What is a Person? Evidence on Mind Perceptions from Natural Language

41 Pages Posted: 10 Nov 2021 Last revised: 22 Aug 2022

See all articles by Elliott Ash

Elliott Ash

ETH Zürich

Dominik Stammbach

ETH Zürich

Kevin Tobia

Georgetown University Law Center; Georgetown University - Department of Philosophy

Date Written: November 19, 2021


Recent psychology research has established that people do not employ a simple unidimensional scale for attributions of personhood, increasing from non-sentient rocks to mentally complex humans. Rather, there are two personhood dimensions: agency (e.g. planning, deciding, acting) and patiency (e.g. feeling, desiring, experiencing). Here we show that this subtle distinction also occurs in the semantic space of natural language. We develop computational-linguistics tools for measuring variation in agency and patiency in language and validate the measures against human judgments. To demonstrate the usefulness of the method, we map both dimensions of personhood in historical English-language corpora over the last 200 years. First, we show that while women are now perceived as having similar levels of agency as men, they are still perceived as more patient-like. Second, we show that domesticated animals have gradually gained higher attributions of patiency, but not agency, over time.

Keywords: dimensions of mind, personhood, person, mind, NLP, agency, patiency, gender

Suggested Citation

Ash, Elliott and Stammbach, Dominik and Tobia, Kevin, What is a Person? Evidence on Mind Perceptions from Natural Language (November 19, 2021). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3959847 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3959847

Elliott Ash (Contact Author)

ETH Zürich ( email )

Rämistrasse 101
Zürich, 8092

Dominik Stammbach

ETH Zürich ( email )

Zürichbergstrasse 18
8092 Zurich, CH-1015

Kevin Tobia

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States

HOME PAGE: http://www.law.georgetown.edu/faculty/kevin-tobia/

Georgetown University - Department of Philosophy

37th and O Streets, N.W.
Washington, DC 20007
United States

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