What is Human Nature? - Definition, Theories & Examples

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  • 0:01 Definition of Human Nature
  • 0:56 How We Talk About Our Nature
  • 4:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Michael Sweeney

Michael has taught college Art and secondary English and Social Studies. He has a Master of Fine Arts and a Masters of Library and Information Science.

In this lesson, you will read about major theories that have developed from considering the behaviors and characteristics of humans that have influenced world cultures. Then you can test your knowledge with a quiz.

Definition of Human Nature

When you look in the mirror, you are checking how you appear, what you seem to be, and whether it matches how you feel inside. Thinking about human nature is the equivalent of our whole species looking in the mirror to check its identity. Just as we all react differently to our own reflections in the mirror, the reflection we call human nature is also often disputed.

By definition, human nature includes the core characteristics (feelings, psychology, behaviors) shared by all people. We all have different experiences of the humans in our life, and this is where the disputes begin. Some people will tell you humans are 'good' or 'bad', or 'predators' or 'capable of great kindness.' These views are colored by the influence of the people we know and what our culture and subcultures tell us. The group you are born into will pass on its particular ideas about what makes humans 'human.'

How We Talk About Our Nature

Philosophers and scholars tend to talk human nature based on major schools of thought from human history. Some religion scholars argue that spiritual or religious natures are the key trait in human nature. For example, Judeo-Christian belief presents humans as creations of God that have free will, which provides them both dignity and ethical dangers. Buddhists think that to be human is to be aware (conscious) and to desire.

More broadly, in Western cultures, the discussions usually begin with Plato and Aristotle in classical Greece. Plato thought that humans were rational, social animals, and he connected our nature with our souls and ability to reason rather than our bodies. Aristotle differed primarily in his belief that both body and soul contributed to our human identity. These theories are not mutually exclusive, but have been built upon each other and adapted over time.

Other ideas about human nature have been discussed by historically important figures including Rene Descartes, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud. The following items represent changes in theories from the 1500s to the 20th century.

Descartes (1596-1650) expanded Plato's ideas, describing people as thinking spirits. He was later critiqued by Gilbert Ryle, who, like Aristotle, could not completely separate human mental processes from physical ones. By way of example, Aristotle and Ryle would agree that the action of hammering a nail when building a house inherently weaves mind and body together.

According to Darwin (1809-1882) and the logic of evolution, humans are described as another form of primate. Human life, like any animal's, is experienced as a series of problems to be addressed and resolved. Darwinian thinkers do not raise humans above other animals, but recognize that human characteristics are a product of nature, developed through circumstance and physical characteristics that affect behavior.

Marx (1818-1883) believed that human nature is revealed through the natural progression of history. He believed that history's natural progress could lead humans to true freedom as they recognized the cultural and social factors that alienated them from their natural identity. Like Darwin, Marx took the stance that humans are characterized by their species' traits more than divine influence or a spiritual character.

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