A Conversation on Personhood: Part I

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part dialogue on personhood by RJ Snell and Matthew Penza. “RJ” and “Matthew” in the dialogue are fictionalized versions of the authors. Matthew may have written or modified significant portions of RJ’s speech, and vice versa.


The scene: Guyot Hall, room 10, on Wednesday 19 April 2017 at 4:30 p.m. Princeton Pro-Life has invited Dr. RJ Snell of the Witherspoon Institute to give a lecture on personhood.

Enter SNELL and an audience of about 50 Princeton undergraduates, Matthew PENZA ’19 among them.

SNELL: Imagine I called to the front a member of the audience and we began asking, in all seriousness, whether or not he were a person. We’d poke and prod him, do some brain scans, examine his behavior, debate, and so on. Wouldn’t he be entitled to think, “You can’t treat me this way. How dare you? This is unseemly, even wicked.” I would if I were him, for I am not a problem to be solved. We pause when asked to consider whether or not this or that human being is a person, as if we’re doing something we oughtn’t.

Interestingly, the language of personhood, which was once used to ground notions of human rights and individual human dignity, is now employed to deny that every human has rights. No longer human rights but rights of persons are what count. All human individuals are humans, but not every human bears rights, for only some humans are persons, and only persons bear rights. Were this true, then human embryos, humans at various stages of gestation, infants and children, the intellectually impaired, the frail and elderly, and others—perhaps even those asleep or unconscious—would not be persons, for they lack archetypical attributes and functions of persons even if obviously full members of the human species.

And yet, it still seems that there’s something sinister about treating a human being this way, calling one to the front of the room and querying whether he’s a person. Humans aren’t theoretical problems, and we miss the point (at best) or demean them when we treat them as such. I’d like to avoid doing that.

Ever the contrarian eager for a debate, PENZA interjects from his seat in the lecture hall.

PENZA: Wait a minute. No human or person should be objectified, sure. But we’re going to have to “examine” some humans, or humans in general, if we intend to have any meaningful discussion about what constitutes a person, no?

SNELL decides that debate makes such abstract topics more lively and chooses to go along with Penza’s shenanigans.

On the Properties of Persons

Swapped at birth: Incommunicability

SNELL: Well, when you think about it, Matthew, isn’t it quite strange to be a person? We aren’t like other creatures. To illustrate what I mean, let me tell you a story:

When my wife Amy and I had our first child, I was afraid to let the baby out of my sight. Soon after delivery they wanted to weigh her and check her vitals and so on, but I wouldn’t let them. Here was our baby: not just any baby, but my baby. Indeed, I was afraid that she might be swapped with some other child, and so I felt compelled to accompany her whenever she was bathed. It was particularly worrisome to me that, though I would do or give anything for this child, I couldn’t tell her apart from any other child in the nursery. How was I to know which they brought back to me? Now that’s strange: if I can’t tell them apart, and if I think as I do that all children deserve love, nurture, and a home, why would it matter? All babies are equally human, and instead of the one I previously loved, I’d now love some other one. What’s the problem?

PENZA: Or let’s say it’s my wedding day. The veil is lifted, but it’s not her—it’s her cousin. I protest, but then the priest insists that we proceed. The caterers have prepared the food, the deposits have been made, the guests are here. What does it matter whether it’s her, it’s a her. She is equal in species to the one I expected, so get on with it!

SNELL: Yes, precisely. I suspect that you, like me, find this sort of claim unpersuasive, that babies are babies, spouses are spouses, etc. Why? Isn’t it because we think of persons as incommunicable: not existing as members of a class, specimens of a type sharing all essential, or communicable or common, properties? Indeed, persons do not share personhood as a common attribute, the way that all humans share humanity or all dogs dogginess. Personhood is not a classification, not a predicate at all. When I say that RJ or Matthew is a human, human is a classifier that points to a set of shared properties that both RJ and Matthew have, and each in the same way. Indeed, to call someone “a human” (a noun, denoting the class of thing he is) is in no practical way different from calling him “human” (an adjective, denoting some properties belonging to him). But not so when I say that RJ or Matthew is a person, for what I’m now saying is that RJ and Matthew are each the sort of being who can meaningfully speak of himself as “I”; but there is no general category of “I-ness,” no satisfactory adjectival counterpart to “a person”. Each “I” is irreducible and distinct. While impersonal entities can rightly be thought of as instances of a class, this isn’t so for me qua person. I am an instance of the class human, yes, but I am not an instance of some class person, for I am my own person, never to be repeated, a class of one and only one. Person, therefore, must be an analogical concept, and we call various persons—RJ, Matthew, Amy—in family resemblance rather than strict category; and because each is incommunicable and irreducible, each family member has the name “person” in their own way.

