Locke on the ontology of persons

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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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)97-123
Number of pages27
JournalSouthern Journal of Philosophy
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1 2015
Externally publishedYes


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