Rolando M. Gripaldo





            The purpose of this brief paper is to elucidate on the concept of the person as a member of a communal or civil society. It will try to answer the issue as to what makes a person a person, and the corollary issue as to how the person should be related to communal society.




            It appears to be the case that the concept of the person is more primitive than the Cartesian concepts of mind and body. As a substance the person has both the material and psychical predicates [Strawson].  Properly speaking, it is a category mistake to assert that the mind thinks or the body walks [Ryle].  It is the person who thinks and the person who walks.  It could be argued, I think within reason, that the person is a body incarnate or an embodied spirit [Marcel].  What is important is to view the person as a unity, that is, as one substance, not as two substances.  Moreover, we are taking about a live natural person.  Someone who dies is still a person, but we call him a dead person.  A zombie is not a person, but may appear as one.  A sleepwalker is a person who walks during his sleep, and is not a zombie though he may appear like one.  A cyborg is not a person in the natural ordinary sense though he may appear as one.

            The person is not an island unto himself.  For his survival and belonging needs, he is not simply a mere member of a socio-cultural group—a mere individual—but he cooperates with the members of that group.  In short, he is also a social being.

            The person is a historical being in that he develops a personality as he grows up and circulates within the members of his family, his peer group, his neighborhood, his school, his church, and eventually within the society-at-large [Dondeyne].  He lives in a spatio-temporal setting.  He develops in the process patterns of feeling, of thinking, and of doing things.  He develops habits.

            The person is also a cultural being.  “Culture” is rather a broad term as it includes anything in a given society.  A broad definition of it is that culture is the sum-total of what mankind did in the past, is currently doing, and will be doing in the future.  Culture includes religion, philosophy, science, technology, art, education, politics, etc.  The person develops socio-cultural relations within society.




            The person is “thrown” into a socio-cultural world which is not of his own making [Heidegger].  As a child grows up, he uncritically imbibes or absorbs what is just there.  Hardly does he doubt the wisdom of the rules in society.  Construed broadly, rules can be political, ethical, religious, legal, professional, etc.  There are also localized rules that he may encounter later as ihose of his school and his peer group.  In the process of growing up, he simply tacitly follows these rules.  In this sense, he is passive.  When he becomes critical at some point in his life, he starts rejecting some of these rules and selects those which are useful to him.  Those he has explicitly accepted he follows [Locke].  In this sense, he is active.  Some of the rules he discards are harmless, but others—such as legal rules—can be harmful.  If caught, he can be imprisoned or executed.

            Most national cultures are mixed cultures although there are dominant traits within the given culture.  As such the person accepts many of the native cultural traits while accepting likewise some of the foreign cultural influences that enter into his society.  The person, in other words, is generally a cultural hybrid in contemporary society.  Basically, the person is a microcosmic culture that reflects, in some meaningful respects, the culture-at-large (macrocosmic culture).  In a manner of speaking, the individual person is culture writ large.




            The person is an individual, not a crowd. A crowd, of course, is composed of individuals, but each of them loses his individuality in the crowd. It is easy to point the responsibility of an action to him than to a crowd. It is argued that the crowd renders the individual completely impenitent and irresponsible [Kierkegaard]. In ordinary language, there is a sense in which the individual and the person are used synonymously.  But there is also a sense in which the term individual is used to denote a selfish person.  In this extreme usage, an individual is said to be not a person in the real sense because the real person cares for the others as he cares for himself [Heidegger].





            Since a person is not an island unto himself, he will have to relate himself to society.  It is contended that society is prior to the establishment of government.  Even if government is dissolved, society remains and can establish another government [Locke].  If society is prior to government, then the person exists as a social being since a society is composed of persons.  There is cooperation in society and competition only arises when private property is introduced.  Coupled with competition is individual self-interest.  The desire to acquire more property, and therefore more wealth, becomes the tendency of those who have more.  Rugged bourgeois individualism becomes the impetus towards acquiring more wealth.  Moreover, bourgeois exploitation of the workers can result from such bourgeois individualism.  The capitalist government or state can be coercive in that it exists basically to protect private property.  If the workers can hardly bear the economic exploitation, then a revolution may erupt to topple capitalist or bourgeois government.  The workers will then set up a dictatorship which will protect their interests in a totalizing manner [Marx]. When this happens the collective will then become primary and the individual may become secondary.  Although theoretically, the collective is set up to protect the interests of the individual, it may turn out in practice that the interests of the individual may be sacrificed for the interests of the collective.  In this regard, the individual may cease to be a real person or its quality as a real person may be diminished.




