Locke on the Diachronic Identity of Persons and Substances

Date: 
14-01-2016 from 14:00 to 16:00
Location: 
Faculty Library Meeting Room, Rozier 44
Presenter: 
Jessica Gordon-Roth (CUNY)

Abstract

In Locke’s ontology, persons appear to count as substances, along with oaks, horses, and souls (among other things). However, Locke also asserts that the identity of substance is neither necessary nor sufficient for the persistence of any person (2.27,10-23). If persons are substances, then how can this be? If persons are substances, then at the very least, one must be the same substance, to remain the same person over time. Locke thus appears to think that persons are substances, but also seems to commit himself to a metaphysics which denies that this could be the case. In other words, Locke appears to be caught in the midst of a contradiction. In this paper, I focus on this apparent tension in Locke’s text, and work to dissolve it. I argue that if we put Locke’s claims about the identity of substance (as found in 2.27.10 and 23) back into their proper context, we will see that Locke can make these claims, and maintain that persons are substances. This is because when Locke asserts that the identity of substance is neither necessary nor sufficient for the persistence of any person, he does not mean that a person can persist despite not being the same substance simpliciter; nor does he mean that a person can fail to persist despite being the same substance simpliciter. Rather, Locke means that a person can persist despite a change in the following three substances: body, man, and soul. Likewise, a person can fail to persist despite no such changes (as the passages between sections 10 and 23 of 2.27 make clear). Nothing therein amounts to a denial that Lockean persons are substances, and Locke is thus not caught in the midst of a contradiction as a result. Moreover, we see Locke making very similar assertions about human beings (or men)— an archetypal substance kind for Locke. I then argue that my interpretation is preferable to the others on offer in the secondary literature because: 1) It directly addresses and dissolves the apparent tension; 2) It matches what Locke claims in 2.27, while remaining consistent with what Locke says throughout the Essay; and 3) It does not entail an “elaborate fix,” or saddle Locke with commitments he might not have had.