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“Person”: Some Approaches in Philosophy

P. F. Strawson regards “person” as a necessary, irreducible concept without which we would be unable to do justice to our first-person experience. “M-predicates,” Strawson argues, refer to the material body (e.g., finger, brain), but they inadequately express what we believe about ourselves; there is, Strawson says, an essential role for “P-predicates” (e.g., in such sentences as “I remember,” “I am warm”; Strawson, 1959, pp. 87-116).

The concept of “person,” including both M- and P-predicates, has for some philosophers a substantial reality in contrast with that of “self’—the very existence of which is contentious. Thus one may point to a person: “He’s over there, the person in the brown suit.” One cannot, on the other hand, point to a self: “Who is that self with the red tie?” The self is an interior, first-person reality to which, according to Plato, I have exclusive access. This is disputed by Aristotle, who points out that friends may show me features of myself of which I was previously ignorant and thus enable me to make more equable moral judgments. However, since I am the person who knows whether or not what friends tell me is true, notwithstanding the fact that I may learn something about myself from interacting with others, I have access to my self, which no one else possesses. Thus I have a responsibility for myself, which I share with no one.

But is there such a thing as the self, and if there is, what is it? Hume rejects the very idea of the self as an object of perception; the self is an illusion because when he looks into himself, he has no firm and consistent impression of his self, only a series of impressions and ideas that he imagines to have reference (Hume, 1951, pp. 46-52, 251-52). But while Hume claims that each time he looks into himself, he has a new impression that brings into question the persistence of the self, he nevertheless later suggests that experience leads him to feel that he is a moral self—the product of emotional experience and subject to consistent development (Hume, 1951, pp. 275-90; Kristjansson, 2010, pp. 46-52).

Searle affirms the reality of the self:

In order to understand my visual perceptions, I have to understand them as occurring from a point of view, but the point of view itself is not something that I see or otherwise perceive . . . The point of view has no substantive features . . . it has to be that point from which my experiences take place . . . Now similarly the notion of a self that I am postulating is a purely formal notion but it is more complex. It has to be an entity, such that one and the same entity has consciousness, perception, rationality, the capacity to engage in action, and the capacity to organize and reason, so as to perform voluntary actions on the presupposition of freedom. If you have got all of that, you have a self. (Searle, 2004, p. 297)

Other views attract interest. Oliver Sacks (1985), Daniel Dennett (1992), and Owen Flanagan (2002), base identity of the self in personal narrative; this approach Galen Strawson contests (Strawson, 2004, pp. 428-52). However, while arguing that personal experience implies the existence of the self, which is a subject of experience, it does not, in his opinion, exist in any material sense because even mental “things” are physical (Strawson, 2009, pp. 281-85). But does this matter when I recognize that I have indubitable knowledge of myself as a subject of experience? Both Galen Strawson and Peter Strawson consistently deny that M-predicates deal adequately with our experience. For Galen Strawson, however, there are “S-predicates” as well as P-predicates and M-predicates. Both Strawsons affirm the idea of free will.

Any narrowly physical perspective is apparently inadequate to cover the concept of “person”; to refer to the person involves more than simply pointing to a body. When I refer to Johnson as personally responsible, I mean more than that Johnson’s material body was the physical cause of the accident. There is a person, we believe, who knows what it means to accept moral responsibility. The whole person may be taken to be body, mind, and spirit, but even that is insufficient to satisfy what the Christian tradition means by imputing selfhood or “soulness” to a person. When one refers to a person, one is identifying a subject and an object that should both be treated with dignity. P. F. Strawson makes this clear when he holds together P-predicates and M-predicates in coming to terms with the ordinary experience of being a person (Strawson, 1959, pp. 104-6). For the Christian, however, person is more than body but less than self, which involves the notion of “soul.”

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