PENZA: I think I understand what you mean, RJ, that persons are distinct, and that whereas humanity can be instantiated, personhood cannot. But, while I hope I’m not merely nitpicking, it would appear you’ve contradicted yourself. You describe each “I”, each person, as an uniterable class of one and only one object; but it seems to me that if a hypothetical class personi is not arbitrarily instantiable, then it cannot be a class at all. A key characteristic of classes qua classes is that they are instantiable any number of times, regardless of whether that potential is ever realized. Consider any other type of object, for that is what a class ultimately is: a type, not a set of instances of a type. Certainly to say that you qua person are a type consisting of one instance and only one instance is a nonsensical formulation, for types do not consist of any number of instances. No, you must say either that you are the only instance that happens to exist of a type or class personRJ, or that you are but one instance of the class human. The first of these two statements, I think we can agree, is quite unsatisfying.

Consider this: if we conceive of you as an instance of a class personRJ—let’s call you RJ1—then we’re admitting that there could be any number n – 1 of other beings RJ1, RJ2, RJ3, …, RJn who are also instances of personRJ, however unlikely their existence might be. Put another way, to attempt to conceive of yourself as a person-class, putting aside the category error, is to grant that you qua a single instance of that class, even if the only instance, can be authentically replicated or impersonated—or more disturbingly, that you might be such a replica or imposter. Indeed this is one of the questions with which science fiction often grapples: can “clones” as presented in the literature, i.e. apparently perfect duplicates of a person with the same personality traits and even memories, be considered the same person as their genetic source? If not, are they something akin to a sibling, or are they not even persons at all? But I cannot believe that this is what you mean. Do you mean instead that a being is a person if and only if he is an instance of the class human? Defining persons in such a manner would seem to eliminate this problem.

SNELL: I think for linguistic convenience we can use the term person as if it were a class or type and then identify RJ or Matthew or others as persons. But as actually existing, personhood is not a general concept that includes each member univocally. There is no ideal-type of personhood against which to judge this or that person to see if he measures up or is included. To use language of an older, more traditional metaphysics, we can makes such judgments regarding natures, including human nature. There’s no problem judging whether some entity is a human, which is to say a rational animal. We can even judge if a human meets the criterion of humanity well or poorly, that is, whether they are vicious or virtuous. But personhood, on my telling, is not a nature but rather is peculiar to each person. RJ and Matthew are both human in the same way and may be judged against the definition, but RJ and Matthew’s respective personhoods just are RJ and Matthew themselves, not a category, quality, classifier, or predicate of a nature.

Now, is an entity a person if and only if human? I don’t want to say that, since that would reduce the range of potential persons to humans (and I think there are nonhuman persons), and since it renders personhood either a predicate of humanity or simply a redundant aspect of humanity. I do think all humans are persons, though, that’s true.

PENZA: That seems like a fair enough linguistic abbreviation. Now, if all humans are persons but not all persons are humans, what other sorts of persons might there be? If we venture into the praeter- and supernatural, it seems clear to me that God is tripersonal, and that angels and demons might be counted as persons. But can you conceive of any natural beings aside from humans, whether known or hypothetical, as persons? What would enable them to claim personhood without possessing humanity? While I would agree that personhood need not be predicated per se upon humanity, it seems that among natural beings, humanity—or at least some set of attributes proper to human nature—is a prerequisite for personhood.

SNELL: Robert Spaemann, the German philosopher from whom I’ve learned much on these matters, ends his book Persons, this way: “Yet if there exist within the universe other natural species of living beings possessing an inner life of sentience, whose adult members usually command rationality and self-awareness, we would have to acknowledge not only those instances but all instances of that species to be persons. All porpoises, for example.”

Rationality and self-awareness, by which I mean awareness of oneself as self, are about the best criteria we have, it seems. So God, or angels and demons, having these, would then be persons. So, too, for porpoises or any other form of life. I particularly admire the consistency of Spaemann’s claim: namely, if adult porpoises were persons, then so too would porpoises in every stage of their biological development.

