Etienne Balibar’s Identity and Difference

Identity and Difference:
John Locke and the Invention of Consciousness

By Etienne Balibar
Introduction by Stella Sanford
Translated by Warren Montag
Verso, 2013, 158 pp

Multi-layered, multi-dimensional, and in important respects multi-lingual, the English edition of Etienne Balibar’s groundbreaking Identity and Difference presents a layered approach to one of the most significant philosophical debates of our age.

John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1694) sets out a theory of personal identity that has informed (even through contradiction) the likes of Kant, Hume, Hegel, and Nietzsche. For Locke, consciousness is the first principle of identity—in thinking, and knowing we think, we are a self. It is distinct from Rene Descartes “I think, therefore I am,” in that thinking is not the principle of the mind, but something the mind does. There are no innate ideas, only received ideas—the tabula rasa, the blank slate must be filled with impressions, and our thoughts about these impressions constitute our self. For Locke, “Socrates asleep, and Socrates awake, is not the same the same Person.” Person, self, the subject—our identity—is rooted in consciousness. And this, necessarily, raised a number of significant philosophical problems.

Some of these concerns were explored by Hume—if consciousness is constituent of the self, what happens to the self when we sleep or when we die? Another problem, however, and one philosophers of identity continue to debate is this: the reasoning here seems circular. This is not a new criticism, but one that has persisted. Joseph Butler is the most frequently cited of nineteenth-century perspectives, but as Stella Sanford puts it in the book’s introduction, “personal identity (my self) is presupposed in identifying present thoughts and memories as mine” (xxiii). In other words, Locke appears to say both “if I know my thoughts, then I am a self” and “I am a self if I know my thoughts.” We are being and knowing at one and the same time, which may not be problematic in practice (we do it all day, every day), but it does not get us any closer to the origin of consciousness itself… and that is Locke’s principle claim in the Essay. This circularity also poses enormous problems from the historical perspective, as this debate about consciousness arose in the midst of religious upheaval following the Interregnum in England and the rise of various schools of thought often considered heretical (including those of Nicolas Malebranche and Baruch Spinoza). Locke’s critics, like Henry Lee in 1702, felt that “Consciousness alone can’t unite the several Acts of an intelligent Being, without Substance” (xxiii)—that is, there must be a substantial, bodily subject in order for there to be a self (and this substance must be resurrected in the end of days). Locke’s claim that consciousness always accompanies thoughts simply does not move the matter forward. Or does it?

I have begun this review in much the same way the book itself begins: by presenting the challenge not only of identity and difference, but of properly perceiving Locke’s Essay. I have studied Locke for years, and I frequently feel as though I am chasing fire and capturing smoke. I have even found myself occasionally in the position of tossing Locke’s Essay across the room and asking what does it all matter? (I am probably not alone). In 1998, Etienne Balibar published Identité et différence: L’invention de la conscience to answer these questions, but—as Sanford explains in the introduction—the work did not make expected impact. The charge, Sanford explains, may be laid at the door of “historical antagonism” between the two philosophical worlds—“analytic” and “continental.” But interestingly, it is this very difference that allowed Balibar to do something with Locke’s Essay that had not been done before.

This shift in perspective is more than adding a new lens. It is turning the optics around and looking through the other way. In recognizing an unusual shift in Locke’s Chapter XXVII (the introduction of the carefully turned word con-science), Balibar makes the following point: the perceived circle of self and consciousness that Locke is blamed for creating is, in fact, his object of study. He is not creating the problem, but discovering it—seeing the structure and knowing that, somehow, this very cycle is the principle of identity.

This by itself is significant, but that is not truly the measure of this present book. What is striking to me, as a reader of this edition (and admittedly, it is less an edition than a version or type), is the order of events that brought it into being. That Balibar arrives at Locke’s meaning was made possible because 1) Locke was translated into French by Pierre Coste in 1700, 2) Coste made every effort in consultation with Locke to render the words explicit, including “con-science,” 3) Balibar interprets Locke’s Essay in French,  4) Warren Montag translates Balibar’s “Introduction”, 5) Stella Sanford interprets Balibar in the English text, and finally 6) Balibar responds with a preface and postscript that appear in English. That is, this 2013 text is a self-referentially translating and translated text, one that takes the reader first backwards, then forwards, through two schools of philosophic thought in three languages (if you count the Latin).

Balibar’s work is a remarkable contribution, certainly, to our understanding of Locke’s theory of personal identity. At the same time, much of what is said by Balibar is “translated” for the reader in short form by the new Introduction—and of course, that was the purpose of Balibar’s own extensive introduction to Locke in translation. Why, then, should we read the work in its entirety here? Because by reading it, I found myself plotting the discovery of consciousness now attributed (by Balibar) to Locke instead of Descartes, and also the discovery of that discovery by Balibar. Finally, through the incredibly useful introduction by Sanford, we reflect upon the discovery and presume its future impact. To say that the book is complex hardly covers it. The book is the very circle of identity and difference in real-time. It is complex, and certainly does not make for swift reading, but for the student of Locke, or of identity, it provides a fresh perspective and its own case study. I am happy to see this unusual work in English.


Brandy L. Schillace, PhD, is Research Associate/Guest Curator of the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum, Case Western Reserve University, and Managing Editor of Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry. A medical humanities scholar, Schillace explores the history of science and intersections of medicine and literature. She curates exhibits on the history of birth and anatomy art for the Dittrick museum and develops medical humanities curriculum for Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine. Her publications include co-edited collection Birthing the Monster of Tomorrow: Unnatural Reproductions (forthcoming with Cambria), Death’s Summer Coat (under contract consideration).

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