Short e-mail conversation with Dr. P.M.S. Hacker

On the 12th of February 2010, I send an open letter to Dr. P.M.S. Hacker, following a lecture and his book Human Nature: The Categorical Framework. I worked on the letter for about five months, in Dutch and English. I really needed that much time to get into clear view what exactly the problems are with Peter Hackers concept of a person, which is both too limited and too complex.

The open letter I put online, and I send Mr. Peter Hacker a paper version.

When I send the letter, I hoped Mr. Hacker would answer. But I never really thought he would. Why would an academical figure like him react on a letter from someone like me? There is no reason why he would. But he did. After little more than a week, I received an e-mail from Mr. Hacker, in which he makes six comments on my letter. I have to rephrase them, as I do not have explicit permission to quote his mail.

In his first comment he writes I claim he says only people can be persons, and he denies this.

His second comment is on my impression in the beginning of my letter, that people in a psychosis – he is not clear on what a psychosis is exactly, but he is aware of the fact that it refers to people who cannot communicate – are no persons according to his concept of a person. In his answer he claims people in a vegetative are indeed persons, although heavily damaged.

The third comment of Mr. Hacker is really interesting, and probably very true. Referring to my claim on page three of my letter, that he fails to give proof for his concept, he states that he does not think a concept can be proven. The only question we have to ask ourselves is whether a concept is indeed the one we use in our daily talk about persons, so Mr. Hacker writes.

In his fourth comment he states he holds firm to his own concept. Cats or dogs are no persons, he writes, however greatly they are loved and however faithful they are to their masters. He stays with Boethius in his belief that the concept of a person is tightly connected to rationality and language. A person must act for reasons and must have knowledge of good and evil.

On page 15 of my letter, I state the ‘I’ is the piece I was missing, and that this ‘I’ is also present in animals. According to me, magpies and dolphins show this clearly to us by recognizing themselves in a mirror. But according to Peter Hacker, that does not mean they recognize a self. Them recognizing themselves in the mirror does not mean they are self-conscious, or that they are persons.

His sixth point is also on the ‘I’. He does not believe there is an I, nor a you.

Peter Hacker concludes his e-mail by stating that he hopes these comments are of some use to me, and urges me politely not to reply. Unfortunately I could not comply to that last request. This is what I wrote back, and what I send to Mr. Peter Hacker on 27th of February 2010.

Dear Mr. Peter Hacker,

Thank you for taking the time to answer my letter. I am aware of the fact you told me not to bother answering. However, if you’ll forgive me, in your answer you stayed on firm ground and kept safely away from the heart of the matter. You did not address any problems I raised with your concept. And the remarks you gave me to ponder about, concern minor points, which are easy to address and easy to counter. I have no option but to do just that.

Remark nr. 1

In your first remark, you state I say that in your view only people can be persons. You explicitly deny this, as you write. And of course I agree with you entirely. I even quote you on this, on page 6 of my letter: ‘If there be other creatures possessing the appropriate range of language-dependent rational powers grafted on to an appropriate animal nature, then they too are persons’, so you write in your book.

My claim on page 6 of my letter (persons must be equal to man) does however not imply only people can be persons. It implies that, in your view, it is necessary for beings to have the same abilities as people, if they are to be called persons. In that, they have to be equal to man.

The problem with that claim of yours is, that the only beings with those abilities, are people.

Still, you say that if there were other beings with those abilities, they too are to be called persons. On the other hand, I very much doubt they would be called persons by people in daily life. For instance, as I mention in note 10, some believe that humpback whales have a more complex language than humans. But even if this were indeed the case, those whales would never become persons to human beings. Whales just do not participate in our society, we cannot communicate.

So, if the whales do have a complex language and a rational mind, and every ability you claim persons must have, they will still not fit into the concept people deploy in their talk of persons. That phenomena is not covered in the concept of a person as you describe it. It is even contradicted by it.

Remark nr. 2

On the second point, that concerns the being persons of people in a vegetative state, I entirely agree with you. I even express this agreement on page 12 of my letter.

A psychosis is a state of mental disease, in which the boy at the lecture could not communicate at all. But a permanent vegetative state is an as good example. Indeed humans in these states are still considered persons by people. I am willing to go even further than that, and claim that dead people are considered persons still.