PENZA: Intriguing. Rationality and self-awareness are quite intuitive criteria, at least upon reflection, and they also manage to erase the criterial barrier between natural, praeternatural, and supernatural personhood.

Mad scientists: Non-objectifiability

SNELL: I think we’ve about exhausted what we can say about incommunicability, at least for the moment. Now imagine that you’ve come up with a unified theory of science. It explains everything that there is to be explained: a complete description of all matter and energy at a given moment, and every law of physical, chemical, and biological emergence. It even irons out the inconsistencies between the current theories of relativity and quantum mechanics. But of all those objects and things explained, which one am I? I, this person whom I experience from the first-person perspective, am either ignored or ruled out, reduced to an object among objects, by your explanation. Your third-person account does not appear to accommodate my first-person self-experience. It works only insofar as it approaches the way I experience my existence as something to be explained away as a folk pseudopsychology. And yet, even being told that it is pseudopsychology, an illusion, I cannot but experience myself as myself, subjectively and in the first person.

PENZA: Yes, it would seem that persons, at least as we experience ourselves, are not explicable, if by explanation we mean the schema of causation, prediction, and generalized description. Persons are not explained but understood through interpretation, such as when we ask someone to defend their conduct or beliefs. We interpret persons and their acts so as to understand them, whereas we explain impersonal objects and their behaviors; these are not the same, even when examining with the same events and conditions. Would you agree that to say that RJ exerted force to move an object, or even the neural processes that led to this action, is to “explain” the action, whereas to give an account of his motivations for doing so is to approach an “understanding” of it? That where there is motivation there is responsibility? That only persons can have motives, and therefore only persons can be responsible for their behaviors?

SNELL: I’m not a substance dualist and do not think body-self dualism is persuasive either. So it is the case, I think, that it is the same RJ who exerts force to move an object as the RJ who has motivations and reasons for so doing. There’s only one of me, although I can be considered from the point of view as an object (explication) or as a person (understanding). In other words, I’m friendly to a cognitive dualism, or a sense of the polymorphism of knowing.

As for motivations and responsibility: voluntary actions, that is, those actions which are motivated and chosen, are personal acts for which persons are responsible. Of course there are times when those motivations are not explicitly formulated, and there are times when the motivations are irrational. By this I mean we act “for the sake” of some end desired. Persons are responsible for such actions, and only persons bear this sort of responsibility, for they do not act simply out of natural necessity or instinct, but with intent and choice.

Too much PDA: Non-attributivism

SNELL: Now it seems to me that persons have one more key property. Consider this final scenario. You’re at Small World enjoying a coffee while working on your thesis, when you realize that Amy and I are seated at the table next to you. You note, with some horror, that there’s way too much PDA going on. After you, in disgust, swear off any further romantic relationships, you hear Amy say to me, “You belong to me.” You find it off-putting, but grumble to yourself that, yes, lovers do say such things.

But then Amy turns and declares to everyone in the café that she’s auctioning me off to the highest bidder, for study in biomedical experiments. After you get over the surprise that someone would pay as much as $73.49 (apparently the highest offer) for me, you’re shocked to think that anyone would pay anything for me. Not merely for my participation in some study, but for ownership of and control over me. Surely I oughtn’t be bought or sold. I don’t—I can’t—belong to anyone in such a sense.

You’re shocked that I passively sit and observe this. Don’t I know that I am not property to be used or disposed of? Certainly you think to yourself, “Fine for RJ, I suppose, but I belong to nobody but myself.” In fact, the idea of being had and disposed of in such a fashion arouses your anger and horror.

PENZA: Yes. That seems right. I suspect you agree, that we believe that persons are not mere instruments. But yet, however right it seems at face value, still the phrase “I belong to myself” appears a category mistake. Books or houses or things can belong to you or me; but persons cannot belong to persons. While thinking “I belong to myself” seems forgivable as a linguistic device, it remains an error nonetheless, for the words “belongs to” really don’t seem to make sense when referring to persons, even oneself. The word “I” seems to indicate the sort of being that cannot be thus mastered.

