confused with something else as is also the soul that is the identity of a mature man.

An embryo of man maybe lacking in some way ion the nature of matter, but that very individual spirit, being same as is in the embryo, as is in a mature human being, and which has its beginning from the embryo leaves no doubt that it is one and the same thing (Parfit). This is same for all other living things.

In Locke’s notion of identity of the self, a person is a ‘thinking intelligent being’ that has reason and reflection which by it can thus consider itself as itself having the same thinking albeit in different ‘times and places’ (Locke, 1975).

In this notion therefore the sense of a person is associated with the consciousness that brings forth the self-consciousness of itself. According to Locke (1975), that consciousness that accompany thinking makes the rational being same in different moments and times and as such is what comprise the personal identity.

He further argues that, so long as that consciousness can be viewed at a moment a while back, any action or thought as is far connects the ‘identity of person’ as the self was at that moment before and is now, as reflected in the ‘self’ now casts no doubt that that action was done by the same self (Locke, 1975).

For as far as any intelligent being can repeat the idea of any past action with the same consciousness it has of its present thoughts and actions, that it is self to itself now, and so will be the same self as far as the consciousness can extend to actions past or to come; and would be by distance of time or change of substance no more two persons …the same consciousness uniting those distant actions into the same person. (Locke. II Chapter XVII, 20-30)

In Hume’s theory of the mind however, he pointedly differs with the Locke’s notion of consciousness to the idea of personal identity. According to Hume, memory and not consciousness comprise personal identity on the account that it brings forth the association of causes in its strain.

He argues that, a self can only be identified based on the bundle of perceptions it so holds at a particular point in time (Hume, n.d.). He holds that, it is the perceptions that are in the self at a particular time that defines that self and hence its identity (Hume, n.d).

He asks and concludes that, what if such perceptions were removed for instance by deep sleep or death, then the self becomes insensible, and as well, the identity of that self is lost.

From the notion held by Locke of personal identity as the unity of consciousness, there arise two conflicting points when we try to relate it with Hume’s bundle of, mind theory; substance and succession.

Concerning substance, Locke holds that the change of the thinking substance does not in any way rob the identity of oneself to another as it is the consciousness or spirit that defines the identity and not the substance (James, 2009).

And concerning succession, he says that it being a present representation of a past action then the identity remains the same as was of the beginning self and could have therefore been transferred. To this he argues is like trying to differentiate the same thing from itself.


Both notions of personal identity by Locke and Hume present some interesting things and may elicit a lot of arguments and hence differences to different people. In my conviction however, I hold that Hume’s argument of the identity of self has more strength than Locke’s unity of consciousness.

I have got my own reasons to this conviction and I will provide two arguments in account of this. Firstly, let’s take an account of insanity. Insanity is a condition where a person loses their mind.

When a person goes insane or loses his or her mind, it is possible and convincing to say that they have also lost their identity until in such and such a time that they get to regain their mind.

I say so because, a self is such identified as one and the same through their behavior that is generally woven in their way of thinking that makes them behave the way they do (Sacks, n.d.). What comes of an insane person is that it is even difficult for them to tell of their identity and through their behavior, anybody else who there in the past knew the identity of the sane and now insane person can clearly make that they are of different identity.

It is possible that, should someone come to know of the insane person in their present conditions they will probably not be able to conceptualize their identity while they were in sound mind.

Secondly also relating to the mind is intoxication by drug. Intoxication of mind can lead the person to behave in a manner that is not as we know that of the real self. Intoxication therefore robs off the self the identity of that self albeit momentarily.

It is therefore not very correct the notion by Locke’s of continuity. It is possible to be of a different mind now and of a different one in another time that taken separately could yield two identities.


Hume, D. (n.d.). extract from “Of Personal Identity,” Book I, A Treatise of Human Nature, pp. 251-253.

James W. (2009). Pragmatism. Echo Library: Teddington, Middlesex

Locke, J. (1975). extract from “Of Identity and Diversity”, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, pp. 341-343.

McCann, Edwin (1999). Locke on Identity: matter, life, consciousness. In Margaret Atherton, ed (1999). The Empiricist: Critical Essays. Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham MD Parfit, D. (n.d.). extract from “Why our Identity is not What Matters” from his Reasons and Persons. Sacks, O. (n.d.). “A Matter of Identity” from The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, pp. 103-110.

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"Locke and Hume’s Discussions of the Idea of Personal Identity." IvyPanda, 20 Aug. 2019, ivypanda.com/essays/personality-identity/.

1. IvyPanda. "Locke and Hume’s Discussions of the Idea of Personal Identity." August 20, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/personality-identity/.


IvyPanda. "Locke and Hume’s Discussions of the Idea of Personal Identity." August 20, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/personality-identity/.


IvyPanda. 2019. "Locke and Hume’s Discussions of the Idea of Personal Identity." August 20, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/personality-identity/.


IvyPanda. (2019) 'Locke and Hume’s Discussions of the Idea of Personal Identity'. 20 August.

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