A person (plural people or persons) is a being that has certain capacities or attributes such as reason, morality, consciousness or self-consciousness, and being a part of a culturally established form of social relations such as kinship, ownership of property, or legal responsibility.[1][2][3][4] The defining features of personhood and consequently what makes a person count as a person differ widely among cultures and contexts.

In addition to the question of personhood, of what makes a being count as a person to begin with, there are further questions about personal identity and self: both about what makes any particular person that particular person instead of another, and about what makes a person at one time the same person as they were or will be at another time despite any intervening changes.

The plural form "people", is often used to refer to an entire nation or ethnic group (as in "a people"). The plural form "persons" is often used in philosophical and legal writing.


The criteria for being a person... are designed to capture those attributes which are the subject of our most humane concern with ourselves and the source of what we regard as most important and most problematical in our lives.

Harry G. Frankfurt

Personhood is the status of being a person. Defining personhood is a controversial topic in philosophy and law, and is closely tied to legal and political concepts of citizenship, equality, and liberty. According to common worldwide general legal practice, only a natural person or legal personality has rights, protections, privileges, responsibilities, and legal liability. Personhood continues to be a topic of international debate, and has been questioned during the abolition of slavery and the fight for women's rights, in debates about abortion, fetal rights, and in animal rights advocacy.[5]

Various debates have focused on questions about the personhood of different classes of entities. Historically, the personhood of animals, women, and slaves has been a catalyst of social upheaval. In most societies today, living adult humans are usually considered persons, but depending on the context, theory or definition, the category of "person" may be taken to include or not children or such non-human entities as animals, artificial intelligences, or extraterrestrial life, as well as legal entities such as corporations, sovereign states and other polities, or estates in probate.[6]

Personal identity

Personal identity is the unique identity of persons through time. That is to say, the necessary and sufficient conditions under which a person at one time and a person at another time can be said to be the same person, persisting through time. In the modern philosophy of mind, this concept of personal identity is sometimes referred to as the diachronic problem of personal identity. The synchronic problem is grounded in the question of what features or traits characterize a given person at one time.

Identity is an issue for both continental philosophy and analytic philosophy. A key question in continental philosophy is in what sense we can maintain the modern conception of identity, while realizing many of our prior assumptions about the world are incorrect.

Proposed solutions to the problem of personal identity include continuity of the physical body, continuity of an immaterial mind or soul, continuity of consciousness or memory,[7] the bundle theory of self, continuity of personality after the death of the physical body,[8] and proposals that there are actually no persons or selves who persist over time at all.

Development of the concept

In ancient Rome, the word persona (Latin) or prosopon (πρόσωπον; Greek) originally referred to the masks worn by actors on stage. The various masks represented the various "personae" in the stage play.[9]

The concept of person was further developed during the Trinitarian and Christological debates of the 4th and 5th centuries in contrast to the word nature.[10] During the theological debates, some philosophical tools (concepts) were needed so that the debates could be held on common basis to all theological schools. The purpose of the debate was to establish the relation, similarities and differences between the Ancient Greek: Λóγος, romanized: Lógos/Verbum and God. The philosophical concept of person arose, taking the word "prosopon" (Ancient Greek: πρόσωπον, romanized: prósōpon) from the Greek theatre. Therefore, Christus (the Ancient Greek: Λóγος, romanized: Lógos/Verbum) and God were defined as different "persons". This concept was applied later to the Holy Ghost, the angels and to all human beings.

Since then, a number of important changes to the word's meaning and use have taken place, and attempts have been made to redefine the word with varying degrees of adoption and influence.

See also


  1. "Personhood - Anthropology - Oxford Bibliographies - obo".
  2. De Craemer, Willy. “A Cross-Cultural Perspective on Personhood.” The Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly. Health and Society, vol. 61, no. 1, 1983, pp. 19–34.,
  3. Christian Smith. 2003. Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture. Oxford University Press
  4. Carrithers, Michael, Steven Collins, and Steven Lukes, eds. 1985. The category of the person: Anthropology, philosophy, history. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.
  5. For a discussion of non-human personhood, see Midgley, Mary. "Persons and non-persons", in Peter Singer (ed.) In Defense of Animals. Basil Blackwell, 1985, pp. 52-62.
  6. For corporations, see "Justices, 5-4, Reject Corporate Spending Limit", The New York Times, January 21, 2010.
  7. Stefaroi, P. (2015). Humanistic Personology: A Humanistic-Ontological Theory of the Person & Personality. Applications in Therapy, Social Work, Education, Management and Art (Theatre). Charleston SC, USA: CreateSpace.
  8. For a discussion of post-mortal personhood, see Roth, S. (2013) Dying is only human. The case death makes for the immortality of the person. Tamara Journal for Critical Organization Inquiry, Vol. 11, No. 2, pp. 35-39.
  9.  Geddes, Leonard William (1911). "Person" . In Herbermann, Charles (ed.). Catholic Encyclopedia. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company. The Latin word persona was originally used to denote the mask worn by an actor. From this, it was applied to the role he assumed, and, finally, to any character on the stage of life, to any individual.
  10. Thisleton NIGNTC commentary on 1 Corinthians "Thinkers in ancient times had a difficulty in expressing the notion of personality"; Barfield in History of English Words “Take, for instance, the word person...Its present meaning of an individual human being is largely due to the theologians who hit upon it when they were looking for some term that would enable them to assert the trinity of Godhead without admitting more than one 'substance'"; John Zizioulas in Being as Communion, 1985 New York:St Vladimirs Press p. 27 writes: "although the person and “personal identity” are widely discussed nowadays as a supreme ideal, nobody seems to recognize that historically as well as existentially the concept of the person is indissolubly bound up with theology."

Further reading

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