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Dirk Solies
The Crisis of Personhood: Why We Need to Broaden Our View


The concept Personhood needs to be understood from a positive theory of (human) life. What does it mean and what does it take to lead a meaningful life? To answer this question, it is important to view the individual human being, not only as such, but in close connection both with his fellow humans and within the timely horizon of his own transitoriness and moribundity. Both moments point to the determination of man as a creature standing within a genus. Thus, to be a person does not simply mean to be alive in a biological way or to be able to fulfill certain cognitive actions, but to lead a meaningful human life. To lead a human life means to have parents, to be brought up, to know about the future, especially to be aware of the death. Thus, to lead a life means to be in a permanent communicative connection and exchange with others. To be a person firstly means to be among other persons, to recognize oneself in the other’s face and behavior, to acknowledge the other and to be acknowledged by him or her. Recent philosophers have tried to define a person over capabilities and properties such as self-consciousness, capability of epistemic differentiation, emotive expression, communication, education, consciousness of time, situation-independent language, and emotional and/or social relationship. All these approaches seem to point in the same (or at least in a similar) direction: the concept of personhood is less and less identified with the ability of certain cognitive acts but more and more with a human individual understood as a relational creature being able to interrelate with other creatures in concrete acts: to be a person means to be with other persons and to interact with them in manifold communicative and affective ways.

It is this concept that is expressed in a very appropriate way with the German term “Mitsein” (compassion). “Mitsein” (compassion) primarily means in a very fundamental, empathic and existentialistic way to be with others and secondly implies or prepares a notion of “Mitleid” (sympathy). Thus, the notion of “Mitsein” refers to a concrete relationship to others as a ground for personhood. In Western philosophy, Arthur Schopenhauer was the first philosopher to view compassion as a ground for an ethical behavior towards the fellow humans. Interestingly, his approach has for a long time remained insular within Western thought. It was only in the last two decades that philosophers have seized his approach.

It is exactly this concept of “Mitsein” that is crucial for a Buddhist concept of personhood. The central point of this paper is that in order to really understand the meaning of compassion, we need an interdisciplinary and intercultural approach.


Dirk Solies has been the Assistant Professor for Philosophy at the chair for “Practical Philosophy” in the Department of Philosophy at Johannes Gutenberg – University of Mainz since 1999. He has also been the chair person of the LSI group “BIOS – Boundary Questions of Life” since 2004. His main areas of research are: bioethics, life-philosophy (Lebensphilosophie), and philosophy of the 19th century.

In 1991 he received his master’s degree in philosophy with a specialization in Nietzsche’s cultural theory. Then he became an associate on the project “Aesthetical Criteria of the Valuation of Landscape.” This project had a self-contained publication titled “Natur lesen.” He received a doctorate of philosophy in 1998 with a dissertation on Georg Simmel titled “Natur in der Distanz”(awarded with the science prize for philosophy for the advancement of intellectual dialogue (Lions club Oppenheim).

In 2007 he finished his habilitation thesis “Wie das Leben in die Philosophie kam” and gained his venia legendi at the University of Mainz.


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