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The Question of the Nature of Human Person

Updated on June 12, 2020


From the ancient period, philosophers have grappled with the issue of the nature of the human person, which is the mind-body analysis. These philosophers have tended to make a fairly clear distinction between events, substances, processes or relations that they have called material or physical and those that they have called mental or psychical. The material or physical is seen as those entities that possess matter, which are seen, touched, felt; organic matter to which the body belongs. The mental or psychical refers to those entities not available to physical inspection of which the mind and the soul belong. Both distinctions are present in the human person and this have brought about some misconception and varied knowledge claims about the nature of the person. Thus, can we say the human person is mainly a physical being or a mental being or the combination of both? If so, how do we analyze the inner workings and relations between the physical and mental in man? This quest is very personal to man for he is challenged with the problem of explaining his own composition; which is to know, understand and explain the relationship that exists between the mind and the body.

Pythagoras can be said to be the first philosopher that dwelt on the human nature. For him, there is a separation of the body and soul, a sort of migration that occurs in death. He did not delve into their interaction, but he gave a privilege position to the soul by ascribing immortality to it and emphasizing the individual’s duty to see to the purification of the soul. Foremost among the ancient philosophers to engage this discourse was Plato who made a distinction between the mind and the body. He used the term ‘psyche’ interpreted as soul to distinguish an immaterial entity (mind) from the man’s nature (body), holding that the soul could exist both within the body and outside the body. Plato sees the soul as mortal and the body as immortal.

Prevalent also among the early Greek philosophers was this distinction of soul and body: the self is seen as the person and this self can be further disintegrated into subject and object; they equated the self as subject with the mind, and the self as object with the body. This distinction endured to the modern period where Descartes gave it its modern formulation. He wanted to attain true knowledge so he doubted all he ever knew as false knowledge. He got to the point where he couldn’t doubt the fact that he was doubting. If he doubts then he thinks, if he thinks therefore he is. Having asserted the certainty of his existence, he moved to define the kind of being he is. His first certainty was his thinking self (mind), so he is a being with a mind. But however he has ideas of physical things and has experienced them; but does anything in the external world connect to these ideas, or is he the cause of these ideas, or are the ideas illusions. He came to the conclusion that physical things exist which include his body for he had the ideas of physical things and they cannot be his subjective ideas because he seem to be completely passive in perception. This clear-cut distinction between mind and matter made him acknowledge mind and body as two separate entities. Mind he sees as thinking and unextended, while body he referred to as unthinking and extended. However he could not give a distinctive explanation on the relationship between them.

This uncertainty of man about himself becomes a problem he needs to sort out. From this, various questions have been asked with regards to human nature: Is the human nature mental or divine? Can everything about human nature be explained materially? Does the composition of man include both the mental and the corporeal? If so, do they have the same essence and structure; how do they relate in the human person? These questions and more were address in the philosophies of Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Berkeley, Malebranche and a host of others, with the postulation of various theories such as materialism, interactionism, parallelism, occasionalism, idealism. These theories are classified under two broad positions: Dualism and Monism. However, there is a sort of diversion from the dualist and monist theories in the Dual aspect theory of Baruch Spinoza.


Dualism as a metaphysical position in philosophy holds that reality comprises two substances that can be said to be ultimate and irreducible. These substances are held to be distinct and different and therefore cannot be subsumed or reduced into a single entity. Basically, dualism refers to any philosophical position that divides reality into two; that upholds the idea of two forms of substances making up reality. It posits some radical and irreducible difference in the world, an inseparable gulf between two realms of being. A theory that supports the notion that expresses the two distinct form of substances; the physical and mental, the material and spiritual, body and mind, showing their individual characteristics, nature and mode is a dualist theory. Dualists believe that this split within existence is permanent, and not just a temporary condition that will be eliminated by time by the progressive spiritualization or increasing materialism of reality. The division is assumed to be inherent in the very nature of existence, and not just a superficial aspect of things. A number of positions and theories can be drawn from dualism. These various theories though distinct affirm that there are two realms of being; this gives them their dualistic character.


