An Essay Concerning Human Understanding By John Locke Book II: Of Ideas, Chapters 12-33

29. Suppositions that look strange are pardonable in our ignorance.

I am apt enough to think I have, in treating of this subject, made some suppositions that will look strange to some readers, and possibly they are so in themselves. But yet, I think they are such as are pardonable, in this ignorance we are in of the nature of that thinking thing that is in us, and which we look on as OURSELVES. Did we know what it was; or how it was tied to a certain system of fleeting animal spirits; or whether it could or could not perform its operations of thinking and memory out of a body organized as ours is; and whether it has pleased God that no one such spirit shall ever be united to any but one such body, upon the right constitution of whose organs its memory should depend; we might see the absurdity of some of those suppositions I have made. But taking, as we ordinarily now do (in the dark concerning these matters,) the soul of a man for an immaterial substance, independent from matter, and indifferent alike to it all; there can, from the nature of things, be no absurdity at all to suppose that the same SOUL may at different times be united to different BODIES, and with them make up for that time one MAN: as well as we suppose a part of a sheep's body yesterday should be a part of a man's body to-morrow, and in that union make a vital part of Meliboeus himself, as well as it did of his ram.

30. The Difficulty from ill Use of Names.

To conclude: Whatever substance begins to exist, it must, during its existence, necessarily be the same: whatever compositions of substances begin to exist, during the union of those substances, the concrete must be the same: whatsoever mode begins to exist, during its existence it is the same: and so if the composition be of distinct substances and different modes, the same rule holds. Whereby it will appear, that the difficulty or obscurity that has been about this matter rather rises from the names ill-used, than from any obscurity in things themselves. For whatever makes the specific idea to which the name is applied, if that idea be steadily kept to, the distinction of anything into the same and divers will easily be conceived, and there can arise no doubt about it.

31. Continuance of that which we have made to be our complex idea of man makes the same man.

For, supposing a rational spirit be the idea of a MAN, it is easy to know what is the same man, viz. the same spirit — whether separate or in a body — will be the SAME MAN. Supposing a rational spirit vitally united to a body of a certain conformation of parts to make a man; whilst that rational spirit, with that vital conformation of parts, though continued in a fleeting successive body, remains, it will be the SAME MAN. But if to any one the idea of a man be but the vital union of parts in a certain shape; as long as that vital union and shape remain in a concrete, no otherwise the same but by a continued succession of fleeting particles, it will be the SAME MAN. For, whatever be the composition whereof the complex idea is made, whenever existence makes it one particular thing under any denomination, THE SAME EXISTENCE CONTINUED preserves it the SAME individual under the same denomination.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

According to Locke, why can't ideas be present in a soul before it is united with a body?