How a person perceives themselves significantly influences their choices, defines happiness, and applies to all spheres of life. Socrates, Saint Augustine, René Descartes, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, Sigmund Freud, and modern thinkers explored the definition of self from consciousness, spiritual, physical, and psychological perspectives (Chaffee 91). These famous thinkers lived at different historical periods, had diverse values, and developed unique theories about the nature of the human self aligning with their philosophies. This paper aims to compare René Descartes’ and John Locke’s perceptions of the “self.”
Descartes and Locke represent Western philosophy of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries – the period when Europe moved from a religious worldview to the humanistic, person-centered one. Consequently, their theories about the aspects of self-perception had similarities, yet their approaches to exploring how people identify themselves were different. For instance, Descartes prioritized reasoning ability: doubting, thinking, and questioning every occasion of life, and, based on the obtained knowledge, develop self-awareness (Chaffee 109). In contrast, Locke identified consciousness through sensory experiences, making the “self” the primary source of comprehension.
Both philosophers had similar opinions regarding the changing nature of the “self” and supported the notion that one person can expand their self-awareness throughout the lifespan. According to Descartes, continuous seeking for the truth is the path to consciousness that leads individuals to develop their “self” (Hamou 126). Similarly, Locke defined a person as a “thinking intelligent Being, that has reason and reflection,” and functioning of these characteristics leads to establishing and expanding identity (Boeker 413). Descartes described the concept of oneself through the dualism of body and mind, as these components are interconnected, and together they create a human being (Urban 235). Locke, on the opposite, considered the physical aspect as a part of consciousness that does not influence the perception of the “self.” The nature of the disagreement between the two philosophers is based on their understanding of consciousness.
Perception of the “self” is the fundamental aspect of philosophy, and most thinkers of all historical periods explored this question. Locke and Descartes represent the Western school of the humanistic period, yet their understanding of personal identity has distinctions. Indeed, how they define consciousness influenced their exploration of the “self” and revealed that awareness and physical factors could be interpreted differently in terms of self-perception.
Boeker, Ruth. “Locke on Personal Identity: a Response to the Problems of his Predecessors.” Journal of the History of Philosophy, vol. 55, no. 3, 2017, pp. 407-434.
Chaffee, John. The Philosophers Way. 5th ed., Pearson, 2016.
Hamou, Philippe. “Locke and Descartes on Selves and Thinking Substances.” Locke and Cartesian Philosophy, edited by Philippe Hamou and Martine Pécharman, Oxford University Press, 2018, pp. 121-143.
Urban, Elizabeth. “On Matters of Mind and Body: Regarding Descartes.” Journal of Analytical Psychology, vol. 63, no. 2, 2018, pp. 228-240.