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Fr. 629

May 19, 2015

In philosophy, answers to “what” questions of this sort most often seek to isolate formal characteristics common to all instances of the entity to be defined. For x to be an instance of y, x must bear universal characteristics A, B and C. These stand as formal a priori characteristics. Notable examples of such questions include “what is knowledge?”, central to contemporary epistemology, and the important literature that this question has spawned.

Insofar as pragmatism, holism and epistemic nominalism call into question just such definitions, one can see here a limit to the definitions and endeavors of this kind.  Indeed, the characteristics relevant to identifying persons and personhood will vary greatly in virtue of context and situation. So, asking largescale questions of technological innovations, as the question does, is in some respect wrongheaded. Naturally, the way forward lies in asking more targeted questions and deploying smaller-scale notions in more precise contexts.

Accordingly, one should instead ask to what extent person and personhood are defined in terms of biological, genetic and psychological factors. Is there anything within person and personhood which lies beyond the jurisdiction of such factors? This question requires still further precision but can be provisionally addressed from the perspective of an older line of inquiry found in classical and contemporary discussions alike of character. Environment and genetics, nature and nature: how do these interact to account for character?

If one grants that genetics cannot entirely account for environmental factors, then broader reductionist strategies cannot be maintained. For environmental factors call for a different sort of reckoning than the genetic, more comprehensive in scope. Supposing that one were to provide a thoroughgoing account from a biological and genetic perspective, a comprehensive account of environmental factors which exhausted such considerations would still be further required. The methodology of just such an account is difficult to envision at this stage, even within the field of psychology, where experiments center on particular problems and components and eschew, at least in the beginning, an overall view.

Supposing further that environmental factors and their linkage in a comprehensive psychological account themselves do not exhaust the presentation of person and personhood or that the variability of these factors resists explanatory accounts, one must likely postulate, if not a soft explanatory gap, at least the possibility of facing a non-empirical object. Whether this be conceived under the aspect of the Meadian I as source of impulses, an underlying or instinctive subjectivity, or, less dramatically, the many-sided complexity of individuality, the challenge posed is clear: how far can empirical factors define a non-empirical object? (This challenge is further compounded by the dilemmas surrounding identification and definition required by Claim 3, which depends on a rigid epistemological scheme trading on outdated metaphors of classical epistemology.) Again, the need to constrict still further the context makes itself felt, in order to understand better what is at stake in the present formulation of person and personhood.


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