- For centuries, one might venture to assert, the idea of the 'person' has been a central concern of the humanities, especially theology, and has been an abiding topic of inquiry in ethics; yet a very wide range of conceptions of the human person and of what constitutes personality continue to be held. These underlying conceptions, or preconceptions actually, since they are often implicit rather than explicit, underlie many contemporary controversies regarding the ethical implications of scientific and medical research and practice.
- The diversity of conceptions is itself generated by the diversity of disciplines and perspectives involved, disciplines and perspectives which take account of a multiplicity of features of the perceived data concerning the 'person'; but inevitably they converge in the questions they raise:
- Is a person a body with an essential inner, or 'spiritual', self which confers a special status on all our discussion of these areas?
- Or is a person merely a biological entity around which we have woven a tracery of elaborate metaphor?
- Does the human mind represent a dimension which is different from that explored by physical science?
- Can human beings come to a true knowledge of themselves?
- Can we arrive at a rational conception of human worth?
- How can human organisms be said to know a transcendent God?
- It is within this complex of connected questions that the significance of persons will be examined here. Because persons are not only entities in the world, but are also conscious of it, think about it, and seek to understand it, such questions constantly confront them. We wonder about the origin and meaning of the world and of human life within it, and attempt to understand the mysteries which surround us. In this activity we are dependent on our minds, which tend both to a critical contemplation of what they encounter and to a deeply personal involvement in it.
- So it is not surprising that much of the discussion in this book centres on the human mind. But not exclusively; for, if there is one thing on which the contributors might be said to agree, it is that 'mind', conceived of as pure ratiocination, is by itself an inadequate designation for the concept of 'person'. But this leaves open what an adequate designation might be. Hence our authors represent a variety of philosophies - naturalism, reductionism, existentialism, dualism, theism, and others less easily labelled.
- This volume opens with two contributions that represent a polarity that is not merely contemporary, but that has deep roots both in the Enlightenment and further back in Greek philosophy. It is the polarity between a materialist, reductionist understanding of human beings, on the one hand, and a theistic dualism which affirms that the 'soul' is the essential component of human personhood, on the other. These two extremes are represented here by Dr Peter Atkins and Professor Richard Swinburne, respectively, whose papers have been given first place to act, as it were, as markers, by reference to which the ensuing chapters and discussions may be situated.
- "Atkins (Peter) - Purposeless People" sets out to explain how persons are no more than random products of a few simple causal processes.
- "Swinburne (Richard) - The Structure of the Soul" takes the Cartesian position, arguing that man is a dual creature comprising body and soul as two distinct components.
- At this early point in the book, it will already have become clear to the reader that there are potentially serious linguistic confusions concerning the use of the word 'person'. More sophisticated philosophical analysis is therefore crucial, and for this we turn to Mr David Wiggins and Dr Grant Gillett.
- "Wiggins (David) - The Person as Object of Science, as Subject of Experience, and as Locus of Value" addresses the philosophical problems of our concept of a person. He identifies three elements which need to be brought into a single focus: the notions of the person as biological entity, subject of consciousness, and bearer of ethical attributes.
- Philosophical analysis is further pursued by "Gillett (Grant) - Reasoning About Persons", who in his title alludes to (the then recent) "Parfit (Derek) - Reasons and Persons". Gillett emphasizes that the concept of a person must be regarded as the keystone of our conception of mind, and stresses its importance in understanding our experience of the world.
- Dr Gillett's presentation is followed by a response from Mr Derek Parfit2 ("Parfit (Derek) - A Response (to Gillett - Reasoning About Persons)"). He challenges Gillett's interpretation of brain bisection cases, and then goes on to discuss teletransportation and the production of a psychophysical replica of a given person.
- Now it is widely accepted among developmental psychologists that the sense of being a 'person' is intimately linked with our interaction with other persons, especially during early childhood. Moreover, social anthropological studies have revealed how the conceptions that people have of themselves as persons vary historically and geographically, as is well expounded in a recent volume3 that explores the implications and subsequent studies inspired by a seminal lecture of Marcel Mauss in 1938. In the present volume, this approach is represented principally by the next two chapters, one by a philosopher of science in general and of psychology in particular, Mr Rom Harre, and one by a student of jurisprudence, Mr Richard Tur.
- "Harre (Rom) - Persons and Selves" suggests that each of us forms a concept of self informed by the concept of person operative in the dealings we have with others. The concept that each of us has will be a joint product of common human tendencies and capacities and our particular cultural context.
- Law has always been an instrument whereby the relations between what we call 'persons' have been regulated. Hence it is not surprising that it has always had to operate, implicitly or explicitly, with some kind of working definition of the entities between which relations are being legally regulated. "Tur (Richard) - The 'Person' in Law" turns first to Roman law.
1|At this point, we look at concepts of the person operating in another profession, medicine. "Fulford (William) - Is Medicine a Branch of Ethics" shows how ethical theory can be employed to restore what Dr. Fulford calls the patient-as-a-person to a properly central place in the concerns of everyday medical practice.
- "Storr (Anthony) - Jung's Concept of Personality" then examines the conception of personality advocated by one of the most influential thinkers of this century, Carl Jung, who was trained in medicine and then in psychiatry at the time when the latter was taking on its modern form.
- "Nuttall (Anthony) - Personality and Poetry" is also concerned with the human psyche, preferring the Platonic term psuche, which includes mind, intelligence, and character, to the term 'soul', with its religious overtones. Like Plato, Mr. Anthony Nuttall believes that there are many real and important things in the world, such as justice and other abstract universals4, which are not simply physical facts, and that the psyche is one such fact, albeit with the difference that it may not be timeless, or immortal.
- At this point, we move on to theological views of the person, and more specifically, Christian views. "Macquarrie (John) - A Theology of Personal Being" considers three aspects of what it is to be a human person: first that persons are always 'beings-on-the-way', beings in the process of change; second, he stresses the world-involving nature of human life; finally, Macquarrie stresses that we are 'being-with-others'.
- We turn next to "Thatcher (Adrian) - Christian Theism and the Concept of a Person", in which Dr Adrian Thatcher examines a number of different uses of the concept person, specifically with regard to how these might be applied to the personal God in whom Christians believe.
- Thatcher speaks of the 'mystery' of God and of the claim that a particular person in history is the means by which this mystery is disclosed. But there is a reciprocity involved in such a disclosure, for there is a mystery about persons, as Dr Kallistos Ware emphasizes at the beginning of the final chapter, "Ware (Timothy) - The Unity of the Human Person According to the Greek Fathers". He quotes David Jenkins as saying that 'The mystery of the fact of being a person' cannot be 'reduced to the facts of the appropriate sciences'; and he himself goes on to assert that 'The reality of our personhood is far more than any explanation that we choose to give it'.
- One cannot help wondering at this point whether the polarities represented by the first two contributors have not in some way been transcended already in the very biblical thinking of these early Christian writers. It is not for us, as editors, to pronounce on this, but rather to encourage the reader to follow a trail in search of appropriate and sufficiently rich conceptions of the person and of personality, mindful that this may lead to a growing sense of mystery regarding the nature of what is sought.
Footnote 1: Except Chapter abstract have been removed to the relevant Chapters.
Footnote 3: See "Carrithers (Michael), Collins (Steven) & Lukes (Steven) - The Category of the Person: Anthropology, philosophy, history", Cambridge 1985.
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2018
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)