One of the oldest questions we have about ourselves.
November 21, 2014 10:53 AM   Subscribe

Personhood Week: Why We’re So Obsessed with Persons, by Virginia Hughes (@virginiahughes), National Geographic:
"People have been trying to define personhood for a long time, maybe since the beginning of people. The first recorded attempt came from Boethius, a philosopher from 6th-Century Rome, who said a person was 'an individual substance of rational nature.' Fast-forward a thousand years and Locke says it's about rationality, self-awareness, and memory. Kant adds that humans have 'dignity,' an intrinsic ability to freely choose. In 1978, Daniel Dennett says it's intelligence, self-awareness, language, and being 'conscious in some special way' that other animals aren't. The next year Joseph Fletcher lays out 15 criteria (!), including a sense of futurity, concern for others, curiosity, and even IQ."
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome (10 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
(Herzog notes, however, that not all popular dog references spur people to own them: The incredibly popular Taco Bell ad campaign had no effect on Chihuahua registrations.)

Really? Huh, I always heard it led to a pretty big spike in popularity. Anyway, I was hoping for more of the "Are animals persons?" discussion there rather than, "Why do we like pets?"

The conception is a process article is very good easy to follow breakdown. I might try running it by somebody who is die hard on conception being the moment a person comes into existence to see what they think.
posted by Drinky Die at 11:06 AM on November 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I might try running it by somebody who is die hard on conception being the moment a person comes into existence to see what they think.

Don't hold your breath. I was at the Ohio statehouse yesterday when they voted to bring the "heartbeat" bill out of committee. There was some very moving testimony by someone who had to have an abortion of a non-viable, but still-had-a-heart-beat fetus. Part of her testimony was "Hey, there's disagreement about when life begins". She brought up Jewish teachings in particular (which focus on viability/first breath), but also mentioned fertilization/conception, implantation, brain wave activity, etc.

Later, this point of view was equated by one of the pro-lifers to thinking that slavery was OK ("Well, people disagreed about slavery!"). So, yeah, good luck.
posted by damayanti at 12:11 PM on November 21, 2014

Plus, our navels are so pretty. Let's all stare at them now.
posted by sexyrobot at 12:59 PM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Plus, our navels are so pretty. Let's all stare at them now.
posted by sexyrobot

posted by Foosnark at 2:19 PM on November 21, 2014

There is a whole area of academic philosophy devoted to so-called 'personal identity'. It is fascinating but also very technical after a while. (Read: years of essays and reading, etc.)

Persons are just animals, not thinking things, is the best modern argument I've heard. Otherwise, you'd be sharing a body with an animal, where "you" is some sort of mind, defined by psychological features like memory.

The animalism view was made known by a philosopher called Olson in the early 2000s, I believe. That view is surprisingly unfashionable. The other brilliant philosopher in this space is Derek Parfit, who wrote Reasons and Persons.

Below is one of my favorite modern philosophy thought experiments, from Olson, but excerpted from Stanford Enyclopedia of Philosophy entry. (Spacing is mine.)

...the organism that is your body would appear to think and to be conscious. In fact it would seem to be psychologically indistinguishable from you.

So if you are not that animal but something else, it follows that there is a conscious, intelligent being other than you, now sitting there and reading this entry.

More generally, there are at least two conscious, intelligent beings wherever we thought there was just one: a person who is not an organism and an organism that is (presumably) not a person.

Moreover, it seems that you ought to wonder which of the two thinkers is you. You may believe that you are the person and not the animal (because you accept the Psychological Approach, perhaps).

But the animal would seem to believe, for the same reason, that it is a person and not an organism. If so, it is mistaken.

And for all you know, you might be the one making this mistake. If you were the animal and not the person, you would never be any the wiser.

The idea that you share the same breath and literal physical space with another distinct being is actually very unsettling, and was the source of one of my worst nightmares.

I felt that I was in my body and breathing but then slowly realized the thing that was breathing in my body was not me, but another creature. And I thought I was awake, and lucid, and I couldn't move.

In Thai, that type of dream paralysis accompanied by a horror image is known as a "ghost sitting on your chest as you sleep", and is an explanation for why you can't wake up. If you fail to wake up from such a dream you die.

posted by niphates at 2:20 PM on November 21, 2014 [5 favorites]

I've been searching for a word that means "thinking about the future" for the research I am currently doing, and I think "futurity" is it! I've been looking at information behaviors in chronic illness, and I've been using the term "future forecasting" to describe a specific type of information search where people are trying to understand what will happen to them as their illness progresses - "the tremendous shadows that futurity casts upon the present" is exactly what I'm trying to describe.

So, I know that wasn't the purpose of this post, but that one little word is incredibly useful to me, so thank you!
posted by k8lin at 4:29 PM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Another, similar word about "thinking about the future" is "futility".
posted by telstar at 6:01 PM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I defer to the great Bill Hick's opinion on this one, "You're not a human until you're in my phone book.”
posted by mikelieman at 11:03 PM on November 21, 2014

Yeah, actually, I initially read "sense of futurity" as "sense of futility," and I didn't bat an eye at the idea that it was a necessary criterion for personhood.
posted by webmutant at 1:15 AM on November 22, 2014

This is really thoughtful stuff; I wish the pieces were longer - and I don't often wish that.
posted by Segundus at 12:52 PM on November 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

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