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Machines as Persons?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 January 2010


I begin, as I shall end, with fictions.

In a well-known tale, The Sandman, Hoffmann has a student, Nathaniel, fall in love with a beautiful doll, Olympia, whom he has spied upon as she sits at a window across the street from his lodgings. We are meant to suppose that Nathaniel mistakes an automaton for a human being (and so a person). The mistake is the result of an elaborate but obscure deception on the part of the doll's designer, Professor Spalanzani. Nathaniel is disabused quite by accident when he over-hears a quarrel between Spalanzani, who made Olympia's clockwork, and the sinister Coppelius, who contributed the eyes (real eyes, it seems).

Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy and the contributors 1991

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1 Hoffmann, E. T. A., Tales of Hoffmann (London: Penguin 1988).Google Scholar

2 Hoffmann, ibid. 116. Grotesquely inappropriate transactions between human beings and artifacts are a significant theme in Fantastic and Surrealist literature and painting, and (like the present case) seem to be special applications of the idea of the inanimate becoming animate which is found everywhere in myth and fairytale. The audience attunes to the business with an unerring sense of epistemic pitch that baffled and enraged Rousseau. Discussing, in Emile La Fontaine and Aesop, Rousseau wonders how we can possibly expect children to so much as grasp the idea of talking things: it's bad enough with animals. Worse still, the dish and the spoon speak the same language, and the same language as the cow.

3 ‘The “Uncanny”’, Art and Literature (London: Penguin, 1985).Google Scholar

4 Freud, ibid. 351.

5 Sacks, Oliver, The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat (London: Pan, 1986)Google Scholar. Sacks says (p. 20) that his patient had special difficulty with the animate, which he so ‘so absurdly misperceived’.

6 Here we move into encounters not with inanimate things behaving in suggestively animate ways but with kinds which are unnatural because impossible: unthinkable human derivatives, the assorted undead. They belong nowhere, have no world to call theirs. Yet any description of their nature and capacities must begin by borrowing from the human. (See Price, Anne, Interview with the Vampire (London: Futura, 1977)Google Scholar; and Margolis, Joseph, Dracula the Man: An Essay on the Logic of Individuation.)Google Scholar

7 The best and decidedly uncanny example I know of the apparent ‘manufacture’ of the animate is in Eco, U.'s Foucault's Pendulum (London: Seeker and Warburg, 1989), 347:Google Scholar

Among tropical plants were six glass ampules in the shape of pears—or tears—hermetically sealed, filled with a pale-blue liquid. Inside each vessel floated a creature about twenty centimetres high: we recognized the gray-haired king, the queen, the Moor, the warrior, and the two adolescents crowned with laurel, one blue and one pink … They swayed with a graceful swimming motion, as if water were their element.

It was hard to determine whether they were models made of plastic or wax, or whether they were living beings, and the slight opacity of the liquid made it impossible to tell if the faint pulse that animated them was an optical illusion or reality.

I do not wish to deny that the uncanny can also be constructed in other ways which contrast what seems to be with what is:

He observed this court with fascination: how different it was from the one that he had left in Florence! It radiated a sense of brute force that both attracted and repelled him. Through the smoke, he saw powerful jaws, with several teeth missing, vociferating, laughing and devouring; hands covered with lace and jewels, but greasy and scarred, closing over viands or other hands; ardent, but witless eyes resting on him with cruel insistence. Were these creatures entirely men, or were they all more or less the products of matings with bears, wolves, or some other beasts of the forests of the Vendée? Foxes' eyes, wild boars' muzzles, badgers' heads, hairy chests hung about with golden chains and pectoral crosses, a hundred surprising details—flared nostrils, pointed ears that could be made to move, and the squeals, wails and hisses that replaced words and laughter as the night wore on—yes, everything about that ball suggested animal brutality and innocence. (Tournier, M., Gilles and Jeanne (London: Minerva, 1988), 79.)Google Scholar

8 The brain-children of Dick, Philip K. in Blade Runner (London: Grafton, 1987)Google Scholar. For present purposes I take them to be made of stuff such as silicon or cellulose. But Dick is neither clear nor consistent on this point, or again on how it bears upon, and ought to bear upon, our perception and account of them. Sometimes he says they are dead, sometimes alive; sometimes insensate, sometimes merely affectless, psychopathic; and this inconsistency is what one would expect in the circumstances.

9 See Wittgenstein, , Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology II (Oxford: Blackwell, 1980), 358, 627Google Scholar. There is no logical absurdity in the supposition that machines should be contrived to display such features. The idea that we could always tell that they were machines when we encountered them gains some of its force from Wittgenstein's disposition to take inert dolls and the like as paradigms of the inanimate and insentient, and from his assumption (like Hoffmann's) that machine behaviour must somehow look ‘mechanical’: ‘A dog is more like a human being than a being endowed with a human form, but which behaved mechanically’ (p. 623).

10 Rousseau, , Reveries of the Solitary Walker (Aylesbury: Penguin, 1981), 129.Google Scholar

11 Radford, Colin, ‘Life, Flesh and Animate Behaviour: A Reappraisal of the Argument from Analogy’, Philosophical Investigations, 4, No. 4 (Fall 1981), 5960CrossRefGoogle Scholar. It must not be thought that Radford and I necessarily agree on what conclusions to draw.

12 Wittgenstein, , Philosophy of Psychology, II, 570Google Scholar. I do not examine the grounds of Wittgenstein's hostility to inference in contexts such as these. I agree with what I take to be his position.

13 Wittgenstein, , Zettel (Oxford: Blackwell, 1967), 128.Google Scholar

14 Plato, , Timaeus (Middlesex: Penguin, 1965), 60–1.Google Scholar

15 Dolby, R. G. A., ‘The Possibility of Computers Becoming Persons’, Social Epistemology, 3, No. 4 (12 1989), 321–36CrossRefGoogle Scholar. My reply to Dolby is in the same issue.

16 For discussion of this idea in a different application see my ‘The Inward and the Outward’, in Copp, D. and MacIntosh, J. J. (eds.), New Essays in the Philosophy of Mind (Calgary: University Press, 1985), 175–93Google Scholar; and my ‘When is Fantasising Morally Bad?’, Philosophical Investigations, III, No. 2 (04 1988), 112–32Google Scholar. In the symposium mentioned in the preceding foot-note I discuss some issues in the aesthetics of technology.