- Human nature
“ We do not know what our nature permits us to be. – Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile ” Psychology
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The questions of what these characteristics are, what causes them and how this causation works, and how fixed human nature is, are amongst the oldest and most important questions in western philosophy. These questions have particularly important implications in ethics, politics and theology. This is partly because human nature can be regarded as both a source of norms of conduct or ways of life, as well as presenting obstacles or constraints on living a good life.
The complex implications of such questions are also dealt with in art and literature, while the multiple branches of the Humanities together form an important domain of inquiry into human nature, and the question of what it means to be human.
The branches of contemporary science associated with the study of human nature include anthropology, sociology, sociobiology and psychology, particularly evolutionary psychology and developmental psychology. The so-called "nature versus nurture" debate is a broadly inclusive and well-known instance of a discussion about human nature in the natural sciences.
- 1 Brief history of the concept
- 2 Metaphysics and ethics
- 3 Psychology and biology
- 4 See also
- 5 References
- 6 Further reading
Brief history of the concept
The concept of nature as a standard by which to make judgments was a basic presupposition in Greek philosophy. Specifically, "almost all" classical philosophers accepted that a good human life is a life in accordance with nature.
On this subject, the approach of Socrates, sometimes considered to be a teleological approach, came to be dominant by late classical and medieval times. This approach understands human nature in terms of final and formal causes. Such understandings of human nature see this nature as an "idea," or "form" of a human. By this account, human nature really causes humans to become what they become, and so it exists somehow independently of individual humans. This in turn has sometimes been understood as also showing a special connection between human nature and divinity.
The existence of this invariable human nature is however a subject of much historical debate, continuing into modern times. Against this idea of a fixed human nature, the relative malleability of man has been argued especially strongly in recent centuries—firstly by early modernists such as Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and since the mid-19th century, by thinkers such as Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Sartre, structuralists and postmodernists.
Still more recent scientific perspectives such as behaviorism, determinism, and the chemical model within modern psychiatry and psychology, claim to be neutral regarding human nature. (As in all modern science they seek to explain without recourse to metaphysical causation.) They can be offered to explain its origins and underlying mechanisms, or to demonstrate capacities for change and diversity which would arguably violate the concept of a fixed human nature.
Philosophy in classical Greece is the ultimate origin of the western conception of the nature of a thing. The philosophical study of human nature itself originated, according to Aristotle at least, with Socrates, who turned philosophy from study of the heavens to study of the human things. Socrates is said to have studied the question of how a person should best live, but he left no written works. It is clear from the works of his students Plato and Xenophon, and also what was said by Aristotle (Plato's student) about him, that Socrates was a rationalist and believed that the best life and the life most suited to human nature involved reasoning. The Socratic school was the dominant surviving influence in philosophical discussion in the Middle Ages, amongst Islamic, Christian and Jewish philosophers.
The human soul in the works of Plato and Aristotle has a divided nature, divided in a specifically human way. One part is specifically human and rational, and divided into a part which is rational on its own, and a spirited part which can understand reason. Other parts of the soul are home to desires or passions similar to those found in animals. In both Aristotle and Plato spiritedness, thumos, is distinguished from the other passions or epithumiai. The proper function of the "rational" was to rule the other parts of the soul, helped by spiritedness. By this account, using one's reason is the best way to live, and philosophers are the highest types of humans.
Aristotle, Plato's most famous student, made some of the most famous and influential statements about human nature. In his works, apart from using a similar scheme of a divided human soul, some clear statements about human nature are made:
- Man is a conjugal animal, meaning an animal which is born to couple when an adult, thus building a household (oikos) and in more successful cases, a clan or small village still run upon patriarchal lines.
- Man is a political animal, meaning an animal with an innate propensity to develop more complex communities the size of a city or town, with a division of labor and law-making. This type of community is different in kind from a large family, and requires the special use of human reason.
- Man is a mimetic animal. Man loves to use his imagination (and not only to make laws and run town councils). He says "we enjoy looking at accurate likenesses of things which are themselves painful to see, obscene beasts, for instance, and corpses." And the "reason why we enjoy seeing likenesses is that, as we look, we learn and infer what each is, for instance, 'that is so and so.'"
For Aristotle, reason is not only what is most special about humanity compared to other animals, but it is also what we were meant to achieve at his or her best. Much of Aristotle's description of human nature is still influential today, but the particular teleological idea that humans are "meant" or intended to be something, has become much less popular in modern times.
