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Persons — What Philosophers Say about You

Interview with Warren Bourgeois

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Surely everyone knows what a person is. Why write a book about it?

Most of us, when asked, would say we know what a person is, but it is hard to find two people who agree on the answer. Especially when we start talking about one of the many controversies in which this concept figures prominently, (abortion, feminism, the new advances in genetics to name a few), the disagreements become evident and serious. Besides, I am not concerned only with the nature of persons but with questions about the kinds of changes an individual person can survive. Changes of memory, physical appearance, abilities, or personality can make a particular human being seem to be an entirely different person. New technologies will exacerbate our perplexity about this. We need to make some hard decisions about what is to count as survival.

How do you think you can settle disagreements about what a person is or when a person is still there after extreme changes?

Rather than trying to give anyone the final word in such debates, I present them with multiple perspectives, including my own, from which they can choose. In fact, I give my readers a quick tour of Western philosophical thought on the subject from the ancient Greeks to the present. This serves as a basis for a hard look at what we need to today. I try to fashion a concept of a person that will serve us well in the difficult debates we are now conducting. At the same time, I try to give my readers the material they need from the history of our ideas on persons to be clear about their own views. Personhood, like art, is one of those essentially contested concepts on which we can never hope to have complete agreement.

What got you interested in such abstractions?

Actually, there are some very clear applications of one’s concept of a person. It is not just an airy abstraction of interest only to philosophers. It is one of those concepts where the rubber meets the road in philosophy. While I had long been interested in questions about the identity of persons through time, as a theoretical matter, the importance of my ideas to my own life and actions was harshly impressed on me by my wife’s descent into dementia. Bonnie suffered from a relatively rare form of multiple sclerosis that gradually but inexorably destroyed much of her brain. As this tragedy slowly wound on, Bonnie went through a series of changes of intellect, character, personality and, to some extent appearance. Within the space of two years, a brilliant and lively young woman became first like an infant and then almost vegetative. To do what was right and reasonable and to preserve my own sanity, I had to be very clear about what I thought was happening and to whom I thought I was talking.

It must be very difficult to write about something like that, especially to do so with philosophical objectivity.

It would be more difficult for me to simply witness such a terrible series of events with no attempt to understand them. Philosophy, as I do it, is an activity very much connected with our day-to-day lives. Not only that, but Bonnie was a philosopher. The best way to celebrate her brief but brilliant life in this exacting discipline is to learn from her tragedy, to take it as an inspiration for work of the sort that she loved.

Who do you want to reach with this book?

Everyone who really believes that there is great value in examining the lives we live will find something to think about in the ideas of the great philosophers. Those who are curious about the ways that philosophy is done will like it too, I hope. I particularly want to speak to those who are puzzling about themselves now, their past, and their future. People who are willing to think hard and who care about what is right, what is real, and what we can possibly know about persons will find arguments here with which to agree or disagree. What I wish for this book is that it will provide a stimulus to many to think through their concepts of themselves, the world and their place in it.