What is a Person?

Sandra LaFave

The philosophically interesting question here is: what are we asking when we ask "what is a person?"

The metaphysics of essences

Philosophers before the 20th century would have understood the question within the framework of what I will call the metaphysics of essences.

The metaphysics of essences, first expounded in detail by Plato (c. 428 —348 BCE), says the sensible world consists of things, and everything is a specific kind of thing. To say something is a something means it is a member of the class of somethings. That which all the members of a class share is the essence of those things.

Example: Spot is a dog (a kind of thing), and Lassie is also a dog (the same kind of thing), and so there must be Dogness, which Spot and Lassie share, and which constitutes the essence of Spot and Lassie, and any other dogs. A synonym for "essence" is "intrinsic nature."

Essences are unchanging and eternal. Dogness does not cease to exist when Spot dies. According to Plato, essences are thus more real (have more being) than sensible things. They are the "really real" — the "alpha reality." People like Protagoras recognized that there are individual perspectives on reality, but Plato defeats Protagoras with the alpha reality trump card ("My eternal and unchanging reality is more real than your temporary and changing one").

If we know the essence of some class we also know how to evaluate things in that class. Since the essence is the perfect model of things in that class, we can compare individual things to the model and judge how close they come to perfection. So knowing Dogness helps us say "good dog" or "bad dog." We say "good dog" when the individual dog acts like the ideal or model dog; and "bad dog" when the individual dog fails to live up to the ideal.

Thus, for Plato, the metaphysics of essences implies a hierarchy of being. Individual things in the sensible world have transitory being; they come into existence and go out of existence. Forms by contrast are eternal and thus have more being. For Plato, more being is better being. Since Plato thinks that change is prima facie bad, he concludes that the invisible unchanging Forms are better than sensible transitory things, and in general, that the world of the senses is inferior to the world of the non-sensible, because it is less real.

The metaphysics of essences leads in a very straightforward way to a correspondence theory of truth. A statement is true/knowable if it corresponds to the way things really are. And since the ultimate reality is essence, a statement is true/knowable iff it corresponds to how essences are.

How do we find out about essences? It’s not enough to say "I know a dog when I see one". Plato’s model of real knowledge is math, especially geometry. You need to be able to give a general account or proof.

The analog of a geometrical proof in definition is the so-called real definition. A real definition lists the attributes possessed by all and only members of the class in question.

All S’s are P’s = S is sufficient for P.

Only S’s are P’s = S is necessary for P = All P’s are S’s.

If all S’s are P’s AND only S’s are P’s, then the terms "S" and "P" denote exactly the same set.

In real definitions one of these terms is itself a set — a property list. So a real definition is really a biconditional of the form:

definiendum <--> {property list}

It turns out to be easy enough to construct real definitions for mathematical concepts, like "square." To be a square, a figure must have both of two properties: it must be a rectangular, and it must be equilateral. All and only squares are both equilateral and rectangular. In other words:

square <--> {equilateral AND rectangular}

Plato was encouraged by the Pythagoreans’ success with "square" and set for philosophy a pretty straightforward task: just figure out the essences of other concepts like "goodness," "truth," "beauty," etc.

20th-century philosophers agree that the metaphysics of essences is dead. Philosophers have given up on trying to find real definitions for most concepts. No philosopher familiar with philosophical developments of the 20th century would attempt to give an account of the universal and unchanging essence of "goodness," or "truth," or "beauty," or "personhood." Here’s why.


Problems with the metaphysics of essences

I. The Kantian legacy

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) revolutionized philosophy. Kant showed that the mind, through its innate categories, constructs our experience along certain lines (space, time, causality, self, etc.). Thus, thinking and experiencing give no access to things as they really are. We can think as hard as we like, but we will never escape the innate constraints of our minds. Kant forced philosophy to look seriously at the world as experienced by the agent (what Kant calls the phenomenal world) independently of the real world outside consciousness — the world "in itself" (the noumenal world).

Ethics had long recognized the importance for moral evaluation of "how things seem to the agent." But the ramifications of Kant’s noumenal-phenomenal distinction extend far beyond ethics.

