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Week 3: Human Nature

Tutor: Dr Claudia Stein

Today the question of human nature is often answered in relation to evolutionary biology, particularly its most sexy disciplines: genetics and the cognitive brain sciences. What human nature is lies in our genes and brain activities, we are told. Once we understand these better and unlock their secrets, human nature is solved, once and for all.

Who does not fall for such a promise? However, the idea that the biological sciences have the key to and authority over what it means to be human is a recent development, emerging only during the later nineteenth century in tandem with the increasing power of evolutionary theory, the rise of global capitalism, and rampant nationalism and imperialism.

What tends to be forgotten is that for the longest period in human history the question of what it means to be human was discussed by philosophers and theologians. The body’s biological functions were not unimportant in these debates but secondary.

The lecture introduces into the history of human nature --- still to be written -- and argues for the great importance of history in the discussion over what it means to be human. It will then move to an early modern example, central to debates over human nature, the soul, in order to demonstrate how problematic it is to reduce the history of human nature to that of evolutionary biology.

Seminar Readings

Bono, James, ‘Medical Spirits and the Medieval Language of Life’, Traditio 40 (1984): 91-130.

Harari, Yuval Noah, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (London, 2011), pp. 3-21.

Smith, Roger, Being Human: Historical Knowledge and the Creation of Human Nature (Manchester, 2007), Introduction and chapter one.

Further Readings

Park, Katharine, ‘The Organic Soul’, in Charles B. Schmitt and Quentin Skinner (eds.), The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy (Cambridge, 1988), pp. 464-484.

Smith, Roger, ‘The Language of Human Nature’, in Roy Porter, Christopher Fox, and Robert Wokler, Inventing Human Science: Eighteenth-Century Domains (Berkeley, 1995), pp. 88-111.

‘Self-Reflection and the Self’, in Roy Porter (ed.), Rewriting the Self: Histories from the Renaissance to the Present (London, 1997), pp. 49-60.

Siraisi, Nancy E., Medieval & Early Renaissance Medicine: an Introduction to Knowledge and Practice (Chicago, 1990), Chapter 4, pp. 78-115.