PDA

View Full Version : What makes a Person?



Godiva
Thursday, March 30th, 2006, 02:07 AM
Hello again,
I'm an anthropology major and recently in one of my classes we were discussing what characteristics or elements comprise or make up a person. We also discussed the idea of "the person" as it relates to kinship. And in all of this we were discussing how kinship ties can be given or extended to those who aren't our kin. Just today someone decided that I was his new big sister because that is the social function that I fill for him, though he would technically be considered my elder. I know that a lot of people here have studied cultural anthropology far more extensively then I have, so I was wondering what you all think about the following questions.

What are the elements or characteristics that comprise a person or personhood?

How do these elements of the person or personhood connect to kinship?

How can kinship ties be extended to non-kinsmen who then take on the role of kin? And in what sorts of situations does this occur?

Thanks for any answers you might provide. This is something I'm curious about, and, so far in the major, the topic that I have had the most fun discussing. :)

Northern Paladin
Thursday, March 30th, 2006, 03:17 AM
I believe this is both Anthropological and a Philosophical question.

I share the belief of Enlightment philosphers that self awareness in particular moral awareness/free will is what makes us human.
What makes a Person a Person or maybe Human is even a better term.

Actually now that I think about it Thomas Aquinas does a more through job of explaining what makes us human. He describes the component parts of what makes us human as the corporeal body,the intellect, and the will.

"Just today someone decided that I was his new big sister because that is the social function that I fill for him, though he would technically be considered my elder."

Just sounds like he likes you. Guys will make up any exuse to talk with girls.:D

Kinship is simple...its just being aware that we are more related have more in common with some people than others. First are immediate family, than our relatives, than our race or extended family.

Marriage coems to mind as one of the oldest and most popular forms of extending kinship ties. Extending kinship can be done in any situation where both parties recognize they are related and share a sense of solidarity because of common backround or beliefs.

Leofric
Thursday, March 30th, 2006, 03:32 AM
Hello again,
I'm an anthropology major and recently in one of my classes we were discussing what characteristics or elements comprise or make up a person. We also discussed the idea of "the person" as it relates to kinship. And in all of this we were discussing how kinship ties can be given or extended to those who aren't our kin. Just today someone decided that I was his new big sister because that is the social function that I fill for him, though he would technically be considered my elder. I know that a lot of people here have studied cultural anthropology far more extensively then I have, so I was wondering what you all think about the following questions.
Interesting topic. You know, a certain professor I think you know is lecturing on the liminality of humanity tomorrow in the GAS. I'll be going to the lecture if you're interested, we could go together. :D

As for the following questions, if you're seeking definitive answers, then there's no need to read my post. But if you just want to know what others' opinions on the matter are, I know I can help you with mine.

What are the elements or characteristics that comprise a person or personhood?
My first inclination is to say that it has to do with willful effect. That is, a person can will an effect on you and nonpersons cannot. So a very small baby on one hand, or a comatose body on the other, cannot affect you through the exercise of its own will. And I think such individuals are on the borders of personhood. A sleeping person can also lose personhood to an extent for the time of sleep. So activities about which I think, "I would never do that in front of another person," I might not have difficulty doing in front of the newborn (the kind that's still too young to really watch things), or the comatose body, or even the sound sleeper.

But I think this definition would also include some non-human animals, and I think that's a problem. But then, maybe it's not. I remember getting into an argument about animal rights with a girl from Venice who was so much in support of animal rights that she cried out in the middle of the conversation "You can't say that! Dogs are human beings!" Apparently, for her, some animals are persons.

But what about a mountain lion? A mountain lion is not a person, but it can decide to disembowel you, and if that's not willful effect, I'm not quite certain what is. Maybe a person has to be something that we perceive as having the ability to change our social status through intangible means by exercising its will. So the mountain lion can change your social status by disemboweling you (you certainly won't be the belle of the ball that evening), but that's not an intangible change. The kind of change a person can effect has to be somewhat more mystical.

That's precisely why there are things we won't do in front of other people. We are afraid of what would happen to us if they knew from firsthand experience that we did such things. If their knowledge of our actions is enough to bring about a change in our social status (and I don't mean necessarily something as drastic as going from prince to pauper or being defrocked or getting hired as a CEO it could be a very small change), then that's pretty intangible. Pretty mystical.

