Persons – What Philosophers Say About You

Warren Bourgeois attempts to tackle a set of perennial questions in Persons: What Philosophers Say About You. These questions include, “What are persons?” “What makes this person now identical to that person in the past?” and “What marks the beginning and end of a person.” Bouorgeois’s questions are, in part, motivated by events that are part of his personal life. Bourgeois’’ wife battled multiple sclerosis. He witnessed her descent from being a brilliant philosopher at the University of British Columbia to being someone who suffered from dementia. Eventually, prior to her death, his wife, Daphne lost all capabilities for communication. Bourgeois uses his wife’s tragic case in order to reflect upon how numerous philosophers, and a few theologians, thought about issues related to personhood. Each chapter of this book includes a brief overview of some philosopher’s understanding of the questions surrounding personhood, this is followed by a section where he explains what the philosopher might say about Daphne’s status as a person, and he concludes with some appreciative and critical comments about that particular theory of personhood.

Over the course of this book Bourgeois covers the philosophy of personhood in the works of manifold and varied philosophers. These include: The Presocratics, Plato, Socrates, Augustine, Aquinas, Erasmus, Luther, Montaigne, Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Berkeley, Leibniz, Butler, Reid, Hume, Rousseau, Hegel, Russell, Ayer, Sartre, Whitehead, Wiggins, Williams, Nozick, Parfit, Nagel, and many more. Almost 350 pages of this 475 page book (not including notes) are dedicated to providing overviews of significant theories of personhood. For this reason, such a book might serve as a helpful textbook. It orients those who have not yet been inducted into debates about personhood into the vast and confusing field. The final 125 pages of the book constitute Bourgeois’s own answers to the questions of personhood.

Prior to noting what his answers are to these questions it should be mentioned that the first section of the book is not just a survey, although it serves as a survey for his readers, I am under the impression that the survey is a significant part of his methodology for constructing a theory of personhood. Throughout the book Bourgeois highlights aspects of other theories that he appreciates. It is only in the constructive section that we see how he draws together these elements that he appreciated into his own theory. It is almost as if Bourgeois is a magpie, picking and choosing shiny objects to adorn its nest, except that rather than shiny objects, Bourgeois is selecting interesting philosophical concepts.

So where does Bourgeois land on his understanding of personhood? From concepts throughout the history of Western thought on personhood Bourgeois homes in on a number of important concepts. Persons are complex individuals, they are irreducible, they possess a “viewline”—by which he means a series of viewpoints—as well as continuity. Furthermore, persons are indivisible, indefinite, embodied, and free. With these features drawn from Western philosophy (ancient to contemporary) he defines his view. A person is a kind of thing with certain abilities that possesses a “viewline.” His inclusion of “certain abilities” provides a notion of a general essence. This general essence, which is described in terms of abilities, includes things like rationality, the ability to love, an aesthetic sense, the and most importantly the ability to self-create. These abilities are both private and public, and to a certain extent are culturally determined. The second feature of his definition of personhood involves the notion of a “viewline.” This viewline is “the locus of my viewpoint through space as it appears to me over time, that is, my series of viewpoints through my life.” (367) The concept of a viewline does a lot of work for Bourgeois. First, it provides Bourgeois with a way to say that no two persons can possess the same viewline. Even is a person, Bob, is perfectly duplicated, Bob’s duplicate will never have the same viewline as Bob himself. Furthermore, much like Locke’s appeal to consciousness as the grounds of the continuity of personal identity over time, Bourgeois appeals to the viewline as being the thing by which we can determine whether a person is identical with a person at two different points in time. Moreover, the concept of the viewline helps Bourgeois articulate a way for determining whether someone is a person or not. If someone does not have a viewline, or does not have a viewline enough of the time then we can justifiably say that that human is not a person. To summarize Bourgeois’ view I quote him at length,

Roughly one is what one can do. An individual essence might be fleshed out in terms of a particular set of capacities peculiar to an individual, over and above those essential for that individual to say in the class of persons. Also in the essence, is the view line, the series of subjective viewpoints of that individual. (397)

At first glance, Bourgeois proposal might seem attractive. Like Aristotle, persons have a form which is determined by abilities, like a host of contemporary philosophers, he emphasizes that conscious subjective experiences play a major role in who we are as persons, and like many theologians he emphasizes the importance of embodiedness for our understanding of personhood (although for much different reasons). The weaknesses of his position, however become apparent when he applies his theory of personhood to medical ethics. He suggests that his definition of personhood means that human beings who are at certain stages of dementia, human beings who have not yet been born, and recently born infants are not persons. Since they are not persons they do not deserve the same level of protection as those who are persons. He does concede that there may be cases where some humans that we do not think are persons are in fact persons, just that we might not know it because we do not have access to their subjective experiences. In these cases, since we do not have epistemic access to what constitutes their personhood we are justified in not expending resources to protect them. While there are arguments in the latter section of the book that deserve detailed responses, the main thing that we should point out is that his definition of personhood –since it includes the ability to perform certain actions—excludes many human beings from personhood, or at the very least relegates them to being borderline cases of persons.


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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