For the Socratics, human nature, and all natures, are metaphysical concepts. Aristotle developed the standard presentation of this approach with his theory of four causes. Human nature is an example of a formal cause according to Aristotle. Their teleological concept of nature is associated with humans having a divine component in their psyches, which is most properly exercised in the lifestyle of the philosopher, which is thereby also the happiest and least painful life.
One of the defining changes occurring at the end of the Middle Ages, is the end of the dominance of Aristotelian philosophy, and its replacement by a new approach to the study of nature, including human nature. In this approach, all attempts at conjecture about formal and final causes was rejected as useless speculation. Also, the term "law of nature" now applies any regular and predictable pattern in nature, not literally a law made by a divine law-maker, and in the same way "human nature" becomes not a special metaphysical cause, but simply whatever can be said to be typical tendencies of humans.
Although this new realism applied to the study of human life from the beginning, for example in Machiavelli's works, the definitive argument for the final rejection of Aristotle was associated especially with Francis Bacon, and then René Descartes, whose new approach returned philosophy or science to its pre-Socratic focus upon non-human things. Thomas Hobbes, then Giambattista Vico, and David Hume all claimed to be the first to properly use a modern Baconian scientific approach to human things.
Hobbes famously followed Descartes in describing humanity as matter in motion, just like machines. He also very influentially described man's natural state (without science and artifice) as one where life would be nasty, short and brutish. Following him, John Locke's philosophy of empiricism also saw human nature as a tabula rasa. In this view, the mind is at birth a "blank slate" without rules, so data is added, and rules for processing them are formed solely by our sensory experiences.
Jean Jacques Rousseau pushed the approach of Hobbes to an extreme and criticized it at the same time. He was a contemporary and acquaintance of Hume, writing before the French Revolution and long before Darwin and Freud. He shocked Western Civilization with his Second Discourse by proposing that humans had once been solitary animals, without reason or language or communities, and had developed these things due to accidents of pre-history. (A proposal which was also made, less famously, by Giambattista Vico.) In other words, Rousseau argued that human nature was not only not fixed, but not even approximately fixed compared to what had been assumed before him. Humans are political, and rational, and have language now, but originally they had none of these things. This in turn implied that living under the management of human reason might not be a happy way to live at all, and perhaps there is no ideal way to live. Rousseau is also unusual in the extent to which he took the approach of Hobbes, asserting that primitive humans were not even naturally social. A civilized human is therefore not only imbalanced and unhappy because of the mismatch between civilized life and human nature, but unlike Hobbes, Rousseau also became well known for the suggestion that primitive humans had been happier, "noble savages."
Rousseau's conception of human nature has been seen as the origin of many intellectual and political developments of the 19th and 20th centuries. He was an important influence upon Kant, Hegel and Marx, and the development of German Idealism, Historicism, and Romanticism.
What human nature did entail, according to Rousseau and the other modernists of the 17th and 18th centuries, were animal-like passions that led humanity to develop language and reasoning, and more complex communities (or communities of any kind according to Rousseau).
In contrast to Rousseau, David Hume was a critic of the over-simplifying and systematic approach of Hobbes and Rousseau and some others whereby, for example, all human nature is assumed to be driven by variations of selfishness. Influenced by Hutcheson and Shaftesbury, he argued against over-simplification. On the one hand he accepted that for many political and economic subjects people could be assumed to be driven by such simple selfishness, and he also wrote of some of the more social aspects of "human nature" as something which could be destroyed, for example if people did not associate in just societies. On the other hand he rejected what he called the "paradox of the sceptics" saying that no politician could have invented words like "'honourable' and 'shameful,' 'lovely' and 'odious,' 'noble' and 'despicable,'" unless there was not some natural "original constitution of the mind."
Hume, like Rousseau, was controversial in his own time for his modernist approach, following the example of Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes, of avoiding consideration of metaphysical explanations for any type of cause and effect. He was accused of being an atheist. Concerning human nature also, he wrote for example:We needn't push our researches so far as to ask 'Why do we have humanity, i.e. a fellow-feeling with others?' It's enough that we experience this as a force in human nature. Our examination of causes must stop somewhere.
