A Short Essay on Personhood

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There are some ideas so fundamental to a particular subject that they can be taken for granted. However they are so fundamental that one cannot afford to do so. Since they so powerfully determine how we approach or see the topic. In Christian theology, I would argue that probably one of the most fundamental issues to understand is the nature/person distinction. This is because it is at the centre of the central aspect of Christian theology (from the perspective of the Eastern Orthodox); the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Not only was this massively important for the salvation of humanity, but it was a game changer in what it revealed about God. The Tri-Unity of God and the two natures of the one Logos, Jesus.  In wrestling with what these ideas mean and what their implications are, people have not only struggled with the age old question of the one and the many. But particularly fundamental to the development of Christian thought; the relationship of person to nature.

I would argue that at the core of every Ecumenical Council and the root of many theological debates, lies this age old question. This is central to understanding the Filioque controversy which has divided the Eastern and Western Church. Why Reformed soteriology differs in its understanding of grace  and works from Catholics and the OrthodoxHow different schools of thought approach the problem of evilHow they approach the question of free will and impeccability. Deal with God’s role in predestinationThe very nature of the atonement and many more issues such as the veneration of saints, having images of Christ and the nature of the Church and sacraments. It cannot be over-stated just how far reaching the implications of ones position on such a single issue is for their theology.

Having said that, this essay will not be an exhaustive piece and what it means to be a Person. There are many places on the the site that either discuss this or link to other sources that can help further ones own learning. However I will try and help give a clearer picture of how we are to go about understanding what a person or hypostasis is when discussing theology. I don’t claim to have all the definitive answers. But perhaps a few starting points from which one can try and do some more wrestling with the topic.


Theological Implications

A person or hypostasis, is the irreducible subject or agent of a rational nature. Irreducible because it is not just another part of the nature. Since it is not combined with other things to constitute or form on particular thing. Like organs and bones to form a human body. Also a constitutive part, is either a particular substance like water, or an accident (non-essential), like the colour red is to hair. Hair can be red, but it is not essential for hair to exist that it be red. As it doesn’t make sense to speak of a rational nature without a person or subject of that nature. If a rational nature exists then off necessity a person must also exist.

Neither is the person simply another name for all the individual parts or a rational nature together. Like a car being neither the steering wheel nor the seats, but simply the name of the entire combined reality. Here the car has no reality distinct from the individual parts that make it. Here the person wouldn’t be any individual part that is said to make up a rational nature. But simply the name given to the entire rational nature combined.

So in the first scenario, the person is a part of a rational nature, either another substance within it (perhaps the soul?) or an accidental part that may or may not be there. In the second scenario, the person is not a, but simply the name for all the parts when combined. Here there is nothing more or less to the person than simply the sum of the nature’s parts.

None of these views are compatible with historic orthodox Christianity. Not Christianity as laid out in the Ecumenical councils of the Church. A person could not simply be a substance that is part of rational nature or a substance that simply is the entire rational nature. Why? Because orthodox Christianity professes that God is one in substance/essence. But three as to persons. And unless one wants to think that the Fathers of the Church were simpletons who couldn’t distinguish between one and three, one must say that they had a difference between what substance meant, and what person meant.

Now back to what I said earlier, if a person is constitutive part of a rational nature, then they are either substances or accidents. As those are what parts are to a thing. A substance that makes it up, or an accidental feature of a substance. So if persons are constitutive substances, then the Trinity being three persons would be three separate substances that come together to form or work as one rational essence. This will mean falling either into Tritheism or Modalism. Since either you’ll have three distinct substances which works as one (tritheism) or you’ll have collapse the three individual substances that are persons, into one single substance and thus one person (modalism).

If you make them constitutive accidents, then you’ll say that the persons of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit could have not existed or been as they were. You’d also have to say that personhood is non-essential to the divine nature. If you decide to go the route of the car, and say that a person simply is the name of a particular rational essence, you fall into the same problems. Since the creeds say that God is one in essence, if a person simply is the name given to a rational essence, then God is just one person. And to have three persons you would have to say there are three essences. Once again you are left either going down the modalist route or the tritheist route. In fact this was part of the problem for the Arians.

