Being a Human Being, Being a Person

July 16, 2013
Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford

The Aula
Blackfiras Hall, 64 St Giles
Oxford OX1 3LY
United Kingdom

View the Call For Papers


  • Institute of Philosophy, University of Warsaw
  • Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion, University of Oxford


Oxford University
Richard Conrad
Oxford University
John Cottingham
University of Reading
Peter Hacker
Oxford University
Oxford University
Jonathan Price
Leiden University
Roger Scruton
Oxford University
Raymond Tallis


Alicja Gescinska
University of Ghent
Mikolaj Slawkowski-Rode
Warsaw University
Ralph Weir
Oxford University

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Being a Human Being, Being a Person

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The question of the nature of the human individual in her relation to the physical world and other people is one of the perennial problems of philosophy. These two ways of relating to reality could be said to respectively determine what we are and who we are. The distinction has been variously defined within different traditions of thought as body and soul dualism, the supervenience theory of the mind, aspect dualism and so on. From these varied pictures stem different ways of approaching the human individual within the realms of speculative philosophy, theology, secular law, or medicine and with the advance of modern science, different presuppositions, which form conceptual foundations for research in evolutionary biology, neuroscience, psychiatry, but also sociology or even economics.

The contemporary way of formulating the distinction begins with John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, where he defines the ‘human being’ as a biological concept and the ‘person’ as a psychological (and forensic) concept. Locke suggests that coincidence under the one in no way guarantees coincidence under the other. The implications of this view are profound and continue to influence disciplines, both practical and theoretical, ranging from ethics and psychology to social policy and medical technology. Based on the distinction Locke provides the earliest systematic treatment of the issue of personal identity in modern thought. His view however has mainly proved to be a negative inspiration as arguments of such early critics as Leibnitz, Berkley, Hume, Butler or Reid were fatal to his theory. It is sometimes asserted that the progress in the experimental disciplines, including various forms of statistical research, has rendered the philosophical apriori approach inadequate, and will soon replace its convictions with concrete evidence. However, as a rule, the more one is tempted to think that philosophical premises have been avoided the less rigorous these premises tend to become.

The aim of the one-day conference is to consider the relation between the concept of a human being and that of a person, to explore the philosophical consequences of the various ways of defining the distinction and to address the problems arising with the application of these concepts as the framework for scientific research and the basis for the formulation of ethical dilemmas.

The questions addressed will include issues such as whether there can be human beings who are not persons and vice versa; what is the meaning of the concept ‘person’; is the idea of a ‘theory’ of a person coherent; and whether there might be an ambiguity in our use of the concepts of human being and person.


All those wishing to attend the conference are invited to contact Mikolaj Slawkowski-Rode at [email protected]. Please title your message 'conference registration'.  

The registration fee of 10 pounds includes a simple lunch, and tea and coffee for the day. Details concerning ways to pay, and the payment deadline will be given in the confirmation. 

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June 28, 2013, 12:00am BST

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