The term "phenomenology" usually refers to a movement in late 19thcentury and 20th century Continental philosophy (especially Husserl), but I am using it here in the very broad sense of the study of consciousness as experienced. Twentieth-century Anglo-American philosophers (such as Searle and Davidson) and their hero Frege don’t talk much about "phenomenology," but do talk a lot about intentionality. The term "intentionality" owes its modern sense to Franz Brentano (1838-1907) and Edmund Husserl (1859-1938).

"Intentionality" refers to the fact that many if not all conscious states are aimed or directed or about something. For example, if I am believing something, my consciousness is directed toward the object of my belief in the particular conscious mode of belief (and not another mode such as desire or jealousy or shame). There is something I’m believing (the object of my belief) and there’s the mode in which I am directed toward that object, namely, the belief mode. So belief is a mode of intentionality; i.e., belief is a way of being directed toward an object of consciousness. And the object of my belief — what I believe — is the intentional object.

Intentionality involves two elements then:

  1. The mode of intentionality (perception, belief, desire, doubt, pretense, etc.)
  2. The intentional object — what one perceives, believes, desires, doubts, pretends, etc.

Most philosophers also presuppose a third element

3. A world, or reality outside consciousness.

Many philosophers think that this world is the new alpha reality — the final adjudicator of what is. (Rorty et al disagree.)

Why intentionality is essential

You need intentionality to adequately describe the actions of conscious beings — both from the inside and from the outside. From the inside, consciousness seems to be intrinsically intentional: we just find ourselves with desires and preferences and beliefs, doing things. But in the 20th century some psychologists — the behaviorists — thought you didn’t need intentionality to explain behavior (what people do, considered purely as bodily movements, from the outside). They were wrong. Behavior, too, is unintelligible without intentional predicates: you cannot read what someone is doing off a mathematical description of his bodily movements in 3-D space. The same bodily movements can correspond to quite different actions.

Intentionality pervades all 20th century philosophy

Intentionality is the common thread underlying 20th-century philosophy — both analytic and Continental philosophy, as well as pragmatism. The notion of intentionality draws our attention to the perspective of the conscious agent in the lived world, the contexts of descriptions and utterances (the agent’s projects), what we’re doing when we think and talk.

Once you start looking at people’s conscious experiences, you obviously invite reflection about phenomena such as anguish, dread, alienation, neurosis, freedom, suffering, self-overcoming, and so on. These themes were taken up especially in 20th century Continental philosophy.

20th-century philosophers were particularly absorbed by metaphysical, epistemological, and logical puzzles of intentionality. (1) Intentional objects are metaphysically weird, since they exist only insofar as they are intended by an individual consciousness. (2) Objects of desire don’t correspond to what is; they correspond to what is not (Sartre). (3) There are notorious problems with referential opacity in intentional contexts (Frege). (4) An intention can be carried out unintentionally, and one can intentionally do what one does not intend to do because one is operating under a different description of the intentional object (Davidson, Searle).

Intentionality and language

Both Anglo-American and Continental postmodern philosophers saw intentionality as a fruitful way to understand language. Wittgenstein says most concepts derive their meaning by paradigms — and we decide the paradigms. Words are not intrinsically meaningful; rather, meaning is the assignment of intentionality to words. Meaning is what makes you able to point at things with language. For Austin and Searle, you simply can’t understand what someone means without intentionality. The very idea of meaning is meaning for someone who is doing something (performing a "speech act") when she speaks. So meaning isn’t something people find; it’s created. Language is conventional.

It is also, in the hermeneutic method, a tool of liberation. Freud and his followers (e.g., Lacan) say one must interpret, find the hidden meanings, in order to liberate, and the "right" interpretation is the one that feels right to the patient.

Intentionality and reality

Given the intimate links between epistemology and metaphysics (you can only know what is), it’s not long before philosophers such as Nietzsche and Marx figured out that if meaning is constructed, maybe the notion of alpha reality — an ultimate "what is" — is also socially constructed. Think of Marx’s comments on culture as superstructure built on economic sub-structure. It’s not far from there to the view that language itself embodies presuppositions that create a world: a world that serves the economic interests of some while it oppresses and silences others.

In summary, the Kantian legacy leads to the 20th-century emphasis on intentionality, which shows that there are many philosophical questions that simply can’t be addressed, let alone answered, without explicitly taking into account the perspective of the agent. Sometimes only the agent can tell you what something is. You must know the agent’s frame of reference — how things are for that person.

