The Looping Effect: How Words Form People

by Jan Bransen

“Ways of being a person” are contingent products of our communal language that describe kinds of lives that are considered to be intelligible, rational and moral. Our communal language is a dynamic and historical reality that assimilates, among many other things, ways of talking produced by developments in the behavioural sciences. For example, there was no well-adapted, well-determined and coherent way of being a “child with ADHD” before the notion was developed by psychologists and had found its way into our ordinary communal language. But now that we know how to use the term we encounter new ways of being intelligible, rational and moral persons, people that suffer from ADHD and that therefore display a peculiar but coherent and systematic pattern of behaviour.

The distinction between characters and capacities seems to reflect a number of further distinctions relevant to the development of ways of being a person. In this talk I will explore some of these distinctions and their effects on the alleged intelligibility, rationality and morality of lives we can envisage ourselves to live. These are (1) a distinction between behavioural patterns that are formed and behavioural patterns that are activated, (2) a distinction between a normative interpretation of one’s responsibility for one’s actions and a causal interpretation of the accountability implied by one’s behaviour, and (3) a distinction between luck as something to be acknowledged as possibly happening to us, and risk as something the likelihood of which can be calculated, predicted and controlled.

I will tentatively explore some of the conclusions about the ways of being a person that seem likely to flow from our communal language if this language would marginalize the use of character-talk and would capitalize on using capacity-talk.