Humans, Nonhumans and Personhood
Mitchell (Robert)
Source: Cavalieri & Singer - The Great Ape Project - Equality Beyond Humanity
Paper - Abstract

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Editors’ Introduction

  1. Robert Mitchell teaches in the Department of Psychology at Eastern Kentucky University. He has assisted on projects studying the linguistic abilities of dolphins, a parrot, and an orang-utan, and has been actively engaged in theoretical and empirical examinations of deception, pretence, imitation and mirror self-recognition in humans and nonhumans.
  2. He co-edited (with N. S. Thompson) Deception: Perspectives on Human and Nonhuman Deceit, the first book on deception in humans and nonhumans, and is currently co-editing (with S. T. Parker and M. Boccia) Self-awareness in Animals and Humans, to be published by Cambridge University Press, as well as (with N. S. Thompson and H. Lyn White Miles) a book entitled Animals, Anecdotes and Anthropomorphism.
  3. In this chapter he asks whether apes can be persons in the full sense1 of the term.

Author’s Introduction (Arbitrarily truncated)
  1. Are chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans persons2? In this chapter I explore this question, which is obviously relevant to the proposal that these great apes be included in the community of equals3 and granted some basic rights4. I consider the question of personhood from a particular philosophical position in relation to nonhumans in general, and then discuss implications of my findings for the proposal.
  2. In his novel The Day of the Dolphin, Robert Merle presents a view of dolphins as persons5 - that is, as self-conscious beings with some control over their own activities, who reflect (via language) about these activities and have a moral sense. It was this image which initially prompted me to assist on projects to teach dolphins (and a parrot) language-like communication. Although after working with these animals I was at a loss as to whether they were persons, the research led me to try to find in nonhumans evidence of the concomitants of personhood: verbal communication, self-reflection and the knowledge that others are persons. This last kind of knowledge can only come about through some system of communication which allows for expression of self-consciousness.
  3. On one persuasive view of what it is to be a person, that I am a person requires, at some point in the development of personhood, that I recognise that you recognise that I have consciousness. Thus, there seems to be a triple reflection of consciousness necessary for personhood: ‘The ego, the I, cannot truly emerge . . . without doubling itself with an ego in the eyes of the other.'
  4. These and other requirements for personhood are neatly arranged in a conceptual scheme by "Dennett (Daniel) - Conditions of Personhood". In his analysis, personhood derives first from three mutually interdependent characteristics: being rational, being intentional and being perceived as rational and intentional. Once a being is acknowledged to have these three characteristics, personhood requires that the being reciprocate by perceiving others as rational and intentional; next the being must be capable of verbal communication and finally of self-consciousness. These last three characteristics are hierarchically dependent, building upon the first three.
  5. None of these characteristics (except the last) need be recognised as such by the being, and, as Dennett suggests, most intelligent beings exhibit the first four. Thus, the big problem in discerning whether a being is a person is discerning whether the being communicates verbally and is self-conscious. With most mature human beings, verbal communication and self-consciousness seem obviously present, but with nonhumans and some humans, both characteristics are not obvious. By self-consciousness, Dennett means that one is capable of reflective self-evaluation, that is, of ‘adopting toward oneself the stance not simply of communicator but of . . . reason-asker and persuader’. Dennett bases his definition of verbal communication upon "Grice (H. Paul) - Meaning"’s theory of non-natural meaning, which entails that, by producing some utterance, an utterer intends for another to recognise the utterer’s intention for the other to do or believe something as a result of the utterance. Only if there is evidence of verbal communication should we expect evidence of self-consciousness. The question thus becomes, given that nonhumans are without speech, how are we to discern any of their (potentially) verbal communications?
  6. The best answer was, I think, provided by Bateson in his analysis of metacommunication in nonhuman play. Bateson was concerned with the evolution of verbal communication, and wondered how a non-linguistic being could develop a system of communication that could lead to communication of the human sort. He suggested that the being could simulate its activities, and make the fact of simulation apparent to other beings. Bateson believed, for example, that monkeys playfighting were acting as if fighting (that is, were simulating fighting), yet were indicating that they were not fighting by making it evident that they were not fighting. Although Bateson’s analysis of playfighting by most monkeys may be inaccurate, his suggestion that recognition of one’s own or another’s simulation is a way in which nonlinguistic beings could develop verbal communication is intriguing. Is there any evidence that nonhuman beings recognise, create and / or communicate via simulation?
  7. Such evidence generally involves intentional imitation. For example, the sign-taught orang-utan Chantek imitated a two-dimensional photograph of a gorilla pointing to her nose. To perform this imitation, Chantek must have known how he would look when he performed the action depicted in the visual image, as well as how it would feel to create this action with his own body. He must have been able to translate from the visual image to his own kinesthetic sensations - that is, to sensations of his own 'bodily position, presence, or movement’. This translation of a visual image to a kinesthetic act which resembles (simulates) the visual image is intriguing in that it implies that Chantek has a cross-modal representation of his body, which itself implies that Chantek has an imaginal representation of himself. Often such cross-modal imitation is in the form of pretence: a rhesus monkey carried and repositioned a coconut shell in direct imitation of a rhesus mother’s carrying and repositioning her infant, and the sign-taught chimpanzee Washoe bathed a doll as her human care-givers had bathed her. These pretend imitations again imply that the imitator has a capacity for translation between visual experiences and kinesthetic representations of him/herself, such that the imitator presumably could know how to effect actions based upon a visual mental image of him/herself engaging in an action. The surprising thing about most instances of nonhuman imitation and pretence is that there is no aspect of communication: the animal seems content to be engaged by the simulation without any attempt to engage another in the fact of simulation. Can beings who imitate their visual experiences create visual experiences based on imitation for other beings? That is, can they communicate via simulation?
  8. While there are few instances of cross-modal imitation in non-humans, there are even fewer instances of communicative imitation, that is, of simulation which one being uses to inform another of its simulativeness and thereby to metacommunicate intentionally and produce non-natural meaning. Communication of non-natural meaning is, of course, a direct test of verbal communication, and one which usually involves simulation of some sort. …

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: Footnote 3:

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