Philosophy of Human Nature

In this course, we will develop our own philosophical response to the question, what is a human being?

Now, there are many different answers you might give, if you’re a scientist, religious believer, anthropologist, psychologist, sociologist, economist, moralist or historian: You might say that we’re a bunch of quarks, atoms and neurons; just another kind of animal trying to adapt, survive and spread its genes; sinners seeking salvation and union with God; creative beings who express ourselves with language and art; the universe’s only self-conscious thinkers; moral agents dignified by freedom and autonomy; or unwitting products of the hidden drives of history, culture, economics, the body and the unconscious mind.

What we will do is think about those answers philosophically, by reflecting on the basic concepts that we use to understand ourselves as human beings: the mind, the body, the self, personal identity, beliefs and desires, intention and action, free will and moral responsibility, the individual and society. Our goal will be to decide what those philosophical concepts really mean, and which view of human nature interprets and uses those concepts in the way that best explains our uniquely human way of existing.

Here are some of the specific questions we will think about:

  • How is it possible to be a free, individual self who is responsible for your own thoughts and actions, if you are so thoroughly influenced by factors that seem outside of your control—be it God’s will; the prior course of history; your biological instincts; your social, cultural and economic climate; or the bodily desires and unconscious drives that shape the way you think and care about things?
  • What would it be to flourish as a human being, to cope well with all those conditions that constrain the integrity and success of your life?
  • How have our views about human nature and human flourishing changed throughout the history of philosophy?
  • Is it possible to know the right thing to do, and yet still do the wrong thing?
  • What is the nature and structure of the human mind (or ‘psyche,’ or ‘soul’)?
  • How can we justify the claim that we are free and responsible for our own actions?
  • What makes you the person you are? Are you always the same person over time? What roles do memory, thought, perception, the body and storytelling play in establishing your personal identity?