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Reid on Locke and Personal Identity:
Some Lost Sources

M. A. Stewart

In his Essays on the intellectual powers of man, Reid offers several potential reductiones ad absurdum of Locke’s account of personal identity. He does not, however, entirely repudiate Locke’s assumption (as he thinks he understands it), that there is some intimate connection between personal identity and ‘memory’. Our judgements of the identity of other persons, as of other things in general, are subject to the quality of the evidence and have ‘often furnished matter of serious litigation before tribunals of justice’. But ‘no man of a sound mind ever doubted of his own identity, as far as he distinctly remembered’—begging a question as to what counts as soundness of mind—and ‘the evidence we have of our own identity, as far back as we remember, is totally of a different kind from the evidence we have of the identity of other persons, or of objects of sense. The first is grounded on memory, and gives undoubted certainty’, 1  but it is not the idea-based memory of Locke. This is not to deny that we also have secondary evidence about ourselves, as we have about others. But Reid was no more alive than Locke to the facts of illusionary (e.g. auto-suggestive) memory experiences, and would have discounted them on ‘common sense’ principles that relied as much as Locke relied on God’s good will. 2  [105]
    Locke’s blunder, in Reid’s view, lay in confusing this primary evidence with the reality, with that wherein the person’s identity consists. One line of argument starts from the definition of ‘person’ as ‘an intelligent being, endowed with reason and with consciousness’ and finds a contradiction in the possibility ‘that the person ceases to exist, while the intelligent being continues, or that the person continues while the intelligent being ceases to exist’. 3  It hinges on the legitimacy of dropping Locke’s qualifying phrases. Locke’s definition of a person is ‘a thinking intelligent Being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider it self as it self, the same thinking thing in different times and places’ (Essay, II. xxvii. 9). 4  The ‘intelligent Beings’ with whom Locke is concerned are typically ‘men’ (even if not the ‘same’ men), but other species are not officially excluded (��8, 10, 20, 25). On Reid’s principles, Locke should not allow the identity over time even of his ‘intelligent Beings’, since they may have developing bodily parts and not retain a true identity. 5 
    Much of Reid’s discussion bears out his acknowledgement of debt to Butler. 6  The best known objection, however, which goes beyond Butler and so has sometimes been considered distinctive [106] to Reid, is that Locke is committed to the logical consequence that ‘a man may be, and at the same time not be, the person that did a particular action’.

Suppose a brave officer to have been flogged when a boy at school, for robbing an orchard, to have taken a standard from the enemy in his first campaign, and to have been made a general in advanced life: Suppose also, which must be admitted to be possible, that when he took the standard, he was conscious of his having been flogged at school, and that when made a general he was conscious of his taking the standard, but had absolutely lost the consciousness of his flogging.
    These things being supposed, it follows, from Mr LOCKE’S doctrine, that he who was flogged at school is the same person who took the standard, and that he who took the standard is the same person who was made a general. Whence it follows, if there be any truth in logic, that the general is the same person with him who was flogged at school. But the general’s consciousness does not reach so far back as his flogging, therefore, according to Mr LOCKE’S doctrine, he is not the person who was flogged. There- fore the general is, and at the same time is not the same person with him who was flogged at a school.