After Rousseau and Hume, the nature of philosophy and science changes, branching into different disciplines and approaches, and the study of human nature changes accordingly. Rousseau's proposal that human nature is malleable became a major influence upon international revolutionary movements of various kinds, while Hume's approach has been more typical in Anglo-Saxon countries including the United States.
As the sciences concerned with humanity split up into more specialized branches, many of the key figures of this evolution expressed influential understandings about human nature.
Darwin gave a widely accepted scientific argument for what Rousseau had already argued from a different direction, that humans and other animal species have no truly fixed nature, at least in the very long term. However he also gave modern biology a new way of understanding how human nature does exist in a normal human time-frame, and how it is caused.
Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, famously referred to the hidden pathological character of typical human behavior. He believed that the Marxists were right to focus on what he called "the decisive influence which the economic circumstances of men have upon their intellectual, ethical and artistic attitudes." But he thought that the Marxist view of the class struggle was too shallow, assigning to recent centuries conflicts that were, rather, primordial. Behind the class struggle, according to Freud, there stands the struggle between father and son, between established clan leader and rebellious challenger. Freud also popularized his notions of the id and the desires associated with each supposed aspect of personality.
E.O. Wilson's sociobiology and closely related theory of evolutionary psychology give scientific arguments against the "tabula rasa" hypotheses of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. In his book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998), Edward O. Wilson claimed that it was time for a cooperation of all the sciences to explore human nature. He defined human nature as a collection of epigenetic rules: the genetic patterns of mental development. Cultural phenomena, rituals, etc. are products, not part of human nature. Artworks, for example are not part of human nature, but our appreciation of art is. And this art appreciation, or our fear for snakes, or incest taboo (Westermarck effect) can be studied by the methods of reductionism. Until now these phenomena were only part of psychological, sociological and anthropological studies. Wilson proposes it can be part of interdisciplinary research.
An example of this fear is discussed in the book An Instinct for Dragons, where anthropologist David E. Jones suggests a hypothesis that humans, just like other primates, have inherited instinctive reactions to snakes, large cats and birds of prey. Folklore dragons have features that are combinations of these three, which would explain why dragons with similar features occur in stories from independent cultures on all continents. Other authors have suggested that especially under the influence of drugs or in children's dreams, this instinct may give raise to fantasies and nightmares about dragons, snakes, spiders, etc., which makes these symbols popular in drug culture and in fairy tales for children. The traditional mainstream explanation to the folklore dragons does however not rely on human instinct, but on the assumption that fossils of, for example, dinosaurs gave rise to similar fantasies all over the world.
Metaphysics and ethics
Differing understandings of human nature lead to different conclusions about ethics, or in other words the philosophical question of how people should best live. Some of the most important differences between different understandings of human nature and ethics involve different metaphysical understandings about how human nature relates to nature as a whole, sometimes considered as "creation" or the "cosmos".
- Philosophical naturalism (which includes materialism and rationalism) encompasses a set of views that humans are purely natural phenomena; sophisticated beings that evolved to our present state through natural mechanisms such as evolution. Humanist philosophers determine good and evil by appeal to universal human qualities, but other naturalists regard these terms as mere labels placed on how well individual behavior conforms to societal expectations, and is the result of our psychology and socialization.
- Abrahamic religions (most notably Judaism, Christianity and Islam) hold that a human is a spiritual being which was deliberately created by a single God in his image (according to the former two), and exists in continued relationship with God. Good and evil are defined in terms of how well humans conform to God's character or God's law.
- Polytheistic or animistic notions vary, but generally regard humans as citizens in a world populated by other intelligent spiritual or mythological beings, such as gods, demons, ghosts, etc. In these cases, human evil is often regarded as the result of supernatural influences or mischief (although it may have many other causes as well).
- Holistic, pantheistic, and panentheistic spiritual traditions regard humanity as existing within God or as a part of the divine cosmos. In this case, human "evil" is usually regarded as the result of ignorance of this universal Divine nature. Traditions of this kind include the Indian religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism and other forms of Eastern philosophy, and also schools of western philosophy such as Stoicism, Neoplatonism, or Spinoza's pantheistic cosmology. Certain kinds of polytheism, animism, and monism have similar interpretations.
- Astrologers believe that a person's personality and many of the challenges they will face in life are determined by the placements of the planets, each represents different aspects of their mental and physical nature. At the time of birth they may use many different techniques to "guesstimate" the issues that will unfold throughout their lives and the actions that can be taken to gain the best results.
