What does it mean to be a person? It's not as simple as you might think.
The question of personhood, or what it means to be a person, has long been a topic of human inquiry in Western thought. Today, there are few questions that incites interest, particularly when it comes to situating intrinsic human dignity and envisioning a flourishing and ordered society. It has boldly escaped the philosophical, theological, and anthropological silos to find itself under scrutiny in other domains. It faces a particular test of legitimacy in the ethical domain, a field that has largely become committed to an evolutionary framework that promises unrestrained progress, both scientific and social. The question of personhood also doesn’t merely concern beginning- and end-of-life issues; it has bearing on everything in between. Our culture’s answers to the question What is a person? have been largely responsible for the changing tides in our culture, and they are playing a major role in re-calibrating our public behavior. However, to assume that there is consensus among these answers would be a mistake. In this article, I’m not going to attempt to give one set definition of what it means to be a “person.” And even though I’m a theologian, I’m not going to provide a detailed theological exposition. Rather, I want to emphasize our need to see personhood as an ontological category, without being contingent on the exercise of any potentialities. This is necessary if we are to arrive at a paradigm or plausibility structure that recognizes the intrinsic worth and dignity of all human beings, regardless of their station in life. The reason why I think the term ‘person’ cannot be confined to a set definition is because: “Definitions are a way of generalizing; whereby we try to gather the properties that are common about a thing that needs to be defined. […] However, definitions are limited in covering what is unique and irreplaceable” (Daniel, 64). In other words, because persons are unique, not mere objects determined by random accidents, I believe personhood is too rich of a concept to be contained within a precise definition. It resists simple explanation. In this discussion, our attempt will be to maintain intellectual humility and gain a penumbral understanding of personhood, such that we arrive on the same page—or at least on the same book.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE CONCEPT OF PERSONHOOD
The idea of personhood did not originate with the Christian thought; however, our modern understanding wouldn’t have developed without the Judeo-Christian tradition, which views human beings in relation to a personal Creator who is transcendent yet immanent.
French philosopher Emmanuel Housset traces the development of this term in his work. From him, we learn that most Western theological reflections on personhood developed on the Greek and Latin notions of prosôpon (Gk) and persona (Lat.), both of which point to the public face, the role we inhabit in social environments (Housset, 41).
Interestingly, if we look at the Greek New Testament, we’ll see that Paul uses this same notion of “person” in two ways. First, in Romans 2:11, when he writes “For there is no respect of persons with God” (προσωπολήπτης- prosopolemptes). And second, in Hebrews 1:3, the Paul also uses another word : “The Son is the exact representation of God’s being” (ὑποστάσεως - hypostaseōs). It is this latter idea of ‘being’ (hypostasis) that was further developed by the Cappadocian Fathers, toward the end of the fourth century, to mean- the persons of the Trinity. “God’s being is hypostasis in ekstasis” (manifestation in three Persons). This development provided a basis to the idea that a human person, having been made in the image of God, is an individual that can subsist and owns its existence. However, it was Boethius (AD 480–524), during the early medieval period, who first took a leap from the idea of irreducible subsistence to an individual substance. He wrote that Persona est rationalis naturae individua substantis, defining a person as an individual substance of a rational nature (See. Boethius’s (1345), Liber de Persona et Duabus Naturis, ch. 3).
Boethiu’s idea was later applied in the medieval world to situate personhood in terms of other substances such as rationality, consciousness, etc. Eventually, it found its way into the history of classical philosophy and became the core of the scholastic doctrines and, later, the Enlightenment period (1685–1815).
One of the major shifts that began to emerge during these later years was an epistemic shift from the idea of “Personhood as Foundation'' to that of “Foundations of Personhood.” With the Enlightenment’s subversion of the sacred order, with its displacement of God from His position and its denial of biblical protology (the creation narratives) as the basis for understanding human nature, Western thought secularized the anthropological contribution of Trinitarian theology by returning to natural traits (usually psychological) as the criteria for personhood.
For John Locke, rationality, self-awareness, and memory constituted the person (See Locke (1690, II.xvii.9)). For Immanuel Kant, rationality and moral dignity (as a moral agent and object) became the key features of interest (see Kant, 1997). David A. Hume viewed human persons as “nothing but a bundle of different perceptions,” a proposition based on two contrasting approaches of “mentalistic” and “physicalistic” attributes (Sattar, 2021). In recent times, the American philosopher Daniel Dennett (1978) proposed that intelligence and self-awareness provide the basis for personhood, but he, in dialogue with cognitive sciences, also includes in it the capacity to attribute intentional mental states to others.