Reid traces this embarrassment to two causes. Locke has confused consciousness (‘an immediate knowledge of the present’) [107] with memory (‘an immediate knowledge of the past’). 8  Further- more, while consciousness, as Locks construes it, may deliver the evidence—Butler as well as Reid had accepted this and thought it impossible, with Locke, that this evidence could be impugned—it is not what the identity ‘consists in’.
    Reid published his Intellectual powers in 1785 after retiring from the chair of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow. The substance of the work had been delivered ‘more diffusely’ for ‘more than twenty years, in Lectures to a large body of the more advanced students in this University, and for several years before, in another University’. Reid’s previous work, An inquiry into the human mind(1764), the product of his Aberdeen period, had already touched on the personal identity debate, without going into the particular conundrum identified in the Intellectual powers. In this earlier work Reid made two points relating to this debate, points already outlined by Henry Home in his Essays on the principles of morality and natural religion. 9  The first, ostensibly against Descartes, was that the veracity of consciousness is beyond the powers of human proof. ‘Can any man prove that his consciousness may not deceive him? No man can: nor can we give a better reason for trusting to it, than that every man, while his mind is sound, is determined, by the constitution of his nature, to give implicit belief to it, and to laugh at, or pity the man who doubts its testimony.’ Cartesian doubt had opened up this anti-commonsense absurdity by suggesting that there was [108] a genuine question as to whether one could prove one’s own existence.
    Someone who thinks there is a genuine question in the latter case may then come to think that there is also a genuine question as to whether ‘the I of this moment, is the very individual I of yesterday, and of times past’. For Reid this is as absurd, as anti-commonsensical, as the first query. Locke, on Reid’s view, travelled this route and persuaded himself that there is this further question.10 Thus Reid’s second point, which is against Locke, is that if consciousness is said to extend to things past, this ‘can signify nothing else but the remembrance that I did it. So that Locke’s principle must be, That identity consists in remembrance; and consequently a man must lose his personal identity with regard to every thing he forgets’.11 This is to ‘create’ doubts instead of ‘resolving’ them. At this stage Reid is trying to show not so much that Locke has a wrong answer as that he has set off on a wrong question.
    We find from Reid’s manuscripts that the example of the brave officer was already familiar to him at this time, and that it was derived in all essentials from his colleague, George Campbell. It is preserved on a manuscript page sandwiched in the middle of draft material relevant to the Inquiry project that has an unambiguous date—1 December 1758. Whether Campbell proposed this objection in writing or in discussion can no longer be discovered. We have insufficient manuscript remains from [109] Campbell himself. He and Reid were in any case close friends. 1758 coincides with the start of the Aberdeen Philosophical Society but none of the early discourses or questions discussed in that bears on this topic.12 The relevant section of manuscript reads:

      An Argument to prove that the Identity of a person does not consist in Consciousness against Mr Locke by M[r] G Campbel.
      One was flogged at school for breaking an Orchard, he gained a premium13 at College by making a copy of verses and afterwards in a battle takes a Standart from the Enemy. When he gained the premium he remembred distinctly his breaking the Orchard & therefore was the same [identical added] person that broke it. When he took a Standart he remembred distinctly his gaining the præmium & so was the Identical person who gained it but had at that time quite forgot the breaking of the Orchard and so was not the same person that broke it. Yet it is evident from the case that he must be the same Person for the Man that took the Standart is the same with him that gained the premium the man that gained the premium is the same that broke the Orchard therefore the Man that took the Standard is the same that broke the Orchard.
14 [110]

    Sir William Hamilton, who did not know of Reid’s debt to Campbell, stated that a similar argument is found in the Appendix on Locke in Buffier’s Traité des premières véritez (1724).15 This is a mistake. Buffier only mentions perfunctorily Locke’s example of the amnesiac drunkard, dismissing it as a grande bagatelle without addressing the logic of the argument. It is possible that Campbell did, nevertheless, find inspiration elsewhere. Berkeley, whose work was well known in Aberdeen, formulates a related difficulty in Alciphron. His character Alciphron proposes a Lockian distinction between man and person, conceding that ‘some old ideas may be lost, and some new ones got; but a total change is inconsistent with identity’. Euphranor then constructs an example of such a ‘total change’ effected in stages.16

