What I Am Reading: Lynne Rudder Baker – Human Persons as Social Entities

Lynne Rudder Baker’s paper offers a sustained argument for what a number of people might have thought before and even proposed informally: Humans persons are social entities and therefore should be taken to be a part of social ontology.

Here is the Abstract of the paper:

The aim of this article is to show that human persons belong, ontologically, in social ontology. After setting out my views on ontology, I turn to persons and argue that they have first-person perspectives in two stages (rudimentary and robust) essentially. Then I argue that the robust stage of the first-person perspective is social, in that it requires a language, and languages require linguistic communities. Then I extend the argument to cover the rudimentary stage of the first-person perspective as well. I conclude by enumerating ways in which human persons differ from nonhuman animals.

Baker’s argument for this makes heavy use of her other works in metaphysics and especially those on personality. The main concepts are explained in this paper, but many questions might be left open, which can be answered by consulting her other work. As I see it, the outcome is a paper in which Baker justifies a thought, the thought that human persons are social entities, that is in the air by integrating the though into her own metaphysical system.

There are some worries, however, concerning her arguments for human beings as social entities. There are always some worries. Here are few:

The argument rests on some big claims like the following: “There’s no self-concept, and hence no robust first-person perspective, outside a language. Learning a language is learning concepts, and learning concepts is learning about reality.” (Baker 2015: 80)

Never mind the technical terminology of “self-concept” and “robust first-person perspective”, there are enough other points to worry about. There is a whole picture of what it is to acquire a language and what languages are presupposed in this claim. I am not even sure what it is to learn a concept. To learn how to use it? In how far is learning how to use it to learn about reality? There are good answers to these questions, but they are far from trivial.

To give another example of a big claim, later on Baker makes use of Wittgenstein’s famous argument against the possibility of private languages. This argument is famous, but also highly controversial and I am personally not sure what to make of it. Because of this I cannot be sure that I follow the conclusion of Baker’s paper.

One further point which I worry about is Baker’s notion of the social. She makes communities of persons central for her notion. This is plausible, but it is certainly not the only option. Why should we accept exactly this option? Why, to give just one example, not make joint commitments as found in Margaret Gilbert central?

My last question is what hangs on the question, that human persons are part of social ontology? From the paper it has not become clear to me, why it would matter that persons are social entities. One could imagine that this might have consequences for the social sciences by favouring some explanatory models of agents over others, but at least within this paper no answer is offered. That agents have robust first-person perspectives might matter for modelling them, but why would it matter that there hast to be sociality for such a robust first-person perspective? The worry would be that fulfilling the criteria for being a social entity offered by Baker does not imply much for, say, the social sciences. But whether this is so or not would need its own discussion.

In any case the paper expresses a common and important thought in a fairly rigorous manner and it is to be praised for that. In addition the paper is short, readable, and open access. If one works somewhere in vicinity, it is hard to find an excuse for not reading it. You can find it here.