There’s an ambivalence. We’re aware that we relate to our personhood in a remarkably close way, belonging to ourselves, and simultaneously know that persons aren’t “had” in this manner at all. In this ambivalence, I suggest we’re aware of something quite important yet quite elusive. We are someone, not something; a who, not a what. A who is a possessor but cannot be possessed; a proprietor, but never property. Our innate moral indignation at the idea of owning a person is how our emotions reveals this truth to us, after all. Persons have their attributes—their properties, qualities, natures—but are not identical to their attributes, for they are subjects, not a sum of predicates. That is, persons are not their natures, but have their natures.

SNELL: Yes. For example, it is not strictly true that I qua person am a human, a rational animal. It is true that the human in front of you is, strictly speaking, rational animal, but I am not. I am myself. I don’t want you to equate me or reduce me to my qualities. I do think, I do exercise rationality (at least occasionally), I do human things, but I have rather than am those properties, since I possess them but am not reducible to them. This is why persons are free: because they are not identical or reduced to their natures, but can relate to their nature in a way wolves or spiders cannot relate to theirs.

PENZA: While we clearly agree that human persons cannot be reduced to their human nature, I’m not sure it’s helpful to say that you, for example, are not a human. To me it seems that to be a human (or alternatively, to be human) is to be the sort of being that has a human nature, not to be one’s human nature itself. That would clearly be an absurd proposition; a nature is an attribute, and no being, human or inhuman, is any of its attributes. Rather, as we’ve said, each being has its attributes. Thus if some persons have human natures, and humans in general have human natures, I do not see any conflict, on account of putatively reducing a person to his nature, in saying that some persons are humans.

It seems we could rightly make a fine distinction of saying that a person is in part a human; that is, that there is more to his personhood than his being human. But such a distinction does not preclude saying that at least some persons are humans. It is much the same as saying that you, RJ, are a man but also a human, or that Amy is a woman but also a human. Yes, manhood and womanhood, maleness and femaleness, can be rightly described as human attributes (albeit not full natures in themselves); but to call you a man or Amy a woman is not to say that either of you, whether qua human or qua person, are your sex, but rather that you are each the sort of being that has one of the two sexes as an attribute.

SNELL: It depends on which mode of knowing I am articulating. I am a human; I am a person. But, strictly speaking, when I speak of myself as person there is a certain irreducibility that isn’t coterminous with humanity. This conceptual irreducibility is odd, to be sure, but if true it means that we wouldn’t say that a person is “in part a human.”

PENZA: Could you elaborate on this irreducibility? I can accept that personhood and humanity are not coterminous; but it would seem that humanity is well within the bounds of personhood, which would appear to support, rather than undermine, the description of human persons as being human “in part”, or perhaps better stated, “inter alia“.

SNELL: Again I refer back to Spaemann, who insists that the term person does not answer the question “What is X?” in the same way that human or lampstand could answer it. The statements “X is a human” and “X is a person” do not function in the same way; for person is not itself a property but instead tells us that X is an entity that bears certain properties, and bears those properties “differently”, i.e. as a who, not as a what.

PENZA: I think I understand. So conversely, the term human, while it can give an answer to the question “What is X?”, describes to us to the collection of properties that constitute human nature more strongly than it identifies the entity as a whole entity. And this is why you say that calling a person human “in part” misses the mark. It’s not a matter of humanity being a sort of subset of the requisites for personhood, but that they simply describe the entity in question in ways that don’t lend themselves to a model of personhood equals humanity plus something else.


SNELL: I think we’ve successfully illuminated and refined our intuitions about personhood. And it turns out that persons are quite odd, and in some ways even difficult to talk about with precision.

PENZA: Yes, we’re quite strange indeed. First and foremost, persons are incommunicable, not instances of a type—which seems to make any discussion of personhood writ large almost oxymoronic. Second, they are not explicable from the the third-person vantage point as objects are, but are the sort of beings that can only be properly understood in the first person, as an “I” not an “it”. I cannot but admit this is a convincing as an axiom, but it again complicates discussion of the personhood of anyone but our own selves. And third, while persons have natures and attributes, they are not their natures or attributes. To summarize all this succinctly, I am this someone not just any someone; I am me and not an it; and you do not identify me by merely listing my properties.

To be continued…


Russell J. Snell, Ph.D., is Director of the Center on the University and Intellectual Life at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, NJ, and former Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Philosophy Program at Eastern University and the Templeton Honors College. He can be reached at rsnell@winst.org.

Matthew A. Penza is a junior from New Fairfield, Connecticut, majoring in the Computer Science Department. He can be reached at mpenza@cs.princeton.edu.

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