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Posted by on Jun 27, 2014 in Featured, Philosophy | 30 comments

The “I”, personhood and abstract objects

I have talked about abstract objects many times before, such as here. It is a fundamental area to almost everything in philosophy and is not debated nearly enough. We had a Tippling Philosophers’ debate in the pub last night about the ‘I’ and personhood, which came down to whether they really existed as concepts or not. I actually deny the continuous ‘I’.


We had a really good discussion at TPs, talking about what the ‘I’ is that experiences and whether it persists over time, what it entails etc etc.

Anyway, I talked about how the discussion depended upon abstracts and whether they exist or not. This is what I said on email:

Twas a good night. Some fascinating discussion to be had…

Guy, on nominalism vs realism (whether abstract objects exist outside of our brains), I have written a sort of beginner’s guide here, based on the famous philpapers survey question:

It is important in the world of maths. I have just edited a book by a mathematician looking at this exact thing, such that maths is a DESCRIPTION of reality, rather than prescribing it. Numbers don’t ‘exist’ out there, but are our mental abstracta, and we should not confuse the map with the terrain.

Given that personhood is an abstract label ascribed to x or y properties, is that relationship really real? The fact that we all disagree on what constitutes personhood, or a hero, or anything, evidences the notion that these labels are merely conceptual, and exist nowhere but in our heads.

On personhood, we talked a little about Dennett:

  1. Persons are rational beings
  2. Persons are beings to which states of consciousness are attributed, or to which psychological or mental or intentional predicates are ascribed.
  3. Whether something counts as a person depends in some way on an attitude taken toward it, a stance adopted with respect to it.
  4. The object toward which this personal stance is taken must be capable of reciprocating in some way.
  5. Persons must be capable of verbal communication.
  6. Persons are distinguishable from other entities by being conscious in some special way: there is a way in which we are conscious in which no other species is conscious. Sometimes this is identified as self-consciousness of one sort or another.

I think these are taken from his riginal 1976 chapter found here:

Fascinatingly, there are cross-cultural and temporal differences as to how personhood is perceived. Guy, this runs contrary to your ‘walks like a duck’ thesis, since there are many different ideas of the duck, it seems!

“Personhood continues to be a topic of international debate, and has been questioned during the abolition of slavery and the fight for women’s rights, in debates about abortion,fetal rights and reproductive rights, in animal rights activism, as well as in debates about corporate personhood.[2]

Processes through which personhood is recognized vary cross-culturally, demonstrating that notions of personhood are not universal. Anthropologist Beth Conklin has shown how personhood is tied to social relations among the Wari’ people of RondôniaBrazil.[3] Bruce Knauft’s studies of the Gebusi people of Papua New Guinea depict a context in which individuals become persons incrementally, again through social relations.[4] Likewise, Jane C. Goodale has also examined the construction of personhood in Papua New Guinea.[5]

All interesting stuff!

Guy is a fellow TPer who is a recent addition to the group and with whom I have had some big discussions before about free will, naturalism, psychology and science. There has even been some poetry! Here is what Guy responded:

Thank you Rob for chairing the meeting last night. Very stimulating. I’ve read the definitions of realism and nominalism given by Jonno on SIN. Not sure that I can see the relevance of it to the discussion last night. Would appreciate help making the link. I obviously don’t understand its applications nor Jonno’s zeal about its importance. Dennett’s list seems reasonably sensible and chimes with what most in our western tradition would assume about personhood. I remain unmoved from my grammatical argument i.e. that the moment a verb is uttered a person is implied and that grammatical persons derive from the fact of personhood which is something which is irreducible in some way. If it was reducible then utterance could not take place and all our discussions become meaningless or irrelevant. Got the impression this was close to Descartes last night – Cogito ergo sum or Sum ergo cogito. If I is not then thought can’t occur. The existence of I in a real sense is a condition of thought and debate. If you dissolve I you dissolve the validity of debate as debate is predicated on the assumption of a set of I’s. This really is like Heisenberg or even Schroedinger. Try to move a muscle to dissolve I and you dissolve your tongue (or kill the cat). The only response to this is acceptance of a set of conditions in which we live which are a given. Having made this acceptance the game of debate can begin. If you doubt the existence of the centre court no tennis will be played (sorry to labour the point).

Were I pressed I’d begin my list of what personhood is as below. I’d also suggest that society assumes most of this in many forums – the legal, the social etc. I’d go on to say that these “properties” are derived from the general experience of most people (or persons!), most of whom would agree on them. I accept that the Watusi tribe of the Upper Amazon may have a different view. I’d say that the list below is the fullness of personhood or its potential fulfilled. I’d also suggest that this is a sane view, although I’m sure that word will cause a few misgivings!

