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  Roger Smith, Lecture 4, ‘Human nature’
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Roger Smith, Lecture 4, ‘Human nature’

A. Common use,

E.g. Dickens, The Pickwick Papers (1836-7): ‘Philosopher, Sir?’ ‘An observer of human nature, sir’, said Mr Pickwick.’ ‘Ah, so am I. Most people are when they’ve little to do.’

‘It’s human nature’, e.g. Konrad Lorenz, ‘aggression … is an instinct …’

Note:   i) refers to qualities in general (e.g. ‘spiritual nature’) or to specifically biological nature. Compare существо человека and природа человека. Difference between ‘human nature’ and ‘human being’.

            ii) refers to universal and particular, applies to species, groups and individuals. Are there essences (Aristotle) or biological particulars (evolution) – essentialist-nominalist argument.

            iii) describes and prescribes (descriptive and normative). E.g. John Morley (1870s) and individualism: ‘Human nature – happily for us – ever presses against this system or that.’


B. Nature – i) everything that exists; ‘law of nature’; naturalism.

            ii) quality of some thing (collective or particular) – e.g. ‘woman’s nature’.

            iii) Nature, as opposed to God (‘state of Nature’ as opposed to ‘state of Grace’).

                 Contrast physical or social anthropology and philosophical anthropology.

                 Importance of Darwin.

            iv) Nature, as opposed to Man/culture/civilisation; nature vs art; natural vs unnatural.

                Profound importance to ancient and modern civilisation in contrasting ways.


C. The Enlightenment – Просвещение

Enlightenment as the inclusion of Man in study of, and action in accordance with, laws of nature. (E.g. Peter Gay, The Enlightenment, 1966-9). Influence of Newton and Locke. Abbé de Mably: ‘Let us study man as he is, in order to teach him what he should be.’ Imagery of unveiling ‘Nature’. Continuation in modern social sciences (extreme example, José Delgado). Compare the Russian ‘enlighteners’ of 1860s.

Presupposition of teleology - moral law/purpose built into Nature, understood as:

i) God – Providence. E.g Joseph Butler on moral sense/conscience; becoming secular in Adam Smith on revenge and sympathy, or David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature: Being an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects (1739-40).

ii) The human spirit, or Absolute Spirit. Source of philosophical and historical anthropology, e.g. Adam Ferguson (An Essay on the History of Civil Society, 1767): man has a ‘restless spirit’, and J. G. Herder: ‘We live in a world we ourselves create.’ Turn from metaphysics to ‘Being’ in Heidegger.

iii) Moral order in Nature. Is nature ‘good’ (as in Pickwick; or the anarchism of Kropotkin)? Did a ‘state of nature’ exist? Identification of nature with historically early/primitive humans.

But what if nature is ‘bad’? Diderot, Supplement au vogage de Bougainville (written 1772); Marquis de Sade – being nasty is more ‘natural’ than being nice!


D. The modern ‘Enlightenment project’ – ‘scientific reason’.

Contemporary influence of genetic as opposed to environmental arguments in belief about human nature.  Systematised in sociobiology (E. O. Wilson, 1975: ‘The genes hold culture on a leash) and ‘evolutionary psychology’ (John Tooby & Lena Cosmides, ‘The psychological foundations of culture’, 1992). An empirical argument?

But, at the same time, new technologies are making human nature a commodity.

A game: T. H. Huxley (1869) pictured a ‘scientific’ angel playing chess with a human: ‘The chess-board is the world, the pieces are the phenomena of the universe, the rules of the game are what we call the laws of nature … And every one who plays ill is checkmated – without haste, but without remorse.’