2018-01Thematic Section
Why We Are Not “Persons”


To the question “What are we?”, the common-sense answer is “human beings”; but many philosophers prefer to say we are “persons”. This paper argues that the philosophical use of “person” (to mean, roughly, a conscious, rational agent) is problematic. It takes us away from the sound Aristotelian idea that our biological nature is essential to what we are, and towards the suspect Lockean idea that a person could migrate from one body to another. This dualistic Lockean conception is often laid at Descartes’s door, but Descartes himself in many passages underlines our status as human beings. There is a further danger in the idea of personhood as rational agency if (following Kant) it is seen as that which makes someone worthy of moral respect. Respect should be recognized as an inalienable and absolute human entitlement, independent of our circumstances, capacities, group-membership, qualifications or faculties.


person, human, soul, Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, Kant

How to cite:

Cottingham, John. “Why We Are Not “Persons”.” Eidos. A Journal for Philosophy of Culture 2, no. 1(3) (2018): 5–16. https://doi.org/10.26319/3912.


John Cottingham
University of Reading
Whiteknights, PO Box 217, Reading, Berkshire RG6 6AH, United Kingdom;
Roehampton University London
Grove House, Roehampton Lane, London, SW15 5PJ, United Kingdom;
St John’s College, Oxford University
St Giles, Oxford OX1 3JP, United Kingdom


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