What are the characteristics of personhood?

Traditionally, the notion of personhood was intertwined with the concept of a soul. However, with the evolution of Western beliefs and philosophy, especially in recent centuries, the existence of a soul has become less of a certainty.

In light of this, if we no longer assert that we possess souls, or if we do, that they differ from the conventional Christian understanding of the soul, then we must pose an alternative question: What constitutes a human being as a person?

At its core, personhood is the status of being a person. This idea is crucial in philosophy and law, as it forms the foundation for such concepts as rights and duties.

However, establishing a universally accepted definition of personhood proves challenging. Consequently, it also complicates the task of identifying and defining the attributes that contribute to personhood.

Various characteristics have been suggested, and we’ll delve into eight of them:

  1. Embodiment
  2. Network of beliefs
  3. Rationality
  4. Social relationships
  5. Language
  6. Reflection
  7. Autonomy
  8. Rights

1. Embodiment

A rudimentary definition of a person is “one who is embodied”, signifying that a person possesses both mental and physical characteristics, someone who has both mind and body.

In our interactions, we refer to these characteristics. The unique blend of traits like height, weight, haircut, eye shape, quirks, and so on, constitute the individual. Additionally, we consider behavioural traits: reactions, laughter, grief, thinking, beliefs, etc. Furthermore, we each occupy a unique spatial and temporal place.

2. Network of beliefs

Our unique position in space and time influences our worldview, shaping our beliefs.

Having beliefs signifies that we perceive the world in a particular way.

We are capable of forming multiple beliefs, which often intertwine with other beliefs we hold.

For instance, my belief that a Volkswagen Polo is a specific type of car suggests I have other beliefs, such as the existence of other car brands. This implies I have beliefs about what constitutes a car. An apple, a rubber, a guitar, a window — none of these are cars.

Furthermore, we believe an apple is a fruit, a rubber is stationery, a guitar is a musical instrument, and a window is an opening in a wall.

All these interconnected beliefs form a network, and the sum of this network contributes to our personhood.

3. Rationality

Within the philosophical tradition, rationality is deemed integral to human existence.

Plato, in his tripartite soul theory, attributes rationality to humans. Similarly, Aristotle asserts in the Nicomachean Ethics that people possess a rational principle, beyond the shared nutrition with plants and animals, and shared instincts with animals. He argues that this rationality sets us apart.

Defining rationality is challenging, but in simple terms, it can be described as our ability to apply reason and logic.

Rationality can be broadly categorised into three types:

  • Basic rationality: The ability to draw inferences between beliefs or reach conclusions based on evidence or reasoning. For example, believing this is a tree leads to reasoning that it can’t be a balloon.
  • Means-end rationality: This rationality utilises beliefs and desires in actions. For example, wanting to drink water (end) leads to finding ways to acquire it.
  • Empathy, imagination rationality: Our ability to evaluate our beliefs and desires and imagine having different beliefs and desires.

4. Social relationships

Humans are inherently social beings. Self-awareness involves recognising the distinction between oneself and the world. Our sense of self is formed through our understanding of others.

Our social self is even more pronounced, emerging in relation to other “selves.” It’s not just about our body, but about the relationships we share with others.

For example, we continuously form and evolve relationships throughout our lives, sometimes ending old ones and forming new ones. This is why Aristotle referred to us as social and political animals, and Rousseau argued that in isolation, we remain unfulfilled.

5. Language

The philosophical examination of language traces back to ancient times. Plato, in Cratylus, questioned whether the names of things were natural or conventional. Aristotle and the Stoics explored areas like logic, meaning creation, and grammar. Contemporary philosophers such as Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein, and de Saussure have also focused on language.

Language facilitates communication between individuals, thus requiring a community of communicators.

While non-human animals use signs to communicate, these gestures and sounds, although signals, do not qualify as language as they are inherited through instinct.

In contrast, language is a structured and conventional method of communication, a complex system developed and used by a specific group of people. While the ability to acquire languages may be inherent, knowledge of a particular language is a skill that’s developed and nurtured.

Language considerably expands our ability to reason and think about things beyond the present. It allows us to label concepts and communicate spatial and conditional information. For instance, it’s virtually impossible to reference a specific day in the past or future without using words. Similarly, complex conditional information, like “If it rains next week, you can take the white umbrella if it’s available. Otherwise, you can borrow Tanya’s raincoat,” illustrates the power of language.

6. Reflection

Reflection stems from self-awareness. It’s the ability to introspect our experiences, beliefs, and feelings, think about them, and gain insight.

Moreover, we can reflect on others’ experiences and feelings, as well as imagine what it must be like to be someone else with a different set of thoughts and beliefs.

Language plays a vital role in this process.

7. Autonomy

Once we can reflect on feelings, thoughts, and motives, we can also imagine different futures and ways of being that have not yet come to pass. This counterfactual thinking, thinking of things that haven’t really happened, is something we do frequently.

As stated by Sartre, existence precedes essence, meaning we first exist, and then through our choices and actions, we define what sort of person we become.

This is only possible if our choices are freely made, reflecting our autonomy. This agency, the fundamental ability to shape ourselves, is what makes us responsible for our actions.

Through our autonomy, we can choose the type of person we want to become, set goals, and devise ways to achieve them.

8. Rights

Lastly, our autonomy makes us moral agents responsible for our choices. We respond differently to a baby throwing food against a wall and an adult doing the same. We expect the adult to have developed appropriate awareness and social skills, whereas our expectations for the baby are significantly lower.

This accountability is fundamentally social. As per the social contract theory, being members of society means we are accountable to that society. Conversely, we also have rights that should be guaranteed according to the laws and regulations of that society.

These rights provide us with a claim to certain entitlements, like the right to life, freedom from violent crime, a fair trial, and freedom from slavery. The duty of society’s institutions is to safeguard its people.


As our understanding of the world and ourselves evolves, so too does our definition of personhood.

The traditional view equating personhood with the possession of a soul has gradually given way to a more nuanced understanding. Each of the components outlined contributes to a person’s unique identity and sense of self.

By exploring these elements, we not only gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a person but also open up new avenues for philosophical, legal, and ethical discussions. This understanding can help shape our attitudes towards important contemporary issues such as artificial intelligence, animal rights, and environmental ethics.

As we continue to learn and evolve, our conception of personhood will undoubtedly change, reflecting our growing knowledge and awareness of the world around us and the vast potential of human existence.

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