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Being Human: Human Nature from the Renaissance to Freud (HI281)

Module Convenor:
Office Hours:
Lecture Times:

Dr Claudia Stein
Room H3.12, third floor of the Humanities Building
Monday: 2-3; Tuesday 11.15-12.15
Monday 1-2, MS 5




This 30 CATS undergraduate second-year module introduces students to the different ways in which humans have thought about themselves from the Renaissance to the early 20th century, both as individuals and as collectives. It forwards the idea that ‘human nature’ is not a universal, trans-historical concept constant over time, but rather, is socio-culturally constructed. At different moments in time, ‘being human’ has been constructed and interpreted differently according to dominant values, norms, and systems of knowledge. This module investigates those differences over time in Western culture and how they link to wider social, cultural and economic contexts.

Students will learn about crucial moments in the history of conceptualising and defining ‘human nature,’ from the Renaissance through the Enlightenment, to Freud and early modernity. Among other things, the module explores how 15th-century humanists felt that all that was worthwhile about being human was to be found in God, the scriptures, and classical texts. During the so-called Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, however, it began to be believed that humans possessed the creative power to ‘discover’ new things about themselves and their vastly-expanded world (the ‘new world’ of the Americas).

This module also documents how, especially during the 17th and 18th centuries, the idea of ‘human nature’ came increasingly to be articulated and worried over, and how a new age of ‘humanity’ was envisioned. Rationality and reason became key attributes of the Enlightenment self; sociability, free speech, natural laws and universal rights came to be seen as structuring 'civilised' society. Also important was the linking of individuals and populations to economics and the territorial politics of emergent nation states. In the 19th century this process continued, but ‘being human’ was increasingly defined in terms of natural laws with ever-greater trust being placed in the natural sciences and, ultimately, the science of psychology.

Overall, the module asks how a new age of humanity and new ways of knowing one-self came into being, and discusses what these new ways of understanding the self closed off or overlaid. Underlying the module is the question of the extent to which we are still within the Enlightenment project, or not.




Images: Wellcome Library, London