What is a person?

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We welcome your philosophical, legal, theological, or general questions related to personhood.

Essentials Q & A

Why is the concept of 'person' controversial?

While it may seem obvious to us what a human person is, the evidence all around us clearly indicates that the meaning of the word 'person' is not universally shared or agreed upon. For many, 'person' is simply a biological term, one which readily encompasses animals; for others, personhood is maliable, so that one can chose their own gender at will; many, too, only consider the word 'person' in reference to humans that are born, so that unborn humans do not constitute persons; for still others, 'personhood' does not involve any sense of the Divine, while for believing Judeo-Christians, the person is made "in the image and likeness of God." These conflicting theories of person have resulted in widespread disagreement and confusion about all those things that are related to the meaning of the word person: what constitutes justice, whether or not there are such things as 'human rights' (and what these might be), what is meant by 'self determination', and, perhaps most significantly, where we are going as a society and what role the government should play in determining our cultural identity.

What is the traditional understanding of the word 'person'?

Until at least the 16th century, the concept of person was universally in the west understood to mean a being in relation, made in the image and likeness of God. Our western concept of person is derived from Genesis chapter 1, in which we are told, "God made man in his own image, male and female he created them." Building on this originary concept of the person, western civilization has built a culture, rule of law, philosophy, and theology centered around the person as a being in relation: we are not isolated, atomized, or totally independent beings, but beings who derive meaning and fulfilment from our relationships with others. Indeed, the entire concept of virtue and justice in general revolve around the concept of a person-in-relation.

What is the modern understanding of 'person'?

Over the past four hundred years, beginning in the Enlightenment, an invidivualist philosophy of the person has emerged. This philosophy has culminated in a variety of ideologies, such as Nihilism, Marxism, and Postmodernism. In an nutshell, these various ideologies deny that there is any Divine origin or destiny of the person--at least not any that can be adeqautely known by us--and so the dominant narrative today has become centered around the person as a political entity, which various powers struggle to control. Another consequence of the politicization of person has been the sense that personhood is maliable, or relative, to the desires of the individual, or the objetvies of the state.

What is 'history' and why is it relevant to personhood?

Our ancestors did not simply study history as an academic subject, but understood that all our values are rooted in the interconnection of persons throughout history. History, therefore, is not simply a collection of facts about events in the past, but a 'story' of our meaning and destiny. In our Judeo-Christian culture, each one of us derives meaning and purpose from our connectedness to the tradition that has been handed down to us over the millennia. That tradition is the story of God's involvement in human affairs, and the Revelation of Christ as the center of human history. Everything in western culture is derived from this historical awareness.

What is the purpose of eduction?

The purpose of education will depend on your understanding of the human person. If, on the one hand, you subscribe to the Judeo-Christian concept of person in the western tradition, you will understand education to be all about helping students become virtuous, constructive citizens, and "lovers of humanity" who are pursuing truth and self-betterment. If, on the other hand, you think of the person as having no divine origin, or no divine destiny, then education will typically be focussed on producing a "homo economicus" or a contributor to the economy, or a politicial entity required to support and endorse a particular ideology. The traditional understanding of person sees 'history' as being the means by which we gain a grounding in the rich heritage of our culture.

What does the word 'person' mean?

Our English word 'person' comes from two Latin words: per (through) and sonare (to sound). Hence, the word person literally means, "to sound through". The origin of the word is derived from the ancient Greek and Roman use of masks in theatre. The actor would "speak through" a mask in order to represent a deity, hero, or villain. In a similar way, we "sound through" our actions; we reveal our character through the actions we perform on the stage of life, so to speak.

What issues are related to the meaning of personhood?

In a certain sense, everything we know and do stems from our understanding of what it means to be a 'person'. The individual person is the locus, or starting point, of all our thinking, doing, relationships, desires, hopes, and beliefs. In particular today, some key issues have emerged in reference to the question of the person: 1. What is justice and which theory of justice should we follow? 2. Are there such things as 'human rights', and if so, how are these determined? 3. What concept of person is required to sustain a belief in abortion and euthanasia? 4. What is gender, and is this something totally fluid and arbitrary? 5. What is the legitimate role of government in our lives? 6. On what grounding does the government derive its authority? 7. What is the meaning and value of religious faith? 8. What are the implications of globalism, and how does this impact on the person? There are many other questions stemming from what it means to be a person which we are exploring at Rebus.

What is a 'virtue'?

Virtues are the good habits which perfect the way in which we interact with each other and the way in which we treat each other. Virtues include habits such as courage, prudence, and justice. According to Aristotle, virtues are those habits which sit between two extremes: an excess and a deficiency. Hence, courage is the 'mean' between cowardice on the one hand, and recklessness on the other extreme. According to the Romans, such as Cicero, the virtues were those habits or qualities which also made us good citizens, first of all by making us good at being friends with one another. In the Middle Ages, philosophers and theologians built on these Greek and Roman foundations, and gave them a religious meaning too: virtues are not only those habits which make us good at being friends with one another and good citizens, but also friends with God.

What is the relationship between personhood and education?

It stands to reason that your view of the person will inform you understanding of education, since education is properly understood as being an effort to bring about the formation of the person. Consider the following concepts of person and the models of education they have produced: 1. The person has no discernable eternal goal, but has discernable proximate goals. An education based on this philosophy will be focussed on forming students according to proximate goals, namely the economy and political life. The ultimate goal is tolerated, and may form part of the humanities, but this is secondary to the primary goals since it provides no immediate value that is recognized. 2. The person has no eternal goal, and only proximate goals. Such a view of the person will produce an education system which is hostile to religion, theology, and philosophy and wil lbe exclusively focussed on achieving economic and political outcomes. Like model four, this system of education will be totalitarian. 3. The person has both ultimate and proximate goals. An education based on this philosophy will place wordly consideration side-by-side with a destiny religiously conceived. An education based on this model, when genuinely executed, will be both tolerant and productive. 4. The person has only an ultimate goal, and not valid proximate goal. Such a view of the person will produce a religiously intolerant and totalitarian form of education, in which both the sciences and the humanities will be dismissed. All four of these concepts of person and corresponding education systems have been played out in human history; indeed, examples of them can be found around the world today.