Taylor: What Is A Person? Essay, Research Paper
What am I? On the surface, this question seems so ridiculously simple that one may feel that it is unnecessary to even supply a verbal answer. I am, obviously, a human being, a person. However, when using this label “person” to describe myself, I am hurling myself into one of philosophy’s most heavily debated topics since the existence of mankind.
The primary task when dealing philosophically with person, or “self”, is to clarify what exactly the term embodies and represents. As Taylor said, “Selves are, indeed, about the strangest inhabitants of nature that once can imagine—except that, as sometimes described in philosophy, they are not even imaginable in the first place.” Most people harbor no doubt that their self exists, but very few stop to question what exactly that means. To address this vagueness, it seems necessary to address the question of the actual nature of the self. Historically, there have been two opposing schools of thought, the first claiming that the self is an entirely mental entity, while the second asserts that the self is purely physical. These views, respectively called mentalism and materialism, have fueled the so-called mind/body problem for hundreds of years. The lone similarity between these oppositions lies in the fact that those who embrace either view completely deny the possibility that the other has any function in the self. By this, I mean that materialists feel that the self is entirely physical and encompassed bodily, and that mental activity does not exist independent from the body, and vice versa for the mentalists. With these two radically contradictory views, the question of the self has been widely debated, and in this paper I will not choose one view over the other and attempt to convince my reader that the chosen position is truly correct. Rather, I am going to question myself to determine my own definition of self. Whether or not my conclusion will echo that of a materialist, mentalist, or something different altogether remains to be seen.
As I initially ask myself to define my personage, the phrase “I think, therefore I am” pops unsolicited into my mind. Descartes, an obvious mentalist, had a point when he muttered these now-famous words. Indeed, a person is inarguably a thinking thing. If I were not, tasks like writing this paper would be irrelevant, not to mention far less painstaking. The mind and its processes are indubitably things that make up what I consider my self. My mind is the machine that produces my thoughts and ideas, and it houses the knowledge that allows me to reason logically, a characteristic that sets human beings apart from other forms of life. I certainly don’t think of a tree or a rock as a person, and that is because these objects show no signs of mental activity. The day that I see a tree with a calculus book hanging from its branches computing the value of an integral is the day that I check myself into an asylum. However, the power of my mind allows ME to solve that integral, and when I do, I am proud of mySELF. The actions of my mind define not only how I view my own person, but also how others view me as a person. With this thought, my mind is intruded upon by another thought: other people aren’t seeing my MIND—they’re seeing and reacting to my physical body. As I turn to face the mirror that is to the left of my desk, I am met with a reflection that can only be called myself, the reflection of the person called Leah. In this mirror, I am unable to see my mind, nor can I see those mental activities that are inevitably occurring. I see a girl with blue eyes and brown hair. I see a body. With this, I am reminded of another characteristic that sets human beings apart from rocks and trees, and that is the ability to actively interact and communicate with other human beings. Again, it would be amazing to see a group of rocks sitting in a circle playing a mean game of Uno. As suggested by Taylor, when I identify a particular person, what I am doing is identifying them with their bodies, as others undoubtedly identify me with my 5’6” frame. To regress slightly, I stated that my mind allows me to solve integrals. However, what is the good in being able to solve the problem with my mind if I had no body with which to relay the answer to others? Without this body, I could not be seen, nor could I write down my thoughts. In general, I could not do the things that a “person” is thought to have the abilities to do. From this, it appears to me that a person is not a purely mental thing, and nor is it simply a physical body. I feel confident to assert that a person is an inextricably intertwined fusion of the two. To claim that a person is merely physical or mental is to be met with immediate and undeniable contradiction. I believe that the complexity of human beings and their nature explicitly implies that their description is one that is meant to defy the simplicity of both the materialistic and mentalistic view. If one had to draw a diagram showing the relationships between the person, mind, and body, a triangle would appropriately illustrate that relationship, because each item is connected to the other two. To sever a side between any of the two would be to destroy the triangle, and all that would be left are useless, insignificant pieces. While it is true that certain actions apply to only the mind or the body, the fact that a person is able to perform them all illuminates the fact the mind and body make up their whole.
As when dealing with almost any area of philosophical inquiry, I realize that there are some people who will disagree with what I have written. In my mind, there are three responses that will be prominent: (1) a materialist will still insist that a person is made up of only the body, (2) a mentalist will still insist that a person is made up of only the mind, or (3) somebody who rejects both the materialist and mentalist view to agree that a person is a combination of the mind and body. For the first two, I will remind them that while developing my position, I undoubtedly shared a part of their view by associating my own person to the mind AND the body. However, by associating with the two simultaneously, I am unavoidably denying them both a status of absolute truth. I can only hope that by reading my “triangle” theory, they will allow themselves to see the possibilities of an alternative truth to their own. Also, as another possible riposte to their unwavering loyalty to materialism or mentalism, I may suggest reading a composition written by a philosopher of the opposing school of thought. For the materialist, I would suggest reading Descartes, and for the mentalist, Taylor should give them something to think about. No matter how dedicated a person is to a particular idea, when met with an opposing view that is as sensible as his or her own, an intelligent person must admit the possibility of being incorrect, at least to a certain degree. To that person who agrees that the person is the perfect blend of mind and body, I ask that they share their own views and reasons with me, for it is always intriguing to get another perspective on a similar viewpoint on a subject such as this. I realize now that I forgot to acknowledge a fourth possible response, which is that from a person who rejects all the above possibilities. And what shall I say to those people? I honestly don’t know. However, I am eagerly waiting to hear what THEY have to say to ME.