THEORIES OF HUMAN NATURE

Here, in as brief as form as possible, I have listed all the theories of human nature, the respective theories of the self, the normative implications, and a brief articulation of the vision—the philosophical beliefs and arguments that lead from the theory of human nature to its normative conclusions. This is the bare bones, short hand version, not meant to stand alone, but as a reference point for the longer discussions in the book, Visions of Human Nature. That book elaborates more fully on these points, provides examples, and develops certain interesting aspects of each view in order to give these bones some "flesh." But that is what a textbook is supposed to do. We’ve gone through this quickly in order to learn by comparison, to see some of the bigger issues (like the points outlined here) and get some idea of some different ways one could go in constructing a philosophy of human being. We will return to these throughout the semester.

THEORIES

plato7.gif (16202 bytes)Platonic Theory of Human Nature

Aristotelian Theory of Human Nature aristote.jpg (26763 bytes)

Buddhist Theory of Human Nature

Judeo-Christian Theory of Human Nature

descart1.jpg (15369 bytes)Cartesian Theory of Human Nature

Religious-Existentialist (Kierkegaardian) Theory of Human Naturekierk1.jpg (6823 bytes)

Darwinian Theory of Human Nature

marx4.jpg (12584 bytes)Marxist Theory of Human Nature

Freudian Theory of Human Nature

Atheistic-Existentialist (Sartrian) Theory of Human Nature

Plato Aristotle
Theory of Human Nature (what are we?) Rational, social animals. Plato tended to identify our nature with reason, and our souls, as opposed to our bodies. Rational, social animals. Aristotle believed both body and soul were parts of our nature.
Theory of the self (who are we?) Who we are depends on what kind of a soul we have—a philosopher soul, a guardian or warrior soul, or an artisan soul. This is the general role we should play in society. Without a society, we wouldn’t "be" human—but a God or a beast. But the self is also something we realize by the specific way we actualize our natural potentialities—which virtues (or vices) predominate.
Normative implications for human existence (How should we live) Success or failure at life depends upon what sort of society we live in. Human life needs to be political for Plato, spent in the discovery of the proper manner in which sociality ought to be organized, and then in the practical implementation of that ideal in our own societies. Success or failure (=the wasted life) requires that we philosophize, in order to discern our true human potentialities. Once we determine that this is moral and intellectual virtue, then we must actualize these potentialities.
Articulating the vision: how do the normative implications follow from the theory of human nature? We are rational and social creatures, but we become who we are in society. In order to become what we truly are, we must live in the true (or ideal) society. Essence is grasped by rational analysis, as it is separate from change. Rationality is our nature, because rationality is our natural function or telos, and a thing’s telos = its nature. Rationality sets us apart from other animals, it makes us human. Natural things achieve success in life by fulfilling their function or telos. Unlike animals, we must choose our course and life, so the key human demand is determining the correct choice.

  Judeo-Christian Buddhist
Theory of Human Nature (what are we?) Free-willed creations of God—J-C’s see freedom as a gift from God, something that gives human beings dignity. God’s gifts however are never without their dangers. Human nature is to be conscious and to desire.
Theory of the self (who are we?) Sons of God, images of God. We are essentially symbolizing beings, makers and readers of signs. Actually no self. Humans create a self—but this is only artificial and an illusion.
Normative implications for human existence (How should we live) Success in life requires submission to God’s will, in order to gain divine help to see the meaning of our lives—using reason and memory. God has created the world so that we can return to Him. Truly human life is religious—a life lived submitting to God’s will. Success depends upon escaping the karmic cycle of reincarnation. See the negative reality of human nature and seek to quell desire though meditation. Nirvana, the total emptying of consciousness, is the goal of life. It isn’t a human goal, but a trans- or supra-human goal.
Articulating the vision: how do the normative implications follow from the theory of human nature? Success in life depends upon choosing good (=God) over evil. To make this choice we must read God’s signs correctly. But only God can show his plan, and so we need to rely on God—authority—to properly direct our choices. Desire only causes suffering, and can lead to worse things when you are reincarnated. Consciousness only increases misery, by increasing desire, and so it too is an aberration. Our actions must produce "good" karma in order to escape the rat race of this life.

