Monday, January 24, 2011

Corpses, Titles, and Seniors

Three interesting semantic questions this go 'round.

jw asks,

are human corpses people?
Like so many questions about meaning, the answer is contextual. Corpses are human bodies, and so in some contexts held to be more than mere objects, better than things, but not given the full consideration of people. We do not afford most rights, say, the right to vote, that we would have granted to the formerly living occupant of the body to the lifeless body itself. (Insert joke about Chicago politics here). In certain ways, there is a dualist viewpoint that is assumed in the law. At the same time, we do grant them special status of the same sort as living beings. Just as one can no longer own other human beings with the dissolution of the institution of slavery, so too one cannot own a corpse. It still in some sense belongs to itself and cannot be bought or sold like other objects. So, the answer to your question is "it depends." Give me the context and I can tell you whether in that situation we consider a corpse a human...leaving open the zombie angle altogether.

A Stranger asks,
How does one tell when they can assume a title? A Professor could be easy, once one is hired by a school, or a Doctor as one that has received a PhD or MD. How about an actor? Can you call yourself an actor if you only do summer stock? What constitutes an artist? Can a businessman that plays guitar on weekends call himself a musician? What about philosopher? At what point could you call yourself one without guilt?
Again, meaning requires context. In the cases of degrees like an M.D. or Ph.D. there is the ambiguity of having finished all requirements for the degree and having had it conferred at commencement ceremonies. Usually the former is sufficient.

In the case of terms like artist, musician, or philosopher, there several different senses of the word, we can distinguish between five of them. One is the sense of an active practitioner -- a painter is one who paints. If there are not paintings of yours currently in the works or recently completed, then you are not a painter. It is in this way that one could say, "Well, I used to be a painter in my early days, but I haven't been one for years." A broader meaning is one whose work still exists, as in "Person X is the painter who created this mural" whether X is still painting or not. On this sense, a painter is anyone who has painted. Sense number three is that one has an innate talent for the act or an abiding passion for it. For example, consider the claims, "She has no training, but she was a born painter" or "It doesn't matter the roadblocks you put up, whether you allow me to perform publicly or not, I will always be a musician." In this sense, it is not a relation to anything external, but an element of the person's being. A fourth sense is that one engages in the activity professionally, that one one makes his or her living doing that. When one refers to oneself as a philosopher, for example, it is usually assumed not just that one spends one's time thinking about the deeper questions, but that it is the person's livelihood. This is subtly distinct from a fourth sense which is that one is a member of the community of working practitioners. One, on this view, is a philosopher if one is retired and no longer making a living as a philosopher or is an independent scholar not employed by an institution of higher learning, but is still actively engaged in the work of social institutions around the activity -- publishing in journals, attending and contributing to conferences, editing the writings of others,... This ambiguity is what often gets us in trouble. When we call ourselves "an artist" at a dinner party, the listener will usually assume that it means that one makes a living doing it, whereas if you meant just that you have an artist's soul you may get accused of fibbing when the full picture emerges.

Megan asks,
When does someone officially become the first or senior (ie John David I or John David Sr)? Does their name on legal documents actually change? Can you be a senior in the anticipation that you will have a kid who will be "junior"?
For this one, we have to distinguish between name as legal identifier and name as informal identifier. Just as a woman who takes her husband's name must fill out the appropriate forms to legally change her name, so too a father who names his son after himself must do the same. But one can do this at any time, indeed, there would not have to be a junior to make oneself a senior. It would be unusual to add Sr. to your name if you have no children, but legal names are just labels and you could choose nearly any one you'd like. Alternatively, you could also choose not to even if you do name your child after yourself. In this case, the Sr. is not a legal name, but just used informally to distinguish one from the child. In this looser sense, you become a Sr. as soon as there is a Jr., but the grandchild would be III whether or not there is IV.

More tomorrow.