The Kantian legacy reminds us that knowing "what something is" (the big traditional question of metaphysics) is more than simply a consciousness reporting "objectively" once and for all about an object (or a class of objects) external to consciousness. The Kantian legacy insists that all of philosophy, including metaphysics and epistemology, make room for what the individual consciousness thinks, believes, intends, wants, etc.

So given the Kantian legacy, and in particular, the resulting analysis of language and meanings as conventional, how do we now define persons? Persons must now be whatever we conventionally decide they are. In other words, no more eternal changeless essence of personhood. (No more essence of anything, for that matter.)

II. Personhood as an open concept

Wittgenstein says most concepts are open. Only a few are closed.

A closed concept is one for which it is possible to specify precisely the membership conditions for the class; in other words, one for which you can give the sort of definition Plato was looking for, the "real definition." An example of a closed concept is the concept of square, in the geometric sense. Plato was right that you can get real definitions of "square" or any closed concept; he was wrong in thinking all concepts are closed.

An open concept is not closed. That is, you can’t precisely specify the membership conditions for the denoted class. Rather, you learn paradigms of the class, and thenargue about borderline cases on the basis of analogy with the paradigm cases. Open concepts still define classes; it’s just that the borders of these classes are fuzzier and, for some very important concepts (like "person") liable to change as we continue toreason and solve new problems. Examples of open concepts: beard, rich, disabled, obscene, unselfish, healthy, sexual harassment, date rape, person, etc.

Open Concept Currently IN paradigm Currently OUTSIDE Currently Borderline

"Bearded" Santa Claus Bill Clinton Tower Records employee
"Rich" Bill Gates Starving child Cupertino homeowner
"Disabled" Stephen Hawking Michael Jordan Diabetic
"Obscene" Snuff film Barney Bodice ripper
"Unselfish" Mother Teresa Scrooge Tax break seeker
"Person" You and me Eiffel Tower ET, Cmdr Data, whales

The old paradigm of a person was a white straight man of property. A conceptual paradigm shift occurred and now women, children, and former slaves count as paradigms of persons. Undoubtedly there will be more changes.

The upshot for our discussion is that if the traditional notion of essences is bankrupt, if most concepts are open, there is no essence of Personhood that all and only persons share. I can’t give an answer to questions like "What is the essence of a person?" or "What is it that all and only persons share?" because these are not meaningful philosophical questions anymore.

We can and do reason about what it means to be a person in specific intentional contexts. We do this reasoning by analogy. The question "Is a genetically engineered person a real person?" is really the question "Is a genetically engineered person enough like us (the paradigm cases), or not?" We decide how much alike is "enough alike." We might eventually decide that chimps are enough like us (there are lots of relevant similarities). We will probably never decide that rocks are enough like us. The decision is ours, yet it is not arbitrary.

You are no doubt aware of the changes that have occurred in the last 200 years in America over the concept of a "person". The recent debate over same-sex marriage is another good example of a expansion of a paradigm. For years the majority of voters in America defined "marriage" as the union of a genetic man and a genetic woman. But that definition became more and more problematic. More and more gay people came out, and more and more straight people realized that gay people were not that different, i.e., you could make stronger and stronger arguments that gay people and straight people were in all relevant respects the same, and entitled to the same rights and benefits.

A challenge: incommensurable frameworks

But what if we can’t agree about the paradigms? Who’s right? Are there better or worse definitions? Is reason able to adjudicate the dispute? Are any facts relevant, or are facts also constructed? These are postmodern questions.

If "modernism" means the Enlightenment dream of rational orderings and explanations of everything according to perfectly objective empirical standards, then the Kantian legacy begins the death of modernism. If perspectives count, then if we care about justice, all perspectives ought to count — even the perspectives of the powerless and marginalized. If perspectives differ radically from person to person (the capitalist and the worker, the "normal" person and the "deviant," the man and the woman, the scientist and the mystic, etc.), then there may be no more Truth or Reality. Foucault, for example, speaks of the privileged discourses of the powerful, and reminds us that those who control the language control bodies as well as discourses. Language is not a tool for discovering reality; it is a tool for expressing and discovering points of view, or, more sinisterly, a tool of oppression. We should suspect (or reject) all metanarratives, replacing them with personal narratives. You can always introduce intellectual conversation-killers — "Who’s to say?" "That’s your opinion/version" — because people can have radically different and incommensurable frameworks.