Interactionism is a dualist theory whose viewpoint upholds a sort of interaction between mental and corporeal bodies. It purports that corporeal actions, bodily events can at some moment cause mental events and mental events can cause bodily event too; the corporeal can move the mental and the mental can also do the same. This theory is attributed to Rene Descartes. For Descartes, there are two ultimate substances, mental and corporeal, mind and body. These substances are distinct, they have their unique and essential characteristic of which form their essence. The essence of the mind is thought, the mind is defined as a thinking being. While that of matter is extension, the body is seen as an extended being or entity. This division of reality is absolute; body and mind are each self-sustaining and the properties or characteristics of each are completely different. In fact, they are mutually exclusive; whatever is a property of mind cannot be a property of matter and vice versa.

Man is composed of both mind and body, nevertheless, these distinct realities are independent of each other; though there appears to be a sort of connection between them. Thought seems to have effect on bodies and bodies appear to produce mental sensations. The interactionist would claim pains that cause winces, thoughts that cause the heart to pound or a man to take to his heels, and feelings that cause a person to tremble…blows that cause dull aches, flashes of light that cause a person to have a certain afterimage, pieces of music that cause a person to have certain feelings or memories and electrical brain stimulations that cause a person to have a certain thought. However, the problem of interactionism is on how the substances connect; for they are quite different. The problem is similar to attempting to move a chair by merely thinking about it. No matter how close the mind gets to the chair, the chair does not move. For Descartes, the causal connection that exists between the mind and body takes place through the pineal gland in the brain. However he couldn't explain how the pineal is the seat of operation, or how its chief faculties arise from it. Much more animals which seem to be almost quite destitute of imagination, memory, and other superior powers of the mind also have this gland.


Occasionalism is an upshot of interactionism, for just like interactionism, occasionalism accepts the division of reality into two ultimate substances, mind and matter. It also supports and upholds that there exist between the mind and body, a sort of cause and effect relationship and interaction. Occasionalism proceeded from Descartes inability to fully present a convincing explanation on the place and the nature of interaction between the two substances. Philosophers like Arnold Geulinex, Nicholas Malebranche and others upheld the occasionalism theory.

Here, God is seen as the intermediary link that connects the mind and the body: that there is a continuous interference by God to preserve the link that should follow between mental and physical events. Occasionalism tries to present a presence of God in our everyday events. It teaches that God produces a miracle whenever a body event occurs which has a mental accompaniment, like when one sits on a back and feel pain; or whenever a mental event brings about a physical result, like when one decides to move the leg and behold it moves. Using the analogy of two-clocks, they explain that the creator (God) made the clocks show exactly the same time, the clocks express the same time though not having a direct connection between them, but have the same force acting in them. Occasionalism presents the workings of God on mind and body which are the product of his hands and which he directs.


Parallelism is also known as the theory of pre-established harmony. This theory by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz tries to present a simpler and understandable theory. Although also in the line of interactionism and more closely to occasionalism, it proposes that mental and material events are correlated in a regular way, but without any causal connection, direct or indirect, aiming at avoiding the perplexities that are eminent in the postulation of causal interaction. For Leibniz, how can one explain the fact that there is a connection existing between two unrelated events as espoused by interactionism, or how an entirely different entity could produce continuously the desire effect on two extremely different substances as taught by occasionalism. In reaction to causal relation of things, Leibniz opined that every mental event has a corollary physical effect in such a way that any time there is an occurrence of a mental event, there is evidently a corresponding physical effect that accompany it. For Leibniz, there is a sort of pre-established harmony, a harmonious parallel designed by God between mental and physical events. Making allusion to the occasionalist’s two-clock, he explains that the Creator (God) made the clocks show exactly the same time as from the origin and this synchronization of event remains intact forever.


Monism as a doctrine that interrogates forms of reality stresses oneness or unity as regards reality, upholding oneness in reality as pertaining the relation between two seemingly different realities. Foremost usage of the term ‘monism’ is attributed to Christian Wolff (1679-1754), who using it in a more strict sense applied it to the two opposite theories that everything is mental (idealism or mentalism) and that all things are also material (materialism). Before the advent of the term ‘monism’, doctrines that preaches what monism says although in a much broader sense than Wolff’s, were in existence. Broader in the sense that it embrace all forms of unison/oneness, either of mind, body or both; as seen in the philosophy of Parmenides. It is the characteristic of monism from earliest times to insist on the unity of things in time (their freedom from change) or in space (their indivisibility) or in quality (their undifferentiatedness). Monism regarding the kinds of substance holds that only one such kind exists. Monism regarding the instances of a given substantial kind holds that only one individual does or can exist. In recent times, the term monism has embraced a sort of ambiguity in respect to meaning; for it now entertains any theory that tries to reduce all phenomena to a single principle, or to make statements about reality as a whole.


