I argue that the concept of personhood comes into play for an understanding of erotic, rather then merely sexual, experience. See the essay below. But I shall also argue, in a forthcoming essay, that a sophisticated concept of personhood can help us address dilemmas about the beginning of human life. These dilemmas are central to the controversies about abortion and related matters.
A version of the following essay was published in Philosophy Now in Spring 1993 (Issue N°. 5). It has not now (2022) been reviewed or revised.
PERSONHOOD and EROTIC EXPERIENCE
Why is it that love sometimes calls so insistently for a sexual expression? For not every feeling of love is accompanied by desire, and many people can feel physical attraction in the absence of any love properly speaking.
Yet the connection strikes us as important, even supremely important. It is not as when, having found someone we enjoy chatting to and whom we generally get along with, we discover them to be also a good tennis partner. Far from being like a game or an exchange, however pleasurable, the act of love seems to be pregnant with meaning.
After so serious a question, here is something merely puzzling. Heterosexual men generally find half-dressed women sexy. What is curious is that it is not the fully nude woman who is most enticing, nor the woman who is properly dressed, but the woman who reveals something of her body without revealing all.
Initially it might seem that what is at work here is the banal play of curiosity. Yet curiosity about what? The arrangement of the hair behind the veil or beneath her slip?
Nor is beauty any kind of answer. Indeed, beauty is more a question than an answer. The beautiful is not just what is pretty, not even very pretty.
Personhood: Background Reflections
The notion of personhood has traditionally thrived on an implied or explicit contrast with animality. Yet personhood is a moral rather than a biological concept, the biological equivalent being adequately covered by the terms human being or homo sapiens. Furthermore, a lot of the notions about animals that have been handed down to us are erroneous. Does this mean that we can or we should now jettison the separate concept of personhood?
Doubtless the use of terms drawn from the animal world must henceforth be construed more metaphorically than in the past. Nevertheless, similes such as "acting like a wild animal" are deeply and perhaps irremediably embedded in our language and our way of thinking. Does it actually matter if ethologists now realise that wild animals do not in fact behave like that, any more than it is important if the sun does not literally rise? The primary role of such similes has surely never been to disparage animals, although such turns of phrase have doubtless done nothing to shield them from maltreatment. Their role has been as part of a moral scheme, aimed at affirming some aspects of human nature at the expense of others.
The ambivalence of the notion of the person, its being partly descriptive and partly evaluative, has been instrumental in its role. The individual first finds himself described as a person, i.e. a human person, and is then called upon to behave as a person is supposed to behave. The logic behind this sleight of hand presumably rests on some metaphysical theory about beings having an essential nature which they must be true to.
In philosophical discourse, the word person has come to be largely synonymous with autonomous being. This implies the association of personhood with rationality and freedom, whereby a contingent identity between human animals brought up in society and persons is assumed.
The question remains whether there is any good reason to retain the age-old contrast with animality in the sense of the animal within. I shall now suggest there is.
Personhood: Access to Others
A person has many facets, and perhaps this variety is itself part of the essence of personhood.
So a person might be a human being, to the extent that a human is distinct from an animal. This would make a person an animal that orchestrates their instincts, never wholly dominated by a single drive, i.e. a person would be a being whose action is governed by reflection and self-control. A human who fails to coordinate or command their instincts, i.e. a human who is swept willy-nilly this way and that by their basic wants and desires, is said to be (like) an animal. A possible corollary of this definition is the idea that the person transforms their instincts, that in the case of the person, instincts are expressed only indirectly, are concealed or disguised. This metamorphosis would be part of the means by which self-control is effected.
According to another line of definition, a person would define himself, and be defined, by the ways he relates to other persons. This approach would see persons defining themselves by restricting the physical access they allow each other. In particular, there are constraints on the use of touch, i.e. of body contact (with, inevitably, variations between cultures). There are equally restrictions on visual access in our and most societies. Clothing certainly serves a protective function, but it inevitably also conceals or transforms the parts of the body it covers. In the absence of clothing there are rules about where one may look. (Apparently this applies even in societies which use no, or as good as no clothing.)
If the physical access humans as persons may have to each other is restricted, they enjoy in another respect a peculiarly unphysical mode of relating, namely through language. Talking to a being is a sign of acknowledgement of their personhood; (listening even more so).
It is no objection to this truth if people sometimes also talk to their pets or household appliances: the latter are clearly being anthropomorphised. Nor is it an objection that people use different languages. The presumption in regarding another being as a person is still that they do know some language or other, i.e. that they know what language is; (whereby it might be a substitute language, such as sign language).
If language is accepted as a, or the, key element in the constitution of personhood, it might still be asked what it is that is communicated. Language makes cooperation and exchange possible,including the exchange of goods. At the most basic level, goods include the things we eat. That is, we satisfy our hunger indirectly through our fellow men, with whom we also communicate through the intermediary of language.
