Philosophical Anthropology

Philosophical Anthropology

We under­stand philo­soph­ic­al anthro­po­logy as the philo­soph­ic­al study of ‘human nature’. In order to cir­cum­scribe the top­ic, we thus need a con­cep­tion of what human nature is. In order to do so, we can dis­tin­guish four sali­ent uses of the expres­sion ‘human nature’ and, cor­res­pond­ingly, four over­lap­ping fields of philo­soph­ic­al anthro­po­logy. The former have fre­quently been con­fused. In order to see how they hang togeth­er, we first need clar­ity on the con­cep­tu­al dif­fer­ences.

PA 1: The conditions of belonging to the species homo sapiens

The first, bio­lo­gic­al use of the term ‘human nature´ picks out the con­di­tions that have to be sat­is­fied for an organ­ism to be a human anim­al. The philo­sophy of human nature in this sense is a branch of the philo­sophy of bio­logy. Under­stand­ing human nature here, then, means under­stand­ing the concept of spe­cies as applied to human anim­als. If one of the gene­a­lo­gic­al con­cep­tions of spe­cies as par­tic­u­lar seg­ments of the phylo­gen­et­ic tree is cor­rect, then the con­di­tions of belong­ing to the spe­cies are plaus­ibly con­di­tions of being one of its parts, rather than one of its mem­bers. This would, moreover, appear to exclude human nature in this first sense from being the basis of sub­stan­tial claims with­in PA 2, 3 and 4.

PA 2: Human naturalness

The second usage picks out what is nat­ur­al about mem­bers of the spe­cies, what we can also call ‘human nat­ur­al­ness´. Of interest here is the extent to which fea­tures of humans can count as giv­en pri­or to human inter­ven­tion, rather than as products of human action. The ques­tion can be put poin­tedly by ask­ing what role the concept of nat­ur­al­ness can have in the face of the eth­o­lo­gic­al phe­nomen­on of sec­ond­ary altri­ci­al­ity, that is, of the extens­ive shap­ing of the plastic neonate brain in inter­ac­tion with primary care­givers.

Two sorts of response seem in order: First, it is import­ant to recog­nize that the notion of human nature in play is, in con­trast to the bio­lo­gic­al concept, gradu­al in char­ac­ter: nat­ur­al­ness comes in degrees. Second, in as far as humans can be said to pos­sess fea­tures that are nat­ur­al, the fea­tures in ques­tion are likely to dif­fer, depend­ing on the point in an individual’s devel­op­ment at which they are to be ascribed. As cul­ture and con­ven­tion impinge on infants from the moment of birth, we may have good reas­on to focus on the spe­cified concept of a nat­al human nature, which picks out the nat­ur­al prop­er­ties and dis­pos­i­tions pos­sessed by humans when they are born. Much con­tro­versy in philo­sophy, psy­cho­logy and soci­ology has raged around the extent to which fea­tures of a uni­ver­sal nat­al human nature in this second sense should be seen as respons­ible for aspects of the lives of mature humans or of the cul­tures and con­ven­tions that provide frame­works for those lives.

PA 3: The set of formal psychological features characteristic of the human life form

The third and fourth sali­ent uses of the expres­sion ‘human nature´ pick out fea­tures that are in some way cent­ral to the human life form, where the human life form is that form of life char­ac­ter­ist­ic of the organ­isms iden­ti­fied by the cri­ter­ia con­stitutive of human nature in the first sense. We should, I think, dis­tin­guish two kinds of cent­ral­ity thus picked out and to which two fur­ther fields of anthro­po­lo­gic­al inquiry cor­res­pond. In both cases, the start­ing point is an every­day use of the term that in itself is philo­soph­ic­ally dis­tinctly under­whelm­ing. Talk of ‘human nature´ crops up with some fre­quency in every­day asser­tions such as “It’s human nature to be selfish” or “The impulse to help the suf­fer­ing is part of our nature”.

A first reas­on why plat­it­udes of this kind are inter­est­ing in our con­text is that the phe­nom­ena they pick out — altru­ism, ego­ism, par­ti­al­ity, mor­al­ity, cruelty, ration­al­ity, weak­ness of will, self-decep­tion — all pre­sup­pose a struc­ture of basic psy­cho­lo­gic­al fea­tures com­mon to human per­sons. The struc­ture pre­sup­posed involves per­cep­tu­al capa­cit­ies, dis­pos­i­tions to hedon­ic exper­i­ence, wants, beliefs, emo­tions, judge­ments, inten­tions. We can thus say that it is human nature to live a life ori­ent­ated in the medi­um of psy­cho­lo­gic­al states, events and pro­cesses of these kinds. Because this char­ac­ter­isa­tion says noth­ing about the con­tents of the rel­ev­ant psy­cho­lo­gic­al states, we can think of it as employ­ing a form­al concept of human nature.

