Locke gets the conversation going with the notion that the self is constituted with memory and consciousness. If we accept that memory is consciousness, this brings in the philosophical point that cognitive thinking is closely linked to memory. To be a conscious person is also to remember.
With Voltaire’s comments on identity, we mostly find a question of retributive punishment, and how we are held accountable for things we remember or forget. Surely his idea that the self is like an ever-changing river is something to consider given the changes we undergo in a lifetime are significant. As we mentioned, this is a problem of personal identity because if we cannot remember a crime, can you be punished for that crime (in this lifetime or the next)? Voltaire offers the slightly confusing example of a father who blames the Euphrates for drowning his son Xerxes. The river would reply that the waves responsible are far away and no longer to be blamed. Here we have the problem of responsibility that is similar to the problem we have today with people who commit crimes. People continue to pay the price for their past crimes long after the penalty has been met.
Yet once I write this down, I see the difference. With Voltaire, he’s seems to be critiquing Locke’s claim that personal identity is closely linked to memory, while simultaneously refuting the notion that a immaterial soul should be responsible for the sins of its body. With our example above, people have a hard time getting away from their past because they are required to ‘remember’ their past when filling out job applications and the like. Our problem is different than Voltaire’s in respect to memory. Voltaire wants to detach from this idea that we are our memories, and how does an immaterial soul hold responsibility for the sins of its former body? His two difficulties stay unresolved in this excerpt. It is implied that these notions are problematic and deserve adequate scrutiny. In light of our contemporary problem of responsibility, we do not want people to forget their past as an extension of their public identity.
Then going back to Hume, we must be clear to see that he was denying an identifiable self. For Hume the way we think is due to impressions of things as they appear to us via our perceptions—he is an empiricist. His empiricism is far more stringent than Locke’s with a heavy dose of skepticism. If the impressions we have of the world are looked at in any given moment, we cannot pull a self out of those impressions. For Hume there is not a self that coheres through each impression. This does not feel right for us though, we do have a sense of ourselves as cohering through all of the impressions we have from day to day. We, at the very least, have to account for the ‘bundle of impressions’ with have that persist through space and time are what constitute something we call a self.
Then we have to have some account of the body which is where Reid comes in indirectly. He doesn’t exactly state that the body is what constitutes the self—Reid places the self on existence. If it is not memory as Locke proposed, it must be based on a continued existence through time for Reid. Reid is also critical of Hume with regard to the self as not determinable from the ‘bundle of impressions’, whereby we can see that at the very least the self must be an accumulation of these impressions as moving somewhat beyond the impression themselves. There are other mechanisms of thought involved in the thinking of an individual person—namely reason, the appetites, space and time. No, we might not be a ‘bundle of impressions’ according to Hume, Reid expands the self to include more.