We do not readily countenance the thought that our fellow humans could still our physical hunger directly.
Suppose, though, we were sometimes to eat each other, but be instantaneously reconstituted, so no harm were done.
Perhaps we already do, though in place of herbs sometimes with a whiff of perfume... .
We do not, however, have access to persons, as the other objects and things we might touch and possess. If they are physical objects of a sort, then other persons are instead akin to sacred things, at best amenable to a spell or a prayer.
Or else available for seduction.
What is seduction? One very general definition would be that it is getting the other person to desire what the seducer wishes them to desire. Another kind of seduction, another characterisation, would be "getting the other to let themselves go".
This would mean awakening and kindling the latent desires of the other. It could amount to a species of corruption. When the process is accomplished, the other person, the person being seduced, cannot help himself.
The Suspension of Personhood
Think for a moment of the simplest and most innocent of erotic phenomena, which need not be erotic, but can be. For no reason, one person looks, gazes, at another, then, on being spotted, smiles, and the other smiles back. Or blushes.
It is not possible to blush intentionally. Indeed, it is scarcely possible properly to smile deliberately. To simper is not to smile. By its nature, a smile is spontaneous. The desire to smile might be suppressed, it cannot be manufactured. To this extent, it is involuntary.
As in lovemaking, when the one or the other or both together let themselves go.
Traditionally, the human sexual act has often been thought of as something animal, and the sexual drive as a prime example of the animal within. Human sexuality, once stripped of the accepted appendages of masculinity and femininity, and thereby reduced to maleness and femaleness, seems to be removed, in space and in time, from the realm of personhood. Language is superfluous here or else rudimentary.
This ancient characterisation, I suggest, is supremely fitting. It has grown unfashionable because today many of us want to affirm our sexuality, and such affirmation seems inconsistent with the simile of animality. Yet we are indubitably also animals. The solution must be an account which recognises both the implicit personhood and the animality of human beings.
We might make a distinction between erotic experience and sexuality. By common usage, the term erotic is reserved for some or all human sexual response and cannot apply to what animals experience. The word also implies a cultural setting. In this essay, I use "erotic" to refer to the aura of meaning that is associated with, but is not a necessary concomitant of, human sexuality. The word can also refer to the cultivation, enhancement and intensification of sexual desire. The word sexual refers to the bare physical compulsions and acts that lead to and encompass copulation.
Our visual access to each other, and to a degree our tactile access too, is in our and most cultures restricted by clothing. If clothes serve first a protective function, they also inevitably conceal and adorn our bodies. They come to be intimately associated with a sense of respect for other persons and the self.
Let me put this point differently. Suppose you wanted a symbol for the person, something visible and tangible that supremely symbolised personhood, but was not a mere effigy. What better symbol than clothing? And what better symbol of femininity than something worn only by women?
As we move towards the act of love, we progressively abandon the symbols of our personhood. Clothing is cast aside. There is visual access, and access of touch such as is normally taboo.
If the person is defined by autonomy, by self-control, then there is in the act of love a moment or a time when self-control is relinquished, control given over to the other, passivity embraced. Our personhood, defined in terms of our self-control and respect for our separateness, is suspended.
At this moment we use, and are used.
What has this to do with love?
What does loving a person mean? Not, surely, just liking them or wishing them well. Nor is, humanly speaking, love for a person to be equated with action alone. That is, love cannot be reduced to care in the practical sense; it also involves care in the sense of emotional involvement. One aspect strikes me as crucial, and it is an aspect mostly overlooked or belittled or denied by those who preach a religion of love. It is the wish not only for the happiness of the loved person, but the desire, indeed the insistence, to oneself be instrumental in that happiness. (This can on occasion offend the moral precept of respect for the other's autonomy; but love is not the same as morality any more than it is a species of justice.) In some cases of jealousy it degenerates into the desire to be the sole source of the other's happiness.
Let us return to the initial question, namely why love should find expression in sexual intimacy. One explanation would be that the person who loves wishes to be instrumental in, if not the happiness, then the pleasure of the other.
But this account remains superficial. One might just as well wish to cook meals for the beloved.
There are two strands to the problem. First, what has sexual desire generally to do with love, and secondly, why should the person who is in love be so insistent on sharing sexual intimacies with the beloved?
Loving a person must mean, among many other things, fully perceiving them as an individual. This is necessarily not the case in most of our encounters with other persons. Our perception of the personhood of the other must generally remain formal and relatively superficial. Love, however, involves an acutely heightened perception of the separate personhood of the other.
