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Daniel Dennett – Conditions of Personhood

(Text as at 18/12/2010 19:58:05)

(For earlier versions of this Note, see the table at the end)


Dennett suggests that the concepts of “person” and “human being” are not necessarily co-extensive. He also distinguishes the two intertwined notions of personhood – moral and metaphysical. He defends the following 6 “themes” as necessary conditions of personhood:

  1. Persons are rational beings.
  2. Persons are beings to which states of consciousness are attributed, or to which psychological or mental or intentional predicates are ascribed.
  3. Whether something counts as a person depends in some way on an attitude taken toward it, a stance adopted with respect to it.
  4. The object toward which this personal stance is taken must be capable of reciprocating in some way.
  5. Persons must be capable of verbal communication.
  6. Persons are distinguishable from other entities by being conscious in some special way: there is a way in which we are conscious in which no other species is conscious. Sometimes this is identified as self-consciousness of one sort or another.
Dennett addresses 3 issues to do with these 6 themes:
  1. How (on his interpretation) are these 6 themes dependent on one another?
  2. Why are they necessary conditions of moral personhood?
  3. Why is it so hard to say whether they are jointly sufficient conditions for moral personhood?
In this essay, rather than address Dennett’s 3 issues directly, I wish to address the following 6 questions:
  1. Is Dennett right to separate the concepts of “person” and “human being”?
  2. Is Dennett right to distinguish moral from metaphysical personhood?
  3. Has Dennett the right set of themes?
  4. Has Dennett found the right interdependencies and priorities amongst his themes.
  5. What are Dennett’s reasons for predicating these conditions of personhood?
  6. Finally, is Dennett guided by a natural kind concept, by social convention or by other factors?
I have to admit that this is a first draft and something of a rushed job. My aim at this stage is to generate ideas quickly rather than ensure the argument is fully rigorous. I’m afraid I’ve used Dennett’s paper more as a jumping off point, and have not considered his actual arguments as much as I should. I’ve included hyperlinks to topics I’ve written before, as a way of airing them and avoiding needless repetition, though the primary aim of this essay is to provide some continuous text for discussion, rather than exemplifying the approach of my research proposal (from where these notes come) which is almost all footnotes.

My aim in reviewing this paper is to get some sort of handle on what a person might be. The aim of my thesis will be to demonstrate that human persons are phase sortals of human animals, and that consequently (given the falsehood of mind/body dualism) that such hoped-for events such as resurrection are metaphysically impossible. I’m not arguing for any of this here, just motivating the consideration of this topic.

Page references are to the 1997 Penguin edition of Brainstorms (Chapter 14).


Persons and Human Beings


Dennett claims that while any reader of his essay has to be person, the reader need not be a human being. The reader could be an alien, for instance. However, as far as I can see, to read Dennett’s essay with reward, only rationality, language use, phenomenal consciousness and intentional states are strictly required. The moral themes seem irrelevant, as does the consciousness of self (though a reader without this concept might find the essay initially rather dull, though maybe enlightening).

So, the reader might not be a moral person by Dennett’s lights. Dennett is probably right, though, that infants, “mental defectives” (how sensibilities have moved on since 1978, or whenever this Chapter was drafted) and the appropriately insane, would not get much out of his offering. However, the contemporary candidates of choice for human non-personhood tend these days to be moved closer to the termini of life, being (early) fetuses and those in a persistent vegetative state (though maybe the question is different – in Olson the question is whether “we” have psychological states essentially, and the claim is that “we” do not since “we” existed as fetuses, and may (for all we now know) persist into a PVS).

However, this leads on to our next question.


Moral and Metaphysical Persons


Dennett’s distinction between moral and metaphysical persons seems to change the topic of the conversation to one I’m less interested in. While it’s not always 100% clear (at least to me), the bulk of his essay is addressed to the topic of moral persons rather than metaphysical persons. Because he agrees that Frankfurt’s ideas about wantons1 are fruitful, Dennett excludes many human beings from the category “person” that I would prefer to include.

