Prolegomena for a Pluralist Metaphysics: People
by Daniel A. Kaufman
I shouldn’t need to tell anyone that there are people. You’re a person, as am I. There likely are others in your house. Certainly, there are more down on the street. I understand from a not entirely reliable authority that Hell consists of them. Clearly, uncontroversially, obviously, people exist. They aren’t illusions. They aren’t like desktop icons on a computer. And they aren’t “ugly bags of mostly water,” as described by a strange alien species in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and as believed, essentially, by every reductionist who has addressed the subject.
People also aren’t spirits. They aren’t souls. They aren’t any kind of weird substance that “inhabits” bodies. People have bodies, of course, but they don’t “inhabit” them and aren’t independent of them, in the way that I inhabit my house and am independent of it.
So, what are people then? This is easy to answer and – like the question as to whether there are people – shouldn’t have to be told to anyone. People are friends and neighbors. People are parents and siblings. People are plaintiffs and defendants. People are entertainers and fans. People are heroes and villains. Etc.
“No!” I can hear philosopher after philosopher protest in exasperation, “What are people.” And what they mean; what they are asking; what they really want to know is what are people made of?
I’m not playing. I didn’t go through all the trouble of talking about and explaining the mistake involved in the assumption that ontological commitment should be understood hypostatically, in order to have a ridiculous conversation about what people are “made of,” any more than I did it in order to argue about what parking regulations are made of. So, let me repeat: To say, “There is an X” is not to say, “There is a discrete object in space or a substrate.” That’s not what it means. It’s not materially equivalent or equivalent in any other sense. It’s just a mistake. An understandable mistake, given how we perceive the world, but a mistake, nonetheless. People do not have thingy-ness, as I’ve described it earlier, any more than do countries, laws, or the other elements that make up our social ontologies.
So, when someone asks, “What are people,” the sort of itemized list I offered is the correct and only possible answer. And it is sufficient to explain everything we want to know about them. People are those who exist and operate within social, intentional and teleological forms of life and whose activities and character are thereby subject to normative characterization. It is this that every “People are …” that I listed have in common. It is why John Locke deemed ‘person’ a forensic term. And it’s why Sellars, in the final paragraphs of “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man,” wrote:
To think of a featherless biped as a person is to think of it as a being with which one is bound up in a network of rights and duties. From this point of view, the irreducibility of the personal is the irreducibility of the ‘ought’ to the ‘is’. But even more basic than this (though ultimately, as we shall see, the two points coincide), is the fact that to think of a featherless biped as a person is to construe its behaviour in terms of actual or potential membership in an embracing group each member of which thinks of itself as a member of the group. Let us call such a group a ‘community’. Once the primitive tribe, it is currently (almost) the ‘brotherhood’ of man, and is potentially the ‘republic’ of rational beings (cf. Kant’s ‘Kingdom of Ends’). An individual may belong to many communities, some of which overlap, some of which are arranged like Chinese boxes. The most embracing community to which he belongs consists of those with whom he can enter into meaningful discourse.
the conceptual framework of persons is the framework in which we think of one another as sharing the community intentions which provide the ambience of principles and standards (above all, those which make meaningful discourse and rationality itself possible) within which we live our own individual lives. A person can almost be defined as a being that has intentions.
What trips up so many philosophers is that they think there is some terrible mystery involved in understanding the relationship of a person to his or her body. But there is no mystery, nor is there a problem. People have views, and in doing so, use their brains. Brains do not have views. People go on bike rides, and in doing so they use various bones and muscles. Bones and muscles don’t go on bike rides. People go to the store and shop for groceries and bring them home, and in doing so they use their bodies, but, of course, bodies don’t go to the store, shop for groceries, or bring them home.
The relationship between persons and their bodies is like the relationship between their actions and their motor movements, and both, taken together, represent the relationship between the Manifest and Scientific Images, taken as a whole. There is no problem in understanding the relationship of actions to motor movements or people and their bodies, because that relationship is not one involving material substances interacting with weird, non-material ones or substances interacting with other substances at all. Rather, it is a relationship between the world conceived in terms of quantifiable magnitudes and causality and the world conceived in terms of reasons, actions, and ends. That relationship is complementary, not contradictory, and involves no reaching across disparate substrata or different worlds. Rather, it arises out of a single world that has people in it; people whose representations and points of view regarding that world and one another, create the space of reasons in which the social dimension of our lives lies and to which we devote much if not most of our time and energies.