Free will and determinism
The issue of free will and determinism underlies much of the debate about human nature. Free will, or agency, refers to the ability of humans to make genuinely free choices (in some sense). As it relates to humans, the thesis of determinism implies that human choices are fully caused by internal and external forces.
- Incompatibilism holds that determinism and free will are contradictory (i.e. both cannot be true). Incompatibilist views can either deny or accept free will.
- Incompatibilist views holding to free will include:
- Libertarianism holds that the human perception of free choice in action is genuine, rather than seemingly genuine, so that some of our actions are performed without there being any compulsion by internal or external forces to do so (i.e., indeterminism).
- Thomism holds that humans have a genuine experience of free will, and this experience of free will is evidence of a soul that transcends the mere physical components of the human being.
- Incompatibilist views that deny free will include:
- Determinism refers to the logic that humans, like all physical phenomena, are subject to cause and effect. Determinism also holds that our actions stem from environmental, biological, or theological factors. A common misconception is that all determinists are fatalists, who believe that deliberation is pointless as the future is already caused, when in fact most determinists hold the idea that we should deliberate on our actions and that deliberating on our actions is part of the complex interplay between cause and effect.
- Predestination is the position that God orchestrates all the events in the universe, human and otherwise, according to his will; however he does it in a way that includes the free choices of humans.
- Biological determinism and social determinism are the views that human actions are determined by their biology and social interaction, respectively. The debate between these two positions is known as nature versus nurture.
- Incompatibilist views holding to free will include:
- Compatibilism is the view that free will and determinism can conceptually coexist. Compatibilist views include:
- Human compatibilitism is the view that they are compatible because free will is merely the hypothetical ability to choose differently if one is differently disposed according to the physical factors of determinism.
- Molinism is the view that God is able to predestine all events on Earth because he knows in advance what people will freely choose.
- Contemporary compatibilists seek definitions of free will that permit determinism.
Spiritual versus natural
Another often-discussed aspect of human nature is the existence and relationship of the physical body with a spirit or soul that transcends the human's physical attributes, as well as the existence of any transcendent purpose. In this area, there are three dominant views:
- The philosophical naturalist position is that humans are entirely natural, with no spiritual component or transcendent purpose. Subsets of the naturalist view include the materialist and physicalist positions, which hold that humans are entirely physical. However, some naturalists are also dualists about mind and body. Naturalism, combined with the natural and social sciences, views humans as the unplanned product of evolution, which operated in part by natural selection on random mutations. Philosophical naturalists do not believe in a supernatural afterlife. Philosophical naturalism is often promoted by many prominent philosophers and thinkers. The philosophical naturalist often will view religious belief as similar to superstition and as the product of unsound or magical thinking.
- In contrast to materialism, there is the Platonic or idealist position. It can be expressed in many ways, but in essence it is the view that there is a distinction between appearance and reality, and that the world we see around us is simply a reflection of some higher, divine existence, of which the human (and perhaps also the animal) soul/mind or spirit may be part. In his Republic, Book VII, Plato represents humankind as prisoners chained from birth inside an underground cave, unable to move their heads, and therefore able to see only the shadows on the walls created by a fire outside the cave, shadows that, in their ignorance, the cave dwellers mistake for reality. For Plato, therefore, the soul is a spirit that uses the body. It is in a non-natural state of union, and longs to be freed from its bodily prison (cf. Republic, X, 611).
- Between materialism and idealism lies the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose system of thought is known as Thomism. His thought is, in essence, a synthesis of Christian theology and the philosophy of Aristotle. Aristotle describes man as a "rational animal," i.e., a single, undivided being that is at once animal (material) and rational (intellectual soul). Drawing from Aristotelian hylomorphism, the soul is seen as the substantial form of the body (matter). The soul, as the substantial form, is what is universal, or common, to all humanity, and therefore, is indicative of human nature; that which differentiates one person from another is matter, which Aquinas refers to as the principle of individuation. The human soul is characterized as spiritual, immortal, substantial, and subsistent: it is the spiritual and vital principle of the human being, but is also dependent on the body in a variety of ways in order to possess these characteristics. Thus, no division is made between the "physical" and the "spiritual," though they are in fact distinct. This position differentiates Thomism from both materialism and idealism. Unlike idealism, it holds that the visible universe is not a mere shadow of a transcendent reality, but instead is fully real in and of itself. However, unlike materialism, Thomism holds that empiricism and philosophy, when properly exercised, lead inevitably to reasonable belief in God, the human soul, and moral objectivism.[disambiguation needed ] Thus, to a Thomist, it is obvious from the evidence that there is a God and an eternal soul.
