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Progressing the Person and Policy

The English word “person” has a long and convoluted history. Though the word itself likely derives from the Latin, persona, referring to the masks worn in theatre, its meaning has evolved over time. One of the biggest conceptual overhauls came in the 4th century AD during a church council that was held to investigate the concept of person as it related to the Trinity. Whereas the Greek fathers defined the Trinity as three hypostases, roughly translated as “substances” or “essences,” the Latin fathers saw them as one hypostasis that could be distinguished by the concept of persona. Because both the Roman Church and the Greek Church viewed each other as orthodox, they brushed off the difference of terms as semantics. Over time, this resulted in a conceptual conflation of the terms, effectively leading to persona encapsulating the notion of both the “role” one plays and one’s “essence” or “character” [1].

While the history of the term is intriguing, it certainly makes our modern quibbles seem inconsequential, or at least a bit ethnocentric. Whereas the English word for person has its own particular history, there is likely a similar concept in most societies around the world, both modern and ancient. It’s probably also the case that these other concepts of persons can shed light on the more general notion of what a person could be (cue the anthropologists). Thus, an anthropological perspective on the term person would provide a sort of external validity in our own arguments, just as it does for so many other discussions. However, the problem runs deeper than just comparing the English concept of person to that of other languages. From primates to developing humans to artificial intelligence, we lack much internal validity in our own understanding of what a person is across disciplines. There needs to be a more synthetic underpinning for what we deem a person as opposed to the discipline-specific concepts. An understanding of ideas of personhood in each of the disciplines discussed could really use the eyes and minds of anthropologists engaged in things like Science and Technology Studies. An understanding of how scientists in these disciplines understand personhood as it relates to their own work could help build a more universally consistent concept.

My posts this month have focused on three areas in which the concept of person is important: primatology, medicine/technology, and artificial intelligence. As I’ve discussed, cognitive science and the biological sciences have enabled enormous advances in our understanding of personhood in each of these areas. However, biology and cognitive science can only get us so far with something that could be considered a value statement. They can inform it, but not really delineate it – at least not alone. Rethinking our understanding of personhood through the social sciences and humanities can help inform research in primatology, medicine, and computer science. Moreover, how personhood plays out in the legal system, such as through the work of Steve Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project, relies deeply on informed research to push the idea of personhood beyond the human.

When they are incorporated into policy, words really matter. Definitions really matter. Although how a “person” is defined and understood may seem to be simply an academic curiosity, these understandings have direct influences on policy and action – but only if they are heard. If the ideas never leave their discipline, or worse, never leave the Ivory Tower, then they will fail to have real impact. How we treat primates and other animals. How we define a person’s life. How we grapple with human augmentation. How we will view and interact with artificially intelligent beings. All of these things – which are subject to policy – depend on how we understand personhood and how well that understanding is communicated to lawmakers and the public.

I don’t have the answers to many of the questions and problems I’ve raised. However, they are important to discuss, and discussing them with someone else who looks at the problem from a different angle can help solidify more universal concepts and lead to practical solutions. So, exercise your academic curiosity. Engage in esoteric discussions. That’s how the gritty work gets done. But, at the end of the day, don’t forget to engage those outside of your discipline. Better yet, get outside of the Academy and share your work with those who probably haven’t heard about it.

*Thanks to Agustin Fuentes, Gregory F. Tague, Barbara J. King, and Kathleen Richardson for sharing their thoughts with me on the topic of personhood during the writing of these posts. 


[1] Trendelenburg, A. (1910). A Contribution to the History of the Word Person. The Monist, 336-363.

Coltan Scrivner

I am currently a Ph.D. student in the Comparative Human Development department at the University of Chicago. I'm interested in the evolution of human social behavior and biocultural approaches to studying human evolution. I'm also interested in public understanding of science.