So if I felt that a wolf, just by knowing that I do certain things, might be able to change my state within society, then I would see that wolf as a person. Or a spirit. Or a god. I don't think that spirits and gods lie fully beyond the realm of personhood in human societies. If I felt that it didn't matter whether the wolf knew what I was doing (so long as it stayed away from me), then I wouldn't think of it as a person.

So yeah, that's what I think a person is. An entity that has some sort of mystical power to change, through intangible means, our equally intangible state in society.


How do these elements of the person or personhood connect to kinship?
I wouldn't even think to relate these right off the bat.

For the most part, persons are entities external to ourselves. We treat ourselves very differently from the way we treat everyone else. To some extent, we do not consider ourselves people. And our kin tend to be somewhere between the Self and the Other not quite people, but not quite not.

Perhaps closeness of kinship is the extent to which we depersonalize other people.

But now I'm starting to think that I've set up a false dichotomy here between person and non-person and that everyone should be classified into one of those two groups. It could well be that there are more groups than that, and that our kin (and the Self) are in some sort of third stage:

1. Non-personal entities (animals, newborns, the comatose, sometime simply foreigners, &c.) Things
2. Persons Other
3. Kin Self

In this tripartite division of the human race, kin actually fall in a sort of spectrum between the Self and the Other the closer the kin, the more they are like the Self.

Notice that, on the surface, our behavior toward our kin is often appears similar to our behavior toward non-persons. It is our behavior toward those in the middle category that is distinct. We are more direct (or rude, as it were) with our kin. We feel freer to belch, or what have you. We have fewer socially-imposed boundaries. But the underlying viewpoints that give rise to those similar-seeming appearances could not be further apart. One is complete objectification; the other, complete subjectification. One is using someone; the other is being someone.

So I guess a person is an entity that we treat in accordance with socially-imposed boundaries. And the closeness of kinship is determined by the degree to which those boundaries have begun to dissolve.

But I still think that we have those boundaries for a reason, and I think the reason is that, deep down, we think that people have a kind of mystical power over us.


How can kinship ties be extended to non-kinsmen who then take on the role of kin? And in what sorts of situations does this occur?
It's when the boundaries start to dissolve. I have a professor with whom I am developing this sort of relationship. Our boundaries are falling away, and he and I are starting to do little things with each other that people don't do with non-kin (don't worry, I'm not talking about Brokeback Classroom or anything like that it's much more paternal-filial). If this trend were allowed to continue, I think he and I would come to regard one another as a sort of kin (it helps that he, like me, proudly considers himself a member of the English nation). But in all likelihood, we will either part company before the trend can be allowed to continue, or we will put the brakes on the relaxing of the socially-imposed boundaries.


I don't know. Is this the kind of response you were hoping to find?

a. b.
Thursday, March 30th, 2006, 12:33 PM
But what about a mountain lion? A mountain lion is not a person, but it can decide to disembowel you, and if that's not willful effect, I'm not quite certain what is. Maybe a person has to be something that we perceive as having the ability to change our social status through intangible means by exercising its will. So the mountain lion can change your social status by disemboweling you (you certainly won't be the belle of the ball that evening), but that's not an intangible change. The kind of change a person can effect has to be somewhat more mystical.The way I see this, a mountain lion, or any other animal, cannot be distinct from its actions. Animals can be reduced to their functions - predators hunt and eat. A person, on the other hand, cannot be reduced to its function - if I am hungry, I may eat you, and I may choose not to eat you for whatever reasons I have. That's the difference, the way I see it.
I remember having a similar discussion with a couple of, uh, let's say friends, a while ago. We discussed the border between being human and not - in regard to abortions. I, for one, believe that, in order to use the Bible (sic!) in favour of abortion-opponents (what do you call that in English?), we must first define exactly what comprises persons.

a. b.
Wednesday, April 5th, 2006, 04:19 PM
However, some might claim, that there my above statement is false, and that there is no difference between man and beast when it comes to the subject of free will. Determinists say, that we are tricked into believing that we are 'free' by our senses. For instance, when I suffer from great thirst and have nothing but hydrochloric acid, I believe that my free will makes me able to leave the bung on the flask, but my only reason for doing so is that I know that the result of drinking hydrochloric acid is worse than being thirsty. Therefore, none of my actions are my own, they are simply being dictated to me by the experiences of my past. I may think I can choose, but I will always pick what benefits me most. Is that free will?
Am I talking nonsense here? Does anyone follow me?

edit: Sorry, this may be off topic, but I just remembered my other reply in this thread and had to add something.