"IRVING: Disagreement with this "Thomistic" definition of "person""

Dianne N. Irving
Copyright December 30, 2012
Reproduced with Permission

I found this website dedicated to the philosophy of St. Thomas (via Aristotle) very interesting, and unique. However, since I taught the History of Philosophy full time at the De Sales School of Theology in Washington, D.C. for 10 years (under Fr. Harvey and Fr. Crossin), I thought it might be acceptable if I gently disagree with some of your claims about "personhood" in this article. Much more extensive references and discussions can be found in my article, and I invite responses: "Scientific and philosophical expertise: An evaluation of the arguments on 'personhood'", Linacre Quarterly February 1993, 60:1:18-46, at: http://www.lifeissues.net/writers/irv/irv_04person1.html.

According to St. Thomas, "personhood" is not a "meaning"; it is a term that corresponds with an empirically-derived concept in the mind that applies only to human beings existing outside of and independently of the mind, and to all parts and principles of a human being. It is a term that reflects the very nature or essence of an existing human being. The "meaning" of the term or concept is simply how we understand it, not "personhood" per se. This is why, for Thomas, the term "person" cannot apply to non-human animals, communities or nations or robots or posthumans. Nor did Thomas or Aristotle ever use the term "unfolding" or "horizons". Rather, such terms are characteristic of modern philosophical schools of philosophy such as phenomenology, Heidegger and some existentialists -- which could not be equated with either Aristotle or Thomas, and often even contradict them. I see here an error that even in modern philosophy is referred to as "misplaced concreteness".

To paraphrase Thomas: the name of "person" (and he uses that term) does not belong to the rational part of the soul, nor to the whole soul alone -- but to the entire human substance (or, subsistens). [Thomas Aquinas, ST, Ia.q29, a.1, ans., ad.2,3,5, p. 156; ibid, a.2, ans., p. 157; also ST, IIIa.q19, a.1, ad.4.2127; see also, Kevin Doran, "Person-a key concept for ethics", Linacre Quarterly 56(4), 1989, p.39].

This means that the whole soul, whole body, and its act of existing constitute one substance entire -- with no separate and troublesome independent "parts" each of which might be claimed to be true and independent whole substances (such as the "rational soul" alone, or the "body" alone). (The three "parts" of the soul are powers, not things). It is worth noting, by the way, that Aquinas is one of the only philosophers who includes undesignated matter (body) in his formal definitions of natural things -- of which man is one. [Thomas Aquinas, On being and Essence, Armand Maurer (trans.), (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1983), Chap. 2; also The Division and Method of the Sciences, Armand Mauer (trans.), (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1986), p. 14, 29, 39, 40].

For Thomas a human being is always a human person, and characteristics such as "rational attributes", autonomous willing, consciousness, or sentience (physical feeling of pain/pleasure), are only consequential and secondary or accidental actions which follow upon certain powers of the soul which themselves follow upon the essential nature of the human being. [Thomas Aquinas, ST, IIIa. q19, a.1, ad.4.2127; see also Kevin Doran (1989), p. 39]. That nature is defined as the single, whole, formal, material and existential human substance. As Thomas states:

...the soul must be in the whole body [and therefore not just in the brain], and in each part thereof ...for to the nature of the species belongs what the definition signifies; and in natural things, the definition does not signify the form only, but the form and the matter...so it belongs to the notion of man [definition] to be composed of soul, flesh and bones. [Thomas Aquinas, ST, Ia.q75, a.4, ans., p. 366] (emphasis added)

Perhaps this friendly disagreement could lead to a fuller discussion of precisely to what the term "person" applies. Thank you, Dr. Schulz, for listening.

[Dr. Dianne N. Irving, M.A., Ph.D.]



Personhood as the Meaning of the Human Act

Posted on December 20, 2012

Dr. Joshua Schulz
DeSales University
Department of Philosophy and Theology
2755 Station Ave.
Center Valley, PA 18015

The world is in motion, and we within it. But where are we going, and why?

The answers to these questions are the foundation of Thomistic ethics. Consider the first observation above, that the world is in motion. For Thomas, all motion - that is, all change - is a process from one state of being into another state of being. Change is not a succession of discrete moments or events in which one state of affairs merely replaces another (as the philosopher David Hume thought), but a dynamic evolution of what was into what will be. Walking does not mean disappearing from one location and re-appearing in another location; that would be teleportation. Walking involves leaving one location and arriving at another, just as laughing involves leaving a state of blasé and entering a state of amusement. Even birth and death can be thought of as leaving or arriving existence. Every change, in short, is forward-looking: there is something toward which every change is directed, what Thomas calls the 'end' (telos) or 'entelechy' of a change.

However, the ways human beings change are dramatically different from the way everything else in the world changes. While the world comes to be and passes away around them, human beings act. While every change is towards some end, we act for ends. Though aging, for example, is a change that happens to us as we move closer to death, getting a tattoo on our birthday is a change we make because we want to feel young and look beautiful. Human beings are special because we are the only beings that act deliberately, with knowledge and freedom of purpose; no other changing thing does this. This difference is the basic difference between persons and things (ST IaIIae 1, 1c).

