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The Logic of Personhood

Richard Ostrofsky
(Publication Date Unknown)
One major guarantor of mutual intelligibility is the common logic of
personhood, which might be characterized as a perpetual balancing act
between identity and self-interest. Rabbi Hillel put it this way:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am

for myself only, what am I?

The dilemma is universal. All more or less autonomous parties to any

conversation, (regardless of physiology, culture, or circumstance), will find
that their behaviour is shaped by two broad necessities:
• On one hand, each party must make effective moves to preserve
and further its essential goals – the goals crucial to its very
existence. This need is inherent in the idea of an autonomous
person; we may call it the necessity of self-assertion.
• At the same time, each party needs to refrain from moves that
would lead to its exclusion from the conversations crucial to its
existence. This need is inherent in the idea of a social person; we
may call it the necessity of membership, or belonging, or continued
Often, these requirements pull in different directions: it can be dangerous to
be too ruthless, or too successful a player, because the other players are then
quite likely to combine against you.
It may be possible to get all that one wants from a group as its reward
for valued participation; it may be possible to achieve so tight a grip that the
significant conversations cannot ostracize you however they might wish to
do so. On the whole, however, unlimited self-seeking remains antithetical to
social participation, and therefore self-defeating ultimately. Hence the
tension between individual and collective values, experienced by most
individuals in most social groups.
The claim for a logic of personhood is that this tension must work in
much the same way, regardless of any divergences of biology or culture.
The dilemma must be chronic for every autonomous, sentient creature, with
distinct viewpoints of its own, who must sustain its physical existence in a
social context. In human children, the dilemma typically surfaces before the
age of two; within another year or so, it is fairly well mastered: the child
learns both to play for its own interests, and to sustain its membership in a
family, in a play group, and then in larger and more complicated groupings.
Thereafter it is a full-fledged person. Its autonomy and its sociability are
stabilized, and the remainder of its development is a matter of time.
It has been argued that the tension between Self and Society is a
uniquely Western neurosis. I doubt this. I think the issue is latent, however
glossed or repressed, wherever there is the possibility that a person's desires
or perceptions might not coincide with those of his group. In other words,
the tension exists wherever, and just to the extent that the person is capable
of an independent viewpoint at all. This tension between the individual and
society is also intrinsic to the logic of any conversation, that has advanced
to a point where autonomous viewpoints engage each other.
I think different cultures handle the issue differently, by constructing
selfhood in very different ways. Some cultures, reject the concept of
viewpoint apart from social role, and allow very little personal autonomy in
the Western sense. Yet even these cultures, and perhaps these more than any,
understand how individuals come under stress from the expectations of
ambient conversation. In such societies role conflict is often resolved by
suicide, since life after an impossible choice between conflicting absolute
duties seems unthinkable. The Japanese tale of The 47 Ronin presents a
situation of this kind, and a paradigmatic example of correct Japanese
behaviour. In this respect, it begs comparison with Sophocles' Antigone, a
tragedy about individuated (Western-style) persons who remain enthralled
to kings and kin – who cannot reject their roles, and act simply on their own
Persons and cultures differ infinitely in their resolutions of the dilemma
between Self and Society. There are infinite variations in the conceptualized
existences that individuals may seek to further. There is another infinity in
the terms of participation that different conversations offer. Human beings
are wonderfully ingenious in our devices for reconciling these antithetical
needs for belonging and self-assertion, but we may expect that intelligent
squid-like creatures in the methane oceans of Arcturus will have their own
solutions to the same basic dilemma. Always and everywhere, what I call
“the logic of personhood” requires that this dilemma be faced and resolved
somehow. As Gurdjieff somewhere puts it, every person “must satisfy both
the wolf and the sheep entrusted to his care.”