I has unique identity of which it is aware

I is morally responsible and accountable

I is aware of myself and my condition in a detached self-conscious way which animals don’t do (this allows humour and art)

I is aware of the mortality of myself

So I need to show that the nominalism debate is key to the debate about the I and personhood. That should be pretty straightforward, I hope.

Most everything in philosophy is about abstract ideas. In this case, Guy (and everyone else) were talking about personhood, amongst other things. The claim was that a person is labelled such if they had, say, X and Y properties. This claim, that personhood has such properties, relies on this abstract idea of personhood. Personhood is an abstract label ascribed to certain properties. For example, Guy claims that they are X and Y, someone else A and B. The idea of this is that if anyone is true, this relationship, this abstract idea must truthfully and really exist mind independently. That is the definition of objective.

So what this means is that an abstract idea must have mind independent ontology. It must have existence outside of conceiving brains.

Our  brains conceive of all sorts of things. We have agreed, amongst us, through language, that certain properties constitute a table. But other cultures, animals, aliens, would not ascribe those properties to that idea or label.

Take morality. The properties we ascribe to good have changed over time, and differ from culture to culture. We often agree on a lot because our brains, desires and experiences are very similar. But just because we have developed language to describe these ideas doesn’t mean they poof into mind independent existence. Their ontology still exists entirely in our brains or conceptions.

This idea that abstract ideas are conceptual is called conceptual nominalism. The idea that they are somehow real, or ontic, in a mind independent sense, is called (Platonic) realism.

This can really well be explained by looking at the abstract concept of a species. As I have written elsewhere:

Many apologists attack evolution, and attack the notion that species can evolve into new species, and that there is no transitional fossil evidence for X, Y and Z. However, what they do not realise is that there is no such thing as a species (in a manner of speaking). Objectively, such an idea does not exist. ‘Species’ is a label that we humans have attached to groups of organisms that we see common characteristics between. We also tend to attach arbitrary rules to them too, such as they cannot interbreed with another species, otherwise they are effectively the same species etc. What this labelling does is give a false impression that a) species are static; and b) that these labels define these organisms whether humans exist or not. These labels are human constructs – that is all. Every organism is constantly shifting its genetic blueprint.

We can see this with age. We label something ‘adult’ just like we do ‘personhood’. But what makes someone an adult and not a child? Does something magic happen from one second to the next on the stroke of midnight on the 18th birthday? Of course not. And each individual person is different. The idea of an adult is a conceptual construct which does not exist without human minds to conceive it. Just like personhood. And table. We can take one molecule, leg, two legs off of the table and we might all disagree on whether that thing still qualifies as the abstract idea of the table.

Language serves to describe this process, and to describe these ideas and concepts. It does not prescribe them, and it certainly does not poof ideas into ontic existence.

What is interesting is that Guy was nominalistic about aesthetics when we discussed it (and I very much agreed with him there, for this very reason). Therefore, there might be a double standard by rejecting nominalism in this other context.

In conclusion, personhood is a human, conceptual construction which we attempt to define into existence with language. It is not, however, real or ontic in a mind independent sense. The best we can do is perhaps agree on what those conditions are. Consensus, though, does not make something pop into existence, or make something true. It provides, here, a pragmatic way of seeing the world. If all of us disagreed on every abstract object, there would be chaos. We create dictionaries to attempt to define these ideas, but even these change over time, drop out of fashion, and new ideas and concepts pop into usage (selfies) and some self-appointed arbiters of language define these abstract labels as being used enough to go into a dictionary (they actually use statistics to help there).



  • Void Walker

    I’m sorry, this is WAY off topic. It’s just so damn funny.

  • Luke Breuer

    5. Persons must be capable of verbal communication.

    Umm, so mute people are screwed? How about instead, we strike the ‘verbal’?

  • Luke Breuer

    To what extent does the failure to have a “continuous ‘I'” result in something suspiciously reincarnation-like? That is, suppose that every time you go to sleep, a different person awakes in the same body. That sounds suspiciously like some versions of reincarnation. That is, the pattern seems to match up. There is a different ‘I’, but some kind of continuity. What, precisely is that continuity? Physicality seems all that remains.

    I really enjoyed this post, and will have to re-read it several times. My intuition is that you are taking nominalism more seriously than most nominalists—you are chasing it to its logical conclusions in ways that others would fear to, or aren’t smart enough to. But hey, that’s just an intuition. I disagree with you on this matter in the strongest of terms, but that’s because I’m a realist. :-p I [try to] appreciate logical consistency anywhere I find it.

