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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N041-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2018
Retrieved July 15, 2024, from

Article Summary

A person, as most philosophers use the term, is something with certain special mental properties. Locke, for example, defined ‘person’ as ‘a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places’. To be a person (at a time) is to be intelligent and self-conscious (at that time).

To say that something is a person is thus to say something about its mental properties. But we could know all about a thing’s mental properties without knowing the rest of its nature – what nonmental properties it has – just as we could know that something is a clock, or even know all about its timekeeping properties, without knowing its physical structure. The definition of ‘person’ as ‘intelligent, self-conscious being’ is like the definition of ‘clock’ as ‘device that measures time’: it specifies a role, but does not say what sort of thing fills the role.

Here are some things that persons – that is, people – have been taken to be:

Immaterial substances

Collections of mental states and events

Biological organisms

Parts of organisms

Nonorganisms constituted by organisms.

Some have even denied that there are any people at all: there are acts of thought, but no beings whose thoughts they are. There is no consensus on the matter, or even any dominant view.

It may be that different sorts of people belong to different metaphysical kinds, just as different sorts of clocks have different mechanisms. There are mechanical clocks made of springs and wheels, electronic digital clocks, atomic clocks and so on. Likewise, it may be that we human people are organisms, but some nonhuman people – gods, say, or the intelligent, self-conscious computers of the future – are not. This entry will consider only human people. It will discuss some of the main accounts of their nature, then briefly connect them to wider metaphysical themes.

Citing this article:
Olson, Eric. Persons, 2018, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N041-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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