However, the more recent discourse on personhood has mostly moved further towards something called preference utilitarianism. Princeton ethicist Peter Singer (1995), who basically argues to delay personhood to three months after birth, defines a person as a being who has the capacity for self-awareness and for making choices, exercising preferences about continuing life. This utilitarian viewpoint adopts a reductive materialist conception of the person. In other words, humans are little more than material beings. This view denies human uniqueness and reduces human beings to impersonal, mechanical, or biological processes—a mere bundle of properties, albeit with complex and higher-level physiologic systems in nature.
Evidently, over the recent decades, the Western world has adopted this biologic iteration of the principles of reductionism, which denies any intrinsic or transcendent basis to human personhood and strips it from any metaphysical explanation. What we are witnessing now is a resurgence of the classical atomistic tradition (a la Democritus) married to Cartesian dualism (a la René Descartes), resulting in a dismissal of the embodied nature of body (res extensa) and soul (res cogitans) and reduction of the physical and the metaphysical to the mere biological function..
This project of de-souling of humans designates conscious phenomena as concrete and non-abstract, existing within the brain in space and time as a function of neuronal activity (Searle, 2000). All conscious phenomena are merely understood as epiphenomena of the brain. Sir Francis Crick (1994), who argues for genetic testing after three days of birth to weed out the weakest link, offers this very provocative reductionism:
“You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” (p. 3). He goes on to say that “a modern neurobiologist sees no need for the religious concept of a soul to explain the behavior of humans and other animals.'' (p. 6)
WHAT IS AT STAKE?
Given that the society is now adopting such a reductionist view of personhood, it is necessary to enquire about its implications. I would like to highlight two that in my opinion are already outworking in our collective sphere of existence.
Personhood on a Spectrum
By allowing a radical separation between being human and being person, we run into the problem where personhood becomes a degreed property. Personhood is no longer regarded as intrinsic and exclusive to human beings; rather, it exists on a value spectrum that includes other non-human beings, and even non-beings. Under this gradient theory, personhood is not all or nothing. Instead, personhood comes in degrees. It can be lost or gained based on one’s possession of the markers of personhood: The more markers one possesses, the more she qualifies to be a person on that value spectrum. In my opinion, this is basically a version of intersectionality—overlapping criteria of personhood—that opens the door for the allowance of partial persons, of one individual being able to be more of a person than another.
This gradient theory leaves us with important questions that continue to remain unanswered: Is there a maximal or minimal set of markers needed to be a person? Does it have to be the same set of markers for all human beings? What justifies modeling human beings in assigning personhood? Who decides and by what objective standard?
The Disruption of the Binary
On the question of rights, under this framework, the focus of all our ethical debates moves from “Persons with Potential” to “Potential Persons.” If we allow for the possibility of non-human persons, then consequently we will be forced to deal with the question of whether there also exist non-person humans. And that’s a dangerous terrain to tread into regarding the scope and extent of rights. Unfortunately, the modern secular ethicists have not hesitated to answer this question affirmatively. This disruption of the binary view of humans and non-humans would force us to adopt something called monism, a theory that denies existence of duality in creation and postulates unity of the origin of all things. An equitable ownership in creation with other beings and non-beings, while at the same time allowing for discrimination within the human species, only confirms an unresolved contradiction in this framework. If we allow for this notion to arrive at its logical conclusion, it will ultimately lead us to the annihilation of personhood. Without a fixed ontological basis for personhood, simply being human would not be sufficient to have any rights; only being a person (an indeterminate and emergent property) would. No rights would therefore be inalienable to human beings; they would extend only to those who meet the criteria within the value spectrum. Also, because only persons would deserve rights, consequently only the rightful persons would deserve dignity. As not all human beings would be viewed as equal persons, neither could there be equal dignity. This paradigm would have a major existential consequence. It would create a class of elites who would take the privilege of pronouncing who gets to be a person and who does not. It would divide human society into unholy gradations, ordered and managed with a heavy hand as evident in not-so-distant history.