Let us then suppose that a person hath ideas and is conscious during a certain space of time, which we will divide into three equal parts, whereof the later terms are marked by the letters A, B, C. In the first part of time, the person gets a certain number of ideas, which are retained in A: during the second part of time, he retains one half of his old ideas, and loseth the other half, in place of which he acquires as many new ones: so that in B his ideas are half old and half new. And in the third part, we suppose him to lose the remainder of the ideas acquired in the first, and to get new ones in their stead, which are retained in C, together with those acquired in the second part of time. . . . The persons in A and B are the same, being conscious of common ideas by supposition. The person in B is (for the same reason) one and the same with the person in C. Therefore, the person in A is the same with the person in C. . . . But the person in C hath no idea in common with the person in A. Therefore personal identity doth not consist in consciousness. [111]

    In spite of the similarity, Berkeley’s is a more sympathetic reading of Locke than Campbell’s or Reid’s. He is addressing the case of a being who ‘through some violent accident or distemper’ falls into ‘such a total oblivion’ as to lose all consciousness of a previous existence. In such a case it isLocke’s view that the personal identity is lost (II. xxvii. 20, 26). Berkeley’s argument is not made to hang on the recall of isolated incidents. Unlike Campbell and Reid, however, Berkeley’s purpose here is simply defensive: it is to stall over the need to articulate the content of his faith in the divine persons beyond a purely instrumentalist account. When those who are chopping logic over human personal identity have solved their problem, then it will be time enough for the theologians to worry about the nature and distinction of persons in theology.
    If Reid was already interested in the debate over personal identity by the time he published his Inquiry and was already familiar with Campbell’s formulation of the objection to Locke some six years before that publication, why was he silent on it there? There is a simple answer to this. Although the personal identity problem is mentioned in the introductory chapter, it is there simply to illustrate the still embryonic state of the science (‘anatomy’) of mind; it is not relevant to the study of the senses that forms the main subject of the work.
    What we now have, as Reid’s extant Inquiry, is only half of a work originally projected in at least two Books. One leaf of an opening ‘Book 2d Chap I / Of Memory’ survives,17 summarily sketching the opening ideas of what would become a seven-chapter essay (Essay III, ‘Of memory’) in the Intellectual powers. This particular draft never went any further. On the verso it becomes a set of lecture notes for 11-12 December of an unidentified year. These are, however, lectures on memory and allied topics which were to become in due course the topics [112] of Essay III, not all of them yet in their final order. This and the concluding paragraphs of chapter 7 of the Inquiry show that from before the publication of the Inquiry Reid intended to have a study of memory complementing the study of the senses; that this would be developed into an extended exploration of judgement and belief; that he had started to collect materials for this second Book before coming to the decision to publish the material on the senses on its own;18 and that from relatively early on he had decided on an order of presentation which begins with the nature of memory, proceeds from that to the notions that depend upon memory—duration, motion, the past, ‘the belief of our own Continued existence & Identity’, and the role of memory as ‘a principle of Knowledge & belief’. Memory- duration- identity- personal identity: Locke and his dependence on ideas are a constant target here, but it was also important to Reid from an early point to break with Locke’s order of exposition and establish his own, in order to show the intimate connection between topics which Locke had separated.
    Reid’s manuscripts show at least three other discussions of personal identity and of the brave officer. In likely chronological order (and intermediary between the two major publications), they are these.
    First, an extended narrative ‘Of memory’ presents under a single head the separate topics just mentioned—‘memory’, ‘duration’, and ‘identity’—to which Reid will assign separate chapters in the Intellectual powers.19 The last topic in this manuscript [113] is Locke on personal identity and it degenerates into scrappy notes (pp. 19-20). There is a fairly full exposition of the first ‘paradox’ in Locke’s account as it will be repeated in the Intellectual powers. Reid then continues:

