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Philosophy: John Locke and the Self

John Locke’s conception of the “self” depends to one single idea: consciousness. Locke argues that the self of a particular person is attributed to his perception and not his “substance” (a person’s composition whether physical or not). According to John Locke, the physical attributes of a man and his spiritual component (or his soul) constitutes the making of a man. Locke believes that a man’s soul does not really go away when he dies. The soul just transfers to another body; thus a resurrection occurs.

Despite this idea, Locke furthers that the mere transfer of the soul does not really ‘recreate’ the same man before the process. As an addition, he also shares that the body (by which a soul is transferred to) also goes to the making of a man. To further illustrate his ideas, Locke gives an example. He uses a prince’s soul, with all the consciousness before his death, which transfers to the body of a mere cobbler. Since the entire spiritual attributes of the prince is with his soul, then normally, the cobbler will be regarded as a reincarnation of the prince by those who knew the prince before he died.

On the other hand, even though the prince’s soul is in the cobbler, others will just regard the “prince” as an ordinary cobbler. The self is the thing that is able to differentiate pleasure from pain, has the capability to feel happy or miserable, and also worries for itself. To further illustrate his ideas, Locke gives a case about a little finger and consciousness. Locke says that if the little finger would be separated from a person’s body together with his consciousness, then, it can be considered that the separated little finger is the same person as a whole.

Upon its separation from a particular body, the self will have to disappear. As mentioned earlier, Locke perceives personal identity dependent on one’s consciousness, not one’s substance nor one’s soul. If a person dies and is “resurrected” to another body, he will only be the same person from his pass life if only he is conscious of his past and future thoughts and actions just like the way he is conscious on his present thoughts and actions. A person may claim that he is a reincarnation of Socrates.

With this, it can be considered that this person has the same soul substance as Socrates. On the other hand, that person who claims to be Socrates would be the “same” Socrates only if he has the same consciousness of Socrates’ ideas and actions that Socrates himself did. With this, it can be said that personal identity according to Locke is not based on the soul since one soul may have different personalities. Locke’s belief in personal identity is based on the same continued consciousness.

For Locke, personal identity or the self is different from reincarnation. Reincarnation is done when a soul transfers to another body. Also, the soul may have not carried the same consciousness from its previous life. Therefore, the reincarnated person is not the same person before the process. As a conclusion, Locke’s idea about the self or personal identity is that the self is dependent on consciousness and not any other physical or spiritual component of a particular person.

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