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John Locke and the "Essay Concerning Human Understanding"

  • Date Submitted: 08/17/2011 10:28 PM
  • Flesch-Kincaid Score: 60.6 
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In essay II of his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” John Locke provides his account of what makes a “man” the same man over time. Locke reasons that a man continues to be the same one man as long as he partakes in the same one life and the continuity of this one life over time is given by a continuity of organization. Locke also asserts that this is also true for other living entities such as plants and animals.
Firstly, Locke gives a distinction between an oak tree and a mass of matter. He says that in a mass of matter the organization is only a cohesion of particles of matter how ever they are connected. However, in an oak tree the particles of matter are distributed in a specific way that creates for a self-sustaining entity. That is, in an oak tree, the particles are arranged in such a way to create a life form that can extract nourishment from the earth, and produce leaves and bark etc. thereby perpetuating its own life. Locke then goes on to explain what makes something the same thing over time. In the case of living things, such as oak trees, the element that is important to show their continued existence, as the same entity through time, is the continuation of life. Although the oak tree changes constantly, it is still the same tree because it partakes in the same one life.
The same is true of animals: they are a single organization continuous over time. In this regard, animals are like machines. However, what makes them different is that an animal’s motivating force comes from within. In other words, the identity of animals consists in the same participation of matter in one common life. This, he says, is not unlike the case of a watch or a machine in general—the organization of matter is paramount. The difference is that in the case of living things, the source of change and growth is internal. This concept, according to Locke, applies to humans as well. It is the participation of a common life or the continuing of the same one life that makes...


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