Book Review: “Persons: the difference between ‘someone’ and ‘something’”

Persons:  the difference between ‘someone’ and ‘something’
by Robert Spaemann

“Person” is a funny category.  In its contemporary sense, the world managed to do without it before 300AD.  The category “human” fit our fellow intelligent creatures, and the word “person” originally meant “role”.  It was elevated to a philosophical concept by theologians in order to explain what it was that is multiple in the Trinity and one in Christ.  Unlike “human”, which refers to a nature, “person” is defined in contrast to nature, that which is one in God and two in Christ.  The settled definition of a person, given by Boethius, is “the individual substance/subsistence of a rational nature”.  The emphasis, then, is on being a particular existent, as being the existing subject that holds a nature (or, in the case of Jesus, holds two).  As Robert Spaemann, the author of this intriguing book, explains, “person” refers not to a particular nature but to the particular way intelligent beings relate to their nature.   This personal mode of existence is alluded to in saying that a person “has a nature”, implying non-identity with that nature and a degree of freedom in engaging with it.

The key quality of personal existence is transcendence.  Like all animals, we have drives, and we naturally regard other beings according to how they relate to those drives’ satisfaction.  But we are not stuck regarding the world this way.  Even to realize that this is a limited perspective is to step beyond it.  Even to, like Descartes, wonder if all one’s perceptions might be false is to maintain the personal attitude of transcendence, because one retains the knowledge that there is an outer world, an outside perspective, in addition to one’s inner world.  That we can try to respond to things according to their objective truth or goodness (the “view from nowhere” rather than my self-interested view) is the mark of our dignity.  Thus, a dying man would prefer to hear a distressing truth to comforting lies even when he is beyond the point where the truth can practically affect him.  As free beings we can choose illusion, retreat into immanence, relinquish our specifically personal dignity, but even this is a distinctively personal act.

The other side of transcendence of oneself is recognition of others.  Acknowledging “the world outside” means acknowledging other people, other inner worlds, like one’s own.  Spaemann says persons relate to each other as members of a community rather than instances of a type.  Only a Triune God, a God with “otherness” on the “inside”, could be personal, self-sufficient, and infinite all at once.

The ability to, in a sense, transcend oneself and open up to others in recognition, justice, and love is also the special mark of personal freedom.  Spaemann points out that this is also a distinctively Christian discovery, going back to Saint Paul and the Christian concept of conversion.  Note, then, that although it is common nowadays to treat autonomy–meaning, roughly, having one’s acts informed by one’s “inside” rather than “outside”–as a synonym for freedom, the two ideas are in fact nearly opposite.  Acting according to one’s own immanent drives is the mark of a subpersonal animal; giving others their objective due is a personal virtue.

It is equally important to realize what a person isn’t, that a person is not just an ego, not a consciousness or even a self-consciousness.  With the inner-outer distinction, one recognizes that, from the outside, one is a physical being with a nature, and this realization is itself an important part of personal existence.  Spaemann insists that personal identity in a human must rest on his’s continuity as a physical organism.  He criticizes Locke’s theory that a person can only be identified with himself at an earlier time by memory, arguing that this in fact reduces the person back to instantaneous immanence and fails to really establish identity over time at all.

We intelligent beings are unique in another way, one that hardly feels like a blessing:  our knowledge of our own mortality.  The certainty of my own eventual death prompts a particular kind of self-transcendence.  It radically relativizes the egocentric viewpoint of my own interests, because I and my interests will someday cease to exist, as will those of every particular other particular person alive.  If meaning only came from my and other peoples’ interests, we would be tempted to nihilism.  Why sacrifice for another person when we’re both just going to die anyway, and it will be as if it never happened?  However, we can take a wider perspective outside of time, what Spaemann calls the perspective of the future perfect tense.  Of noble and beautiful acts, one can say that it forever will have been good that they were done, even when the “payoff” is gone.

I was struck by this book’s wisdom when I first read it a couple of years ago, and I can see it’s influence on all my subsequent natural law writings and much else besides.  If nothing else, it demonstrates the fruitfulness of engaging scholastic and early modern philosophy together, holding them in respectful dialog rather than holding up one as a punching bag for the other.  Spaemann has thought deeply over the writings of both schools, and he allows Aristotle, Boethius, Richard of Saint Victor, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, Kant, and Hegel all to voice important insights.  Occasionally, the book will disappoint by making what seem to me easily-counterable arguments–if Spaemann announces ahead of time that he’s going to provide six arguments for something, don’t expect most of them to be strong–but the depth of insight is never missing, and that’s what’s most important in a work of philosophy.

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7 thoughts on “Book Review: “Persons: the difference between ‘someone’ and ‘something’”

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  4. It’s a bit confusing that when we say e.g. “don’t take it personally” we basically mean “don’t take it with the ego”. Yet, your definition of personality is pretty much that thing that can transcend the ego. Using personality to not take things personally, well, that would be an awkward way of saying it. It seems that you are basing it on an old usage of the word person, which is not really compatible with its contemporary usage. For example in the modern usage when people say “treat X like a person” it generally makes “do not ignore his desires” i.e. his ego. Or “it’s a personal issue” often means a sense of vengeance or anger against someone else, which is again an ego thing.

    Today much of the older Christian vocabulary is used in an entirely different way, e.g. scandal used to mean something entirely else, and the meaning of person has also changed and today it just means the ego. It is a bit confusing.

    The reason the Buddhist vocabulary is more compatible with modern usage is that it got translated only in the last 100 years roughly, so it was translated to the modern usage. Therefore what you call transcending personality is translated as awarenesss or wisdom, and the ego is used interchangably with person, personal, personally.

    But I think ultimately Christianity and Buddhism here talks about a very similar thing. Because how can one transcend the ego, its desires and its hatreds? I think it is absolutely essential that one needs to be aware of them. This awareness is the key difference between humans and animals, that humans can say “wait, no, disregard that, I was just hate-tripping again” and animals can’t – for them everything they feel is 100% real. So I think awareness is a very good term for this transcending ability. Calling it personality is a bit confusing as the usage of that term has changed.

    Frankly, if I was a Christian I’d probably say, to the heck with terminological confusion, let’s re-translate everything from Latin or Greek according to modern usage. Aquinas and others were very careful to define almost every term they use, so it is possible. As I see that B. is very much helped by the fact that its English translation is so contemporary.

  5. The issue with the word “person” is that, as was the case for the early Christians, there is no word whose common usage exactly captures what we’re trying to say. “Person” was taken from the language of law and theater and applied to another use, and now that Christians have lost control of the word’s meaning, our use is an attempt to reclaim it. The alternative is to drop it and pick up some currently unused word like “hypostasis”, but that would certainly create communication challenges of its own.

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