Thursday, January 19, 2023

What am I "really"?

What am I? A herring-eater, a husband, a badminton player, a philosopher, a father, a Canadian, a six-footer and a human are all correct answers. There is an ancient form of the “What is x?” question where we are looking for a “central” answer, and of course “a human” is usually taken to be that one. What makes for that answer being central?

Sometimes the word “essential” is thrown in: I am essentially human. But what does that mean? In contemporary analytic jargon, it just means that I cannot exist without being human. But the “central” answer to “What am I?” is not just an answer that states a property that I cannot lack. There are, after all, many such properties essential in such a way that do not answer the question. “Someone conceived in 1972” and “Someone in a world where 2+2=4” attribute properties I cannot lack, but are not the central answers.

So the sense of the “What am I centrally, really, deep-down, essentially?” question isn’t just modal. What is it?

Here is a start.

  1. Necessarily, I am good and a human if and only if I am a good human.

But the same is not true for any other attribute besides “human” among those of the first paragraph. I can be good and a badminton player while not being a good badminton player, and I can be a good herring-eater without being good and a herring-eater. And I have no idea what it is to be a good six-footer, but perhaps the fact that I am a quarter of an inch short of six feet right now makes me not be one. (In some cases one direction may hold. It may be that if I am good and a human, then I am a good human.)

So our initial account of what is being asked for is that we are asking for an attribute F such that:

  1. Necessarily, x is a good F if and only if x is good.

But that’s not quite right. For:

  1. Necessarily, I am good and a virtuous human if and only if I am a good virtuous human.

And yet “a virtuous human” would not be the answer to the ancient “What am I centrally, really, deep-down, essentially?” question even if I were in fact a virtuous human.

But perhaps we can do better. The necessary biconditional (2) holds in the case “virtuous human”, but in a kind of trivial way: “a good virtuous human” is repetition. I think that, as often, we need to pass from a modal to a hyperintensional characterization. Consider that not only is (1) true, but also:

  1. Necessarily, if I am human, what it is for me to be good is for me to be a good human.

In other words, if I am a human, being a good human explains my being good. On the other hand, even if I were a virtuous human, my being a good virtuous human would not explain my being good. For redundancy is to be avoided in explanation, and “good virtuous human” is redundant.

Thus, I propose that:

  1. x is “centrally, really, deep-down, essentially” F just in case what it is for x to be good is for x to be a good F.

In other words, that which I am centrally, really, deep-down and essentially is that which sets the norms for me to be good simpliciter.

Objection 1: Some things are “centrally” electrons, but something’s being good at electronicity is absurd.

Response: I deny that it’s absurd. It’s just that all the electrons we meet are good at electronicity.

Objection 2: “Good” is attributive, and hence there is no such thing as being good simpliciter.

Response: “Good” is attributive in the sense that the schema

  1. x is good and x is F if and only if x is a good F

is not generally logically valid. But some instances of a schema can be logically valid even if the schema is not logically valid in general.


Andrew M. Bailey said...

Another interpretation of the question of what we are is that it is asking for *classification*. Generics can be useful here, because they (a) are apt answers to classification questions and (b) still allow for exceptions. The former feature makes them substantive. The latter makes them modest and immune to certain styles of counterexample. For more on this (with respect to the question of what *we* are, but the tools at play are widely applicable), see:

Alexander R Pruss said...


Nice paper!

But I think classification is not what I am getting at. I am aptly classified as a male human, a human, a mammal, a vertebrate, an animal, an organism, and an enmattered thing. However, I think only "human" is the answer to the question I am after, the "what am I really" question. I am looking for a particular "deep" classification. This is neither the most general classification nor the most specific one, but the one that captures what most deeply I am.

On Athanasian theology, what makes me be saved is that the second person of the Trinity became human just as I am human. He also became a male human just as I am a male human and he became a vertebrate just as I am a vertebrate. But these things do not save me. What saves me is his co-humanity, not his co-vertebricity or co-animality or co-maleness. There is something deeper about humanity than about any of these other things.

This may be ethically important, too. Should I care more for a squid or a mouse, if their intelligence is equal? The mouse is a fellow vertebrate, but so what? It makes no difference. Similarly, that someone is a fellow male matters not a whit. However, that someone is a fellow human, that seems to matter.

James Reilly said...

On the "male human" point: it does seem like I can say "I am good and a man iff I am a good man." But then (if we take the above approach) it seems like I am centrally (really, deep-down) a man, not merely a human. This seems to sit less comfortably with the Athanasian point. Perhaps this depends on the notion of gender-specific norms? I'm not enough of a philosopher of gender to know the literature on things like that.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Maybe, but can you say: What it is for you to be good is for you to be a good man?

Maybe the issue is that there is an ambiguity. A man (in the relevant sense) is an adult male human. But "good adult male human" is a bit ambiguous: is one good at the adulting, the maleness or the humanness, or at all three?

I would say that what makes you be good is that you are good at being human, and given that you are a man, this may have certain implications that it wouldn't have if you weren't a man. (E.g., that you are a man makes it bad for you to say "I am not a man".)