However, the motivation behind this distinction is whether or not the term “person” is a “free-floating honorific”, like “chic” (p. 268). He distinguishes the metaphysical notion of person (“an intelligent, conscious, feeling agent”) from that of the moral notion (one “who is accountable, who has both rights and responsibilities”). He wants to know whether being a metaphysical person is a prerequisite for being a moral person, something a metaphysical person can “grow into”, or whether metaphysical persons must be moral persons. He points out that we still in general react to the clinically insane (unless they are very far gone) as though they are metaphysical persons, even though they may not be treated as moral persons. Hence, the two terms are distinct, though being a metaphysical person does seem to be a necessary condition for being a moral person (with the exception of compound persons such as companies).


The Right Set of Themes?


I can’t really do better in defining what I think persons are than does Locke2. An entity for which persistence matters; a thinking thing that can consider itself as itself; that is phenomenally conscious, and has a consciousness of self. This is approximately Dennett’s metaphysical person, though we mustn’t forget that Locke famously considered personhood a forensic3 concept.

Now on to Dennett’s specific themes:
  1. Rationality: I’m not sure how far rationality should be pressed, despite Dennett considering it “the most obvious” (p. 269). I don’t think it’s essential for a metaphysical person. However, the assumption of rationality is essential in all our dealings with other sentient entities (Dennett’s intentional stance won’t work otherwise), so it is probably essential for moral personhood. Even then, “predictability” might be more relevant than rationality.
  2. Intentional Predication: I’m happy with this, as it is a prerequisite for all mindedness (though not a sufficient condition). I’m happy that persons are minded beings, even if human beings aren’t always.
  3. The object of a stance: this seems to suggest that who is a person is in some sense “up to us”. Indeed Dennett says (p. 270) that it’s not just a stance taken in response to a metaphysical person, but is as least partly constitutive of a moral person (I paraphrase). This is definitely a predicate for moral persons only. While it might as a matter of fact be the case that certain metaphysical persons are socially ostracised so as to be treated as moral non-persons, this doesn’t make them non-persons in either the metaphysical sense or the moral sense (for a moral realist).
  4. Reciprocation: Again, this is necessary only for moral persons. A sociopath or convinced solipsist is still a metaphysical person.
  5. Verbal Communication: Presumably Dennett is not disbarring deaf mutes from personhood, nor Stephen Hawking were someone to tread on his laptop. Even so, the possession of a language of thought (along Fodor’s lines) is probably a prerequisite for rationality, but this doesn’t address Dennett’s themes of communication and reciprocal attitudes. Metaphysical persons incapable of communication might not be moral persons. I expect there are large questions about how a sense of self might arise without language. One would need to consider feral children. This might connect to a question I had in connection with the Language Acquisition Thesis (the claim that “learning a language is instrumental in the development of conceptual faculties in a human subject”). See the following link4.
  6. Self-Consciousness: I think this is central to either metaphysical or moral personhood. See below under “Natural Kinds”. Dennett takes this form of consciousness (like language) to be the unique preserve of the human species, though I gather that both claims are not controversial (with the teaching of American Sign Language to bonobos, and the question whether passing the mirror test demonstrates a sense of self).

I have a question whether the properties Dennett requires of persons are their present properties or capacities, or whether entities that will, in the normal course of events, develop into persons, or which have in the past if not in the present possessed such capacities, count as persons. Is the property of being a person inalienable? Clearly capacities are more important than their present exercise (after all, we are not always rational or self-conscious, or even conscious at all; personhood is a state, not an activity).

This relates to whether human persons are phase sortals5,6 of human beings, or whether they are human beings, period. It looks as though Dennett would deny the latter suggestion, given his insistence on certain properties that not all human beings share.

Interdependencies and Priorities amongst the Themes


This will mostly have to wait for future elaboration. Dennett (p. 271) claims that the 6 themes are given in the order of their dependence with the proviso that the first 3 are mutually interdependent. Enough to note here that an item I consider essential to metaphysical personhood, namely self-consciousness, appears at the bottom of Dennett’s list and so is presumably taken to be reliant on predicates only necessary for moral personhood. I would deny this connection.

