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Experience and identity of the self

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Abstract

The idea of consciousness, as subjective awareness of the self and of its mental contents, appeared in European culture only in the late 17th century as resulting from a relatively rapid process of conceptual development, which had started in the framework of the post-Cartesian culture. It was rooted in the ancient idea of moral conscience insofar it requested as a condition the existence of a subjective interiority within which any mental content could be objectified and reflected. In addition, a new model of mind was necessary as well as a general concept under which mental contents of any sort could be included. Cartesian philosophy, by assuming that thought and mind were co-extensive, met these requirements. When investigating on personal identity, J. Locke for the first time defined consciousness in modern terms and focused on it as closely linked to the idea of the self. His philosophy of mind was largely influenced by the Cartesian paradigm (and in particular by the assumption that thinking is always a conscious mental operation), although he avoided any metaphysical commitment. In this way, Locke safeguarded personal identity from the turbulences of theological disputes and paved the road to psychology as an empirical discipline. Leibniz on the contrary grounded consciousness on an immaterial substance, the monad, but gave it an intentional relationship with the external world that was alien to Descartes’ as well as to Locke’s philosophy of mind. Moreover, he viewed consciousness as a phenomenon of the self, a reality in itself largely unconscious. Keywords: consciousness; conscience; self; personal identity; mind

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