930 words, 5 min read
The question of who I am is at the very heart of philosophy and a failure to answer it was presented by Socrates even as grounds for voiding the very value of his being, when he said his famous “The unexamined life is not worth living.” during the trial that lead to his being sentenced to death. A philosopher who has given this question some very careful and insightful thought is Giuseppe Maria Zanghí, who in his 1980 article entitled “A few thoughts on the person” has looked at the distinction between person and individual.
His starting point is the presentation is a key challenge that we face when attempting to subject the person to scientific enquiry:
“In the humanity common to all humans, the person is precisely that which is not in common, that which constitutes me as me in a shared humanity. How is it possible, then, to objectify the person? If we do that, we can only state what the person is not (not to confuse with, e.g., human nature); but if we want to say what the person is, we won’t find a “scientific” answer.”By definition, that of which there is only a single specimen can not be subjected to the scientific method, since it does not allow for repeatability, for generalization and for verification (already Aristotle knew this well, when he argued in he Metaphysics (XIII, 10) that there can be no science of individual entities).
This initial roadblock leads Zanghí to define the person as follows:
“The person [...] is a “singularity” irreducible to another since it is other; it is that unrepeatable “singularity” that makes a human be this human, who then is the concretely existing one.”Next, Zanghí introduces an important nuance and distinction: that between the person and the individual, lest his definition of the former be taken as pointing to the latter:
“Could we, therefore, say that the person is the individual? The answer to this question calls for careful reflection. If we analyze ourselves, we realize that the individual is that which exists concretely: only in it does human nature not exist as a logical concept but as effective reality. But there remains a difference between nature and individual, without which the individual would absorb the totality of the nature and would deny the other. We can say, therefore, that the individual is defined by the precise limits within which it exists; the individual is, to use an image, carved into the common, shared nature. Human nature is constrained, it contracts, becoming concrete in the space-times that are individuals.”What I believe Zanghí is saying here is that the individual is an instance of human nature, but distinct from it, since, otherwise, there could be only one individual, and that it is a spatiotemporal restriction and concretization of that nature.
This leads Zanghí to the realization of what it is that distinguishes the person from the individual:
“Yet, as I affirm all this (non-identity between the individual and nature, spatiotemporality of the individual), if what I say makes sense, I demonstrate to myself that, because of the awareness that I have of it, I am overcoming precisely the limits that make me an individual; I overcome, by speaking about it, the space-time in which I am an individual, I overcome the individual-nature distinction. Not in a sense that confuses the logical and existential planes, but in the sense that I unite them on a higher level, that I call ontological. I can think of myself as I think, because I transcend myself as an individual, I achieve a way of being where the individual-nature opposition, and thus individuality itself, is overcome (but not negated). In this act of transcendence, in this overcoming that I achieve while thinking, I reverse the state proper to the individual, that is, I assume nature, through the individual but beyond the individual, in an “other” with regard to the individual, and that is the person.”The person is essentially the individual’s self-transcendence, a going beyond the constraints and unicity of the individual that is demonstrated by the very act of thinking about oneself, which would otherwise not be possible - without transcendence the individual could not think about itself.
Zanghí unpacks this transcendental nature of the person as follows:
“I would say, then, that the person is the individual’s act of transcendence, it is the individual that overcomes itself by taking nature up into itself and achieving a unity between universality (proper to nature) and existential concreteness, that is, the particular (proper to the individual). Human nature exists concretely in an act of transcendence that, while it “limits” it in the concreteness of the here and now (the individual), it returns it to an existing universality (the person).”Finally, in anticipation of a potential misunderstanding that the above could lead to, Zanghí focuses on how individual and person relate:
“It is to be understood, also, that the person is not placed above, so to speak, the individual: almost as though, if the individual is what exists, is substance, then the person is also another substance added to the individual. The person is the act of the individual human substance, the act in which that-which-is-human (the individual human individual) is in its fullness, I would simply say: is.”In other words, Zanghí is careful to avoid a dualist misinterpretation of his thought by stressing that we are not some strange amalgams of two distinct substances: individual and person, but that it is the person which is how the individual exists/is.