MOTIVATION BEHIND THE REDUCTIONIST PARADIGM
In my estimation, empiricism—the belief that sense-experience is all there is—continues to be the motivation behind a reductionist argument for personhood. A commitment to materialism and scientific monism compels social scientists to measure the markers of personhood empirically (e.g., with psychological tests). In disconnecting personhood from any consequences that may be termed as moral, they can make God obsolete, a mere hypothesis. Peter Kreeft (2016) points out a problem with such commitment to empiricism:
…all the performance-qualifications adduced for personhood are difficult to measure objectively and with certainty. To use the unclear, not-universally-accepted, hard-to-measure functionalist concept of personhood to decide the sharply controversial issue of who is a person and who may be killed, is to try to clarify the obscure by the more obscure, obscuram per obscurius.
Personhood is over and above experimentation. Michael Egnor (2017), Professor of Neurosurgery at Stony Brook University School of Medicine in New York states:
Materialism, the view that matter is all that exists, is the premise of much contemporary thinking about what a human being is. Yet, evidence from the laboratory, operating room, and clinical experience points to a less fashionable conclusion: Human beings straddle the material and immaterial realms.
HOW THEN SHOULD WE REDEEM THE METAPHYSICAL INQUIRY?
Christianity offered a paradigm that pivoted the history of humanity. It freed humanity from an indifferent fate (contrary to the pre-Hebraic standpoint) and made humanity independent of adaptive utility (contrary to behaviorist/functionalist theories). Christianity could do this when metaphysics was the starting point of philosophy; however, epistemology has become the new starting point, and this has moved the discourse on personhood mostly to the realm of language—language that is ever evolving. As consequences of evolutionary theory and scientific monism, human beings have come to be regarded as “the naked ape” (Desmond Morris, 1967) rather than as beings with intrinsic worth and a fixed human nature. For this reason, there is a need to reclaim personhood as an ontological category so that it is not seen as assumed, transferrable, or divisible. We should understand persons as integral, irreducible, incommunicable, and irrefutable. This kind of understanding is possible only if we ground personhood back to metaphysics and de-center natural science as the only source for understanding who we are. Science gives us correlations; this is its service to humanity. But it should be kept within its jurisdiction. The scriptures offer us the basis for regarding human beings as not irreducible to matter and energy. There is an immaterial reality, which philosophers call the ‘world of the personal’, that we participate in; we exist as beings created in the ‘image of God’ and not as beings with emergent personhood contingent on matter or energy. 2 Cor. 4:18 points to this immaterial reality: “as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (English Standard Version). From a biblical standpoint, the notion—that something reflective of the divine exists in all of humanity—is foundational in situating the notion of personhood. It establishes the union of the spiritual and the corporeal in a way that maintains their exceptional standing and integral worth over other beings and non-beings. Also, it is in the transcendent nature of personhood that the Western society in particular has come to find the objective basis for inalienable rights and the grounds for social order specifically aimed at human flourishing. Our personhood is homologous to God’s personhood in that, “I am thinking God’s thoughts after him”, a statement attributed to Johannes Kepler. We are derivative, reflection of God’s own being. While God is self-explanatory, we are not. Our personhood is subsumed in divine personhood, in that we are made in his image and likeness (the imago Dei)—that which Augustine defined as “that principle within us by which we are like God…” (Augustine ca. 397/2002 in White, 2013). Additionally, a biblical protology explains this distinctiveness of human persons in that they are knowers (perceive reality), responsible agents (intention and volition), rational (critical thinking), communicative, creative (innovation), moral, desiring beings, and lovers. Part of our divine image is that we are created with a unique essence and individuality, deeply embedded in us to reflect on the cosmos, seek meaning, and process a response to the Creator. Being created in the image of God also gives us the privilege of begetting other beings in God’s image. We are not creators but pro-creators of the image bearers. Our actions are secondary to God’s; therefore the transmission of personhood cannot depend on our intent. It must find its source in God.