Why These Themes?


This will also mostly have to be left until a later date.

As I note above, Dennett considers the order of the themes important, and considers that the earlier ones as prerequisites for the later ones. In particular, because we can adopt the intentional stance towards beings such as plants that have no mental states (“it grows that way because it wants to get to the light”), we need to move on to those that have real beliefs and desires. He is worried (p. 273) that we might get the themes in the wrong order by the premature invocation of the conscious knowledge or verbal expressibility of our beliefs to ensure their genuineness, but in any case these conditions are too strong as we have many beliefs that we’re either unaware of or cannot express. This is why he brings in his fourth theme, that of reciprocity. While we can adopt the intentional stance towards plants, they cannot return the favour. He also assumes this reciprocity fails for all non-humans, but I suspect he’s wrong. Maybe this is a step in the right direction, but adopting Frankfurt’s approach (however useful the concept of a wanton is) seems to me to be a step too far in this context (and even in Frankfurt’s context).


What Sort of a Concept is “Person”


At the beginning of his essay, Dennett asks whether the concept of a person is incoherent or obsolete. His answer is that it isn’t, because we cannot cease to regard others, and in particular ourselves as persons without contradiction (and refers us to "Dennett (Daniel) - Mechanism and Responsibility"). I’ve not pursued this question, but suspect that the fact that the question can be asked at all indicates that the concept of person isn’t a natural kind concept, at least not as the term “moral person” is defined by Dennett. There seem to be too many attitudinal issues and those that make certain sorts of societies cohere (even though these may arguably be the best sort).

I don’t seem to have written anything sensible on natural kind7 concepts. Maybe this is a next step. My intuition is that persons, whether metaphysical or moral, aren’t natural kind concepts, and that for human persons the appropriate natural kind concept is “human animal” (or maybe “human being”).

A critical question, however, is whether the emergence of self-consciousness signals the arrival of a new natural kind (as Lynne Rudder Baker alleges, taking “self-consciousness” to be the same as her “first-person perspective”).



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Table of the Previous 2 Versions of this Note:

Date Length Title
21/10/2007 22:48:00 13329 Daniel Dennett – Conditions of Personhood
21/10/2007 14:06:43 11159 Daniel Dennett – Conditions of Personhood



Note last updated Reading List for this Topic Parent Topic
18/12/2010 19:58:05 None available None

Summary of Note Links from this Page

Forensic Property Implicit knowledge and language learning Locke Natural Kinds Phase Sortals
Sortals Wantons      

To access information, click on one of the links in the table above.




Summary of Note Links to this Page

Degrees of Personhood Jen_071022 (Dennett) Persistent Vegetative State Person Status: Personal Identity (Summary of Progress to Date)
Theo Todman's Philosophy Research Papers        

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Authors, Books & Papers Citing this Note

Author Title Medium Extra Links Read?
Dennett (Daniel) Conditions of Personhood Paper High Quality Abstract   Yes
Todman (Theo) Thesis - Degrees of Personhood Paper Medium Quality Abstract   Yes
Todman (Theo) Thesis - Persistent Vegetative State Paper Medium Quality Abstract   Yes
Todman (Theo) Thesis - Person Paper Medium Quality Abstract   Yes



References & Reading List

Author Title Medium Source Read?
Dennett (Daniel) Brainstorms - Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology Book - Cited (via Paper Cited) Low Quality Abstract Bibliographical details to be supplied No
Dennett (Daniel) Brainstorms - Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology Book - Referencing (via Paper Referencing) Low Quality Abstract Bibliographical details to be supplied No
Dennett (Daniel) Conditions of Personhood Paper - Referencing High Quality Abstract Dennett - Brainstorms - Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology, Chapter 14 Yes
Dennett (Daniel) Mechanism and Responsibility Paper - Cited Dennett - Brainstorms - Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology, Chapter 12 No



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  2. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2017




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