The Difference between ‘Someone’ and ‘Something.’

Persons: The Difference between ‘Someone’ and ‘Something.’

Daniel, Joshua

Persons: The Difference between ‘Someone’ and ‘Something.’ Oxford Studies in Theological Ethics. By Robert Spaemann. Translated by Oliver O’Donovan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. 272 pp. $85.00 (cloth).

Thankfully, another book by Robert Spaemann has been translated and published in English. For those familiar with his earlier works, this one does not disappoint. It also serves as a great introduction both to an intriguing thinker and to the issues that one faces in understanding the human person. Spaemann begins by delineating a concept of personhood applicable to all human beings as such, that is, as members of the human species. His point is to restore a concept of personhood that secures rather than endangers the “idea that human beings, qua human beings, have some kind of rights before other human beings” (p. 2). Spaemann puts this concept to work by analyzing in its light important philosophical themes-such as intentionality, transcendence, time, death, conscience, recognition, freedom. He concludes with six reasons why all human beings should be considered persons.

Spaemann defines a person as a living being who “has” or “relates to” her nature. Because humans are persons, humanity’s way or manner of being consists in the having of human nature. Unlike animals, whose manner of being is their nature, and so consists in the unreflective exercise of their biological capacities and attributes, humans are persons because they differentiate themselves as subjects from their nature. While animal and human natures share the need for certain acts (eating, drinking, sexual intercourse), humans are persons because they can invest these acts with personal significance (eating and drinking become an act of fellowship, and sexual intercourse becomes an act of love). Such investment is an example of humans “having” their nature. While the demonstration of certain attributes of human nature warrants one to ascribe personhood to another human, personhood itself is not one of these attributes, nor can it be reduced to the possession of unique attributes. Personhood cannot be denied to small children or the severely disabled because they fail to demonstrate a particular degree of rationality, in other words. Membership in the human species, inclusive of its animal aspects and regardless of the performance level of specifically human capacities, is thus the only criterion for ascribing personhood.

At the same time, recognition of persons consists in more than determining species-membership. The non-identity between person and human nature underwrites the self-transcendence essential to personhood. To differentiate oneself from one’s own attributes requires seeing oneself through the eyes of other persons. To recognize one’s own self as person is to recognize others as persons, engaged in similar recognitions. Personhood is thus essentially plural, and recognition between persons takes the form of mutual respect. Humanity is not to be understood relative to other species, but rather as a community of persons claiming recognition from each other and so realizing their own personhood. What is recognized are not particular attributes, but the personal selves beyond those attributes.

Spaeman offers here a work of Christian philosophical anthropology in which he engages with major figures from the Western tradition. Familiarity with these figures helps in understanding the work, but is not essential as long as one is willing to grapple with difficult material. That the topic is nothing less than what it means to be human helps the reader to grasp what is at stake in particular discussions. Christian themes are prevalent but muted. While dues are paid to the New Testament notion of the “heart” and the Trinitarian notion of a personal God as decisive for the concept of personhood, what gets the most attention are those themes with more general application, whether of the soul, love, promise, or forgiveness. One might wish he used these with a more explicitly Christian or theological purpose, or explicitly addressed the relationship between Christian thought and philosophy. However, the benefit of his approach is that it demonstrates the philosophical traction that such themes have. In this sense, Spaemann’s work is similar to that of Sören Kierkegaard and Paul Ricoeur.


The University of Chicago Divinity School

Chicago, Illinois

Copyright Anglican Theological Review, Inc. Winter 2008

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