The Question(s) of Human Nature

There is more than one question of human nature. As has often been noted, discussants of “human nature” employ the term in a wide variety of different ways, and this ambiguity easily leads to confusion.*

*Such confusions have been noted and discussed by many: for instance, in David L. Hull, “On Human Nature” (1986), reprinted in Hull, The Metaphysics of Evolution (U. of Chicago Press, 1987); Susan Oyama, Evolution’s Eye (Duke U., 2000), Evelyn Fox Keller, The Mirage of a Space Between Nature and Nurture (Duke U., 2010), Helen Longino, Studying Human Behavior (U. of Chicago Press, 2012); Roger Smith, Being Human (Columbia U.P., 2007).

For instance: When asking “What is human nature?,” are we asking for the human essence (nature as Wesen or ousia) – that is, those features or qualities that are only and always true of human beings? Or are we asking for an identification of that part of human life that is attributable to nature (as opposed to the non-natural)? And, if this last is our aim, what is our intended contrast class – that is, the “non-natural”? For instance: do we mean the natural as opposed to the cultural, or as opposed to the super-natural, or something else? Or, yet again, are we asking for a description of the general or typical tendency of human beings (something like nature as physis)?** Or are we asking for a tally of human universals – those aspects of human life (if any) that appear regardless of geographical, cultural, or other peculiarities whenever or wherever human beings live their lives? And, if this last, how do we determine what cases to include or exclude from such universal claims? What unusual cases – feral children, for instance – do we exclude or at least qualify by ceteris paribus clauses or similar devices as we draw up our tally – and how, precisely, do we do this?

** In an essay on essentialism from 1980, Elliot Sober analyzes this sense of “nature” under the heading of the “natural state model,” appropriately associated with Aristotle’s views of natures (physis).

Conflating these senses leads to comical inferential non-sequiturs, as in the following passage, appropriately ridiculed by Hull (1986): “[O]ne trait common to man everywhere is language; in the sense that only the human species displays it, the capacity to acquire language must be genetic” (Eisenberg 1972, 126, cited in Hull 1986, 386). Hull’s own commentary on the passage makes the problem entirely clear: “In the space of a few words, [the author] elides from language being common to man everywhere (universality), to the capacity to acquire language being unique to the human species (species specificity), to its being genetic” (Hull 1986, 386-7).

Due to such ambiguities, it makes more sense to speak of the “questions” of human nature than the question of it. But this ambiguity has another important consequence: the question appears, for this reason, deceptively difficult to resolve. Answers that appear decisive from a precisely articulated point of view – for instance, the question of a biologically-supported concept of an essential human nature in Hull’s article – nonetheless fail to foreclose “the” question insofar as they fail to satisfy inquirers concerned with other aspects of the conceptual constellation that has formed around the term “human nature.”

Efforts to develop a full “philosophy of human nature,” or what is sometimes called a “philosophical anthropology,” seem to have foundered on the sheer magnitude of the task, producing analyses that are disappointingly thin*** or unrealistically concise and principled. (The latter error appears to affect nearly the entire tradition of reflection on the question from Aristotle forward.) Nonetheless, if various meanings of the question of human nature are carefully distinguished, the effort to answer each of them individually would not be an absurd one. Both the picking-apart of the questions, the careful attempt to answer them, and the evaluation of other thinkers’ attempts to answer them, would appear to be legitimate pursuits for philosophers.

*** Unfortunately, this weakness characterizes much of the contemporary introductory literature on this topic – for instance, Howard P. Kainz’s Philosophy of Human Nature (Open Court, 2008), Joel J. Kupperman’s Theories of Human Nature (Hackett, 2010), and Leslie Stevenson and David L. Haberman’s Ten Theories of Human Nature (Oxford U.P., 1998). On this topic I much prefer the shorter and denser treatments of Richard Schacht, “Philosophical Anthropology: What, Why, and How,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (1990) and Sami Pihlström, “On the Concept of Philosophical Anthropology,” Journal of Philosophical Research (2003), as well as the literature listed in the first footnote above.

Here I’d like to contribute to such a project by seeking to carefully discriminate some of the various senses in which human nature might be asked about. The procedure I will employ loosely follows Roger Smith’s in Being Human (Columbia U.P., 2007): a distinction between meanings of the English word “nature,” which will then be read into the question of the meaning of “human nature” itself.

