The John Locke Lectures (Wednesday - Week 5, TT19)

Phillip Pettit

The John Locke Lectures are among the world's most distinguished lecture series in philosophy. This list of past lecturers shows that most of the greatest philosophers of the last half century have been Locke Lecturers. The series began in 1950, funded from the generous bequest of Henry Wilde.

The Faculty acknowledges the generous support of these lectures by Oxford University Press and All Souls College.


Minds That Speak

The theme of the lectures is the constitutive dependence of our characteristic mental capacities on the ability to speak and the social life it makes possible. The claim defended is that speaking ensures that minded subjects have these capacities. The method followed is to explore, counterfactually, how the advent of even a simple, information-sharing language would elicit the capacities in subjects otherwise like us.

Minds that speak, so the argument goes, will more or less inevitably 1. decide about how to judge and what to think; 2. control their thinking by rule-based reasoning; 3. enjoy a special perceptual consciousness; 4. make commitments and form community; 5. constitute persons and selves; 6. assume responsibility for what they do; and, a topic for another occasion, 7. command one another’s respect. Is speech necessary for the capacities it is said to ensure? Perhaps not in the case of the first three, more purely psychological abilities; almost certainly, in the case of the other capacities, which have a social-psychological character.

Philip Pettit is the L.S. Rockefeller University Professor of Politics and Human Values at Princeton University, and Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy at the Australian National University, Canberra.


Abstract: Minds that speak constitute persons and selves 

Adult, able-minded persons are subjects like you and me who by their nature command certain rights. But what is the nature in virtue of which they command such rights? It is unsatisfactory to respond by offering a list of agential capacities that distinguish such human beings from other animals. What unifies these, and what gives them a connection with rights? A more promising approach starts with a prominent capacity that speech confers on minds that speak as we do. This is the ability we have to make commitments in which we speak for ourselves and, as a byproduct, project an authorized persona on which we invite others to rely; it is the ability, in an old word, to personate. We make commitments of this kind, not just actively, but virtually: that is, by not rejecting the many expectations that others manifestly make about us in social life. This account explains why persons must have some rights: in their absence, invitations to reliance would mean nothing. And it also explains the connection between persons and selves. Every adult, able-minded person must have a 1st-person self that they identify indexically—this will be their reference point in attitude and action—so that they cannot misidentify this self yet, as Hume stresses, may learn little about it from introspection. Every person must have a 2nd-person self that they project in inviting others to rely on them: this is who I am, each suggests in this vein. And every person must have a 3rd-person self, or indeed set of selves, that is constituted by the picture of them that emerges, subject only to their partial control, among their fellows; this is the self that concerns them in amour propre. The three selves vary in in the requirements for their survival, in how epistemically accessible they are, and in how far they command our investment or care.