      Yet according to Mr Locke that which makes a Man the same person that he was twenty years ago is his being conscious that he is so So that if he loses this Consciousness he is no longer the same Person. The strange Conclusions he draws from this. The same intelligent Being may [make] two or twenty Persons, or two intelligent Beings may make the Same Person. These consequences Mr Locke owns. It follows also that two or twenty or any number you please of intelligent Beings may all exist at one and the same time & be really one and the same person. Nay it will follow that two actions done at different periods of his Life were done by the Same Person & {at} yet were not done by the same Person. The Last consequence illustrated by the Instance of a brave Officer who died in the field in old Age in his first Campain took a Standard and when a boy at School won a Prize.
      Observations on this Strange Theorie
1 Mr Locke mistakes Consciousness for Memory.
2 He makes Identity consist in Memory [which] is onely the Faculty by which we know our Identity.
The improvement which Colins made of this Notion of Mr Locke in his Answer to Dr Clarke’s 3d Defence of his Letter to Mr Dodwell.
Bishop{s} Butlers Essay on personal Identity recommended.

This time the brave officer has ‘died in the field’, and his memories before him—both of his youthful carpocleptism and of his final eminence. Reid was on automatic pilot here, jotting down a familiar anecdote without much care.
    Secondly, we have fragments of Pneumatology lectures from December 1765. Tantalizingly, there is a section in the lecture for 7 December headed ‘Of personal identity’ but left blank.20 The topic follows on from that of duration and a comparison [114] between time and space; then, having exhausted all the topics associated with memory, Reid will move on to imagination.
    Thirdly, there is a manuscript discourse ‘Of common sense’ which includes the following passage:21

How does a man satisfy himself that he is the same identical person, who at such a time was whipped at school? He is conscious of it (to use Locke’s phrase), that is he remembers that he got this very whipping. This is all the evidence he asks and he thinks it absurd to ask any other.

Reid refers to consciousness as something we cannot prove to be trustworthy, and to the foundations of the notion of personal identity in common sense, so this is consistent with his earlier writing. But it is clearer here that Locke’s fault lay not in acknowledging the role of consciousness but in applying it to a wrong question. The ‘strange paradoxes’ in his account arise not from juxtaposing continued and lost memories, but from confusing ‘what constitutes personal identity, and what proves or evidences it’. Reid for once argues that the fallibility of memory is evidence that the identity of the ‘thinking principle’ in us cannot be dependent on it, and that the concept of personal identity has to be antecedent to the memory criterion.
    Unfortunately for Reid, his reductio of Locke is a reductio of Reid’s own counter-position. For the recollection of the childhood [115] flogging is, ex hypothesi, a recollection of something suffered by the ‘I’ that is still the same today.

A part of a person is a manifest absurdity .  .  .  . A person is something indivisible, and is what LEIBNIZ calls a monad.
      My personal identity, therefore, implies the continued existence of that indivisible thing which I call myself. Whatever this self may be, it is something which thinks, and deliberates, and resolves, and acts, and suffers .  .  .  . My thoughts, and actions, and feelings, change every moment; they have no continued, but a successive existence; but that selfor I, to which they belong, is permanent, and has the same relation to all the succeeding thoughts, actions, and feelings, which I call mine.
      .  .  . I remember that twenty years ago I conversed with such a person; I remember several things that passed in that conversation; my memory testifies not only that this was done, but that it was done by me who now remember it: If it was done by me, I must have existed at that time, and continued to exist from that time to the present: If the identical person whom I call myself, had not a part in that conversation, my memory is fallacious; it gives a distinct and positive testimony of what is not true. Every man in his senses believes what he distinctly remembers, and every thing he remembers convinces him that he existed at the time remembered.
      Although memory gives the most irresistible evidence of my being the identical person that did such a thing, at such a time, I may have other good evidence of things which befel me, and which I do not remember: I know who bare me, and suckled me, but I do not remember these events.
(Intellectual powers, pp. 317-18)

    The trouble with all this is that what Reid’s mother bore and suckled was not an indivisible monad; and that what was flogged at school could not have been flogged if there was a ‘manifest absurdity’ in its having bodily parts. The schoolmaster did not flog an immaterial ‘I’. For Reid’s example to be an effective argument against Locke—namely, that it is the same ‘I’ that was flogged and now fails to remember—it must also be effective against Butler and Reid. By taking half his story from Butler and half from Campbell, Reid has ended in incoherence. [116]


*  The editor wishes to thank the author for agreeing to have this article appear on this site. It should be noted that some of the original formatting features have been lost to the present HTML format. Note also that the original page endings are indicated by lightly printed numerals in square brackets, and also that these endnotes were originally footnotes.

