The achievement of personhood

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The debate on personal identity tends to conflate or ignore two different usages of the word 'person'. Psychological-continuity proponents concentrate upon its use to refer to human psychology or personality, while animalist critics prefer its use to refer to individual human beings. I argue that this duality undermines any attempt to see 'person' as a genuine sortal term. Instead, adopting suggestions found in Dennett and Sellars, I consider personhood as an ascription rather like an honorific title or achievement-marker. I show how the questions of identity for a regular honorific title like 'genius' inevitably supervene on identity-questions concerning the more basic entity of 'person'. I then argue by analogy that, if 'person' be regarded as an honorific on a par with 'genius', questions of personal identity over time necessarily collapse into questions of the continuing identity of human beings. Attempts to separate the continuity of a person from that of the human being who embodies it then founder on conceptual and referential incoherencies. Room is left for increasing the extension of personhood ascriptions to non-humans in the future, while much that was previously puzzling about its behaviour as a concept is explained. At least some of the revisionist debate can now be seen more profitably as a debate about the moral and pragmatic considerations underlying non-paradigm human continuity.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)141-156
Number of pages16
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sep 1997

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