"In the philosophy of science, two theories are said to be commensurable if the claims of one can be framed in the language of the other. When two theories are incommensurable there may be no neutral standpoint from which to make an objective assessment of the merits of one versus that (sic) of the other." (Simon Blackburn, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 69)

For example, some religious extremists do not hesitate to kill innocent people in the name of religion. Many rational secular people (and many religious people) worry about this. It looks as though the conceptual framework of a radical religious extremist is incommensurable with the conceptual framework of a modern Western liberal. The religious extremist does not listen to what a liberal considers "reasonable" because the religious person's God warns him to beware of reason. We mortals cannot understand God's ways. Rational arguments sound convincing but they may be the traps of Satan. God commands the person of faith not to think too much.

Are there incommensurable conceptions of personhood? The most radical contemporary views propose exactly this. Quine, Feyerabend, Rorty question the possibility of intercultural reasoning. They claim that no analogical reasoning between radically different conceptual paradigms is possible. Rorty recommends that we therefore live ironically (in full realization of the contingency of our way of life) and sympathetically (trying as much as we can to enter into the mindset of others — Rorty recommends literature for this).

The optimistic Western rationalist view (e.g., Habermas) is that all conceptual frameworks are ultimately commensurable because we CAN reason together, IF we adhere to certain conditions of fairness in discourse (everybody gets to talk, everybody listens, everybody tells the truth, etc.).

Under these ideal conditions of discourse, we can still grant that most concepts are open, thus based on paradigms, and we decide what the paradigms are. Since the same reasons would count as good reasons for everyone, a diverse community COULD then

  1. decide to change paradigms on the basis of rational argument.
  2. share the same paradigms for philosophically important concepts.

If Habermas' ideal conditions of discourse obtain, reason rules and we can understand one another! Hence we can defend the usual happy optimistic Western rationalist assumptions.

According to deconstructionism, these claims are probably false: different people may have very different paradigms, and different people may also have very different ideas about what counts as a good reason to believe something. Thus according to deconstructionists, if the differences are great enough, rational arguments between competing paradigms may not be possible. The best we can do is try to sympathetically identify where others are coming from, and the best way to do this is by literature and conversation — but not by argumentation. Reason doesn’t rule at all!

This matters for our discussion of the nature of personhood. Consider the following incommensurable notions of what it means to be a person:

A. A person is someone like you and me (an ordinary Western view).

B. There are really no persons (an ordinary Hindu-Buddhist view).

Is argument really possible here?

Other problems arise when we consider different fundamental value judgments about persons, e.g.:

C. Persons are beings of inestimable value (Kant).

D. Persons are lice on the body of Gaia (an imaginary — I hope — misanthropic extreme environmentalism).

There is no disagreement here about the paradigms of persons (you and me). Note, however, that claims (C) and (D) are windows into very different frameworks of thought, each of which is internally logical and consistent, but with very different outcomes in practice. (C) would warrant treating persons well: promoting human pleasure, health, happiness, flourishing; while (D) would support just the opposite actions. How do we choose? Rorty would say no argument is possible between these frameworks.

You might think, after all this, that anything we say about personhood is now undermined, because anything we say is a reflection of our opinions, or our culture's opinions, and we are too brainwashed by our cultural conditioning to recognize genuinely alternative points of view. Actually, I don't agree, so we're still going to have our Philosophy of the Person class and analyze various arguments about persons. The reason I'm not worried is that I have long been associated with the biological side of these debates, beginning with my earliest philosophical work on instinct. The view that people in different cultures have incommensurable frameworks and concepts and experiences is called sociological relativism, and it seems to me it's been around in various forms since Protagoras. Sociological relativism is (for me) just unbelievable from the perspective of biology. I think there is a "human nature" because human bodies and brains are similar enough to support true empirical generalizations about both brains and minds (since mental events are brain events). For me, the answers here have to be based in biology: brains, bodies, and primary metaphors that cross cultures (Pinker, Lakoff and Johnson’s embodied realism). But that's for later in the course.


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