NOT JUST ANY GOD
Amidst the various estimations, secular and religious, it is the Trinitarian understanding of God that gives us a grid to robustly ground our own personhood. Whether one acknowledges this or not, every human being, in his or her being and as an individual with eternal longings, is in proximity to the mystery of the Trinity as Persons. Contrary to the modern understanding of personhood and its focus on the individual (anthropocentric), the Christian basis of personhood derives from the content of the Trinitarian nature of God (theocentric). God exists in the community of three persons existing in eternal relation, so communion becomes one of the fundamental ontological categories for reality. Along similar lines, the early Church Fathers strongly believed that personhood is fundamentally foundational in that we are also constituted by our relations. To be a Person then is to participate in the very life of the trinity itself. The Father-Son relationship in God becomes the archetypal relationship of human filiation: It is from the heavenly Father that “all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named.” Eph. 3:14–15 “For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name” (ESV). Our ontology is constituted by relationships—first in our vertical relationship with God, and the second in our horizontal relationship with other human beings. In the words of Emmanuel Housset, “Being a person means demonstrating one’s filiation, and in particular the reality of being a son of God, open to relationship with others” (Housset, Vocation de la personne, 141). A person exists within the network of human relationship, from conception to death and beyond. Catholic philosopher Robert Spaemann (2006) articulates that person “exist only in the plural” (p.77). While Adam was created a person in relationship with God, and then his personhood is fully actualized in his relationship to Eve. When Adam was alone, he had an ontological aloneness. There was nothing in the universe that could satisfy his need to reciprocate in the task of fulfilling the dominion mandate. Pope Benedict XVI (2008) offers a high status to this aspect of relationality by stating:
The first Thou that—however stammeringly—was said by human lips to God marks the moment in which the spirit arose in the world. Here the Rubicon of anthropogenesis was crossed. For it is not the use of weapons or fire, not new methods of cruelty or of useful activity, that constitute man, but rather his ability to be immediately in relation to God … the moment of anthropogenesis cannot possibly be determined by paleontology: anthropogenesis is the rise of the spirit, which cannot be excavated with a shovel. (pp. 15-16, emphasis mine)
Persons are known not by navel-gazing; they are known in their relation to others. There is a “reciprocity of consciousness” that happens in our collective existence. We only know who we are in being known by others. Persons exist only in the plural because being known structures inter-dependence and mutuality. Relationality is therefore an obligating feature of personhood. In other words, it is integral to personhood.This obligating feature of personhood is actualized through the vehicle of love, irrespective of an individual’s ability to actualize their potentiality. This vehicle of love is not self-generative, rather it has a source in God. It is fundamentally rooted in the nature of God, as seen within the archetypal community of Trinity. God does not learn to love; God is love. Likewise, Augustine understands the Trinity in terms of love, and more precisely by the analogy of the triad of Lover, Beloved, and the Love that exists between them. God is not reducible in his nature any further down than these three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, in loving relation with each other. This radical idea, found not through reason but through revelation, has left its indelible mark on human history, particularly here in the West. Spaemann (2006) argues that this love, rooted in the nature of God, is fundamental to our personhood in that it is not directed merely to personal properties. If it did, it would only be a utilitarian relationship, whereby we would end up personalizing objects and objectifying persons. Our personhood is subject to the kind of thing we are, not on what we are able to do. Therefore, the unique dignity and worth of a person is not impaired by his or her physical or cognitive limitations. Rather, such limitations in individuals offer us an opportunity to reflect on our own personhood. By entering a relationship with those with limitations in love we demonstrate that our personhood cannot be reduced to any property or function. They encourage the best in human beings: human self-respect, compassion, and intrinsic worth and dignity. As “relational beings", we are also “responsible beings”, and the scope of our responsibility extends beyond our fellow beings. In the economy of salvation, God acknowledges our frailty, the fact that we are made from the same stuff as everything else (Gen. 2:7), and that we share the limitations and contingencies of the physical universe. Yet He does not justify the exploitation of the rest of creation. Rather, he accentuates and amplifies the creation/dominion mandate given to humanity and calls us to be enablers and cultivators of creation’s full potential. As the accountable overseers of God’s creation, we are called to be the image-bearers of God as Persons. Our task is to untether personhood from the seemingly reigning naturalistic framework and re-enchant our world with the right hermeneutics of personhood and to prevent personhood from getting collapsed into peoples’ minds. As persons, we are crowned with glory and honor (Psalm 8, ESV) and are willed to share in the life of the Trinity. We have a duty to baptize all thoughts with the truth of the gospel and help orient hearts and direct their intentions towards the Creator, from whom we derive our identity and dignity.
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