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Week 3: Human Nature

Tutor: Dr Imogen Peck

NB. This seminar will take place in Dr Poskett's office (H0.19, Humanities Building)

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.

Seminar Readings

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755) Online edition:

Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan (1651), chapters 1-16. Online edition:

For an introduction to early modern political thought as it relates to human nature, see here:

Further Readings

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

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

Porter, Roy (ed.), Rewriting the Self: Histories from the Renaissance to the Present (London, 1997)

Porter, Roy, Christopher Fox, and Robert Wokler (eds), Inventing Human Science: Eighteenth-Century Domains (Berkeley, 1995)

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

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

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

Thornton, Helen, State of Nature or Eden? Thomas Hobbes and his Contemporaries on the Natural Condition of Human Beings (2005)