Picture: Minotaur. The latest edition of the JCS is devoted to personhood, a key issue which certainly deserves the attention. I’m afraid (or perhaps we should be glad?) there are a number of quite different and possibly incompatible perspectives on offer. I thought Eric T Olson’s animal problems, expounded in a careful and rather despairing paper (“What are we?”, were interesting, but not quite as bad as he thinks.

The issue addressed by the paper, as the title suggests, is that of the nature of human people. Is a person a substance or a process? Persistent over time? Composed of parts, spatially or temporally? Material or non-material? Are we, in fact, anything at all?

One possible stance is that we are simply animals. Probably most of us wouldn’t want to say that that is the end of the story, but Olson points out that there does seem to be, as it were, an animal corresponding to each of us. If we’re not the animal, and we do the thinking, what’s the animal doing? Thinking the same things in pre-established harmony? That seems strange – and if its thoughts are the same as ours, how could we be sure whose thoughts are which? Perhaps the animal doesn’t think – but why not: it has a brain and shows lots of signs of mental activity? The idea that the animal might have different thoughts of its own, not corresponding with ours, seems quite bizarre, and difficult to sustain given the way its behaviour matches our thoughts so well.

There’s something a little weird about this reasoning. If Olson chose to deny that the animal thinks, he would merely (!) be faced with the problem of why its behaviour matches our thoughts, which appears to be just a somewhat different slant on the classic mind-body problem as we know and love it.

But he doesn’t want to do that, and in fact he goes on to consider a re-application of similar reasoning. Because, after all, for each animal there is also a ‘lump of flesh’. The lump of flesh is intimately linked with the animal – if we were so inclined we might say that it constitutes it – but it can’t just be identified with the animal. After death the lump might persist in the absence of the animal, or given a partial carnal swap of some kind, the animal might survive longer than this particular lump. So again, then, is it the animal that does the thinking, the lump of flesh, or both?

I think the shift to another level give us the clue to the real nature of the problem. Aren’t we really just dealing with the well-established fact that the same thing can have different properties when described in different ways? This isn’t a unique feature of people or animals. My car may be referred to as the lump of metal in the drive, my prime means of transport, and my chief contribution to global warming, and it has slightly different properties in each case. But once understood, this sort of thing is not normally felt to be the kind of issue we need to lie awake at night fretting over.

There again, perhaps it’s a more bothersome issue when it applies to us. Our life seems to unfold on many different levels, yet consciousness seems undeniably single. Must we plump for one final way of describing ourselves in ourselves, with the others demoted to secondary status (is the subconscious where the real me is to be found?) or do we somehow have to think that our experienced unity is really a pandemonic chorus?

My personal inclination is to think that personhood resides in the single place where consciousness gives rise to agency, and that the animal (to describe myself in those unflattering terms) has, qua animal, a purely supporting role in that crucial process.


  1. 1. A. P. Burke says:

    I agree that this problem–the definitional residence of my ‘self’–that unique quality of being that transcends most catagories so as to unite them all–is certainly arresting. I used to joke rhetorically, asking my christian friends, “when I take a s**t does my soul do so as well?” I am not so cynical as to ask the question in the same way anymore, but I think the same sort of question is there.

  2. 2. Peter says:

    Yes, there are certainly serious issues behind the joke. When I come to think about it, I find it quite difficult to imagine what a satisfactory incorporeal afterlife could be like. I like to think of myself as having a leaning towards intellectual pleasures, but it’s still the case that almost everything that makes my life satisfactory is closely connected with my biological and social embodiment. It seems difficult to imagine subsisting eternally merely on – what, pure knowledge, pure consciousness? Perhaps I could change in a way that would make that possible, but the change would be so radical it raises doubts about whether the result would still actually be me.

  3. 3. Tesfaye says:

    Is the result actually me?

    How are the timeless individual ontological experiences, which seem like a blissful special experience of eternity, difficult to communicate…in the dimension of any human language?

    The result may be me..But looking at it as an insignificant and irrelevant agent which has played in the earlier existence a role which is overdimensioned….


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