1  Thomas Reid, Essays on the intellectual powers of man (Edinburgh 1785), pp. 319-20, from essay III, ch. 4, ‘Of identity’.

2  Ibid., pp. 306-8, from the chapter, ‘Memory an original faculty’; Locke, Essay, II. xxvii. 13. Reid defended the senses on similarly providential principles in An inquiry into the human mind on the principle of common sense (1764), VI. xx. I shall cite from this work in the new edition by D. R. Brookes (Edinburgh 1997).

3  Reid, ibid., p. 332, ‘Of Mr Locke’s account of our personal identity’.

4  Cf. �17. Locke’s accompanying reference to consciousness is not part of the definition, on this reading, but a comment on it.

5  Note that a ‘thinking thing’ or ‘rational Being’ in Locke’s terminology is more than an ‘intelligent Being’: it is intelligent being that has consciousness (�� 9, 10, 17, 18, 20, 22, 23, 24, 25)—so it, too, may have bodily parts, parts that at any given time it is conscious of as parts of ‘it self’ (�� 11, 17, 18, 24, 25).
      But Locke also has a second, distinct usage, closer to Reid’s, according to which a ‘thinking thing’ is a putative substance in us that is the thought-carrier (��10, 12, 13, 14, 23, 27). He disagrees with Reid in at least countenancing the (counterfactual, as he supposes) possibility that this too could have parts.

6  Joseph Butler, Dissertation I, ‘0f personal identity’, appended to The analogy of religion, natural and revealed, to the constitution and course of nature, 2nd edn (London 1736).

7  Intellectual powers, pp. 333-4, ‘Of Mr Locke’s account of our personal identity’. Almost the same wording is found in a manuscript draft of this chapter, except that the references are to ‘whipping’ instead of ‘flogging’ (Aberdeen University Library, MS 2131/8/II/11). The example highlights a potential problem. For Locke, Person is ‘a Forensick Term appropriating Actions and their Merit; and so belongs only to intelligent Agents capable of a Law, and Happiness and Misery’. The characteristic of being such an agent Locke call ‘personality’, and the happiness and misery that he particularly has in view consists in ‘Pleasure or Pain; i. e. Reward or Punishment, on the account of any such Action’ (Essay, II, xxvii. 26). Reid must have accepted this, since he uses the rights and liabilities of the ‘person’ as an argument against the view that bodily parts are parts of the person (Intellectual powers, pp. 317, 321), If, however, we modify his story, to suit the case that this youthful robber had never been apprehended, would Reid use the memory sequence to justify flogging the general now for an offence of which he had now no recollection? If not, then one might think Locke had a point. (Cf. [Edmund Law], A defence of Mr Locke’s opinion concerning personal identity(1769).)

8  This may he less a mistake on Locke’s part than a sign that the meaning of ‘consciousness’ had stabilized by Reid’s time. Locke’s usage caused no difficulty for Clark or Butler. But a shift had started with Anthony Collins, who argued that there is no is no sameness of consciousness over succeeding moments. Reid followed Collins in this usage, while rejecting Collins’s inference that there is no continuing identity to the person whose consciousness is changing. A reference in his manuscripts, recorded below, show that Reid knew the Clarke-Collins debate.

9  Reid, Inquiry, I, iii, cf. vii; Henry Home, later Lord Kames, Essays on the principles of morality and natural religion(1751), pp. 231-6.