Arians like Eunomius saw persons as being just another substance, “. . . if it has now been demonstrated that God neither existed before himself nor did anything exist before him, but that he is before all things, then what follows from this is the Unbegotten, or rather, that he is unbegotten essence (1).” If that was the case, then how could one person or substance be both unbegotten and begotten? The Father was said to be unbegotten and the Son begotten. If that’s the case, and persons are substances, then there is no way they could be the same substance. Not only would that sound rather modalist to the Arians, since by calling Father and Son one substance, you’re calling them one person. But the properties you’re attributing to each are contradictory. Hence why for the Arians the Father was the one Unbegotten substance or person (since for them they were one and the same), whereas the Son was a begotten and created person.

Having seen how theologically person and nature are distinct. Philosophically how does that play out? What reasons are there for thinking that personhood is irreducible to either a part or entire rational essence.


Philosophical Implications

First we need to distinguish between the category of individual or person, from a particular person. The reason being that there is a principle in the orthodox Christian understanding; what is common is shared, what is particular is of the individual. This means that if two or more subjects have something in common, then that thing they have in common is either of their nature or their activities. It isn’t their personal mark that makes them distinct from all others. As such it isn’t personal or hypostatic. For example, in human beings, flesh is common to all. Thinking is common to all. The characteristic of flesh or corporeality belongs in the category of human nature. The activity of thinking is also proper to human nature, as all humans share in it. If thinking were Anne’s hypostatic distinction, then only Anne would think. But since it is common to all humans to have the inherent capacity to thinking (whether it is exercised or not) it means it is something common to the nature of humanity. As such it is a natural property. Property here not being a part that constitutes a thing (like sand and water are to a sand castle). But property as in a feature whose existence demonstrates or manifests the presence of a thing. That is, like heat is to fire or thinking is to a person. If there is a fire there is heat, if there is thinking there is a person etc.

All this to say, that we can answer the question of “what is a person?” in two ways. The first is to describe what a person has, and the second more difficult is to actually say what a person is. People often do the former and think they are doing the latter. It is not wrong to say that a person is someone who has a rational nature, which includes things like consciousness, a will and intellect. But that only tells you what a person has. It describes features of their nature. It tells what someone in the category of individual or person has, but doesn’t tell you what it means to be a Who that has these things in the first place. Again, if who a person is and what a person is are simply one and the same, then it wouldn’t make sense to speak of their nature as having a subject. Their nature would simply be the subject. That is to say, it wouldn’t make sense to say I have body or I have a soul. You would simply be either your body, your soul or both. You would say I am this body or I am this soul.

I would argue however that this would mean there is no person or subject in the first place at all. If this were the case then any use of the word I or You would simply be a semantic tool to refer to a person. When no person actually exists. First I will give an example of when this is the case. Then second I will argue as to why the first is an example of this.

The example I want to use is that of Siri. The voice interactive software that is found in iPhones and iPads. When most of us use the word Siri or refer to Siri when speak to it (unless one is willing to demonstrate otherwise), the name Siri doesn’t actually refer to an actual person. There isn’t a subject that carries the reference or to whom we are speaking. Siri becomes a shorthand way of referencing a series of functions that in some way imitate what a person is like. In other words Siri is not a distinct subject or reference other than the sum total of the functions.

This would be the same as saying that a person simply is the sum total of will, intellect, consciousness and/or a body. The will is both a faculty (a capacity) and an act; willing. In other words there is the act of the willing, and then there is the faculty of the will which makes the act possible, potential. There is the mind or brain, then there is the act of thinking. There is the potential for consciousness and then there is the act of being aware.  A person couldn’t just be a will, neither could a person just be consciousness or intellect. Rather a person has the potential for all three. Could a person simply be the act of consciousness, intellect and will acting at the same time?

The issue with this is that it at best it reduces personhood to pure passivity, or at worst reduces persons to non-existence. Since if a person is simply consciousness, intellect and will in act, then a person isn’t the cause of the acts but the result. In other words, if a person is simply the act of being consciousness, the act of thinking and the act of willing, then what thing is being aware, thinking and willing? A person would simply be the awareness, thinking and willing of something else, but not the source of either one. It seems rather odd to say that persons don’t think, aren’t aware and don’t will. In which case what does? Person, like car, would simply be the name of group of functions together, with no distinct reality from them. In which case you don’t actually have a reality called “person”. You just have a function called personhood, that you ascribe to few acts, just as you would use “sex” to describe not a distinct reality but a collection of acts with a particular purpose or end. Which means that some thing could be said to be personing, but persons don’t actually exist. Just as sex doesn’t exist in its own right apart from the act of having sex (sorry Plato).

