Look after your mind
Some years ago I was asked to set up philosophy clubs in local primary schools. The aim was to show children how philosophical thinking goes beyond simple discussion and debate to explore complex concepts. One topic we talked about was, ‘What does it mean to be a person’? Children’s ideas ranged far and wide, with many young thinkers defining ‘personhood’ in terms of the roles that people have – child, pupil, boy, girl, Year Six and so on. Others talked about the essential features of being alive; eating, metabolizing, excreting, breathing, moving, growing, reproducing, and responding to external stimuli. A few introduced spiritual / religious ideas such as a soul being essential for personhood.
But of course the notion is more tangled than that. One technique in philosophy is to run thought experiments – scenarios that would be difficult or impossible in reality. So I asked the groups to imagine a human’s body parts being replaced one by one by artificial limbs and organs. At what point, if at all, does that human cease being a person? I then took it further with the famous ‘brain in a vat’ scenario. If a human brain could be kept alive in a vat, could you still call it / him / her etc. a person? What about if all of the information in a person’s brain could be uploaded into a supercomputer equipped with the ability to talk, listen and so on. Would that huge collection of thoughts still constitute a person?
While philosophy tries constantly to get closer to the truth of the matter, philosophers often end up with more questions rather than any definite conclusions. This was the case with our philosophy groups.
Behind the mask
Interestingly, the word ‘person’, from Latin, originally meant the mask that a character wore in a play. Essentially a false face. This chimes with the rather cynical comment made by the sociologist Irving Goffman in his book ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’. He said a person has as many faces as he has friends.
What is Personality?
I suppose it’s true that we show different aspects of our personality depending on the situation in which we find ourselves. If you look up the word personality you’ll be offered something like ‘the quality or state of being a person’. Personal existence: ‘the condition or fact of relating to a particular person specifically’. You might wonder if that gets us any closer to the heart of the matter.
The mention of personhood depending upon someone having a personality led the young philosophers to explore what the idea actually means. This in turn drew us into darker waters. Consider whether someone in a deep coma, being kept alive by machines, still possesses a personality. What the children realised was that apparently simple ideas can be complex and subtle when they’re unpacked. A number of the children said outright that being a person, whatever that meant, was a wonderful thing. In other words, their perceptions of people had changed.
Perhaps the last word should go to the writer Aldous Huxley. When asked what a person was he said, “A bundle of contradictions”.