A rarer spirit never did steer humanity

Okay, here’s a seemingly obvious and probably self-evident question: What constitutes personhood? I mean I assume that, until recently, it was something only bestowed on us -humans, that is- but what, exactly, is a person? And does the reason we were its exclusive possessors have anything to do with the fact that we are the bestowers? In United States law at any rate, a corporation -in that it has certain privileges, legal responsibilities, and is able to enter into contracts- may be considered a legal person. But even so, it is us that have granted it that status. We, alone, seem to be the arbiters of who gets into our club.

That we are both enamoured of our rank, and also the adjudicators of the contestants is a fine point, perhaps, And yet, there you have it: it’s our ball, so we get to decide who plays. We have decided it has to be a thing that can interact (with us), that has a sense of identity (as a self or as an entity), and that, presumably, can assume and accept responsibility for its actions.

Fair enough, I suppose, although I continue to wonder if those criteria are not a little too restrictive, their legal usefulness notwithstanding. I continue to suspect things like corporations and their vested interests getting the nod, whereas trees, or dogs, say, do not. I think it’s reasonable that some entities that seem to have some personal interest to me, and with which I interact, however indirectly, should qualify as something close to personhood at times: a tree that I pass each day and whose leaves I enjoy seeing dance in the wind, perhaps, or the peak of a mountain that I use to reference my location.

Okay, I realize those examples might be over-stretching the idea of personhood and diluting the whole purpose of the concept, but what if I have named each of them -given them an identity that draws them out of the background, and allows them to interact with me by fulfilling some need, however mundane or whimsical? And no, I don’t imagine the mountain peak whose position is guiding me out of the woods has any consciousness of itself or its purpose any more than an inuksuk in the barrens of northern Canada; it remains what it is: many things -or nothing- to whoever sees it. But, a potentially useful entity nonetheless. And for that matter, so is a corporation with which I have no dealings in another country, I suppose…

They are, each of them, metaphors in a way: things regarded as representatives or symbols of other things. Beneficial items whenever we might need them. And yet, are they persons?

The etymology of ‘person’, although complicated and disputed, is revealing, I think: the Online Etymology Dictionary describes person asa mask, a false face, such as those of wood or clay worn by the actors in later Roman theater. OED offers the general explanation of persona as “related to” Latin personare “to sound through” (i.e. the mask as something spoken through and perhaps amplifying the voice).’ Non-living entities, in other words, that in some situations pretend to be us.

I don’t mean to go overboard in my assignations of personhood, though -I suppose I only wish to defend my penchant for seeing agency in Nature. I recognize that I am inextricably entangled in its web and point out that it is me as much as I am it… So it was with some considerable relief that I discovered that I may not be sufficiently unique to necessitate a mention in the psychiatric DSM-5 bible. Thank you Aeon. https://aeon.co/ideas/a-rock-a-human-a-tree-all-were-persons-to-the-classic-maya

In an article for the online magazine, Sarah Jackson, an associate professor of Anthropology at the University  of Cincinnati in Ohio, wrote that ‘For the Maya of the Classic period, who lived in southern Mexico and Central America between 250 and 900 CE, the category of ‘persons’ was not coincident with human beings, as it is for us. That is, human beings were persons – but other, nonhuman entities could be persons, too… the ancient Maya experienced a world peopled by a variety of types of beings, who figured large in stories, imagery, social and ritual obligations, and community identities.’

She asks the intriguing question, ‘Do nonhuman persons need human beings to exist?’ For the Maya, ‘the answer was no. Nonhuman persons were not tethered to specific humans, and they did not derive their personhood from a connection with a human… In a Maya way of thinking, personhood is a resource in the world… The Maya saw personhood as ‘activated’ by experiencing certain bodily needs and through participation in certain social activities.’

But Jackson is careful to point out that for the Mayans it was not a magical world in which all of the things surrounding them were talking, or dispensing advice. ‘Rather, the experience would have been one of potentiality’ -rather like my mountain peak, I imagine. ‘they were prepared to recognise signs of personhood in a wide variety of places, and to respond appropriately when nonhuman entities signalled as such to them.’ Interestingly, ‘There’s one other element to consider, in blurring the boundaries of personhood. Personhood was a nonbinary proposition for the Maya. Entities were able to be persons while also being something else… they continue to be functional, doing what objects do (a stone implement continues to chop, an incense burner continues to do its smoky work). Furthermore, the Maya visually depicted many objects in ways that indicated the material category to which they belonged – drawings of the stone implement show that a person-tool is still made of stone.’

