Wheaton alumna returns to give philosophy talk on Locke and personal identity

How did philosopher John Locke conceptualize personal identity and why has his ideas fueled so much debate? This was the topic under discussion on the evening of Oct. 1 with Professor Jessica Gordon-Roth ’03 from the City University of New York. In her talk “Locke on the Identity of Persons and Substances: A Textual Puzzle”, Professor Gordon-Roth explored Locke’s theories on the definition of persons, criticisms of his arguments, and her own insights into Locke’s views.

Gordon-Roth’s presentation was mainly geared towards those familiar with Locke and his philosophical arguments. Among those in the audience were students either majoring in or currently taking classes within the philosophy department. Jacob Krijt ’16 said Professor Partridge, who teaches the Ancient Greek Philosophy course, encouraged his class to attend the lecture. Also in attendance were Wheaton’s philosophy Professors Kendrick and Mathis.

John Locke is a famous British philosopher from the 1600s. In his “Essays on Human Understanding”, he theorizes what makes a person the same over time. According to Locke, personal identity lies within consciousness. However, critics have noted inconsistencies and contradictions in his arguments, such as Locke’s claim that identity can exist outside of an immaterial substance such as the mind. As evident from Gordon-Roth’s lecture, Locke is still a highly studied and relevant philosopher in the 21st century. Locke’s discussion on personal identity has applications to modern society including questions regarding Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, and the debate around abortion.

Gordon-Roth is an associate professor of philosophy at Lehman College and an alumna of Wheaton. She graduated from Wheaton in 2003 with a degree in philosophy, and completed an honors thesis titled “HIV/AIDS in the World: A Test of Western Ethics.” She received her Masters and Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Illinois Chicago. Her area of specialization is the history of early modern philosophy and her current research focuses on the concepts of “modes” and “substances” in the debate on personal identity. Gordon-Roth’s interest in Locke stems from her dissertation, and her presentation at Wheaton reflected her research on Locke’s writings.

Following the presentation, students were invited to join Gordon-Roth and faculty from the philosophy department in the faculty dining hall for dinner. The discussion about Locke and personal identity continued as students asked further questions. Gordon-Roth also shared her experiences after graduating from Wheaton and continuing her education.

Gordon-Roth’s talk was part of the philosophy department’s annual lecture series that invites scholars to Wheaton to present issues that are relevant and interesting to current students.

“We were particularly pleased to be able to invite Prof. Gordon-Roth this year, since she is an alumna of Wheaton philosophy department,” said Professor Kendrick. Locke is frequently taught in Wheaton courses, so her work is relevant to what students have been learning in class.

The event was sponsored by the Philosophy Department and Phi Beta Kappa chapter at Wheaton.