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Idea of the Person

Mauss: The Person As "a Category Of The Human Mind"

In a seminal lecture, which he delivered (in French) to a British audience in 1938, Durkheim's nephew, Marcel Mauss (1872–1950), was the first to bring the ideal of the person to center stage. Like Durkheim, he saw in the religious categories of so-called primitive societies a key to the understanding of modern European ideas. Citing examples from Australian societies as well as from Native Americans—Zuñi, Kwakiutl, Winnebago—he stressed the importance of names for the establishment of personhood. Names as such were not necessarily the hallmark of the individual, but rather of a persona, a fixed role or position within a society. Thus, a clan or other similar group might possess a finite stock of names. The name typically represented, not only membership in a group but also a specific position within it, and so individuals might change names within the course of their lives. Such names, Mauss suggested, were akin to masks—another phenomenon he related to ideas of personhood. The theatrical metaphor was intrinsic to Mauss's argument. In relatively "primitive" societies, there were a relatively fixed number of "roles." Personhood in such instances reflected the individual's place within such a fixed scheme.

In his essay, Mauss contrasted this relatively fixed conception of personhood in non-European societies with a dynamic vision of the changing idea of personhood in Western Europe, through Greek philosophy, Roman law, Christian theology, and ultimately the Enlightenment. The end result of this evolution was a conception of personhood in terms of individual consciousness rather than as the embodiment of set social relationships. These ideas have been rejected by the overwhelming majority of anthropologists who reject any teleological dichotomy between European societies as essentially dynamic and non-European ones as static. However, if this part of Mauss's argument has fallen by the wayside, his insistence that conceptions of the person are culturally and historically constituted constantly subject to change provided the foundation for most subsequent anthropological writing on the subject.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Pebi- to History of Philosophy - IndifferentismIdea of the Person - Durkheim's Critique, Mauss: The Person As "a Category Of The Human Mind"