    P.S. Have you read any Barfield or Steiner, on “the evolution of consciousness”?

    • Jonathan MS Pearce

      Thanks Luke. I appreciate the sentiments here because I do work hard to make sure my worldview is utterly and universally consistent, internally. It needs to fit like a jigsaw, and I can genuinely say it does.

      I am not afraid to follow the evidence, philosophical and empirical, to its natural conclusion. Whether it be free will or morality, I will take uncomfortable positions.

      eg, I think, and it does depend on how you define these terms, that in many ways I am a moral nihilist, or error theorist, even. But many others feel threatened by admitting this, as if it means they must not be able to decry raping babies.

      I think the goal is to have a bottom up worldview, where you establish the building bricks and see what building arises. I think top down approaches are dangerous, and I think this is what many people, particularly theists, do. They start with a conclusion, and massage evidence to fit. I will happily throw out conclusions, as I have done many times in the past, if that is where the path leads.

      Nominalis, since it defines what the building bricks of philosophy are made of, is crucial to every other argument. Just like without free will, the common understanding of God is fundamentally nonsensical, without being able to establish the objective ontology of abstracts and universals, so things like morality, aesthetics and maths are affected.

      • Luke Breuer

        What if it’s turtles all the way down, and every time you think you’ve found the foundation, you’re just deluding yourself? I’m reminded of physicists at the end of the nineteenth century as described by Albert Michelson (not all agreed, more sources). It seems like it’s actually better to connect most strongly to the stuff (‘representations’) that you’ve tested most thoroughly, not to low-level ontologies which have major problems (e.g. the disconnect between QFT and GR—between discrete and continuous).

        • Jonathan MS Pearce

          I guess all that needs to be said here is that I feel my worldview is internally and externally coherent. There is nothing nagging at me to say, ‘this doesn’t feel right’ or ‘this piece doesn’t fit with my answer to that piece’ and so on.

          • Luke Breuer

            Hmmm. Have you thought about how quantum nonlocality fits in with your philosophy? That seems like a candidate for real universals, or if not universals, something not quite nominalism. :-p

          • Jonathan MS Pearce

            I am not qualified enough to talk much about nonlocality or physical realism in the context of quantum etc…

          • Luke Breuer

            In that case, I would highly suggest reading Bernard d’Espagnat’s On Physics and Philosophy. One of his big contentions is that philosophy must be updated by our current knowledge of quantum physics. The ontology upon which you base your philosophy might need some major updating. And if it does, I think might put into question your unyielding foundationalism.

      • Luke Breuer

        Thanks Luke. I appreciate the sentiments here because I do work hard to make sure my worldview is utterly and universally consistent, internally. It needs to fit like a jigsaw, and I can genuinely say it does.

        You are welcome! You probably know that I give praise very sparingly. :-|

    • Jonathan MS Pearce

      Oh, and no, I know not of those two.

      HOwever, have you read of Mead?

      You will find this synopsis fascinating:

      The self as an emergent thing from social interaction.

      • Luke Breuer

        Heh, a sociologist studying my wife’s biochemistry/biophysics lab first introduced me to the “social construction of the self”, which I found intuitively obvious upon very little reflection. I am, however, a bit acquainted with Schopenhauer’s development of genius, and I wonder if you’ve dealt with that at all—it seems like society sometimes doesn’t completely explain the development of the self, and maybe genes don’t, either. I’ve read about this here and there by reading Peter Berger; I haven’t read any Mead, yet.

        Owen Barfield claims that the only way to have evolution by transformation instead substitution is that if something stays the same between ‘before’ and ‘after’—if there exists an invariant. This, of course, makes me think of Parmenides vs. Heraclitus. First we see change, then we see an invariant underneath the change, then we see change in the invariant (e.g. broken symmetries in physics), etc. What if it’s turtles all the way down, alternating between stuff that changes and an invariant that captures that change almost perfectly? (Our error, incidentally, would be to assume that the picture of the thing is the thing—that the invariant captures the change perfectly.)

        Barfield doesn’t use the word ‘invariant'; he uses the term ‘[immaterial] spirit’. It seems awfully like a universal—an ontic one! I highly suggest Barfield’s Unancestral Voice. He was an Inkling and was a mentor and buddy of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. He’s probably worth reading just for that purpose—once you read him (including his Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry), you’ll see how his thoughts show up in Lewis and Tolkien. Unancestral Voice connects pretty explicitly to chapter one of The Silmarillion, for example.

        P.S. Barfield talks about minds individuating, which is a kind of emergence—from a single mind though, not non-mind.

