Introduction to the philosophical reflection on the meaning of "humanness"
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Human nature is the fundamental nature and substance of humans, as well as the range
of human behavior that is believed to be
invariant over long periods of time
and across very different cultural contexts.
history of the concept
In pre-modern and non-scientific understandings of nature, this meant that human
nature must be understood with reference to final and formal causes. Such understandings imply
the existence of a divine interest in human nature, and/or the existence of an ideal, "idea", or "form" of a human which exists
independently of individual humans.
According to the accepted modern scientific understanding human nature
is the range of human behavior that is believed to be
normal and/or invariant over long periods of time
and across very different cultural contexts.
The existence of an invariable human nature is a subject of much
historical debate, particularly in modern times. Most famously, Darwin's gave a widely accepted
scientific argument that humans and other animal species have no truly fixed nature. Before him, the malleability of man had
been asserted by Jean Jacques
Since the mid-19th Century, the concept of human nature has been
called into question by thinkers such as Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Sartre, a number of structuralists and postmodernists. The concept has also
been challenged by views such as behaviorism, determinism, and the chemical model within modern psychiatry
and psychology, which have tended to emphasize the idea that human beings might conceivably be explained as "matter in motion"
in a way that is similar to the rest of nature. Recently the biologist E. O. Wilson formulated a scientific
There are a number of perspectives regarding the fundamental
nature and substance of humans. These are by no means mutually exclusive, and the following list is by no means exhaustive:
Philosophical naturalism (which
includes materialism and rationalism) encompasses a set of views that humans
are purely natural phenomena; sophisticated animals 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 religion holds
that a human is a spiritual being which was deliberately created by a
single God in his image, and exists in continued
relationship with the God. Good and evil are defined in terms of how well human beings conform to God or God's law.
Polytheistic or animistic notions vary, but generally regard human
beings 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 may have many other causes as well).
Holistic, pantheistic, and panentheistic spiritual traditions regard humanity
as existing within God or as a part of 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 Vedic religions and other forms of Eastern philosophy (including Buddhism and Taoism), and Western philosophy such as Stoicism, Neo-Platonism, or Spinoza's pantheistic cosmology. Certain kinds
of polytheism, animism, and monism have similar interpretations.
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.
that determinism and free will are contradictory (i.e. both cannot be true). Incompatibilist views can either deny or accept will.
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.
views that deny free will include:
- Fatalism refers
to the belief that humans do not have freedom, but rather that our decisions stem from environmental, biological, or theological factors, that the appearance
of free will is an illusion, and that human deliberation and actions are pointless because things have to be the way
they have to be.
- Predestination is the
position that God orchestrates all the events in the universe, human and otherwise, according to his will; in essence a theistic
form of fatalism.
- 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
Compatibilism is the
view that free will and determinism 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 were 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.
compatibilists seek definitions of free will that permit determinism.
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:
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. While philosophical naturalism is often
assailed as an unacceptable view of human nature, it is endorsed 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.
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, spirit, or mind 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).
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. Aquinas 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. Thus, to a Thomist, it is obvious from
the evidence that there is a God and an eternal soul.