10  Reid is wrong, of course, to suppose that Locke is following out a Cartesian programme (and there is some room for doubt how far Descartes was). See Essay, IV. ix. 3: ‘As for our own Existence, we perceive it so plainly, and so certainly, that it neither needs, nor is capable of any proof’ (cf. IV. ii. 14).

11  Locke never disputes that consciousness is discontinuous, not just through sleep, but ‘being interrupted always by forgetfulness’ and ‘the Mind many times recovers the memory of a past consciousness, which it had lost for twenty Years together’ (II. xxvii. 10, 23). How far this affects one’s ‘personal identity’ is a question of how far it affects issues of merit and responsibility.

12 See H. L. Ulman (ed.), The minutes of the Aberdeen Philosophical Society 1758- 1773(Aberdeen 1990). Reid and Campbell were already friends when Reid was a country minister at New Machar, so it is of interest that there is an early (1748) manuscript from this period (MS 2131/6/1/18, fos 1-2; Brookes, pp. 316-18). This does not deal directly with the problem of personal identity. But it shows Rend already fretting over ideas of the self that (as far as we can see) are coming out of Locke, Berkeley, Butler, and Hume; and already fairly sure that it is ‘one of the most natural & original principles that we continue the same individual unchanged [Self added] in all the changes vicissitudes and varietys of thought & perception’. This and subsequent quations from the Reid manuscripts are reproduced by the kind permission of the Keeper of Special Collections, Aberdeen University Library.

13  Prize

14  MS 2131/6/III/5, fo. 2r. The passage occurs between remarks on Hume’s account of impressions and ideas and a continuation of a discussion from elsewhere on external existence. It was first publicly identified (perhaps) in a talk by J. C. Stewart-Robertson in 1985. It is cited by Brookes, p. 221, as are the adjoining pages, at separate locations; but nothing is made of it.

15  The works of Thomas Reid, D.D., ed. W. Hamilton, 8th edn (Edinburgh 1895; repr. Hildesheim 1967), vol. 1, p. 351.

16  George Berkeley, Alciphron, VII. viii; in Works, ed. Luce and Jessop (Edinburgh 1950), vol. 3, p. 299. The resemblance to the Reidian argument is noted by A. Flew, ‘Locke and the problem of personal identity’, Philosophy 26 (1951), 53-68, at p. 57, and by M. R. Ayers, Locke (London 1991), vol. 2, p. 271.

17  MS 2131/1/I/2; Brookes, p. 234.

18  As a result of Reid’s presentations to the Aberdeen Philosophical Society between 1758 and 1763 (see Ulman, op. cit.) his papers on topics relating to the senses were in more nearly publishable shape than the rest.

19  ‘Of memory’: MS 2131/2/III/5. This is one of a pair of narratives that Reid himself characterizes as ‘discourses’—on Memory and on Imagination—which match the topics of ‘discourses’ that he delivered to the Literary Society of Glasgow on 15 March 1765 and 21 February 1766 respectively. See transcribed minutes: Glasgow University Library, MS Murray 505.

20  MS 2131 /4/II/7, fo.1.

21  MS 2131/2/III/7. Reid endorsed the first page in the top right corner with the comment ‘Curâ primâ’, which is not part of the heading. A modernized transcription of Reid’s MS by D. F. Norton has been published as an appendix to L. Marcil-Lacoste, Claude Buffier and Thomas Reid (Montreal1982). Prof. Norton conjectures from internal evidence that some version of the same paper constituted the first of the two discourses on ‘Common Sense’ that Reid read to the Literary Society of Glasgow on 10 Feb. 1769 and 9 Feb. 1770. This is consistent with the watermark evidence. He also suggests it is the first in a three-part sequence that bifurcates after the second paper, with alternative sequels. That is a different hypothesis. There is no record of a third presentation on the subject to the Literary Society, but these papers could have been assimilated into Reid’s lecture ‘discourses’.

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