        • Jonathan MS Pearce

          The only invariant I can see is the genetic code of the individual.

          • Luke Breuer

            Ehhh, there are possibly deeper invariants. For example, if all time-evolution of quantum state is unitary (and so far we think it is), then information is strictly conserved. That means that the universe itself is a giant invariant, unless new information is coming into existence (e.g. via a growing block universe). In that case, we could ask whether there’s a way to separate out that giant, universe-invariant (we could call it ‘Brahman’) into smaller invariants that are sufficiently independent.

      • Luke Breuer

        From Barfield’s Unancestral Voice:

        It is only through repeated earth-lives that mind could gradually, and as an historical process, become more and more individualized, that is to say, could gradually emerge from the spirit which gave birth to it and from the nature which it is learning to contemplate from without instead of merely participating from within. From that contemplation it derives its separate existence, and from that participation its continuous existence; and therefore the condition of its being is that these two states shall rhythmically alternate. (138)

        The word ‘participation’ is a tricky one I don’t yet fully grasp—Barfield defines it more fully in Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry, but I’m still struggling. It might be true to say that you can ‘participate’ an invariant, and by so participating, maintain a continuous identity.

        • Jonathan MS Pearce

          More importantly, what does spirit mean?

          • Luke Breuer

            It might be precisely the thing that makes ‘I’ continuous. :-p More than that, I cannot yet say. Perhaps I will be able to say more later, especially with your “discontinuous ‘I'” as a foil!

          • Jonathan MS Pearce

            Without being able to pin any properties on it, it is superfluous and meaningless, really.

          • Luke Breuer

            It seems difficult to maintain that the thing that makes the ‘I’ continuous would be “superfluous and meaningless”.

          • Luke Breuer

            This comment is eating away at me. Could you say a bit more on this stance you hold? I don’t even know how to search for it. Something tells me it’s the difference between bundle theory and essentialism, but I don’t even understand those terms well, so I’m mostly just intuiting “possibly relevant terms”.

          • Jonathan MS Pearce

            You posit a spirit here. And then claim that it could maintain the continuous I. But you can not make any claim over and above that – you can hardly say.

            This, to me, is meaningless. You are unable to ascribe to this thing any properties, observable, or inferred or deduced. You assert it could do X, but can provide no evidence for this, or any good reason.

            Since you can ascribe no properties, the only other thing with no properties is… nothing.

            What you claim of the spirit is pretty much synonymous with nothing, or thereabouts.

            So, to me, the claim is meaningless and superfluous.

          • Luke Breuer

            So essentially, if the whole is not greater than the sum of the parts, then the whole is redundant and we should just talk about the parts?

          • Jonathan MS Pearce

            You seem to be unable to define the whole, or the parts. You have given no properties of either, apart from claiming that one property might be X with nothing more than mere assertion of couldness.

          • Luke Breuer

            Could you just answer my question directly? It makes sense to me that there is no whole if it is not somehow ‘bigger’ than the parts. Stated differently, if my attempt to connect a bunch of parts into a ‘whole’ doesn’t give me any new insight, then my ‘whole’ is just an arbitrary collection of parts and I was silly to think they all went together. So I think I’m attempting to agree with you.

          • Luke Breuer

            Is not a person’s character properties of his/her ‘spirit’? Doesn’t a person’s character represent something continuous?

          • Jonathan MS Pearce

            Depends how you define spirit.

            Character can be dependable. It can also change. Mine has certainly changes in many ways, yet is similar in others.

            The question might better be, what makes the similar bits remain similar?

            ie, is it your genetic blueprint that gives a sense of continuity?

            My guess s that it is this (which thus defines your character) together with memory. Both can be bastardised.

          • Luke Breuer

            Character can indeed change. But reality could also be in a false vacuum and POOF away at any second. So it seems like even though there is the possibility of great discontinuity, that oughtn’t dissuade us from working with something relatively continuous. What do you think?

            I guess another way of getting at this issue is to ask whether you are becoming more and more like someone. For example, does the following equation converge?

                 (1) lim(character(t)) as t → ∞

            If there is convergence, then it seems to make sense to talk about what the limit converges to, and the ‘thing’ it is converging to would appear to be a candidate for identity/spirit.

          • Luke Breuer

            Have you read Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self? That seems like it might be required reading if you’re really interested in the construction of identity. I found it myself when trying to investigate your “discontinuous ‘I'”.

          • Jonathan MS Pearce

            I hardly need to with that immense wiki synopsis!

          • Luke Breuer

            Oh, I still suggest it. The book is just fantastic, and I’m saying this as not a philosopher or psychologist—that is, Taylor doesn’t use unnecessary terminology.

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