I sure do miss reading Potentilla’s sharp and friendly comments, so was glad to read what’s on her mind at Auspicious Dragon yesterday, where her husband Colin posted this. He tells me he’ll read comments to her. Potentilla’s “Christian” in real life…funny, she once told me, because she’s not. — Jean Kazez
Christian may not be always able to remember why she started the sentence that she is currently in the middle of, but that doesn’t stop her being able to remember the title of philosophy essays in obscure journals when they help her make her point. In a way it makes sense – easier to get somebody to read something than to try and explain it.
Anyhow, Peter Strawson, ‘Freedom and resentment’ from the Procedings of the British Academy, 1962.
The essay isn’t primarily about the point she was trying to make, but it does contain a succinct description of her current state. That is, the state of not being considered to be a full human being.
In the hospice a patient would have to be much worse than just badly behaved to get any opprobrium. Probably to provoke the staff a patient would have to be doing something harmful to another patient. And maybe in extreme cases not even then. Your status as a responsible adult is held in suspense. It isn’t fully revoked but it isn’t in place either. The relationship between the carers, helpers and domestics and the patients is odd. Not odd as in being unexplicable, but odd as in being outside of the norm of everyday life.
Strawson talks about our reactive attitude to people that we see as being excused from normal civil behaviour because of some factor no fault of their own. He was thinking of the very young, or the mentally ill, but it can also apply to those in pain, or under the influence of necessary drugs.
The second and more important subgroup of cases allows that the circumstances were normal, but present the agent as psychologically abnormal – or as morally undeveloped. The agent was himself; but he is warped or deranged, neurotic or just a child. When we see someone in such a light as this, all our reactive attitudes tend to be profoundly modified.
(Note: if you read the essay, I realise that I may be conflating Strawson’s two subgroups. But the aim here isn’t to produce a critical essay of Strawson’s ideas).
So when Christian talks about not knowing who she is anymore, this is partly a result of what is going on in her head, and partly a result of the fact that everybody around her is treating her in a way she can understand is not normal. It is this loss of her complete identity that, possibly, distresses her most.
This is worth thinking about because this is a state that waits for many of us. And if you think not, then you haven’t looked inside an old people’s nursing home. Identity isn’t about the practicalities of numbers on a card, but about being treated like an adult by being expected to behave like one.
Strawson talks about our ability to suspend our normal reactive attitudes in exceptional cases and for short periods of time. We will allow people we know a certain scope or allowance for behaviour not normal nor mature. To receive permanent, or at least long term, dispensation, a person needs to be marked out in some way – be it illness, or learning disability, or youth – such that they are clearly outside of normal expectations. Being tied to an oxygen tank and a morphine pump is one such marking.
The question of ‘what is a person?’ and how we, collectively or individually, respond to the walking bundles of chemistry that make up the outward appearance of person-ness turns out to be a fascinating question.
A copy of the Strawson essay appears on the UCL website – but note the warning to refer to the original before relying on the web copy.