The third area of philo­soph­ic­al anthro­po­logy is thus that of the philo­sophy of psy­cho­logy, in as far as it is approached from a spe­cif­ic kind of per­spect­ive. The anthro­po­lo­gic­al take involves three spe­cific­a­tions, one neg­at­ive and two pos­it­ive: a) In con­trast to much main-stream work in this area, it assigns no par­tic­u­lar pri­or­ity to what used to be called ‘the mind-body prob­lem´. b) Its ana­lyses of the vari­ous psy­cho­lo­gic­al phe­nom­ena are con­duc­ted with a view to under­stand­ing the ways in which the phe­nom­ena hang togeth­er in a char­ac­ter­ist­ic form­al struc­ture. Empir­ic­al work on the devel­op­ment of these fea­tures and on patho­lo­gies in which some such fea­ture is miss­ing is par­tic­u­larly import­ant in this con­text. c) An import­ant meth­od­o­lo­gic­al fea­ture of the attempt to achieve that under­stand­ing is the com­par­is­on with rel­ev­ant — psy­cho­lo­gic­al or oth­er — capa­cit­ies of non­hu­man anim­als. Here again, philo­soph­ic­al anthro­po­logy is impossible without detailed atten­tion to empir­ic­al work, in this case in psy­cho­logy and eth­o­logy.

PA 4: The structural properties of the specifically human life form

A final concept of human nature res­ults from the attempt ration­ally to recon­struct the rather emphat­ic, tra­di­tion­al talk of ‘what it is that makes us human´, an idiom in which talk of ‘nature´ is often replaced by talk of ‘essence´. Our pro­pos­al is that we should under­stand such talk as nam­ing struc­tur­al prop­er­ties of the spe­cific­ally human life form. The idea is that one or more of the fea­tures that can be picked out by plat­it­udes of the kind men­tioned above may be pre-emin­ently respons­ible for the par­tic­u­lar way in which the human life form hangs togeth­er.

Philo­sophy has pro­posed a num­ber of can­did­ates for this role over the cen­tur­ies, often fail­ing to dis­tin­guish the explan­at­ory ques­tion from the fur­ther ques­tion as to the value of the can­did­ates. Reas­on has tra­di­tion­ally been seen as the human prop­erty that per­meates our entire life form, mak­ing pos­sible spe­cif­ic vari­ants of such traits as social­ity, self-interest, vir­tue and aggres­sion. Free­dom of the will, lan­guage and most recently col­lect­ive inten­tion­al­ity are fur­ther fea­tures that have been assigned that role. Wheth­er any single prop­erty can fill this role, wheth­er we shouldn’t think in terms of a con­stel­la­tion of such struc­tur­al prop­er­ties and, if so, how pre­cisely they ful­fil this struc­tur­ing func­tion are all cent­ral ques­tions for philo­soph­ic­al anthro­po­logy in this final sense.

For more on these dis­tinc­tions and their con­sequences, see:

  • Neil Rough­ley. Human Nature, Stan­ford Encyc­lo­pe­dia of Philo­sophy:
  • Maria Kron­feld­ner; Neil Rough­ley and Georg Töp­fer. Recent Work on Human Nature. Bey­ond Tra­di­tion­al Essences. Philo­sophy Com­pass 9 (2014): 642–652.
  • Neil Rough­ley. Human Natures, in: S. Schleidgen et al (eds.), Human Nature and Self-Design, Pader­born: Mentis 2011, 13–33. PDF
  • Neil Rough­ley. Was heißt ‘mensch­liche Natur’? Begriff­liche Dif­fer­en­zier­ungen und norm­at­ive Ansatzpunkte, in: K. Bay­ertz (ed.), Die mensch­liche Natur. Welchen und wieviel Wert hat sie?, Pader­born: Mentis 2005, 133–156. PDF
  • Neil Rough­ley. After­word: ‘Human Nature’. A Con­cep­tu­al Mat­rix, in: N. Rough­ley (ed.), Being Humans. Anthro­po­lo­gic­al Uni­ver­sal­ity and Par­tic­u­lar­ity in Trans­dis­cip­lin­ary Per­spect­ives, Berlin/New York: de Gruyter 2000, 379–390.

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