“It is the intentions, the capacities for choice rather than the total configuration of traits which defines a person.”
And the search for that core person is not a matter of curiosity; it is a search for the principles by which choices are to be made. One of these principles is the notion of property, which determines the rights and agency of persons, thus transforming them into selves and conferring upon them the status of souls and minds.
The two strands that were fused in the concept of person diverge again:
When we focus on persons as sources of decisions, the ultimate locus of responsibility, the unity of thought and action, we must come to think of them as souls and minds.
When we think of them as possessors of rights and powers, we come to think of them as selves. It is not until each of these has been transformed into the concept of individuality that the two strands are woven together again.
When a society has changed so that individuals acquire their rights by virtue of their powers, rather than having their powers defined by their rights, the concept of person has been transformed to a concept of self…
The quality of an individual self is determined by his qualities: they are his capital, to invest well or foolishly.
Because persons are primary agents of principle, their integrity requires freedom; because they are judged liable, their powers must be autonomous.
But when this criterion for personhood is carried to its logical extreme, the scope of agency moves inward, away from social dramas, to the choices of the soul, or to the operations of the mind.
From character as structured dispositions, we come to soul as pure agency, unfathomable, inexpressible.
Echoing philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s ideas on the relationship between property-ownership, agency, and victimhood, we could consider the role of property in the conception of the self and its identity-crises in the face of alienation:
Judgments of persons are moral; judgments of souls are theological; judgments of selves are economic and political.
Societies of persons are constructed to assure the rights of choice and action; they emerge from a contract of agents; societies of selves are also formed to protect and guarantee the rights of their members.
But when the members of a society achieve their rights by virtue of their possessions, the protection of rights requires the protection of property, even though in principle everyone is equally entitled to the fruits of his labors and protection under law.
The concerns of selves are their interests; their obligations are the duties with which they are taxed or charged. The grammar and the semantics of selfhood reveal the possessive forms.
Whatever will come to be regarded as crucial property, or the means to it, will be regarded as the focus of rights; the alienation of property becomes an attack on the integrity if not actually the preservation of the self.
Alongside property, the other essential component of the self is the faculty of memory, which, is the seedbed of what makes us who we are to ourselves.
The conscious possession of experiences is the final criterion of identity. The continuity of the self is established by memory; disputes about the validity of memory reports will hang on whether the claimant had as hers the original experience.
Puzzles about identity will be described as puzzles about whether it is possible to transfer, or to alienate memory (that is, the retention of one’s own experience) without destroying the self.
Today, two generations later, this puzzle is all the more puzzling, for it illuminates the central paradox of the singularity movement and its escapist fantasy of somehow decentralizing, downloading, and transferring the self across different corporeal and temporal hosts.
There is difficulty in describing the core possessor, the owner of experiences who is not herself any set of them.
One can speak of characters as sets of traits without looking for a center; but it is more difficult to think of bundles of properties without an owner, especially when the older idea of the person as an agent and decision-maker is still implicit.
It is presumed that the self as an owner is also endowed with capabilities to choose and to act.
Out of this necessity to reconcile the ownership of experience with the capacity for choice arises the level of the individual.
From the tensions in the definition of the alienable properties of selves, and from the corruptions in societies of selves — the divergence of practice from ideological commitments — comes the invention of individuality. It begins with conscience and ends with consciousness.
Unlike characters and figures, individuals actively resist typing: they represent the universal mind of rational beings, or the unique private voice.
Individuals are indivisible entities…
Invented as a preserve of integrity, an autonomous ens, an individual transcends and resists what is binding and oppressive in society and does so from an original natural position.
Although in its inception, individuality revives the idea of person, the rights of persons are formulated in society, while the rights of individuals are demanded of society.
The contrast between the inner and outer person becomes the contrast between the individual and the social mask, between nature and culture.
A society of individuals is quite different from one composed of selves. Individuals contract to assure the basic rights to the development of moral and intellectual gifts, as well as legal protection of self and property.
Because a society of individuals is composed of indivisible autonomous units, from whose natures — their minds and conscience — come the principles of justice, their rights are not property; they cannot be exchanged, bartered.
Their rights and their qualities are their very essence, inalienable. The integrity of our identity requires a locus of agency that is honored by the collective but cultivated in solitude.
Being an individual requires having a room of one’s own, not because it is one’s possession, but because only there, in solitude, away from the pressure of others, can one develop the features and styles that differentiate one’s own being from others.
Integrity comes to be associated with difference; this idea, always implicit in individuality, of preserving one’s right against the encroachment of others within one’s own society, emerges as dominant…
And yet there is a level of personhood that exists even above the individual — one that represents our highest mode of being, beyond the ego’s ambitions and preoccupations — the level of presence:
Presences [are] the return of the unchartable soul… They are a mode of attending, being present to [one’s] experiences, without dominating or controlling them.
Understanding other conceptions of persons puts one on the way of being them; but understanding presences — if indeed there is understanding of them to be had — does not put one any closer to being one.
It cannot be achieved by imitation, willing, practice, or a good education.
It is a mode of identity invented precisely to go beyond of achievement and willfulness…❤️E.Lyn.