Since classical antiquity the idea of human nature has played a central role in our understanding of ourselves and of our place in the world, providing the source of norms of conduct, as well as presenting a categorical framework for living a good, and fulfilled life. At the same time however this idea has always been controversial: the debate concerning the distinguishing characteristics of human beings, their grounding, and how fixed they are, is one of the oldest in philosophy.
A tradition dominant since Plato and Aristotle has emphasized rationality as distinctive of human beings. Among the rational capacities characteristic of humans intellect and will are commonly singled out. Furthermore for many ancient thinkers, human nature is not only what distinguishes humanity as a kind, but it is also what human beings are meant to strive for to achieve perfection. Aristotle makes several influential suggestions concerning areas of human activity where our nature is most manifest: most notably perhaps, defining man in his Politics as a political animal, and in his Poetics as a mimetic animal. The former points to an innate propensity to develop complex communities, the latter denotes the need to represent reality, and thus to create art.
These ideas were both developed and contested in subsequent traditions. Ernst Cassirer, advancing the mimetic aspect of human nature suggested human beings should be understood as symbolic animals, focusing on their ability to create and transform a world of meaning into which they can project themselves, rather than on any physical or metaphysical determinants. This view came under criticism with the import of empirical research on non-human animals suggesting that at least higher primates are able to employ abstract concepts in communication, and to form local cultures. The idea of man as a political animal has arguably been expressed most radically by John Donne, who sees human relatedness not only as a feature of the human condition, but its very essence declaring that ‘any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind’. On the other hand since the dawn of modernity the human person has increasingly been construed as an isolated and self-contained phenomenon, this tendency perhaps culminating in Sartre’s resounding dictum “L’enfer, c’est les autres”.
There has likewise been fundamental disagreement about human nature between the world’s great religious traditions. Christian thinkers tend to understand humankind after the Fall as essentially sinful. By contrast, though sharing the story of the fall of Adam, the Jewish and Islamic traditions resist the doctrine of original sin. At the other end of the spectrum thinkers in the Buddhist tradition have argued for a view of human nature as essentially compassionate. A further division concerns whether humans are to be seen as essentially a part of nature, or as something distinct from it. This is most clearly seen in the difference between traditions like Christianity and Hinduism that have a clear notion of the soul or self, as distinct from the body, and those like Judaism and Buddhism that tend towards metaphysical monism.
This raises the question of which discipline the study of human nature belongs to. If humans are just a part of nature then we might look to the physical sciences such as biology, and neurology, or the ‘higher level’ social sciences like anthropology and economics. However many thinkers argue that humankind is not amenable to these disciplines and that its study is better suited to the humanities such as history, theology and philosophy. This dispute was central to the ‘science wars’ of the nineteen nineties and to the bifurcation of late modern intellectual life into ‘two cultures’ lamented by C. P. Snow before that. Recent advances in neurobiology and cognitive science as well as recent challenges to the relevance of the humanities in contemporary thought make these questions more pressing than ever.
At a still more fundamental level, a tradition beginning with Hegel and reaching its culmination in twentieth century existentialism has challenged the very idea of human nature, accusing its proponents of substituting an essence where there is really a free choice. This has prefigured a preponderance of anti-, post-, and trans-humanistic theories that deprive the category of any concrete meaning or lasting relevance. But although these traditions may be motivated by a desire to liberate humanity from deleterious constraints, many have felt that a denial of meaning in this domain entails a rejection of meaning more widely that can scarcely be made up for by our own contingent projects.
This September, the Dalai Lama Centre for Compassion, in collaboration with the Humane Philosophy Project, the Institute of Philosophy, University of Warsaw and the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion will present three days of talks and discussion on the topic of human nature its role in theoretical and practical philosophy. For more information please visit our Events page.