Research Statement

A common starting point for discussions in practical philosophy is the idea that other persons owe us a kind of recognition in virtue of our being persons ourselves. Frequently these discussions rely on what we might call a political conception of a person: that is, a person as a bearer of rights, and capable of recognizing our own rights. At least two features define what it is to see another as a person in this political sense. First, just as another person can make claims against us in order to enforce our recognition of their rights, we can make claims against them in order to enforce their recognition of our rights. Second, a person is “general” in the sense that, in enforcing their recognition of our rights, we principally see them as one among many persons instantiating the general descriptions of the law. (For example, even if I have a right to some medicine that you have, it need not be you, but rather someone else suitably situated, who satisfies my claim to that medicine.)

One of the most important modern expressions of the political conception of a person is in the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, especially The Social Contract. Indeed, later appearances of this conception in areas outside political philosophy, most notably the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant, emerge directly out of Rousseau’s writing. But, as I argue in my dissertation, Persons, Things, and the Will: An Essay on Rousseau, Rousseau was keen to circumscribe this conception of a person in certain specific political contexts, and that was because it was important for him that this conception be distinct from, but also complementary to, a conception more appropriate to our affective lives. On what I call the affective conception of a person, we do see other persons principally as sources of recognition. But whereas on the political conception the recognition we seek is non-differential (in that it is owed to all of us just in virtue of our being persons ourselves), on the affective conception what we seek is differential recognition (recognition that differentiates us from other persons): for example, in our seeking another’s differentiating love or applause. Indeed, the satisfaction we take in differential recognition is different from that we take in political, non-differential recognition in that it cannot be enforced. Thus, the satisfaction we take in another’s applause is spoiled upon learning that they were, say, legally bound to applaud us. Moreover, such satisfaction depends on our seeing that other as more than a bearer of a general description. Thus, the denial of their recognition, and the insult characteristic of such denial, cannot be made up for by the recognition of yet a third person (and even a person meeting the same general description, or bearing the same general traits).

Thus, on the affective conception, seeing another as a person is a matter of seeing them (in special senses) as independent of one’s powers of enforcement and as a non-fungible individual. My dissertation argues that, unless we distinguish this conception from the political one, we lose sight of Rousseau’s important attempts to distinguish the explanatory burdens of the two conceptions, and also his attempts to articulate their relationship. For example, I argue that, for Rousseau, the principal reason for the introduction of the political conception of a person is to relieve the social conditions that engender the domination of persons in the specifically affective sense.

In my future research, I plan to expand my dissertation into a monograph. I am also preparing three papers in which I bring the affective conception of a person to bear on topics in moral psychology, political philosophy, and aesthetics. Each of these topics concerns a different way of affecting, or being affected by, another person: (1) loving a person; (2) dominating a person; and (3) capturing a person artistically.

1. Love

Philosophers characteristically explain difficult phenomena using familiar concepts. But sometimes what we find familiar is more an accident of intellectual history than a reflection of its explanatory adequacy. The detachment of the now-familiar political conception of a person from its original relationship to the affective one (in Rousseau’s account) has had distorting effects, notably in philosophical discussions of love. For example, in a series of papers (“Love as a Moral Emotion,” “Beyond Price”), J. David Velleman has argued that (1) love of another is a matter of “vividly perceiving” that other’s personhood, and that (2) the notion of personhood at play in love is indeed the political conception (at least on its Kantian articulation). But Rousseau’s affective conception of a person, and his understanding of its connection to differential consideration (including that at play in love) allows us to capture what is correct in thinking that some of our affective responses to others are indeed matters of “vividly perceiving” their personhood, while avoiding the unfortunate consequences of Velleman's theory (including that, despite Velleman's attempts to avoid this consequence, love is something one can, in principle, demand as a matter of right).

2. Domination

On the political conception, violating another’s personhood (paradigmatically, violating their rights) is principally a matter of denying or forgetting their personhood. But not all instances of violating another’s personhood, or treating a person “as a thing,” can be understood in those terms. Thus, it is essential to certain varieties of domination that the dominator thoroughly acknowledge the other as a person, in the sense of a source of differential recognition. One simply cannot have the satisfactions of domination unless one is knowingly dealing with another person (under the affective conception). For example, consider the satisfaction someone takes in pinning another down and demanding that they cry “Uncle.” That response cannot be satisfactory to the dominator if it is brought about by, say, an electroshock device. For that response to be satisfactory, it requires the expression of a person, not a device operating through a person. Moreover, in demanding such a thing, one invests oneself in the response of a particular person; when that response is not forthcoming, the frustration of that cannot be made up for by yet a third person. Here again Rousseau’s own writing on domination (especially in his Discourse on Inequality) helps us to understand what is attractive about domination (to the dominator), and also what is pathological about it (in that it involves seeking recognition in a way that bypasses the other’s independent powers of evaluation). Rousseau’s writing also helps us to understand how this sort of domination inheres not only in discrete interactions, but also in protracted relationships, especially those of economic dependence, such as between employer and employee.

3. Portraiture

In my own practice as a painter, I have come to appreciate that among the characteristic challenges of portraiture is to capture something special and non-repeatable about an individual. Sometimes this can be achieved in just a few expressive paint strokes; and, notoriously, it cannot be achieved by adding yet more minutia to the portrait. As the early twentieth-century German philosopher and sociologist Georg Simmel put the point in his study of Rembrandt, “It is precisely only in disregarding all of this [minutia] in favor of the unity of the appearances not sundered into details that one grasps [someone’s] individual essence and uniqueness” (Simmel, Rembrandt, p. 49, trans. Alan Scott and Helen Staubmann).  Even when we see something similar in the artistic representation of a non-person (as when by Van Gogh’s hand a pair of shoes can also have an “individual essence and uniqueness”) we see the latter as an extension of portraiture, as though the artist has personified that thing. There must then be something specific about seeing others as persons that informs these expectations of portraiture. I claim that these expectations principally arise from our seeing others as sources of differential recognition, and from the appreciation of another as a non-fungible individual involved in the affective conception of a person. Once we understand the connections between differential consideration, the affective conception of a person, and portraiture, we can better articulate the distinctive experience of a portrait’s “looking back” at us, as though it were giving expression to an independent point of view. We can also better articulate the uncanniness of portraits that deliberately flout these expectations: for example, Philip Guston’s self-portrait as eyes behind a hood.