Monday, July 06, 2015

Making up for an omission

John Locke made the idea of consciousness the heart of his theory of man. He was the first who developed a thorough theory of consciousness. That’s why I called him the father of consciousness theories in my last blog, although he didn’t invent the concept. Many theories of consciousness followed since then. Some such theories, which often refer explicitly to Locke, discuss the question what a person is, since Locke was also the first philosopher who defined the concept of person. I, too, have written about this subject, in blogs and in articles. What I never did, however, was quoting Locke’s definition of “person”. I don’t know why not. Maybe it was because in my writings I referred mainly to the present discussion on the theme and I referred to Locke only by way of background information. However, in view of my present blogs I think that it is a good idea to make up for my omission here, just because Locke’s definition shows so well how important the idea of consciousness is in his approach. So here he goes: A person is, so Locke,
a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places; which it does only by that consciousness which is inseparable from thinking, and, as it seems to me, essential to it: it being impossible for any one to perceive without perceiving that he does perceive. When we see, hear, smell, taste, feel, meditate, or will anything, we know that we do so. ... since consciousness always accompanies thinking, and it is that which makes every one to be what he calls self, and thereby distinguishes himself from all other thinking things, in this alone consists personal identity, i.e. the sameness of a rational being: and as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person; it is the same self now it was then; and it is by the same self with this present one that now reflects on it, that that action was done.” (from ch. XXVII “Of Identity and Diversity” in John Locke An Essay concerning Human Understanding:
I have quoted a bit more than only the definition of “person” for showing how important “consciousness” for Locke is. Since it is an inner perception, as we have seen in my last blog, consciousness in Locke’s sense is especially self-consciousness.
Here I shall not examine how progressive the centrality of the idea of consciousness in Locke’s philosophy was in his days. I think that it led to many steps forward in philosophy and science. But viewed from the present, it made also that some actually important aspects of what a person is were considered irrelevant. In making the mind the core of the idea of a person the importance of the body is refuted. Elsewhere (also in my blogs) I have shown why this is not correct. Moreover, by stressing that the span of identity of a certain person is related to what this person is aware of back from the present to the past the importance of unconscious processes for what makes up a person is taken no attention of. But also what happens unconsciously within a person makes up his or her personality for a part. It is even so that we often consciously push some of our possible reactions to the unconscious inner space, where it is then present as if it were in a storage room: We call such an activity learning or training. And isn’t it so that we often keep a person responsible for what s/he unconsciously did or, which are marginal cases, what s/he did in an automatic reaction or in an inattentive way? One can be held responsible for a deed just because one let run what one in an unconscious – so “automatic” – reaction did.
Be it as it is, with his definition of “person” Locke put on a discussion that lasted for centuries and that still hasn’t ended. That’s the merit of his definition: Without a lead of departure, there is nothing to discuss about and nothing to investigate. Locke gives us such a lead, in an intelligent way, that still inspires a lot of people to think.

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