Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Personhood and cultural embeddedness

In my podcast and elsewhere, much of what I say is centered around what you could see as the paradox of personhood: our individuality derives from our cultural embeddedness. I thought it might be useful to set out in writing – as directly and concisely as possible – my assumptions about personhood and about what makes us human.

These ideas are difficult to pin down but they are important because they are so fundamental. They also have significant implications, and this is why they continue to interest me. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a currently-contentious social or political issue to which answers to the basic questions I am addressing would not be relevant.

Biology and culture. Culture and biology. That’s not all there is, but – with the inorganic world within which biological organisms evolved and within which they exist – that’s enough to make a human being.

Imagine growing a human fetus in a lab, doing whatever might be necessary to allow the body to grow and muscles to develop but not allowing social contact or cultural (e.g. linguistic) input. Such a being might look human and may even be able to perform some basic physical activities but how human would it be (except in a technical sense)? Crucially it would not (I am saying) be a person.

Now, if you believe in a spiritual substance which inhabits or animates the body you will have a different view from mine and may consider me to be disrespecting human dignity by even discussing such an imagined experiment at all. But my point is not to demean human dignity but rather to understand where it comes from.

The person is not just a body, but a body that has developed within a particular social and cultural environment. There’s no secret ingredient. There doesn't need to be.

I recognize, however, that it’s natural for us to think in terms of embodied – and disembodied – spirits. Such ideas are widespread across many, unconnected cultures. The most concise and compelling account I have read of these things was by the anthropologist Pascal Boyer who, drawing on his research into African religions and on cognitive science, postulated a kind of universal mental template for persons which gives rise not only to our normal notions of embodied persons but also to the notion of disembodied persons, the notion of purely spiritual beings.

I am saying that we are culturally embedded biological organisms. Our personhood derives not from a soul or spirit but simply from the cultural matrix in which we grew up.

This is all very well, you might say, and widely accepted. But I am making two claims here. One is that there is no soul or spirit. One is that we are necessarily culturally embedded. It’s the latter point I want to emphasize.

People often talk as if one can or could “reject” or stand outside of one’s culture. I would reference here the Romantic myth of the rebel. Its hold within the cultural milieu in which I grew up always bemused me and I still see signs of it everywhere. Sure, you can reject aspects of your culture – but only by embracing and deploying other aspects of the cultural matrix within which you came to and continue to exist. An individual is always dependent on – and in fact defined by – this matrix and indebted to the other individuals, past and present, who have contributed to it.

This does not mean that individualism is impossible or is an illusion. The individualist simply seeks out and engages with a wider range of cultural elements than the unreflective conformist does.

The sort of individualism I value most is not about eccentricity or even primarily about creative self-expression (important as the latter undoubtedly is). It is more about independent thinking and practical wisdom (or commonsense).

As I envisage it, independent thinking is closely associated with – and bolstered by – the institutions, traditions and values of science and scholarship. Such values may be universal but they are also culturally contingent in the sense that they have flourished at different times and in different regions. And their current eclipse in Western countries does not auger well for the future.

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