What is a person? That is the bottom line of my question. For most people use the term "person" and
yet can not necessarily define what they mean.
In the same line of thought as John Macmurray (The Self as Agent, Persons in Relation) it appears
that personhood must be defined in relation to others, and simply not autonomous. What then are the
implications of such an approach? Who and what then are persons? Animals, people, God, non-living
objects? (try not to address the peripheral issue of what is non-living or has not life.) I have given
away a few of my presuppositions, but the bottom line question is, "What is the definition of a
Person is a complicated and ancient notion. It is a concept which definition kills, because it has an
axis of meaning, as I shall endeavour to explain.
Our word person comes from the Latin persona.We use the word 'persona' in English in the sense of
someone playing a part, or putting on an act. We distinguish the persona from the real person. In
Latin personais related to other concepts we have in English such as personal (personalis) and
personality (personalitas), both of which refer to what we would ordinarily think of as the real person,
rather than as an act they are putting on. Already in the Latin word from which we gain our word there
is an ambiguity between the real person and the 'persona' we wear. The ambiguity about the meaning
of person in English harks back to the ambiguity that was already there in Latin.
Of course we can see a person as a thing, as merely an object, but we tend not to. There seems to
be more to a person than object behaviour. Today we talk about the dignity of a person and their
fundamental human rights. To speak of a person like this is to recognize that a person is not just a
thing. Heidegger summed it like this: "Man (a person) is the being for whom being is an issue." The
legacy of understanding which our language carries says that a person is different from an animal,
even different from some people's zoological description of him or her as a "primate". We call
ourselves "primate animals" because our being is an issue for us and we are trying to understand it.
"Know Thyself", the Socratic dictum, shows that our being is an issue, that although we are, we don't
know what we are. Your question, asks about the same thing, "What is a person?" The ambiguity and
difficulty of knowing what a person is, is compounded by the task of being one.
This ambiguity and difficulty was first thought by Greek speaking Christian philosophers in the fourth
and fifth centuries of our era and we are still in the sway of that thought. The Latin personawas a
translation of the Greek prosopon.The Greek word means 'face'. But to designate what a person is
these Greek Christian philosophers used the word hypostasis,which means both 'existence' and
'existent' depending upon the usage, a bit like 'man' in English may refer equivocally to particular man
and to mankind. The concept of hypostasis was synonymous in Greek with ousiaor in English,
'essence'. Our modern understanding of the concept 'person' still carries the influence of these
Christian philosophers. A person is an essence, a universal, but also and at the same time absolutely
particular. In other words, a person is different from every other, but also of the same nature. The
modern notion of the dignity of each person goes right back to this definitive thinking in the fifth
century, although the seeds are of course much more ancient. What a person is belongs to this
universality of the self, rather than to the 'individualism' of the self, which is the other pole.
Matthew Del Nevo
Our concept of a person, or a human being, should exclude anything that looks like and seems to be
a person but is, say, robotic. Our concept of a person or human being is that it is a conscious
biological organism, ideally rational and a language speaker. We discount animals as persons since
they are not rational and they are not language speakers. It is true that many persons may not be
rational or language speakers, for one reason or another, so the idea of a person as a biological
organism is paramount. In some cases, a person may not be conscious, if there is impairment to
brain function, so consciousness also takes second place to the biological nature and origin of the
organism. The origin of a being determines the type of organism an individual is. If a being comes to
fruition through the fertilization of a human egg by human sperm, this is a person. If we adopt this
view of origin we can reject proposals that a robot can ever be a human being just because it looks
like a human being and behaves as such. This is an objective view.
The subjective view, the acquisition of the concept of oneself, as "I" must be defined in relation to
others. One account of why this is so is Wittgenstein's argument against the possibility of a private
language. Language is rule-governed, and a person cannot be held to be following a rule alone
because he can be mistaken on the criteria for application. On this argument, if I am the only person
in the world, I would not possess the concept of myself as a "person" or an "I". However, if I am the
only person in a world with other objects, I will learn to distinguish myself as one object amongst
others by perceptual means and will naturally possess a subjective view and self-awareness which I
don't have to refer to any concept such as "I". The Cartesian "I" is no longer taken to be related to a
thought content or experience. I will still be a person even if I don't know it.