Materialism propose the view that everything is made of matter. It has an ancient philosophical origin dating back to the fifth century BC in the philosophy of Democritus of Abdera. Democritus believed that the world consists entirely of atoms, tiny, absolutely hard, impenetrable, indivisible and unalterable bits of stuff whose property include shape and size and scurried around in the void, forming the world as we know it by jostling each other and either rebounding, despite being incompressible, or getting entangled with each other because of their shape. There are various forms of materialism and concepts about the material world. Some views maintain that mental views are in line with physical utterances and when differentiated from it can be termed as meaningless – this is behaviorism. Strict materialist holds that life is nothing but a complicated physicochemical process; the mind and thinking are the result of the brain’s electrochemical activity. Reductionist holds that complex processes like life and thought can be explained wholly in terms of simpler physical or chemical processes, reducing everything to mechanical process. However, the basis of all materialist theories is the fact of the universality or the fundamental position of matter. Matter is upheld as fundamental and on which everything else depends, seeing the whole of reality through the facet of physicality, that whatever exist is physical. Materialism sees everything in reality as belonging to the material sphere rejecting the issue of mind and other abstract realities. Matter, physical world, the material stuff of the universe is what is ultimately real – every event is strictly determined by preceding physical events, since the universe is seen as a closed isolated system.


Idealism in a broad sense is a philosophical doctrine that sees the idea and the mind as the ultimate reality. It is a complete opposite of materialism, and it aims at giving a rational background to reality. Idealism does have various distinctions however subjective idealism is the dominant. Subjective idealism maintains that in understanding reality, the subject is quite important in acknowledging what can be said to be or not. George Berkeley the English Bishop is the main proponent of this view. For Berkeley, existence is related to the mind and what the mind relates to or can relate with. In Berkeley’s world, the only existent things are idea and the mind that know them. Ideas are seen as images or sensory data that are present to the mind directly either in clear sense experience or in the less clear presentation of either memory or imagination. So, ideas are experiences, sensations that we have, so when we contemplate reality, we mean minds and ideas that these minds perceive. This is expressed in his famous dictum, ‘esse est percipi…ut percipere’ meaning ‘to be is to be perceived…or to be a perceiver’. So, material things, physical objects, the corporeal world, exist only in the mind as classes of perceptions. First, imagine you have no sight; the colours, shapes and outlines of the objective world no longer exist, at least for you. Next, imagine you have no taste buds, no sense of touch, no hearing, and no power to smell. What then is left of the vaunted world? In a word, remove the subjective (mind and senses) and there are no objects. Reality is our experience of things…to be is to be perceived”.

As the philosophical world as divided in its view about the nature of the human person with reverence to dualism and monism, Spinoza brought about a third way of approaching the subject matter with a view to presenting a better understanding as regards the relationship existing between the mental and the corporeal, the mind and the body. In this, he maintains that the mind and the body are two aspects of a single reality. This is what is called the dual-aspect theory. He sees the mind and the body as one substance which cannot be divided and cannot independently exist. These different aspects are to be seen not as different properties of man, but as full descriptions of man under different categories.


The double aspect theory is a view position that is held by Baruch Spinoza. This theory holds and maintains that the mental and the physical are simply different aspects of a reality that is in itself neither physical nor mental. That is, both the mental and physical that forms the body are aspects of another reality that is not solely physical or mental. This theory tries to relate the mental and the physical without drawing implications of one on another; it refrains from analyzing either in terms of the other.

The only real existent thing is the substance which exists in itself and conceived by itself. Consequently, all things else, both mental and physical, mind and matter, spiritual and corporeal are just but attributes or modes of that one substance. The physical and the mental though different are inseparable. Although they are inseparable, they are mutually irreducible, for the mental cannot be reduced to the physical and vice versa; they are to be seen as quite distinct.

For the double aspect theorist, every physical entity has its corresponding mental aspects. For them, certain states of living creatures have both mental and physical aspects. For example, there are some activities that we carry out that express different state. The brain processes like perception and thought are not just both physical processes but also cognitive and mental processes. And so, having aspects of physical and mental do not create dualism in such a state, creature or process.


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