Lynne Rudder Baker
Who am I? Since Descartes asked this in his Meditations, it has been a leading question in philosophy and in these blogs as well. It has also been one of the leading questions in the philosophy of Lynne Rudder Baker. Her answer was that I am the thinking being that I am, so I am a human person. However, you can object that I am also a body, and in a sense we are body and mind at the same time. How is this possible and what then is the relation between my being a person and my being a body? Baker had a clear answer to these questions: the Constitution View. In short, it involves that, in her words, “a human person is constituted by a human body. But a human person is not identical to the body that constitutes her.” (p. 3) For most of my readers – as for me when I read about the constitution view for the first time – it will not be clear what constitution here means, so let me explain.
Actually the constitution view of what a human person is consists of two parts. First, we must know what makes a person as a person different from the body she is as well. Second, what makes a person a human person? To answer these questions, let’s start to look at Michelangelo’s famous statue of David. Actually it is not more than a piece of marble. Following Baker, let me call this Piece. Now you’ll protest. For you this object is not simply a lump of stone but it is a work of art, representing the Jewish King David. However, so Baker, Piece and David are not identical. In a world without art, for instance in a dog world, Piece would exist as a piece of marble but not as David. In such a world Piece would exist but David wouldn’t. On the other hand, David couldn’t exist without Piece. If Michelangelo would have died after he had bought Piece but before he had made David, Piece would have existed but David hadn’t. But once David exists he has properties that Piece has not. David, so Baker, “could not exist without being a statue. So, David has a property ... that Piece lacks” (p. 30), and the other way round as well, I want to add. It’s David (the person we see in the marble) not Piece that represents the Jewish king. And it’s not David that has the property “stony” but Piece has. So David and Piece are not identical, but because David cannot exist without Piece, we say that Piece constitutes David. In the same way we must think the relationship between my body and me as a person. I cannot exist without my body, but my body and I are not identical: My body constitutes the person I am.
So far so good. But if a person is not identical with her body, what then “distinguishes a person from the body that constitutes her”, Baker asks. (p. 59) For answering this question we must return to the beginning of this blog. We saw there that Baker assumed that I am a thinking being. This implies that I have an inner life. But it’s not my body as such that has an inner life, but I have. According to the constitution view, so Baker, something with an inner life is different from something that hasn’t. Having an inner life is characteristic of a person, but it is not just characteristic as such but in a certain way: it involves that a person can reflect on herself. A person can think “oneself as an individual facing a world, as a subject distinct from everything else.” (p. 60). In other words, a person has what philosophers call a first-person perspective. All this brings Baker to her definition of a human person: “[W]hat makes a human person a person is the capacity to have a first-person perspective. What makes a human person a human is being constituted by a human organism.” (p. 91)
I must leave it at this and I think that this abstract of the constitution view of identity will raise more questions than it answers, but be sure that Baker discusses many objections that you might raise against this view.
To my mind, the constitution view looks like the dual aspect theory view on man, which says that man can be considered in different ways: as a biological body or as a conscious and thinking mind, although in the end man is both together. It’s the view I adhere to. I think that LRB would not agree. Anyway, the constitution view is a well-founded and coherent theory. It helps us to fill in the idea of a person and to say what personal identity is. Much work by Baker tried to answer questions in this field and were important contributions to current discussions in the philosophy of mind. Therefore it’s a bit strange that I hardly paid attention to Baker in my writings, although I valued her work very much and although I have read much of it. That’s why by way of homage to her I have written this blog, for a few days ago I heard that Lynne Rudder Baker has died about a year ago, on 24 December 2017, 73 years old. She wrote five books and many articles and book chapters, not only on personal identity, but also in the field of action theory and ethics. Without a doubt her work will keep to rag the brains of other philosophers yet for a long time.
SourceThe page numbers in the text refer to Lynne Rudder Baker, Persons and Bodies. A Constitution View. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.