Even if one were somehow to say that a person does exist but is neither the source of conscience, thinking or willing but comes into being as these things take place, then that reduces persons to pure passivity. As they would simply see themselves as being sources of thought, consciousness and willing when they would be nothing of the sort. They are purely results or objects. Not agents at all. But like I’ve argued above, person, like Siri, would be a nominal reference, in name only. Without any reference in reality apart from the functions.

This is seen in the arguments that are usually brought forth against certain materialist understandings of humans. For example the argument from continuity. If a person simply is a particular collection of atoms and molecules, but these atoms and molecules are constantly being replaced, then in what sense is there continuity between persons with completely different molecules? If all you are is matter in motion, but the you that stands here today is not the same matter that was there yesterday or ten years ago, then what continues on to be you? One response is that the particular arrangement of the molecules and atoms forms your particular existence. The issue with this is that since it is new matter being used all the time to maintain this form, then there are just multiple instances of the same form over time.

But since the instances are made from different matter then the instances are not the same even if the form is. It would be like replacing all the parts of a car one at a time until nothing of the original remained, but the form of the car did. This wouldn’t be a problem if being a person simply meant being a form. But it’s more than that. The form or arrangement exists only in so far as matter is arranged accordingly. You then at any given time, being nothing more than matter are simply are simply the experience (if it can be called that) of those molecules and atoms at the time. However if they cease to be, then so should your experience. Rather the next arrangement of atoms and molecules in your form would be “experiencing” what it means to be in that particular form. The point being that it is not the arrangement but that which forms the arrangement which exists as particular person. But if that’s the case, then what thing exists continuously through all the instances that experiences them all? It’s not the arrangement or form itself, since that is merely a blueprint. Neither is it the matter that follows the blueprint since it is replaced. In other words, there is no continuous reference point that can be said to be the same person except in name only. John doesn’t refer to a person called John, but just the molecules in the arrangement of John at any particular time.

Likewise even if one posited a soul that endures through all the matter, if persons are simply the act of willing, thought and awareness but not the causes or sources of these, it wouldn’t help. Since what would be the reference point that exists continuously through the distinct acts of willing, thought and awareness? If persons simply are those acts, then they can’t be the very thing which remain constant throughout them. There would be multiple persons just as there are multiple instances of matter in a particular formation. Saying that the soul is the constant wouldn’t help since it would still mean that the soul isn’t the acts and therefore the soul isn’t the persons or a person at all. The soul would be the agent but persons would not be. Which is a weird thing to say and calls one to ask, in what way are those acts persons? My answer is; they’re not.

As such we see that the person is not simply a particular faculty potential (will, mind/brain, consciousness) neither is a person the act proper to those faculties (willing, thinking and awareness). Which means that persons are neither the collective powers of the soul (therefore the soul itself) nor an individual power of the soul.



So theologically we see that person isn’t just another substance or accident. Since that would lead either to tritheism or modalism in the former. And saying personhood is non-essential to a rational nature in the latter.  Then philosophically it is argued that persons can’t just be a part of a rational nature (will, intellect or consciousness) or the acts/whole of those parts (willing, thinking and awareness). The only thing left is either to say persons don’t exist. Or that persons are the subjects of a rational nature, Who have the capacity to will, think and act but are neither reducible to their nature or acts.

Admittedly that doesn’t leave you with much. It says a lot about what a person has and what a person can do, and what a person isn’t. But not what a person is. Perhaps this is because person by virtue of being what they are cannot be known or defined just like another substance or thing. Since they are neither. Persons are not objects that can be known like another material or essence. So trying to define them in that way is in principle impossible. Like trying to hear the colour yellow. Or taste the number nine. It’s a confusion of categories and so an impossibility. It may also be since persons don’t exist as naked persons/hypostasises but always exist with a particular nature. That is to say, even though persons are distinct from their natures, they cannot be known apart from them. A person can only be known by their nature, and by their acts. Though you cannot experience another Personhood directly, you can experience another person directly through participation in their activities, there acts. Or as the Eastern Orthodox say of the Trinity; their uncreated energies, energia, or activities.

Finally it may be that per the Christian narrative, to be a person is be something divine. To partake of a similar mystery as to what it means to be a divine person. Our personhood was created in the image the eternal Logos or Word of the Father; Jesus Christ. In order to share eternal communion with the Trinity. Is it any surprise therefore, that even what it means to be human cannot not be fully grasped on this side of eternity? Or even in the ages to come? I don’t think so. And it wouldn’t surprise me at all.


2 thoughts on “A Short Essay on Personhood

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