Human nature refers to the distinguishing characteristics—including ways of thinking, feeling and acting—which humans tend to have naturally, independently of the influence of culture. The questions of what these characteristics are, how fixed they are, and what causes them 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 into the question of what it is 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 "nature versus nurture" debate is a broadly inclusive and well-known instance of a discussion about human nature in the natural sciences.
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.
(Notions and concepts of human nature from China, Japan, or India are not taken up in the present discussion.)
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.
However, the existence of this invariable human nature is 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. In Rousseau's Emile, or On Education, Rousseau wrote: "We do not know what our nature permits us to be." Since the early 19th century, thinkers such as Hegel, Marx, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, structuralists, and postmodernists have also sometimes argued against a fixed or innate human nature.
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 human nature's 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. According to Aristotle, the philosophical study of human nature itself originated 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 by what was said about him by Aristotle (Plato's student), 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 (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 our best. Much of Aristotle's description of human nature is still influential today. However, 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 that occurred at the end of the Middle Ages was 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 were rejected as useless speculation. Also, the term "law of nature" now applied to any regular and predictable pattern in nature, not literally a law made by a divine law-maker, and, in the same way, "human nature" became 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 "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." 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 are 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. (This proposal was also less famously made 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 oversimplifying and systematic approach of Hobbes, 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 oversimplification. 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 Bacon and Hobbes, of avoiding consideration of metaphysical explanations for any type of cause and effect. He was accused of being an atheist. He wrote:
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 changed, branching into different disciplines and approaches, and the study of human nature changed 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.
Charles 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 actually 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), 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. For example, artworks are not part of human nature, but our appreciation of art is. 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 that they 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 rise to fantasies and nightmares about dragons, snakes, spiders, etc., which makes these symbols popular in drug culture and in fairy tales for children. However, the traditional mainstream explanation to the folklore dragons does not rely on human instinct, but on the assumption that fossils of, for example, dinosaurs gave rise to similar fantasies all over the world.
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