University of St Martin - Fall, 2006 - PHIL232

Wednesday, Oct 25 - Philosophical Anthropology (1)

Midterm Essay
Monday, Sept. 4 - What is philosophy?
Wednesday, Sept. 6 - Aristotle (1)
Monday, Sept. 11 - Aristotle (2)
Wednesday, Sept. 13 - Aristotle (3)
Monday, Sept. 18 - Nietzsche (1)
Wednesday, Sept. 20 - Nietzsche (2)
Monday, Sept. 26 - Abortion (1)
Wednesday, Sept. 28 - Abortion (2)
Excursus 1: Historical overview
Excursus 2: Abortion in Judaism and Christianity
Excursus 3: Abortion in Islam
Excursus 4: Pro-choice argument
Monday, Oct. 2 - Suicide (1)
Wednesday, Oct 4 - Revision
Monday, Oct 16 - Suicide (2)
Wednesday, Oct 18 - Paradigm shifts
Monday, Oct 23 - Brave New World (1)
Wednesday, Oct 25 - Philosophical Anthropology (1)
Monday, Oct 30 - Sexual History of the USA
Wednesday, Nov 1 - Philosophical Anthropology (2)
Monday, Nov 6 - Race, death, tragedy, and bad faith
Wednesday, Nov 8 - Race, Biology, and Culture
Monday, Nov 13 - Racism and culture
Wednesday, Nov 15 - Existentialism
Monday, Nov 20 - Political Obligation, Moral Duty, and Punishment
Wednesday, Nov 22 - Kant and Moral Obligation
Monday, Nov 27 - War and Peace
Wednesday, Nov 29 - Non-Western Philosophies (1)
Monday, Dec 4 - Non-Western Philosophies (2)
Wednesday, Dec 6 - The End
Final Paper

Introduction to the philosophical reflection on the meaning of "humanness"

Human nature

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


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.


Brief 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 Rousseau.

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 definition.


Metaphysics and ethics

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.


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 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:
    • 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 nurture.

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.
  • 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. 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.

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, 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).

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. 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.

To think about       

"Any society that values creativity also needs to enable criticism. If we cannot question the way we are doing things and thinking about things at present, it will not occur to us that they could be thought of or done differently. (...) So philosophy is important partly because cultural criticism is so important."

CHRISTENSON, Tom (2001). Wonder and Critical Reflection. An invitation to Philosophy, p. 37. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc.


This page was updated on Nov 21, 2006
at 10.00 PM St Martin Time (-4 UT)