What is the Definition of a Person?

A very dear friend of mine, one of the best friend's I have online, asked me to define a "person". This was a philosophical question, connecting to the whole subject of identity. It links up with the great question of who, or what, we "really" are?

Instantly loads of ideas came flooding into my head, so many that it would take a long time to write them down in one little shoutbox message. So I thought I'd do a post on Blogger.com.

Then it occurred to me that it might be nice to try it as a discussion, where I start the ball rolling, and readers contribute their ideas in the comments section? Then we all discuss them, and maybe finally come up with a consensus, even one that has never been done before!!!

How cool would that be?

This blog doesn't get a really huge amount of traffic, but I always think quality is better than quantity anyway. Maybe it won't work, but it's an experiment, so that's ok either way.

Here is my first thought: I think it's very interesting that the original meaning of the word "person" is the Latin persona, which was the name for the mask which was worn by actors in ancient times. The mask represented the role they were playing in the action.


Clarisse Teagen said...

I think is a person is of flesh and mind.
I think everyone who was born a baby is a person.
I think humans are persons...anyone who is human is a person.

Mulled Vine said...

A person is minimally a human being though perhaps one could add the sentience adjective. However this suggests that if you are not sentient, i.e. a fetus at very early stages or someone with severe brain damage, you are no longer a person.

Good question.

Maddie said...

Glad you used my idea :)
I like the 'persona' thing, I think it is possible to define a person as someone with a personality who can display emotion that is on a higher level than instinct alone. I also think our mortality has something to do with it, though I don't really know. I don't think just humans can be persons though; for example if you were to have a parrot who could talk rationally and hold a conversation without prior knowledge of it, would you think that is a person?

I think that the sentience theory is problematic though, as animals are sentient beings as well as foetuses (at a point) so then you have the issue of when does a person become a person,etc.

Sofia said...

Hi Maddie thanks for your comment.

Sorry I didn't reply right away but I've been trying to limit my online presence as it just leads to postponement of everything else in life lol.

How does it happen that every time I read something of yours, my brain goes instantly into overdrive and I get a whole host of ideas falling all over each other, so I just don't know which to look at first. Maddie, you truly are one inspiring person!

There, I used the word person.

We all know, or think we know, a person when we meet one, but how to define it? I think your definition of rising above instinct is a good working hypothesis. The parrot example is excellent. Now the question is, how do we know when the parrot has risen above the level of instinct? I would say, like you, that we know this when the parrot begins to talk RATIONALLY. But how can we know that the parrot's responses really are rational, and not just having the APPEARANCE of rationality.

There's a post on this here very blog (I can't remember the title, but it's here somewhere) where I look at the famous Chinese Room thought experiment. This is about AI and it looks at the responses of a computer which can be made to appear to be rational and intelligent. It is very difficult to tell if the responses are from an intelligent being, a PERSON in our definition, or a machine following a sophisticated set of response instructions.

So it's possible to imagine our parrot talking apparently rationally enough to be called a person, but without actually being a person. There's always the chance that it's following an instinct, or a trained response pattern that gives the appearance of rationality. The only way you could be SURE that the parrot had a personality is if you're inside the parrot's head. In other words, you would have to BE the parrot.

Yes and then there's the question of animals. Does a dog or a cat have a personality? If it does, it's a person. Many of my friends who own dogs or cats would answer yes to this question.

Then there's the ethical question you touched on. If personality exists, at what exact point does a foetus become a person? Because if a foetus is aborted AFTER it has become a person, then that would be wrong, wouldn't it? This is a question that we absolutely have to answer, it really does seem to be a matter of life and death.

Harneet Singh said...

technically speaking a person is made of three parts
1: Id - the immoral part
2: Ego - The social Self
3: Super Ego - The Moral self

The person in which Id is more he is a criminal and if Super Ego is more than he will be of Saintly disposition.

generally I think we cannot give the exact definition of Person. It depends on how we perceive the topic.
I think a Person is a more socialised representation. It is made up of physical, mental, emotional and social aspects. Person is like a tag attached with a social being according to which he is labelled as a good person or a bad person.


Joseph M. Fasciana said...

Dear Sofia,

I believe that a human being is the embodiment of his or her own set of innate distinctive spiritual, physical, emotional, metaphysical and physiological traits. This is my own criterion, that in my humble opinion is how I would define a person.



Sofia said...

To Joseph: Yes I think that is a good definition of a person.

But the next question that arises is this: are all these traits all there is of a person? Do they together make the complete person? Or is there something else that is necessary for a person to have that is NOT one of these traits?

For example, you said that physiological traits are innate. But it is possible to change our physical appearance, with a different hair style, or using make-up. We can even have plastic surgery. The outward appearance of the person may be drastically changed. After a change of looks, a person might find their confidence increases because of their new improved appearance. But does the person themself actually change? Would I lose my sense of identity if I changed my look?

And in the same way, it is possible to change many of our other characteristics. And yet if I change the characteristics about myself, do I become a different person? Or am I the SAME person, but just with different character traits?

Sofia said...

To Clarisse: I like your definition that anyone who is human is a person. It makes a good working criterion of person-hood.

Even so, there are slight problems. For instance, what is it about humans that entitles them to have the status of person? Is it intelligence? Maybe it is. But intelligence is relative. So does that mean that Einstein or Mozart was more of a person than the rest of us? And the scientists tell us that we are closely related genetically to the chimpanzee. (I find that hard to believe, but that's what they say!) So could a chimpanzee be a person, and if not, why not?

If it is not intelligence that makes a human a person while an animal is not a person, then just what is this mysterious Factor X?

Joseph M. Fasciana said...

Dear Sofia,

I think that the distinctive spiritual, physical, emotional, metaphysical and physiological traits, referred to in my post to you are worth a deeper look. I can only speak for myself within the context of your questions. In my entire life, all of my traits have been linked to each other. I also believe that when I change one of those traits, or if one changes as a consequence of my actions or even if one changes as a result of an accident, for better or worse, they in turn have an affect on my person or my personality. I believe I am still of the original person but one with a profoundly different perspective. I feel that my traits are dynamic and therefore I am in a state of continual growth or in some cases regression. This all depends on the severity of the change, and to what trait that has changed that will determine how much my perspectives change, but I still maintain my identity I am still Joseph.



ps: I know you don't like politics but it would be nice to get a thinker like yourself to drop a comment now and then, pro or con, I appreciate your mindfulness.

Sofia said...

Yes, how true that is. You seem to be saying that personality is in a continuing process of change and renewal, I suppose what they sometimes call "becoming" (?)

This may be the point at which an over-conventional interpretation of personality falls down. For example the "mask" which gives the origin of the word "person" was a fixed, unchanging thing, either held or tied in front of the face of the actor. No doubt a stage direction could have allowed for it to be changed, but not in a continuous way.

Thank you for the reminder. I shall surely visit right away!

Joseph M. Fasciana said...

Dear Sofia,

Lets say that a person goes to war, and when that person is injured the person loses their lower leg and foot.

There will be no question that this person's perspectives or personality will have gone through growth or regression. Would you agree that many of the traits we spoke of would be inclined to have movement one way or the other because they are all linked?