We have said that, at a physical level, the erotic movement is one of the suspension of personhood, both one's own personhood and that of the other. Similarly, in erotic love a suspension of personhood is possible, but now so much the greater since the initial perception of the other as a separate person is that much more intense. This applies to the whole impetus of the act of love; but it also applies at another level to the state of being in love if this is understood as being, in part, the desire and the attempt to see the world through the eyes of the beloved. For then there is something like an intermittent suspension of the lover's personality, paralleling the suspension of personhood in the act of love.
Erotic experience, whether operating at a physical or a spiritual level, lives from the tension between personhood, with its rule of respect and self-control, and the suspension of personhood in the sexual act. Without a background of respect for one's own person and the person of others, a distinctly erotic movement is not possible; then there is only the gratification of an instinct or the attainment of a pleasure.
The more acute the perception of personhood, the greater is the erotic tension that is possible. If we live our lives as persons, the erotic experience, which gravitates towards the sexual act, is a way in which, momentarily, we may step outside of our personhood.
The other condition for erotic movement remains that of appetite. (We can love a person without desiring them.) Where no sexual attraction is present, an erotic movement cannot take place, any more than it can take place in the absence of the rule of personhood. Both elements are essential.
Restatement on Personhood
Here is a philosophically more rigorous statement of the arguments on personhood:
Persons are distinguished, at least in theory, from human beings in the biological sense. It would be conceivable for a non-human animal to be a person, and equally for a human not to be a person.
The transition from non-person to person is necessarily gradual. A baby becomes a person by being treated as a person and responding accordingly. This transition is deal with briefly later.
Two general definitions, or descriptions, of personhood are presented. These definitions are related to each other. They count as correct if they ring true (i.e. conform broadly with careful usage or at least do not conflict with it) and are consistent with each other.
Definition 1: Communities of persons are communities of beings that use language to communicate with each other. The use of language makes abstract thought and reflection possible and probably inevitable. (For the sake of the present argument, it is also possible to interpret this causality the other way round. I.e. it is immaterial for the present argument whether thought or language comes first.)
Definition 2: Persons are complex animals; that is, they have multifarious leanings (drives, instincts) which they (have to) orchestrate. They delay the satisfaction of some desires in order better to fulfil others; (this implies a concept of time). The orchestration of desires and action requires self-control.
A secondary (i.e. non-essential) feature of human persons is that they acknowledge each other through the rule of respect, i.e. by restricting their mutual visual and tactile access. Visual constraint is typically achieved by concealment or disguise of parts of the body. This makes clothing a kind of natural symbol of personhood.
The above definitions of personhood imply (a) communication by language and (b) self-control. The two elements imply in turn reflection and autonomy, which is close to the traditional conception of the essential nature of man. (I do not mean by this necessarily to endorse unreservedly that conception, but simply to indicate compatibility.) The definitions imply further the possibility that there are beings which do not use language (or substitute languages) or exercise deliberate self-control. Western thought has traditionally identified such beings as animals, and human beings have been recognised as having animal aspects. That is, we do not always reflect or control ourselves (roughly, our emotions and appetites). At such times we may be very human, in a manner of speaking, but we are not typifying personhood.
The concept of personhood as elucidated above has some claim to universal validity to the extent that the principles (though not, necessarily, the single-minded cultivation) of language usage and self-control, at any rate, can count as common to humans in society everywhere. It does not follow from this that there is an equivalent word everywhere, and it is, I assume, not the case that the implied contrast of personhood with animality would be accepted, at least in this form, by, for example, animalist cultures. This, however, would be a rejection of the metaphor of the animal within, rather than of the usability of what that metaphor denotes. It could perhaps be replaced by the word "id" or some other term drawn from the culture concerned. This said, the use of the animal metaphor in the West is not accidental. It may be surmised that reflective man has always sought to state for himself his place in the world, and it is natural to do this by reference to the animal world, especially the more visible or comparable or domesticated animals (mammals and birds rather than insects and reptiles). The metaphor of the "animal within" is a constitutive part of the conceptual apparatus which has been used in the West to understand what we are and what we want to be.
The Transition to Personhood
Are new-born babies persons? According to the preceding reflections and definitions, they are not. But babies are at least potential persons, and, if all goes well, grow to become fully-fledged ones. It would be fatuous to try and stipulate a point when the transition is made. I think the situation must be described as follows. In order to become a person, a biological entity must be treated as a person and be equipped to respond to that treatment. We choose, for whatever reason, to begin not merely catering to the baby's bare physical needs but to treat it as a person. The key dimension in this treatment is to talk to it. On this conception, the initial "personhood" of the baby is not a property of the newborn itself but an attitude adopted by those concerned with it. Note the corollary of this, that personhood is bestowed by other persons through individual attentiveness extended over time. I.e. persons are made by other persons. After a fashion, they are made by love.
I have misappropriated from Roger Scruton's excellent book "Sexual Desire" the idea about eating people who are then instantaneously reconstituted and the example about smiling. "Misappropriated" because Scruton's position is diametrically opposed to mine.