So what does? How is the personal life identified?
This is an agitated question, and it is expressed in an agitated text. Locke, normally so normal-mouthed, makes a pre-Voltarian move in the midst of this chapter by including the story of the rational parrot. Nothing prepares us for this story – the movement of the text has been straightforwardly argumentative until we suddenly receive an anecdote that takes up its own section, concerning a parrot who, according to a high and credible source, apparently spoke with understanding. The purpose of the rational parrot is, in a way, to parody – parroty – Descartes’ vision of the rational difference. Locke hopes to loosen our sense of rationality as the key to personal identity, because he wants something that loops through the conscious and the unconscious. He does not want his waking Socrates to be different from his sleeping Socrates. He faces this problem in a different spirit than Chuang Tzu:“Once Chuang Chou dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn't know he was Chuang Chou. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Chuang Chou. But he didn't know if he was Chuang Chou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Chou. Between Chuang Chou and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things.”
Instead of the transformation of things, Locke is looking for the thread upon which things can be transformed. And yet, like Chuang Tzu and the butterfly, as he does so, he keeps pressing against an infinite regress - not of butterflies and humans, but within his notion of the human:
“…to find wherein personal identity consists, we must consider what person stands for; -- which, I think, is 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. Thus it is always as to our present sensations and perceptions: and by this every one is to himself that which he calls self: -- it not being considered, in this case, whether the same self be continued in the same or divers substances.”
The game is afoot with the phrase: “it is impossible for any one to perceive without perceiving that he does perceive…” Because that second order perception must, then, be perceived by a third order one, and so on. How long does this infinite series of acts last? How long does Chuang Tzu dream he is a butterfly? It seems, here, that personal identity is threatening our hard won sense of the identity of the body, in as much as the person in the body-person act seems to exist in a time that is not coordinate with the “same time, same place” time of the body – it seems, rather, to exist infinitely and instantly at the same time.
But Locke does not choose to pursue these complications. Rather, he chooses to face the Transformation of Things with a different problem: that of the interruptions of forgetting and sleep. Sleep of course poses some problems for Locke’s notion of consciousness: do we perceive we are asleep when we are asleep? And do we perceive that we perceive it? Certainly we build around our sleep, we fall asleep, we say, I was asleep. But Locke approaches the interruption of consciousness from a different angle than sleep – a more difficult state to claim: that of forgetting. We forget. We don’t, here, even know that we forgot. Until we are reminded, somehow. Unlike sleep, forgetting has less certain rituals associated with it. Locke wants to circumscribe the question posed by forgetting to personal identity to one having to do with identifying the person with substance, or identifying the person with consciousness. The latter is Locke’s choice. This is how he deals with the problems it poses:
“But it is further inquired, whether it be the same identical substance. This few would think they had reason to doubt of, if these perceptions, with their consciousness, always remained present in the mind, whereby the same thinking thing would be always consciously present, and, as would be thought, evidently the same to itself. But that which seems to make the difficulty is this, that this consciousness being interrupted always by forgetfulness, there being no moment of our lives wherein we have the whole train of all our past actions before our eyes in one view, but even the best memories losing the sight of one part whilst they are viewing another; and we sometimes, and that the greatest part of our lives, not reflecting on our past selves, being intent on our present thoughts, and in sound sleep having no thoughts at all, or at least none with that consciousness which remarks our waking thoughts, -- I say, in all these cases, our consciousness being interrupted, and we losing the sight of our past selves, doubts are raised whether we are the same thinking thing, i.e., the same substance or no.”
That we are always forgetting intrudes a startling psychological fact on the human scene: what are we always forgetting? We are always forgetting most things. The perception of our perception of perception; the knowing of the knowing of our knowing; the past; where the ball rolled under the sofa when we were three; being three; being fifteen; yesterday; what happened half an hour ago. Yet this list of what we are forgetting makes sense only if we are forgetting it. We, in a sense, own this forgetting. It is a fact of our consciousness. What is important to Locke is that the question of whether we are of the same substance is not pertinent to the matter of that thread which winds through our repeated, our perpetual disappearing acts:
“The question being what makes the same person; and not whether it be the same identical substance, which always thinks in the same person, which, in this case, matters not at all: different substances, by the same consciousness (where they do partake in it) being united into one person, as well as different bodies by the same life are united into one animal, whose identity is preserved in that change of substances by the unity of one continued life. For, it being the same consciousness that makes a man be himself to himself, personal identity depends on that only, whether it be annexed solely to one individual substance, or can be continued in a succession of several substances.”