In addition to these traditional philosophical distinctions between the soul and body, recent adaptations in humanistic psychology attempt to explain the natural transcendent purpose of human life. Richard Shweder of the University of Chicago separated human morality into three components: the ethic of autonomy, the ethic of community, and the ethic of divinity. The idea of religious fundamentalist countries is to uphold the ethic of divinity, which consists of protecting the divinity that exists in each person, even if that means imposing religious and moral laws on people of other faiths. Abraham Maslow, one of the founders of humanistic psychology attempted to demonstrate that spiritual life can be rationally explained as a naturalistic meaning. He claims that "peak experiences," moments of extreme self-transcendence, are the same amongst religious and secular people alike. Peak experiences make people see beyond the two-dimensional world of self-advancement and try live a nobler life. Religions can thus be explained in a naturalistic sense as the coordination of transcendent ideas in order to maximize "peak experiences."
Psychology and biology
A long standing question in philosophy and science is whether there exists an invariant human nature. For those who believe there is a human nature, further questions include:
- What determines/constrains human nature?
- To what extent is human nature malleable?
- How does it vary between people and populations?
Since human behavior is so diverse, it can be difficult to find absolutely invariant human behaviors that are of interest to philosophers. A lesser (but still scientifically valid) standard for evidence pertaining to "human nature" is used by scientists who study behavior. Biologists look for evidence of genetic predisposition to behavioral patterns. Human behavior can be influenced by the environment, so penetrance of genetically predisposed behavioral traits is not expected to reach 100%. A type of human behavior for which there is a strong genetic predisposition can be considered to be part of human nature. In other words, human nature is not seen as something that forces individuals to behave in a certain way, but as something that makes individuals more inclined to act in a certain way than in another.
An enduring evolutionary psychology controversy often revolves around "human nature." Common evolutionary psychology explanations posit that the mind is made up of a massive number of interacting adaptations or "mental modules," the genes for which are a common human inheritance and result in a common human phenotype in the typical environments in which humans find themselves, and which constitute "human nature." This view has been critiqued as essentialist, as neglecting "natural" genetic, environmental and individual variation (and that the closest you can come is norms of reaction), and as equivocating between the levels of genes, developmental programs, and actual human psychology/culture, and between individuals and population averages.
Arguments for invariance
All individuals and all societies have a similar facial grammar. Everyone smiles the same, and the way we use our eyes to convey cognition or flirtatiousness is the same. Human females find male faces that are rated more masculine and aggressive, less feminine and sensitive, more attractive during ovulation, the stage of their menstrual cycle when women are most fertile.
No success has ever been scientifically demonstrated in re-assigning an individual's handedness. Although individuals may change their external behavior (picking up scissors with their right hand instead of the left, for instance), their internal inclination never changes. Even people who lose a limb, who physically do not possess the ability to pick up scissors with their left hand, will try to do so if they are "left-handed." The percentage of left-handers in all cultures at all times remains constant (because left-handedness is a recessive trait.)
Newborn babies, far too young to have been acculturated to do so, have measurable behaviors such as being more attracted to human faces than other shapes and having a preference for their mother's voice over any other voice.
William James likewise referred to habit as the fly-wheel of society. Habits, though, are by definition acquired, and different habits will be both the effect and the cause of very different societies.
Different human societies have held very different moral codes. Thus, regardless of whether objective morality exists or not, humans are clearly capable of imposing a wide variety of different moral codes on themselves.
Some have argued that the role for nurture comes not from the absence of impulses in human nature but from the plethora of such impulses—so many, and so contradictory, that nurture must sort them out and put them into a hierarchy.
Some believe there is no single universal law of behavior that holds true for all human beings. There are many such laws that apply to the majority of individuals (for example, the majority of individuals try to avoid dying), but there are always exceptions (some individuals commit suicide). Most animals, including humans, have an innate self-preservation instinct (fear of injury and death). The fact that humans may override this basic instinct is seen as evidence that human nature is subordinate to the human mind, and/or various outside factors. However, this may not be entirely unique to the human mind, as certain animals are observed to willfully commit suicide.)
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