Jackson suggest that this idea is certainly of interest nowadays. ‘Challenging ourselves to illuminate assumptions about personhood (and its associated responsibilities and mutual obligations) sheds light on our own roles in constructing and deconstructing people, and the social and political consequences. Environment, race, immigration, civil discourse, gender identity, #MeToo: all of these topics link in some way to whom, or what, we value in comparison with our own experience of being a ‘person’, and our norms of what shared person-status means for action and interaction.’

Boundaries are porous -I like that; things are multifaceted, not forever confined to one identity -nothing need be either this, or that. It can shift, according to context, and perspective. According to need. My favourite mountain peak is a sleeping bear, by the way. I see it whenever I’m on the ferry and travelling from the island where I live to Vancouver. I miss it when I’m away…


We are a culture of categorists. Slotists. Namists. It is a society of Nomino, ergo sum. It’s as if we can sleep more securely knowing we have named and categorized everything we have seen that day –no matter how bizarre, no matter how unimportant. No matter, even, how mistaken the belief that by so doing, we have added something of substance to the world at large. I suppose what concerns me, though, is when to stop the naming? How finely do we divide the gradations before asking if we are really labelling something different?

And, does the act of naming something reify it –make it a real thing, in other words? Or does it merely select it from an otherwise amorphous background where it existed all along? Or, to identify yet another permutation, is it more like taking a shape, say, from a Rorschach ink blot and privileging one interpretation as gospel?

We are all different in many ways –some, interestingly so, others not as noticeably until pointed out by otherwise underemployed taxonomists. I accept this, but still question whether each variation from a norm is deserving of a separate name. Might we put ourselves in greater danger of muddying the water the more we stir it? Losing what we could previously identify in its depths? And for what? Are there really ‘more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy? as Hamlet might have asked – More things requiring unique and quirky names?

So, what provoked this mini Jeremiad? Well, I suppose I am as much to blame as the taxonomists in my relentless search for novelty. As I poked and prodded my way through –what else?- the BBC News app, I came across an article on Aphantasia. http://www.bbc.com/news/health-34039054 At first, I wondered if it was a reminiscence about that Disney film which was set to classical music. I was about to scroll past it, but the ‘Ph’ spelling aroused my etymological curiosity.

It turns out that Aphantasia is a neologism that borrows from both Greek and Latin roots: a –meaning ‘without’, and phantasia –meaning ‘image’, or even ‘a making visible’. It refers to the inability to produce a voluntary mental image of something when it is not actually present. So remembering a mental picture of a face might be a problem for someone with aphantasia, although they would still be able to remember non-visible facts about the face –things that stood out, perhaps, like a large nose or a patch over an eye… Attributes, not images.

It may well be a spectrum of loss, however, as Professor Zeman, at the University of Exeter, points out in his study: ‘..the majority of participants described involuntary imagery. This could occur during wakefulness, usually in the form of ‘flashes’ (10/21) and/or during dreams.’ http://medicine.exeter.ac.uk/media/universityofexeter/medicalschool/research/neuroscience/docs/theeyesmind/Lives_without_imagery.pdf  I find this interesting; their capacity to form the internal visual memories is not lost apparently –more the ability to retrieve them at will.

But the very acknowledgement –and naming– of this edge of the normative Bell curve set the neuroscientists scurrying to find its other perimeter and they found it: hyperphantasia –perhaps more easily described as hyper-imagination. I have less faith in this category as a distinct entity, though –I would suspect it wanders terribly close to the edge of more classically defined psychopathology, as in the outer border of bipolar disease, for example, or the imaginative excesses often found in schizophrenia.

So, what has this study purported to identify? Boundaries. After all, up to a certain point, we classify difference as merely a variation from the mean –a quirk of behaviour. A nuance, not an epiphany. And yet boundaries are slippery and once determined, are heavily scented with unintended consequences. As the BBC article pointed out, ‘One person who took part in a study into aphantasia said he had started to feel “isolated” and “alone” after discovering that other people could see images in their heads.’ After all, a boundary had obviously not existed until it had been defined, and then, sadly, the person found that he was on the wrong side of it. What is normal and unremarkable to one, is alien, or at least unexpected for another.

But all of us are on one side or another of some line, aren’t we? Our very uniqueness requires it. It is something to celebrate, something to admire. And yet, not to appear unduly Cassandroid, there are dangers in names –in difference– unless Society learns to honour the mosaic. Cherish it for the montage it weaves into our cultural fabric. Accept the ever changing clothes despite any unwanted flesh it may expose.

I may sound like I’m against the free and unexpurgated pursuit of scientific curiosity -I’m not. Against the inductive method of interrogating nature -again, I’m not. Nor am I content to drift with the tide, happy to land wherever wind and water direct. But curiosity is a watchful cat that lurks in our shadows with hungry eyes and eager claws. It needs to be fed and nurtured constantly, but sometimes carefully. Respectfully.