However, the ability to act voluntarily is not the only difference between persons and things, or even the most interesting. If every change is a process, a dynamic development of a being, then personhood is a process as well. To be a person is to be in motion towards some end, to proceed from potentiality to actuality, to unfold oneself over the course of a lifetime. To be a person is to be a site of meaning. While this sounds more like poetry than philosophy, it is the key to personhood, and the key to ethics. Let me explain.

Thomas argues that each human life as a whole, and not just our individual actions, has an end or a purpose. I do not simply go to the grocery store in order to buy flour: I go to the grocery store in order to get what I need to make a cake, since I need a cake in order to throw a birthday party for my son, so that his day may be joyous, because I love him and loving him well is part of what I think gives my life meaning. Every little act we do unfolds or points to or expresses our conception of the good life, even if it does so unconsciously or mutely, like going to the grocery store for flour. Everything we do we do because we consider it a component of or a means to a good life.

Yet even if we admit that every act aims at some ultimate end, why think that each person has only one ultimate end, rather than several? There are two answers one might give here. The trivial answer is simply that, when we try to name what our multiple 'ultimate' ends might be - becoming a millionaire, living until we're 100, and winning a bodybuilding context, perhaps - we see that we can still explain why we want all of these things in terms of something greater: because achieving these things will make us happy. One answer; one ultimate end.

The second, deeper answer, the metaphysical answer, goes back to the difference between replacement and development as descriptions of change. One of the reasons why both Aristotle and Thomas rejected Hume's replacement theory of change is because simply replacing A with B (presto! a soda disappears and a coffee appears) isn't really a change. A change is what happens to something, and thus requires that there be something that is present both before and after the change. The reason a haircut isn't suicidal is because a haircut is something that happens to one and the same thing over time. If this identity requirement weren't needed for change, you would be a different person every time you lost a hair, since the even-haired

person that existed before the loss would be a different person than the odd-haired person that exists after the loss. In other words, getting a haircut would be an act of suicide, since it would be the equivalent of ending your life as even-haired you. In fact, you'd be a different person the moment you move on to the next word in this sentence, since every word is a different thought in your mind than the one before it. Reading would be a lethal act. Obviously, the replacement theory of change has absurd consequences. The Thomistic alternative, then, is the theory that change requires both identity and development, where development is the unfolding of one thing towards another stage of its existence.

This is important because what gives identity to a series of acts - and therefore, what gives meaning to a series of acts - is that they aim at the same final end. You will see the point if you imagine a list, at random, of three very different actions: say, making a phone call, using the toilet, and hiding as a stowaway on a rocket ship bound for Mars. Now try to invent some story connecting all three events: through an unexpected phone call, Arnold learns that he's an intergalactic secret agent and must sneak a ride to Mars in order to foil a plot to destroy the solar system, but Arnold's anxious disposition requires that he vacate his bladder before attempting interplanetary espionage. Perhaps you can invent a better story. In any case, what makes this a story rather than a random list is not simply that these things are all happening to Arnold. Rather, Aquinas suggests, we understand the connections between these events, the intelligibility of the plot and the value of each event, precisely because each is an unfolding feature of the storytowards it's denouement: Arnold frantically pees because he received a phone call so that he can save the solar system. Only a final end lends unity to a series of acts (ST IaIIae 1,6c).

What is true of Arnold is true of us. Why is it that all of my actions are mine, Joshua's, rather than the actions of Angry Josh, then Forgetful Josh, then Bashful Josh, and so forth? The reason is that, like a story, all of my actions have unity of purpose. Ultimate purpose. I am identified as a person by the ultimate unity of my goals, my conception of a good life. As Dante saw when he entered Hell, we are ultimately identified as agents by the unity of our goals, our conception of the good life. In the end, our actions and our character coalesce. We become what we chose; we embody a meaning; we are unfolded, and the meaning of our lives is revealed.

But not until the end. One problem with thinking of one's life as an unfolding story is that, as a character within that story, we don't know how the story ends yet. Are you the hero or villain of your own tale? As St. Augustine saw when he set out to write the first autobiography, the Confessions, to even try to write one's life story is presumptuous because, while writing, one doesn't know the ultimate meaning of the story! Hence the importance of the title: Augustine called autobiography a confession because the very act of writing it revealed his own deepest yearning that his life mean one thing rather than another, perhaps something that was not clear even to himself, but only to his readers, in much the way that the meaning and unity of our own lives may not be clear to ourselves, but only to some other Person who reads us and knows us, in the end.

So let us end with some distinctions. Since human action is deliberate, intentional action, our lives have more than a merely metaphysical unity (every being has that), but also an intentional and practical unity. The practical unity of one's self is what we call one's personhood. To be a person is to be a narrative being who deliberately unfolds its meaning throughout its life. That specific meaning towards which we are constantly working, the ultimate interpretation of our lives, is what we call one's character. The difference between personhood and character is the difference between capacity and exercise, between ability and performance. To be a person is to have a story to tell; your character is the story you will have told, in the end, whether that story be a tragedy, a comedy, or a farce.