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From Personhood to Philosopherhood

April 26, 2017

Portrait of Jessica Gordon-Roth

Portrait of Jessica Gordon-Roth
Photo by Kate Drakulic, CLAgency.

What makes someone a person? And how is it that someone can be the same person today as they were yesterday? These enduring questions about personal identity and persistence continue to trouble philosophers to this day. But as philosophy professor Jessica Gordon-Roth points out, much of the groundwork for contemporary debates over personhood was laid some three centuries ago by the thinkers and philosophers of the early modern period.

Gordon-Roth specializes in this lively era in the history of philosophy, devoting much of her scholarship to the early modern debates over questions of personhood. "The early modern debate over personal identity is one of the most vibrant and important debates within the history of philosophy," she says. "Almost every philosopher of the period asked 'What is a person?' and 'What makes anyone the same person over time?'"

Gordon-Roth pays particular attention to the works of John Locke, whose own account of personal identity and persistence was central to the debates of the 17th and 18th centuries. "Everyone at that time was responding to Locke in some way," says Gordon-Roth, "and that's really how I became interested in him in particular." According to Locke, someone is a person if she is a thinking, intelligent, rational being with a self-reflective capacity to recognize herself as herself in different times and places. Someone is the same person at distinct times, says Locke, not by having the same body or mind or soul, but in virtue of having the same consciousness at those times.

Gordon-Roth is quick to point out the contemporary relevance of Locke’s account: His contention that to persist from one time to another is just a matter of having the same consciousness anticipates 20th century accounts of persistence in terms of psychological continuity à la that of the late Derek Parfit. Moreover, Locke's view that specific cognitive capacities such as self-reflection constitute the locus of personhood implies a distinction between persons (entities possessing this requisite set of capacities), and human beings (biological organisms that may or may not be persons). This distinction is, of course, central to many contemporary debates in normative ethics (such as the debate over the moral status of the fetus), but it is Locke, claims Gordon-Roth, to whom credit goes for first drawing it. Though it has been nearly three-and-a-half centuries since the publication of Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Gordon-Roth emphasizes how the influence of his ideas continues to be felt today.

Locke is far from the only early modern figure who interests Gordon-Roth. More generally, she studies the nature of the early modern canon itself, investigating the processes by which some thinkers are included and others left out. Gordon-Roth points to implicit biases that have led some thinkers, such as Locke, to be canonized, while leaving others, especially women and philosophers of color, to be excluded.

As a feminist historian of philosophy, Gordon-Roth seeks to bring these traditionally-ignored figures back into the fold, investigating their contributions to the philosophical debates of the early modern period. Among these traditionally overlooked figures, Gordon-Roth lists the women philosophers Catharine Trotter Cockburn, Anne Conway, and Margaret Cavendish, and the African philosopher Anton Wilhelm Amo. Though Conway, Cavendish, Cockburn, and Amo each made significant, novel contributions to the early modern debate over personhood, much of their work has been suppressed, dismissed, and excluded by previous historians of philosophy. "Many who contributed to this debate are left out of our contemporary discussions of it," says Gordon-Roth.

In Spring 2017, Gordon-Roth sought to do her part in remedying this exclusion and marginalization of women philosophers and philosophers-of-color in her graduate seminar, Reconstructing the Early Modern Debate over Personal Identity. In the course, the works of Conway, Cavendish, and Amo were considered no less than those of more traditionally canonical thinkers such as Descartes, Locke, and Hume.

Gordon-Roth believes that this kind of diversification of the early modern canon is important not only in giving students a more accurate picture of the period, but also in showing that philosophers, as she puts it, "don't just look like a bust of Socrates." The glaring gender gap in philosophy, which only perpetuates the illusory perception that philosophers are exclusively men, only makes such diversification more pertinent. "If we want to change the face of philosophy, we need to, at the very least, read texts that were written by women," says Gordon-Roth.

She argued as much in a 2015 paper co-authored with Nancy Kendrick entitled "Including Early Modern Women Writers in Survey Courses: A Call to Action." In it, they call for including women philosophers in the early modern curriculum. "When women are excluded from syllabi it gives students the impression that women are not philosophers and that philosophers are not women" write Gordon-Roth and Kendrick. "Including texts written by women in early modern survey courses changes the way that students think about women and philosophy. When students are exposed to philosophical texts written by women, they start seeing that women have been, are, and can be philosophers." At a time when only a fifth of professional philosophers are women, expanding the canon in this way is necessary to make the discipline a more inclusive one. Fortunately, Gordon-Roth and Kendrick believe that such an expansion and diversification of the canon is possible: "The canon is something that we create, shape, and modify," they conclude, "not some static authority to which we must bend. We make it, and we can therefore make what we want of it."

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.