Persons and Selves
Harre (Rom)
Source: Peacocke & Gillett - Persons and Personality: A Contemporary Inquiry, 1987, Chapter 6
Paper - Abstract

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Editors’ Abstract1

  1. Rom Harre 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. It provides each of us with an organizing principle or concept to bring to bear on our experience, and thereby also provides us with first-person knowledge.
  2. We learn as individuals the judgements and practices of reflective commentary that are applied to and by individuals within a social setting. By thus acquiring the knack of referring to ourselves and making the sort of judgements about ourselves that others might make, we each become conscious of self as an active being and are able to stand back from ourselves in thought. Hence, self-reflective judgements avail themselves of the kinds of predicates that we use in talking of others and are influenced by the beliefs current in our community of reference. Self-consciousness2 is the learned ability to speak, and thereby to think, of oneself in ways that spring from our encounters with other thinking beings.
  3. Harre claims that the self is not some inner entity, but an intersubjective mode of being. The way in which this should encourage us to think about persons is sufficiently revolutionary, he thinks, to overturn many of the traditional notions clustering around their purported significance.

Author’s Introduction (The Case For Synthetic Unity)
  1. There has been a marked tendency in recent philosophy to use the word 'person' for the most general category encompassing human beings. Persons are said to have mental powers and to be embodied; they are to be morally protected, as well as held morally responsible for at least some of their doings. It is persons who are said to be aware of the world, persons who act and feel. The self, the still centre of experience, that to which conscious states of all kinds are ascribed, has disappeared from the philosophical scene, the last wraithlike appearance of the ghost of the Cartesian ego. Yet, although the fact of human identity seems to be secured through the use of the concept of 'persons', it is not clear that our sense of self has thereby been accounted for. Persons, human beings as individuals, are recognized in public and collective practices, conversing, praising and blaming, playing rugby and then commenting on the game, and so on. But it seems to me quite plain that the persons recognized are not the unified subjective organizations of memory, perception, agency, and so on.
  2. An argument for holding on to this distinction in some form can be found in the fact that simpler 'minded' beings such as chimpanzees seem to live in a framework which includes the recognition of the fact of personal identity, while at the same time there is evidence to suggest that their sense of identity is weak. Here are rudimentary persons who are probably not rudimentary selves. Contemplating the lives of such creatures, one may wonder what it is like to be a chimp. In one way it must be very like being a human being. One's experience of the physical world is centred on oneself, and specifically on one's head. When a chimp feels pain in a foot, it apprehends it at much the same location as a foot for a human being. Functionally, at least, a chimp must perceive the physical world as a thing among things. But we have no reason to believe that a chimp could formulate such a thought. In short, we have no reason to think that even the most sophisticated chimp has a concept of itself as a subject of affective and activity-oriented attributes. Even the famous experiment in which a chimp was shown its face in a mirror with a spot of paint on its forehead and tried to scrape it off shows only a grasp of indexicality to itself as a public being It is a self-consciousness3 of stage fright, which need involve no self-awareness at all, but only a sense of how others may see our public and social being.
  3. The concept of 'person' seems to be embedded in all sorts of communal human practices. We could say that a human being acquires a concept of 'self' in gaining mastery over pushing and pulling, hitting and being hit, in peekaboo game, in praising and blaming the public performances of himself and others, in promising, and so on. But chimps have social practices not unlike some of these. Hence, if human beings have, in addition, a sense of self as an inner unity, what is its nature, and whence does it come? Tradition offers two possible answers. First, it might be that human beings, each and almost everyone of us, make an empirical discovery; 'Eureka! I'm a self.' We might imagine each of us as a kind of infant Husserl, sliding down the epoches to a realization that there must be a centre of the Eigenheit, and that it is ‘I’. But student philosophers, with a cheerful confidence acquired in disposing of the resemblance theory of primary qualities, move on to dispose of the empirical self. The second answer was invented to deal with Hume's troubles with his elusive self. The 'self’ is no longer a kind of thing. Rather, it is a structure a unity imposed on the flux of sensations by an active, minded being. I think this is right, but in pursuing the question of how it is possible, and making some guesses as to how each of us manages to achieve it, we will stumble on some quite startling results.
  4. Interestingly, Hume seems to have had a synthetic theory before Kant. But it was Kant who thought that a synthesis required an active noumenal being - that is, one who is beyond all possible experience. In other words, syntheses do not just happen; they are brought about. But we can do better than this, for we can do without the noumenal. There are plenty of active beings in the universe with an interest in synthesizing minds. Colloquially, each of us call them 'Mum' and 'Dad'. Hence I propose to update synthesis theory, drawing from the rather similar ideas of Mead and Vygotsky. There is a social source for the inner organization of the conscious contents, emotional fluxes, intentions to act, and so on of human beings, just as remote from personal experience as the noumenal, but not half so mysterious. My argument for this thesis turns on the spelling out and defence of what I call the 'axiom of development'.
  5. This axiom has three clauses.
    • First, people treat babies as persons from the moment of their first appearance. (This use of 'their', readers may be interested to learn, was suppressed by Act of Parliament in the early years of the nineteenth century, an act about as effective as that suppressing wigs.)
    • Second, by copying their every word and gesture as best he can, a baby seems to be treating those around him as persons.
    • Third, among the ways of speaking and acting that a baby imitates is the way in which other people treat him as a person.
    No empirical discovery of an inner self is even hinted at in this story of public events.
  6. In acquiring these (partially linguistic, partially deictic) practices, a baby also acquires a concept of himself. In teaching infants to talk, point to things, and so on, people-makers provide their infant with a sense of self. That is the developmental axiom; but it needs to be spelled out in some detail if it is to carry conviction as a theory of the unity of mind.
  7. The undefined, inexplicated element in it is the idea of being treated as a person. What is it to be so treated? I want to emphasize three main ways of being treated as a person.
    • First, there is a linguistic way. There are special ways of referring to persons, by proper names, or, more usually with infants, pet names. And there are special things that are said to people about people; characteristically, people are ascribed intentions, wants, emotions, feelings, memories, and the like, even in the cradle.
    • Second, there is psychological symbiosis. Long before there is the faintest hint of a discourse controlled by the infant, mothers, particularly, ascribe very sophisticated cognitive abilities and morale sensibilities to their children. Recent work by developmental psychologists has shown that mothers (and I daresay fathers will also be included in this claim when they have been studied) interact with their offspring in terms of psychological attributes that they assign to the infant.
    • Third, there is the way in which we comment on the quality and worth of other people's ideas, judgements, actions, and so on. This often takes the form of an epistemic commentary, and employs phrases like 'I think he's right,' 'I don't believe he's really ill,' 'I'm sure she'll come,' and so on.
  8. It is worth noting that all these ways of treating infants are characteristic of how we treat favoured domestic animals. But only very few, if any, of the latter ever pick up the trick for themselves. In learning these practices, I will claim, a nascent member of the human community picks up the concept of 'person'. I will argue that it is that concept which serves as a source of a unifying concept of 'self’. Students of Mead will recognize this suggestion as an amplification of Mead's idea of the origin of the self in public practices. Admirers of Vygotsky will recognize that mental organization is imposed on a native endowment that lacks intrinsic order by appropriation from public practice.



In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: Taken from "Peacocke (Arthur) & Gillett (Grant) - Persons and Personality: Introduction".


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  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2018
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)



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