My problem is, that this phenomena is not accounted for in the concept of a person, as you describe it. A human in a vegetative state is no rational being, and neither is a dead human, nor do they act, let alone for reasons. Still, they are considered as such in our daily talk of persons.

The problem with your concept is, that it makes way too much out of the use of ‘person’ in daily life. In daily life, as you might find if you examine it again, it merely means ‘other human, with the same rights as I’.

Remark nr. 3

Your third point is that a concept needs no proof. I’ll give you that. But surely it must be made plausible. If it is to be plausible, it needs support for the claim it is indeed the concept we deploy in our daily talk of persons.

It is however very doubtful that the concept of a person people use in every day life, has anything to do with rationality. Of course, all persons we know are rational beings, as there are only rational beings in our community to socialize with. Within human society, it are all humans, surely.

Rationality belongs to the concept of the mind, not to that of the person. That is where Boethius took a wrong turn, and that is where you follow him. The person is a social concept. The confusion finds it’s ground in the simple fact that people use their minds in their social context, the exact same context in which their concept of a person finds it’s ground.

Remark nr. 4

In your fourth point, it was absolutely unnecessary to take the seeing as persons of animals, onto emotional grounds. There was never any mentioning by me of love, faithfulness or affection. There was only mentioning of community.

In my opinion, persons are members of a community. Different communities have different members. If the community demands from it’s members they are rational and act for reasons, as human society does, then they must be rational and act for reasons to be called persons within that society. For humans that is easy to do. It comes naturally to them.

Remark nr. 5

Your fifth point concerns the mirror, the ‘self-consciousness’ and the ‘self’ in relationship to animals. I must admit I do not have a clear idea of what a ‘self’ is, or in what way exactly you use ‘self-consciousness’. The only thing I state in my letter, is that most animals have a consciousness of themselves in relationship to other members of their society. If they recognize themselves in a mirror, they even stronger prove to us they have just that.

According to my concept of a person, if a being is conscious of the fact that it is member of a community, and aware of it’s own place in that community, then it lives within that community as a person. Without changing a stroke, this is perfectly well deployable on humans within human society. And with this concept, the problems raised against your concept, do no longer exist.

Remark nr. 6

Your sixth point is again a very small one. I state very clearly in my letter that I do not consider the ‘I’ in any cartesian way. Indeed the ‘I’ does not exist, and neither does the ‘you’. The I and you, the first and the second person, cannot be seen separately. They are a social unity. The person is a social concept.


I hope you won’t be offended by me answering your writings, in such a bold way. However, your arguments only addressed isolated parts of my argumentation, and I have countered them consistently. Furthermore, there was no mentioning from your part of the doubts I raised about your concept, nor of it’s failure in the cases of, for instance, the legal person, the soldiers in war, the conscious patient and gods. That leads me to believe you were only being polite in your answer, so I am practically forced to ask you to reconsider it.

Yours sincerely,

Sander van der Meijs

I very much believe Peter Hacker is a very busy man, and he cannot give everything the attention it might need. So he cannot spent a week spelling out a letter of 17 pages of which he is not sure it contains anything new or exiting. The first two comments really show he never actually read the letter, as in my answer I only had to redirect him to other parts of that same letter, where he could have found his answer himself. He probably did not find it because he just took a quick glance at my writings, pinpointed some issues he thought he could easily address, and put them in an e-mail.

To be honest, I think this is the end of this discussion. Again Peter Hacker has no obligation or reason whatsoever to write me again. Yet I think that would be worrying, because it would show he does not really consider my objections, and thus he will not prove them irrelevant or false, not to me, and, more importantly, not to himself. Still he should be aware of the fact that saying our concept of a person is complex, multifaceted and flexible is just not good enough to cover up the inconsistencies.

Had he proved to himself that the inconsistencies I raised are not inconsistent at all, or not to the point, then he could have just as easily let me in on that proof. But he did not, and thus he probably does not have the proof himself. If this is the case, he is apparently done weeding his own part of the garden of philosophy, while in his book he claims that is a job that never ends. That alone is already more inconsistent than he can afford to be.

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