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Exploration of the Concept of the Enduring Self

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The concept of the “Enduring Self” has been discussed variously with intellectual efforts seeking to explore the real existence of this idea or concept. Various scholars have therefore explored the idea of the “Enduring Self” from different perspectives. Most of these approaches have tended to take the approach of the philosophical and religious perspectives. This paper seeks to discuss the concept of “The Enduring Self” drawing from the contentions of various scholars such John Locke, Aristotle, Hume and Descartes. The paper will attempt to draw a comparison between the basic ideas that are advanced by every scholar in relation to the concept of the enduring self.

John Locke and the Concept of the Enduring Self

According to John Locke, the enduring self is that aspect of the self that remains stable across time and space. The enduring self thus makes one person uniquely distinct from another. John Locke identified the self that is stable with a conscious thinking thing. Locke makes it clear that the kind of substance that the self, spiritual or material, simple or compound, does not matter. To Locke, the consciousness that people have of themselves as the enduring self is paramount in understanding the concept of the enduring self (Velasquez, 2011). The enduring self to Locke is therefore the consciousness that is dependent on the memories that one has now relative to the past.

Locke builds an understanding of the enduring self based on the memory criterion. The enduring self does not coincide with the circumstances and experiences for the physical or bodily identity. Rather it is that aspect of human life that is guided by memories and conciseness that is not in any way based on the external factors, whether physiological or biological. Instead, the enduring self is the inward awareness that a person has a conscious being with inherent and innate ability to endure across time. In the words of Locke, the enduring self is that aspect of the self that is “concerned for itself as far as that consciousness extends” (Cottingham, 2002).

The enduring nature of the self in the contentions of Locke is founded in the internal connectedness of consciousness. It is kept stable across time through memory processes, that is, the “memory of the experiences that we have across time and space” (Velasquez, 2011). The continuity of consciousness is thus the factor to be considered in the analysis of the enduring nature of the self across time and space. The enduring self is thus the inherent nature of an individual to display the same personality traits because of the stable consciousness of the memory of our experiences.

Aristotle and the Concept of the Enduring Self

Aristotle’s conceptualization of the idea of the enduring self overlaps with that of Locke albeit, to a small extent. In his postulations, the enduring self is that aspect of our personality that tends to be stable especially as guided by moral reasoning and rational ability of an individual. Aristotle argues that our personalities may be enduring because of the need to maintain the principle of rationality at all times. This rationality is caused by reasoning that results from exposure of an individual to the rational society. Thus, Aristotle’s philosophy on the enduring self tends to concur with Locke who emphasized underlying consciousness and memories. This consciousness could encompass the internal awareness of the norms and values that people rationally relate to. This second part is the perspective that Aristotle advances.

Aristotle’s philosophy of the self was biased towards the understanding of the self in terms of the soul. In understanding the enduring self, Aristotle posits that the stable part of the self that makes one distinct from another is hidden in the soul. To some extent this is similar to the postulations of Descartes (Velasquez, 2011). The rationality of human beings is contained in the soul and it is this part of us that remains stable. Although the soul has four sections comprising the calculative, scientific, and desiderative and the rational component, Aristotle explained that the enduring self remains stable because of the stability of the human soul that is responsible for rational behavior across time and space. The level of rationality may increase but the self remains generally unchanged across time and space.

Hume and the Concept of the Enduring Self

David Hume’s exploration of the concept of the enduring self was significantly aloof. Hume starts his debate from the theoretical standing point that the concept of the enduring self is an ambiguous concept existing only in conceptualization but not in essence. Velasquez (2011) observed that enduring self therefore is non-existent according to David Hume. He contends that the existence of the self implies there exists something stable and enduring. However, Hume disagrees with Locke, Aristotle and Descartes that people have the enduring part of the self (Spada, 2002). He indicates that nothing is stable and constant, not even the memories, the soul or thoughts.

To Hume, the concept of the self in the first instance is non-existent. In fact, Hume categorically states that “the idea of the self is nothing but simply a philosophical fiction” (Velasquez, 2011). Hume contends that we are self-conscious beings that are only aware of the dynamic nature of our thoughts, perceptions and innate feelings. This implies, according to Hume, that the concept of the enduring self does not exist because we lack the impression of the self or thinking substance within us. Kant tended to concur with Hume’s philosophy when he added that “identity is not located in a person’s self-consciousness” (Velasquez, 2011). The enduring self according to these philosophers is thus not an object of personal experience across time and space as Locke and his allies postulated. Rather our perceptions and feelings are more transcendental.

The philosophical contention of David Hume with respect to the nature of the self is founded on deep belief that self is in a constant state of flux (Cottingham, 2002). This constant flux gives no room for the development of an enduring self. Hume thus insists that no human impression can be long enduring. The human self therefore keeps on changing from one moment to the next. The experiences that a person has across life and in a variety of environments weaken the enduring personalities, perceptions and attitudes. Velasquez (2011) cited that the self is vulnerable to invasion by feelings, perceptions and experiences in the course of life. Hume refutes Locke’s ideas on the concept of enduring self which was based on the consciousness and memories. Spada (2002) observes that Hume differs with this view and posits that much of what people experience is forgotten and human memory, which is claimed to be stable and leads to enduring self according Locke and his supporters, is not always accurate.

Descartes and the Concept of the Enduring Self

The ideas of Rene Descartes on the enduring self are more reflective of the contentions of Aristotle, although Aristotle’s philosophy followed the works of Descartes. Like Aristotle, Descartes perceived the soul as the enduring self. The real self is that part of the individual that is inherently internal. This part does not change with perceptions and feelings as Hume contended. Descartes argues that the self is uniquely individual and remains stable. The inner qualities of a person are independent of other people or the environment. It is thus not subject to change whether with others or when one is independent.  According to Descartes, the self is a “thinking thing” and if one ceases to think then the self ceases to be (Green & Walker, 2010). 

Descartes claimed that the thinking mind or soul is the part of the self that is enduring across time and space. Therefore as long as the soul remains, the enduring part of the self persists and not subject to change. Descartes thus opposes the arguments advanced by Hume that the self is non-existent. If the self is non-existent then the ability to think, which is hidden in the mind/soul, is also a fiction. Human beings have the ability to think and make decisions that are independent and based on individual reasoning and thinking that is not held hostage by any external forces. The self is thus enduring and is the guiding force that influences perceptions, feelings, behaviors and attitudes. The environment and change in time may function only to sharpen the thinking self but does not render it extinct. This explains why the thinking of an adult is different from that of an infant. But the underlying consideration is the postulation of Descartes that the self is stable in terms of thinking based on the processes of the mind/soul.


Most philosophers have conceded that the enduring self is existent and explains why people are different from one another and why people rarely change. There may be differences in the approach like Locke emphasizes the experiences and consciousness; Aristotle emphasizes rationality while Descartes explained enduring self in terms of the mind/soul. The contention of Hume that there is nothing constant is sensible. However,   the fact that the self is subject to change does not imply that the enduring self is totally non-existent. Every individual has inherent unique aspect of the self that does not change and not influenced by external factors. 

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