Locke on the Ontology of Persons

Southern Journal of Philosophy 53 (1):97-123 (2015)


The importance of John Locke's discussion of persons is undeniable. Locke never explicitly tells us whether he thinks persons are substances or modes, however. We are thus left in the dark about a fundamental aspect of Locke's view. Many commentators have recently claimed that Lockean persons are modes. In this paper I swim against the current tide in the secondary literature and argue that Lockean persons are substances. Specifically I argue that what Locke says about substance, power, and agency commits him to the claim that persons are substances. I consider the passages mode interpreters cite and show why these passages do not imply that Lockean persons are modes. I also respond to two objections anyone who thinks Lockean persons are substances must address. I show that a substance reading of Locke on persons can be sympathetic and viable. I contend that with a clearer understanding of the ontological status of Lockean persons we can gain a firmer grasp of what Locke's picture of persons looks like. Finally, once we are armed with a better understanding of Locke on substance, mode, and personhood, we can pave the way toward a more nuanced description of the early modern debate over personal identity

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Jessica Gordon-Roth
University of Minnesota

Citations of this work

Locke on Persons and Personal Identity.Ruth Boeker - 2021 - Oxford: Oxford University Press.
The Animal, the Corpse, and the Remnant-Person.Andrea Sauchelli - 2017 - Philosophical Studies 174 (1):205–218.
Locke on Persons and Other Kinds of Substances.Matthew A. Leisinger - 2019 - Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 100 (1):129-155.
Madness as Method: On Locke’s Thought Experiments About Personal Identity.Kathryn Tabb - 2018 - British Journal for the History of Philosophy 26 (5):871-889.

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