- “I know that I exist”, says Descartes’s meditator, in the Second Meditation, “but I do not yet know what I am.” Actually, of course, all of us know perfectly well what we are – we are human beings. And Descartes, too, knew this perfectly well. Writing outside the artificial and rarefied context of the Meditations, he was perfectly clear that each of us is a creature of flesh and blood, with arms and legs, able to move around the world, see and hear, using our eyes and ears, and all the rest of it. I am a specimen of a certain biological species that we now call homo sapiens. I’m not some incorporeal spirit mysteriously lodged in a body like a sailor in a ship (and indeed Descartes himself went on to make just this point in the Sixth Meditation); on the contrary, I am a genuine human being, un vrai homme, as Descartes elsewhere put it, or, in Latin, verus homo.
- Given that we all know quite well that we are human beings, why do so many philosophers today prefer to use a different term, and say that we are “persons”. It’s amazing how quickly professional philosophers get used to special bits of jargon, and cease to hear them as jargon. A good example is “normativity”, now standardly used to refer to evaluative or prescriptive language, to the special authoritative force of moral principles – we’ve got so used to it that we have forgotten how opaque this term is to ordinary educated speakers of English who are not professional philosophers. Jargon should in my view always be avoided in philosophy, partly because it’s so often employed (whether consciously or not) in order to intimidate, and partly because it encourages the delusion that philosophy is like a science, aimed at acquiring technical or specialized knowledge, instead of being about understanding – fitting the knowledge we already have into an intelligible framework.
- You may think that “person” is not a piece of jargon, but a perfectly ordinary English word. So it is, in ordinary usage, as when we say “she’s a very nice person” But notice that the plural of this ordinary innocuous term is “people”, as in “the teachers at this university are very nice people”. People in this sense are simply human beings – we are back to the basic common-sense meaning of the term ‘person’, which is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘an individual human being, man, woman or child’.
- But “person”, as a piece of philosophical jargon is different, and the difference is signalled by the fact that its plural is not “people” but “persons”. Lawyers, those other great lovers of jargon, sometimes use this term in drafting rules “persons proceeding beyond this point do so at their own risk” – but that’s probably just a piece of pompous grandiloquence: “people proceeding beyond this point” would do just as well (though there are other legal contexts, for example when corporations are treated for certain purposes as “persons”, where the jargon may have some point). Outside of the law, the other main setting I can think of where “person” has a technical sense is in the faintly absurd English class system of the early part of the twentieth century (as depicted for example in the novels of P. G. Woodhouse or Dorothy Sayers), where “person”, plural “persons” was used to indicate people of supposedly inferior social rank who therefore did not qualify as gentlemen or ladies.
- It is interesting – and sensible – that Cottingham thinks it’s obvious that we are2 human beings3.
- In case we might be worried by what “human beings4” are, he clarifies this as “members of the species homo sapiens5”, adding in a footnote that discoveries about our origins raise interesting philosophical questions about what it is to be human which “merit further discussion”, though he doesn’t say where6.
- He rightly dislikes needless jargon in philosophy, as it leads to opacity for educated non-philosophers, and thinks the philosophical use of “person7” is a case in point. In particular he dislikes the plural “persons” rather than “people”.
- I disagree – as I do with Eric Olson’s usage. If “person8” is simply equated with “human being”, in a dictionary sense, we lose an important philosophical distinction. Cottingham admits – in a footnote – that “Person” and “Human Being” are not synonymous for the usual two reasons:
- There are the specialised uses about to appear, and
- There can be non-human persons, such as aliens and mythological creatures.
For the full text, see Cottingham - Why we are not 'persons'.
Footnote 4: Footnote 6:
- This isn’t a balanced appraisal as I’ve ignored – and intend to ignore – anything not strictly relevant to my concerns, interesting though it may be.
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