February 07, 2010

What is a person?

It isn't easy to define what a person is when you actually think about it seriously. Am I the wrathful Gracchi that woke up this morning at 9 o'clock or will do so tommorrow at 6 (something that makes me shiver in repulsion at this moment) or the sleepy headed Gracchi that will recline over his book at 10 or 11 tonight? Which one is more really me? Its not something that we tend to think about that often- one of the benefits of existing is a tendency to ignore big questions- but it is important because when we come to describing other people it becomes difficult to avoid the fact that people are not single entities, they are spreads of characteristics. Two blog posts recently have made me think about this and I think are worth both linking to and giving some consideration of: both are by two of my favourite bloggers in the UK and both bring out I think the difficulty of the simple puzzle of knowing someone else.

Take for example this piece on Brian Clough- there are two key ideas here that I think are central to any evocation of someone as a person and undermine the whole of idea of the singularity of character. The first is that the author, James Hamilton, one of the best British bloggers, brings out the idea that Clough was not a behaviour but a combination of behaviours deployed by an individual to meet an end. His character was a fusion between the tactical behaviours and the underlying character who gave them a central body. Furthermore those two aspects- the tactics with which Clough controlled a conversation and the personality that forced him to wish to control it were always in dialogue. The former directed the latter as much as the latter directed the former. And both of them were in dialogue with another thing- the setting in which Clough found himself- a historical and industrial (if football is an industry) setting which allowed Clough to express his personality in these ways. Personality becomes a dialogue of desire and possibility, of strategy and tactics, of history, industry and all the rest rather than something static and something enduring.

Even though if we think we understand all of these things, Mercurius Politicus raises another question which is about the limits of our knowledge. Ultimately for characters who existed prior to the twentieth century getting hold of their actual words is not easy- even then we don't know whether what someone wrote was written by another or suggested by another. We don't know what was off the cough and what was deliberated over for years. Establishing someone's words is only a first step in the long and difficult journey we have to establish the spread of characteristics that makes up their character. Both these posts show how difficult it is to study human beings: we are by our nature elusive and because our fundemental nature is to live in time, we are also in constant flux. It is useful to talk about character and self when we analyse the world because without those rocks, we are cast upon a darkened sea without a light, but we must always remember the uncertainty in our speculation about character. Both James and Mercurius show the rocks are neither as solid nor as certain as we might assume.


James Higham said...

Brian Clough - the people's philosopher.