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  • For a Philosophy of the Impersonal
  • Roberto Esposito (bio)
    Translated by Timothy Campbell (bio)


Never more than today is the notion of person the unavoidable reference for all discourses that assert the value of human life as such, be they philosophical, political, or juridical in nature. Leaving aside differences in ideology as well as specifically staked-out theoretical positions, no one doubts the relevance of the category of person or challenges it as the unexamined and incontrovertible presupposition of every possible perspective. This tacit convergence with regard to the category of person is especially obvious in a hotly debated field like bioethics. Truth be told, the debate between Catholics and secularists turns on the precise moment at which a living being can be considered a person (for Catholics, at the moment of conception, for secularists much later), but never on the decisive weight being awarded this attribution of personhood: whether one becomes a person by divine decree or naturally, awarding personhood still remains the threshold, the decisive means by which a biological material lacking in meaning becomes [End Page 121] something intangible. What is presupposed here, even before other criteria and normative principles come into play, is the absolute ontological predominance, which is to say the incommensurable value added to the personal with respect to what it is not: only life that has passed through this symbolic door can be sacred or qualitatively significant, and so provides the proper personal credentials.

Turning to law, we find the same presupposition at work here, but now reinforced by a more elaborate argumentative apparatus: to be able to assert legitimately what we call subjective rights (at least in the modern juridical conception of rights), one needs beforehand to have penetrated the enclosed space of the person. Thus, to be a person means enjoying these rights in and of themselves. This thesis, which appears most frequently in the recent work of Stefano Rodotà (2006) and Luigi Ferrajoli (2001), is that the renewed value awarded the category of person lies in the fact that only it is able to bridge the difference that is established between the concept of human being and that of citizen, one that is formed at the very inception of the Modern State. This difference—as Hannah Arendt argued in the immediate postwar period (1994)—is born from the exclusive attachment to nation or territory that characterizes the category of citizen, where "citizen" is understood as a member of a given national community and therefore not to be extended to every human being as such. The idea was that only a concept that was potentially universal, such as that of person, would allow for the strengthening and expanding of the fundamental rights of every human being. It's on this point, then, that we find calls in many different cultures to move away from the limited notion of citizen (or individual) to the more general one of person—as Martha Nussbaum has recently argued (2002). It is a formulation that a large part of contemporary philosophy has accepted under different guises.

Turning to more theoretical work, we find the same movement of ideas. Reflections on personal identity, and hence the renewed interest in the category of person, constitute one of the rare points of intersection between Anglo-Saxon analytic philosophy and so-called continental philosophy—according of course to different typologies, but within the same horizon of meaning, one that is defined by the privileged reference to the notion of person. Where the analytic school, in Strawson (1990) and Parfit (1984), [End Page 122] understands the concept of person to be an indispensable point of departure for elaborating a complete ontology of subjectivity, Italian authors associated with phenomenology are in one way or another explicitly proposing a new philosophy of the person, based in particular on a revival of Edith Stein's phenomenological "personalism" (2005); see especially de Monticelli (2000). All of this is taking place some years after Paul Ricoeur (1991) attempted to relaunch a French Catholic personalism thought in a hermeneutic key.

To sum up: in contemporary culture there is an undeniable convergence, indeed almost a postulate, that acts as the condition of and basis for legitimating every...


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pp. 121-134
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