The Invention of Consciousness: A French Interpretation of John Locke

Lead Research Organisation: Kingston University
Department Name: Sch of Humanities


In 1998, Étienne Balibar, one of the best-known living French philosophers, published a new French translation of Book II, Chapter XXVII of John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding - the chapter added to the second, 1694, edition of Locke's Essay in which is to be found his celebrated theory of personal identity. This is Locke's explanation for what constitutes the identity of the person or of personality, in distinction from the identity of matter, of plants, and of animals, including man. Balibar's long introductory essay to the translation, along with some 31 substantial Glossary entries, propounds and defends a thesis that, if accepted, forces us to reconsider, fundamentally, the philosophical achievement of Locke's famous chapter and to acknowledge Locke's rightful place in the history of European philosophy - specifically in the history of the otherwise mainly Franco-German philosophy of 'the subject'. Balibar's claims run contrary to the received version of the history of philosophy, according to which 'consciousness' is presumed to be at the heart of Descartes' earlier philosophical determination of the 'self', or according to which Descartes 'invented' the philosophical concept of consciousness and thereby presented us with the first philosophy of the subject. Instead, Balibar identifies Locke as the central figure in the invention of the philosophical concept of consciousness in the second half of the 17th century, and in so doing restores to our understanding of the history of philosophy an awareness of the originality, or novelty, of the European invention of 'consciousness', a concept which we are apt to take for granted.

However Balibar's work on Locke remains relatively unknown in the English-speaking world, even amongst his admirers. Why is this the case? Balibar's work is part of the tradition of 'continental' or 'Modern European' philosophy, by which is meant the mainly French and German philosophies of the late 18th-20th centuries an the contemporary scholarship across the world that is inspired by it. The dominant contemporary understanding of this tradition, within which Balibar's natural readers reside, effectively excludes Locke from its canon and Balibar's book on Locke therefore seems to have passed under its radar. On the other hand, the English-language literature on Locke is almost exclusively produced within the Anglo-American 'analytical' philosophical tradition, by which is meant the 20th-century, anti-metaphysical tradition of logical and linguistic analysis that conceives philosophy as primarily a process of conceptual clarification and that conceives itself, in part, as the inheritor of the empircist philosophies of Locke and Hume. On the whole, analytical philosophers do not read contemporary French 'continental' philosophy. The publication of an English edition of Balibar's book is an attempt to remedy this situation in relation to both traditions. The contribution of this research is a substantial critical essay for inclusion in the book and general editorial input, adapting the edition for an English-speaking audience.

As well as critically assessing Balibar's complex and nuanced arguments, the aim of the research is thus to engage two different readerships in the discipline of philosophy with Balibar's interpretation of Locke. It aims both to introduce Balibar's interpretation to the Anglophone readers of Locke in the analytical tradition, in the context of a wider discussion of Balibar's work on the concept of consciousness and the philosophy of the subject, and to present to readers in the continental tradition Balibar's argument for the outstanding importance of John Locke to the 'continental' philosophy of the subject. In this way the research aims to mediate between the two, sometimes opposed philosophical traditions in demonstrating their common ancestry in Locke andthe value of the contribution of each for the other on this particular topic.

Planned Impact

The demonstrable impact of the proposed research will be primarily intellectual and cultural.

The research will be conducted within the context of the CRMEP impact strategy. The recently established collaborative research and postgraduate partnership with the new research unit, 'Laboratoire européen de recherches sur la philosophie contemporaine', at the University of Paris 8 is a central plank in this strategy, fostering strong Anglo-French cultural and intellectual links. The proposed research, which concerns the contemporary French reception of an 17th-Century English philosopher, reconsidered from the perspective of contemporary Anglophone analytical philosophy and the Anglophone reception of 'continental' philosophy, is emblematic of this strategy. The proposed collaboration with the Cultural Service of the French Embassy for a one-day workshop on the research output also fits within this strategy.

It is also to be hoped that the research will have an impact on UK philosophical culture and, through that, on a particular aspect of the nation's understanding of its cultural and intellectual heritage. One of the objectives of the proposed research is to demonstrate that, as the academic beneficiaries of Locke's philosophy, philosophers in the analytical and the continental traditions share a common philosophical ancestor whose importance to issues of contemporary concern in each tradition (personal identity and the philosophy of the subject, respectively) opens up the possibility of a fruitful philosophical exchange between the traditions. The proposed research, in mediating between the two traditions, inaugurates a new dialogue between them in order that each may benefit from the other, initially on this specific topic, so enhancing tolerance in the nation's philosophical culture. More generally, and inevitably more speculatively, it is to be hoped that the intellectual result of the research - the foregrounding of Locke's foundational role in the developmnt of a central aspect of the great continental philosophies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries - might enhance the cultural self-understanding of the nation, a self-understanding which acknowledges its place at the heart of the European philosophical enterprise and acknowledges the intellectual richness of the UK's cultural heritage.

The immediate beneficiaries will be the academic beneficiaries because they will be the main users of the major research output: the English critical edition of Identité et différence, including the proposed Fellow's contribution. This group in general benefits from the work being made accessible to Anglophone readers with this edition and from the critical appraisal of the accompanying essay for which the Fellowship is sought. One portion of this group - scholars in the analytical tradition - will benefit from this critical appraisal of a major contribution to their field; another portion - scholars in the continental tradition - will benefit from the critical assessment of the history and understanding of one if its central fields, the philosophy of the subject, and the subsequent expansion of their canon to include Locke.

Perhaps the largest group of the academic beneficiaries is that of undergraduate and postgraduate students. They also benefit from the accessibility of Balibar's work and its critical appraisal, which will enhance their study. However, most of these will cease to be 'academic beneficiaries' at the end of their studies to become non- or post-academic beneficiaries: the educated general public. The properly academic impact of the research therefore contributes more generally to the social impact of higher education, with the associated economic advantages of a highly educated citizenry.


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Description The research was part of a project to produce an English edition of a French book (by Etienne Balibar) on an English philosopher - John Locke. My contribution (a long Introductory essay) is significant primarily for the generation of new knowledge. It explains and develops Balibar's presentation of Locke as an important forerunner of what we now call the 'continental' tradition of philosophy, when Locke is usually thought of as having little or nothing to do with this. In making explicit how Balibar's interpretation relates to his previous work on the philosophical concept of the subject, my contribution was also able to show how Locke's work on the theory of knowledge and personal identity is connected to his political philosophy, when the two sides are usually thought to be distinct and unconnected.
Exploitation Route The book can be used in teaching and research on Locke, in both the 'continental' and the analytic traditions, to show how these two now separate fields of philosophy are related through a common ancestor.
Sectors Education