Personal Identity: The Psychological Versus Physical Criterion

Personal Identity: The Psychological Versus Physical Criterion

Concerned with how people develop and evolve throughout their lives, the phrase “Personal Identity” is an essential concept in the field of philosophy. While there are several explanations and views concerning how personal identity as a philosophical concept should be constructed and interpreted; the psychological and physical (bodily) criteria are the two main convincing explanations so far. Concerning the debate on the best way to approach the concept of personal identity, this paper seeks to explain why the psychological view as opposed to bodily criterion, provides a more compelling explanation to the issue.

Locke’s psychological account of personal identity, as opposed to the physical view, is more logical in many ways. According to Locke (1975), identity should be constructed from the point of self-awareness where consciousness is inseparable from cognitive abilities. In this regard, a person’s ability to understand their current state, where they have come from and where possibly they want to constitute personal identity. In other words, the character of a person is limited to the extent they can remember about their past. What has been erased from the memory or is deemed undesirable by an individual who decides to purposely ignore certain things about them they did in the past does not constitute part of a person’s identity. To this effect, a person’s character is limited to the extent of one’s consciousness. Therefore, Locke’s answer to our questions about identity or rather “persistence through time of a person” is directly linked to the extent to which a person’s consciousness and cognitive ability can travel back at a point in time one did a particular actor thought (Locke, 1975).

The attractiveness of the psychological as opposed to the bodily criterion as an explanation of the concept of personal identity is based on the survival test. According to the survival test, there is a possibility of an individual surviving if the brain is transplanted to another individual or body. The fact that everything about an individual, memory, and consciousness is stored in the mind means that a person can survive to post their bodies (Locke, 1975). If a brain of person A is transferred to a person B, the identity of the person A will continue to exist while person B’s identity will cease to exist due to inability to recall who they are minus their brains which carry their consciousness.

According to Locke’s “consciousness extending backward” argument, an individual is identical to a person they remember doing a particular act in the past. In other words, as long as we keep on recalling what we did in the past, then we cannot entirely disassociate ourselves from such identity. However, this explanation is plausible in the sense that people are not built on memories alone but on many other aspects that we cannot recall but in a way helped shape our current personal identity (Reid, 1975).

The key concerns about the psychological continuity explanation on personal identity included what it means for a “person” to be identical through time. In a way, the statement that a person’s identity exists only to the extent that one can remember back in time is not convincing enough. Specifically, the linking of personal identity to consciousness which is subjected to interruptions and forgetfulness, particularly from sleep and when an individual is under duress profoundly affects the applicability of the psychological explanation to personal identity (Reid, 1975). In most cases, we spend most of our time living in the present without necessarily looking to our past lives. The above concerns highly punch holes into admissibility of Locke’s psychological continuity explanation to personal identity.




Locke, J. (1975). Of identity and diversity.

Reid, T. (1975). Of Mr. Locke’s Account of Personal Identity’. From Perry, John Personal