Res Corporealis: Persons,
Bodies, and Zombies
WILLIAM S. LARKIN
The highpoint of horror in Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead has to be when little Karen Cooper, newly Undead, proceeds to devour her father’s arm and lay waste to her mother with a trowel. There is something uniquely disturbing about an innocent child turning into a brutal flesh-eating monster. Scenes like this unearth intuitions that bear significantly on the philosophical problem of personal identity. In particular, zombie movies provide a distinctive blend of terror and tragedy that helps reanimate the view that persons are most fundamentally corporeal objects.
The philosophical problem of personal identity is to determine what, most fundamentally, creatures like us are. We can say that creatures like us are essentially persons, but that just gives us the label and not the explanation we are looking for. The question becomes, “What exactly is a person?” Or better: “Under what conditions exactly does a person continue to exist?” Is a human body lying in a coma a person? Is a human body lying in a casket a person? It is tempting to respond to such questions with something like, “Well, it depends on what we mean by ‘person.’” That’s exactly right; and that’s just what we are trying to figure out. We are trying to determine just what we mean when we say that something is a person. The point of philosophy is not to figure out what we should say about extraordinary cases given the various things we might mean by certain terms. The point is