Originally posted 2 Nov 20
What is the human being? Traditionally, it was thought that human nature was something fixed, given either by nature or by God, once and for all. Humans occupy a unique place in creation by virtue of a specific combination of faculties that they alone possess, and this is what makes us who we are. This view comes from the schools of ancient philosophy such as Platonism, Aristotelianism and Stoicism, as well as the Christian tradition. More recently, it has been argued that there is actually no such thing as human nature but merely a complex set of behaviours and attitudes that can be interpreted in different ways. For this view, all talk of a fixed human nature is merely a naive and convenient way of discussing the human experience, but doesn’t ultimately correspond to any external reality. This view can be found in the traditions of existentialism, deconstruction and different schools of modern philosophy of mind.
There is, however, a third approach that occupies a place between these two. This view, which might be called historicism, claims that there is a meaningful conception of human nature, but that it changes over time as human society develops. This approach is most commonly associated with the German philosopher G W F Hegel (1770-1831). He rejects the claim of the first view, that of the essentialists, since he doesn’t think that human nature is something given or created once and for all. But he also rejects the second view since he doesn’t believe that the notion of human nature is just an outdated fiction we’ve inherited from the tradition. Instead, Hegel claims that it’s meaningful and useful to talk about the reality of some kind of human nature, and that this can be understood by an analysis of human development in history. Unfortunately, Hegel wrote in a rather inaccessible fashion, which has led many people to dismiss his views as incomprehensible or confused. His theory of philosophical anthropology, which is closely connected to his theory of historical development, has thus remained the domain of specialists. It shouldn’t.
With his astonishing wealth of knowledge about history and culture, Hegel analyses the ways in which what we today call subjectivity and individuality first arose and developed through time. He holds that, at the beginning of human history, people didn’t conceive of themselves as individuals in the same way that we do today. There was no conception of a unique and special inward sphere that we value so much in our modern self-image. Instead, the ancients conceived of themselves primarily as belonging to a larger group: the family, the tribe, the state, etc. This meant that questions of individual freedom or self-determination didn’t arise in the way that we’re used to understanding them.