Before figuring out what people are for, we might want first to ask, what does it mean to be a person? Abeba Burhane suggests, borrowing from African philosophical traditions, that the Self is "fluctuating and ambiguous" rather than fixed and settled; she further insists that it is ongoing, dialogic, and open to the world.
Burhane attributes our narrow view of the Self to Rene Descartes, who "believed that a human being was essentially self-contained and self-sufficient; an inherently rational, mind-bound subject, who ought to encounter the world outside her head with skepticism. While Descartes didn’t single-handedly create the modern mind, he went a long way towards defining its contours." 1
Even modern cognitive sciences, Burhane complains, have bought into the notion that "A person is considered a standalone entity, irrespective of her surroundings, inscribed in the brain as a series of cognitive processes. Memory must be simply something you have, not something you do within a certain context." 2
To refute our rampant Cartesianism, Ms. Burhane turns to a Russian philosopher:
The 20th-century Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin believed that the answer lay in dialogue. We need others in order to evaluate our own existence and construct a coherent self-image. Think of that luminous moment when a poet captures something you’d felt but had never articulated; or when you’d struggled to summarise your thoughts, but they crystallised in conversation with a friend. Bakhtin believed that it was only through an encounter with another person that you could come to appreciate your own unique perspective and see yourself as a whole entity. By ‘looking through the screen of the other’s soul,’ he wrote, ‘I vivify my exterior.’ Selfhood and knowledge are evolving and dynamic; the self is never finished – it is an open book.
So reality is not simply out there, waiting to be uncovered. ‘Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction,’ Bakhtin wrote in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1929). Nothing simply is itself, outside the matrix of relationships in which it appears. Instead, being is an act or event that must happen in the space between the self and the world.
Accepting that others are vital to our self-perception is a corrective to the limitations of the Cartesian view.
It turns out that it takes a village, not only to raise a child, but to construct a Self in the first place. Our identity is generated from our encounters with the world (including, especially, with other people) combined with what we make of those encounters (how we interpret them, what we understand them to mean). At birth, we cut the physical umbilical cord which connected the unborn child to its mother and nourished it in the womb; but the psychic umbilical cord remains (or at least it should) which connects us to the world and nourishes the fledgling Self.
Ms. Burhane concludes by again citing African wisdom:
There is a Zulu phrase, ‘Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu’, which means ‘A person is a person through other persons.’ This is a richer and better account, I think, than ‘I think, therefore I am.’
It goes against the grain of Western individualism, but every "I" is inevitably part of, and a product of, "we". There is both strength and comfort in that.
1 Not to take Descartes off the hook, but the famous interiority of the Western Self was certainly foreshadowed by Paul and, centuries later, by Augustine.
2 Ms. Burhane echoes here an ongoing argument about human intelligence: is intelligence something we have or is intelligence what we do in our various social and cultural contexts?