 

  Cartesian Religious Existentialist
Theory of Human Nature (what are we?) Thinking substances—and since bodies aren’t required for thinking, we are thinking spirits. People accuse Descartes of "angelism"—making human beings angels. Ryle described Descartes’ human as the "ghost in the machine." Radically free, essentially uncertain beings.
Theory of the self (who are we?) The self is the mind or consciousness, because I can doubt the existence of my body, but not the existence of my consciousness (mind). This separates the mind from the body and also establishes that there is life after death. Being radically free, we are nothing. We construct a self by bridging doubt by faith— in ourselves (aesthetic self); in others (ethical self) or in God (religious self).
Normative implications for human existence (How should we live) Success in life = acquiring certainty and this requires the correct use of our thinking powers. This is enterprise is ultimately an individual one, undertaken outside of society, and outside of nature. The self is autonomous, but alienated. This approach to life is philosophical. "Choose yourself." Select your faith, construct yourself out of your freedom. This is more difficult than it looks: it is the result of an inner battle that will take you to the brink of madness.
Articulating the vision: how do the normative implications follow from the theory of human nature? Life presents us with so many pieces of "knowledge" so that we must approach it with the method of radical doubt in order to figure for certain what to believe. The foundational certainty is our own existence. Everything else is less certain, including God’s existence—unlike the Judeo-Christian view. We can infer from our existence and its characteristics that God exists, and through that the rest of the world. Beings with a language experience a mediated reality, so certainty is impossible and doubt is always present. Only belief (faith) can hold the self together with the world. We can’t know our selves, but must construct them out of our freedom

 

  Darwinian Marxist
Theory of Human Nature (what are we?) Human being is but one of several exceptional forms of primates—merely an animal. Darwin can be accused of beastalism. Humans are natural producers; historical conditions determine what and how they produce. Humans are also species beings.
Theory of the self (who are we?) (It may not be possible to say what a Darwinian theory of the self would be.) Marx’s vision tended to focus on classes and groups; it is unclear what to say about his theory of the self.
Normative implications for human existence (How should we live) The successful human life is a pragmatic life—one where ideas and actions are used as instruments or tools for solving practical problems, ultimately how to survive. There are few absolutes, which again reinforces the practicality of life. Morality itself has been built into our biology. History will unfold according to its own laws—we can only hasten the inevitable revolution where all alienation and false consciousness will disappear, and we will return to ourselves as Homo faber. This will be the coming of human liberation.
Articulating the vision: how do the normative implications follow from the theory of human nature? Nature has no purposes; it is nothing but mechanism responding to environment. Hence deterministic—we cannot act against nature. Reason is no image of God and has no special (superior) significance in nature; it is only an advantageous trait that our species has acquired by "natural selection." It is valuable to our species, but not in "itself." On this naturalistic view, the existence of a soul has little if any place. There is little need for religion either. Freedom is not the basis of human life, but its end—history unfolds by a necessary process and each "historical moment" moves us closer to freedom. This is the dialectic of history. The historical forces of production alienate humans from themselves (their productive powers). The abolition of history will therefore be the abolition of alienation and creation of freedom.

 

  Freudian Atheistic Existentialist
Theory of Human Nature (what are we?) Human nature is essentially in conflict—consisting of an unconscious mind (Id = our old biological instincts transformed in the name of civilization), an Ego (conscious rational part, the product of taming the Id); and the Superego (an agency that promotes guilt in order to "tame" the Id). Famous for saying that there is no human nature, no human essence—existence precedes essence. (So Sartre would think that you can be without being something.) There is no human nature because we are at root free—which seems to mean unconstrained to Sartre. Freedom has a negative tone for Sartre—it is a great danger.
Theory of the self (who are we?) Each of us is repressed—we repress and censor our instincts, our memories, our fantasies, and our guilt. No given ego, the self is mere possibility. Therefore we live in anguish at our freedom.
Normative implications for human existence (How should we live) Success or failure in life depends on getting medical help, therapy, on being psychoanalyzed—in order to escape the determinism of our pasts, or at least prevent it from turning into a neurosis. This way we can aid the Ego in its fight against the Id and the Superego. Create our own nature—discover our freedom in consciousness. But all this must be done "authentically," without "bad faith."
Articulating the vision: how do the normative implications follow from the theory of human nature? The Id accounts for 90% of who we are. It is unconscious and therefore unknown to us, but it shapes our conscious life and sometimes even dominates the Ego. We then become neurotic. There is no choice about who we are. Repression is normal and required in order that the conscious mind can function in daily life in spite of the eternal conflict waging itself in our psyche. Freedom is the basic reality of human existence. But freedom is "free," it isn’t anything, so it isn’t a "human nature." The reality of our freedom is good and bad—it creates anguish, it leads us to self-deception as we try to avoid our freedom. We must struggle against having our lives determined by the others—this is inauthentic. If we are free at our very core, then no act is determined beforehand unless we let it, unless we "choose" to go with the flow. We are constantly reconstructing our worlds and ourselves through action, even if the construction is "in line" with the old world or self.