            When is a person a real person?  A distinction is sometimes made between the person as object and the person as subject.  It is also claimed that the person as object is the subject matter of science while the person as subject is the subject matter of philosophy.  When science objectifies the person, makes it definable and classifiable, then it ceases to be a real person [Jaspers]

            The person as subject is free and self-creating.  He also transcends his finitude.  He is forward-moving and not a finished project.  It is also argued that the person tries to fill the nothingness between what he is at present and what he wants himself to be in the future.  The person may even create his own values to make his life meaningful [Sartre].

            Meaning in life, it is contended, holds only in the relation between the subject and another subject.  Unless the subject is somehow related to the Other in some significant ways, then meaning exists between both subjects.  There is no authentic meaning in life in an isolated subject [Buber].  In this regard, the fundamental structure of the person is care which is a concern for what he is to be, for being “thrown,” and for being entangled with current preoccupations [Heidegger].

            Is subjectivity or human freedom the essence of the person?  It would seem so.  But there is another view which puts emphasis on loving one’s fellowmen as he loves himself [Jacinto].  In this view, if one loves his fellowman, then he can care for him.  Loving one’s neighbor as oneself is more primary. In our ordinary experience, care presupposes love.  But why should one love his neighbor?  Because, according to this view, he is like himself—a human being.  Being human, or humanity, is therefore the essence of a human person.  When the person forgets his humanity he becomes tyrannical, authoritarian, exploitative, mean, enslaves others, degrades others, and so on.  When he does not forget his humanity, the person as subject is free and can love and care.




            A civil society is a communal group or a tribal society.  It lies between the family and the  state.  It is prior to the state but becomes the contemporary focus because it serves to answer the requirements of a contented life of the person as subject in terms of freedom and participation in communal living.  In other words, it avoids the excesses of extreme individualism and the coercive power of the state.  The person works in solidarity with other members of the community in order to participate in the governance to achieve the various communal goals for the common good.  The end is for the entire society to flourish (subsidiarity) [Mclean].




            My interest in this paper is the clarification of the concept of the person in relation to his being an individual and a social person.  There is no discussion on other aspects of the person as in personal identity which appears to me as mainly epistemological or religious or legal in nature, and can be taken for granted in the meantime.  However, there are two more things which I want to comment on.

            First, I tend to replace Humanity with Personness as the essence of the human being.  If God is likewise a being, then Personness can both apply to man and God.  The Being of being (man or God) is therefore Personness.

            Second, while I am in full agreement with the view that the person as subject is a subject matter of philosophy, I do not seem to be happy with the view that man as object cannot likewise be a subject matter of philosophy but only of science.  The person as a unity has both psychical and material predicates, that is, both consciousness and body.  A philosophical reflection of consciousness or subjectivity and freedom (man as subject) can likewise be made of the body (man as object).  The position taken by Marcel and Merleau-Ponty on this matter, I think, is tenable.




Buber, Martin.  1058.  I and thou.  New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Copleston, Frederick, S.J. 1963.  Contemporary philosophy:  Studies in logical positivism

and existentialism.  London:  Burns and Oates.

Dondeyne, Albert.  1964.  Historicity.  Truth and the world.  Dublin:  Gill and Son.

Gripaldo, Rolando.  2001.  Liberty and love:  The political and ethical philosophy of Emilio Jacinto.  Manila:  De La Salle University Press.

Heidegger, Martin.  1996.  Being and time.  Translated by Joan Stambaugh.  Albany: State University of New York Press.

Jaspers, Karl.  1964.  Existenzphilosophie.  In Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre.  Edited by Walter Kaufmann.  Cleveland:  World Publishing Company.

Kaufmann, Walter.  1964.  Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre.  Cleveland:  World Publishing Company.

Kierkegaard, Soren.  1964.  “That Individual.”  In Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre.  Edited by Walter Kaufmann.  Cleveland:  World Publishing Company.

Locke, John.  1960.  Two treatises of civil government. Cambridge:  Cambridge University


Marcel, Gabriel.  1960.  The mystery of being.  Vol. 1.  Translated by G. S. Fraser.  Chicago:  Henry Regnery.

Marx, Karl.  1959.  Communist manifesto.  In Marx and Engels:  Basic writings in politics and philosophy.  Edited by Lewis S. Feuer.  Garden City, New York:  Anchor Books.

McLean, George F., OMI. 2001.  Philosphy and civil society:  Its nature, its past, and its future (Parts I-IV).  Filosofia:  International Journal of Philosophy 30 (1-2).

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice.  1962.  Phenomenology of perception.  London:  Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd.

Ryle, Gilbert.  1979.  The concept of mind.  Harmondsworth:  Penguin Books.

Sartre,  Jean-Paul.  1956.  Being and nothingness.  Translated by Hazel E. Barnes.  New York.  Washington Square Press, Inc.

Strawson, P. F. 1959. Individuals.  London:  Methuen.