1. Nature-as-opposed-to-non-nature

If the question is about the natural-as-opposed-to-non-natural components or aspects of human life, the answer requires some standard for estimating what is and is not a part of nature. Of course, the latter question is controversial. Many would say that everything that happens is part of nature. Such a position entails that everything human beings do or are is part of human nature in that sense.****

**** This, incidentally, was the all-inclusive sense of nature that Descartes distinguished, in Meditation VI, from the more restricted, Aristotelian sense of nature as usual (“normal”) tendency. Meditations, Objections, and Replies (Hackett Publishing, 2006 [1641]), 47-48. Descartes construes the Aristotelian conception as “extrinsic,” that is, “merely a designation dependent on my thought,” whereas the other is “really in things and thus is not without some truth” (48).

Yet, for non-naturalists and some “qualified” (say, “non-reductive” or “soft”) naturalists, “natural” descriptions and disciplinary perspectives form only a subset of all epistemically-acceptable descriptions and disciplinary perspectives. For such thinkers the question, “What part of human existence, life, and behavior is natural?” could be rephrased as the question, “What part of human existence, life, and behavior is treatable by (or appears within) naturalistic disciplinary perspectives?” For instance: What aspects of human forms of life are epistemically accessible to physics, chemistry, and biology? How do human beings appear from within these perspectives? These questions lead intuitively to a further question, which presents a strategy for delimiting naturalism itself: What real aspects of human forms of life, if any, are not epistemically accessible to naturalistic perspectives (or, to particular kinds of naturalistic perspectives), and why?

How are we to decide between the broadly naturalistic and non-naturalistic perspectives just described? I’m not at all sure. My point is just that there is a legitimate future for the question of human nature beyond the kinds of semantic ambiguity, coupled with metaphysical disagreement, just recounted.

2. Nature-as-physis

Another of our identified senses of the human nature question is the one wherein “human nature” is synonymous with “typical tendency, barring other intervening factors.” Note that despite the association of this notion of nature (nature as physis) with Aristotelianism and hence essentialism, there is nothing self-contradictory in supposing that nature of this kind is changeable or transformable. Even under the assumption of nature as physis, there may be changes of nature (for instance: changes of gene-frequency, or changes of typical function) as well as changes that override nature (as when a natural tendency is diverted or destroyed, and thus the mode of existence of the changed thing or organism ceases to be classifiable as “natural”). Human nature may be largely an empty set in that human life may have no “typical tendency” or character; or it may be that a great deal of its “typical” tendencies or characters are nonetheless also changeable.

3. and 4. Nature-as-essence

Finally, one might mean human nature-as-essence. The question of human essences is really a combination of two questions, however: 3. What is distinctive about human beings? and 4. What is common to all human beings? The former question is a long-standing concern of comparative psychologists (which I will discuss in more detail in a later post); the latter, of cultural anthropologists and historians of (relatively) exotic civilizations.

As is well-known, universal claims have the peculiar logical feature that they can be refuted by a single counter-instance. We might seek to immunize a theory of human universals against such counter-instances by construing human universals as a long series of conditional statements such as, “When the number of commodities of a certain kind brought to market is relatively low, and the demand is relatively high, the price of those commodities will be relatively high,” or “Suicides are (ceteris paribus) more common in times of peace than in times of war.”*****

***** These examples are inspired by economist Alfred Marshall’s supply and demand curves, and sociologist Émile Durkheim’s famous book on suicide, respectively.

But each of these “universals” will have exceptions, themselves not easily captured (without exceptions of their own) by any single set of conditional statements. As a heuristic formal description, the series-of-conditionals model helps us understand the kind of reasoning some advocates of human universals would like to engage in. But its difficulties raise the question of whether an exhaustive tally of such descriptions can fairly be expected, and, if not, why we should hold out hope for a theory of human universals at all, except in some appropriately qualified sense. A similar problem threatens the prospects of many universalisms, whether naturalistic and Darwinian or more purely logical (as in the case of, say, Hegel or Lévi-Strauss). Given this difficulty, one might relax the requirement of a “universal” characterization of human beings to the requirement of a “general” characterization.****** In any case, the intended meanings of our claims about universal characteristics of human life are often more nuanced and qualified than is represented by universal statements, or any set of conditional statements, so rigorously construed.

****** Some resources for thinking about the logic of general claims like these are provided by the first few chapters of Michael Thompson, Life and Action (Harvard U.P., 2008).


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