Human nature in the humanities
and human sciences

(notes for part of the 9/13 lecture)

In taking "human nature" as its inaugural theme, the Penn Humanities Forum is returning the humanities to their roots.

In Latin, studia humanitatis means literally "studies of human nature."

From Roman times onward, studia humanitatis were the core of the liberal (literally "free") arts. A liberal education, of course, was not "free" in the sense of "free lunch", but rather "free" in the sense of "not a slave:" the education of a free man.

Since, as Wittgenstein famously said, "etymology is destiny," let's look briefly into the history of these words.

Lewis and Short entry for studium:

studium, ii, n. [studeo], a busying one's self about or application to a thing; assiduity, zeal, eagerness, fondness, inclination, desire, exertion, endeavor, study: studium est animi assidua et vehemens ad aliquam rem applicata magnā cum voluntate occupatio, ut philosophiae, poėticae, geometriae, litterarum, Cic. Inv. 1, 25, 36. . . .

II. In partic.

A. Zeal for any one; good-will, affection, attachment, devotion, favor, kindness, etc . . .

B. Application to learning or studying, study; in the plur., studies . . .

Lewis and Short entry for humanitas:

hūmānitas, ātis, f. [humanus], human nature, humanity, in a good sense; the qualities, feelings, and inclinations of mankind. . . .

B. Transf., concr., i. q. humanum genus, the human race, mankind (very rare; mostly post-class.) . . .

II. In partic.

A. Humane or gentle conduct towards others, humanity, philanthropy, gentleness, kindness, politeness . . .

B. Mental cultivation befitting a man, liberal education, good breeding, elegance of manners or language, refinement . . .

Lewis and Short entry for liberalis:

līberālis, e, adj. [1. liber], of or belonging to freedom, relating to the freeborn condition of a man. . . .

II. Transf., befitting a freeman, gentlemanly, noble, noble-minded, honorable, ingenuous, gracious, kind . . .

A. In gen.: . . . artes liberales, befitting a freeman, Cic. Inv. 1, 25, 35

B. In partic.

1. Bountiful, generous, munificent, liberal . . .

b. Of things, plentiful, copious, abundant . . .

2. Noble, engaging, beautiful (ante-class.) . . . Hence, adv.: līberāliter, in a manner befitting a freeman, nobly, ingenuously, kindly, courteously, graciously. . . .

By late Mediaeval times, these studies had been codified as the seven liberal arts, divided into a group of three known as the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, logic) and a group of four known as the quadrivium (geometry, arithmetic, music, astronomy).

After the advent of Christianity, these studies came to be seen as humanities in a new sense: they were what concerned man as opposed to God, humane studies as opposed to divine studies; humanities as opposed to theology.

The Renaissance thinkers known as humanists were so called because they put special emphasis on the human realm and therefore on studia humanitatis. In this they can be seen both as looking backwards to classical times and also forwards to modern secularism.

During the nineteenth century, the physical sciences matured to the point of having their own curriculum and their own social structures, and the humanities came to be distinguished not from studies of divinity but rather from studies of the material world. As the success and prestige of scientific methods increased still further, scientific ways of investigating human beings -- singly or in groups -- became established as psychology, sociology, economics, anthropology and so on.

Attempts to define the humanities have focused sometimes on content -- say, those subjects dealing crucially with human meaning and purpose -- and sometimes on methods -- investigations that value the particular without necessarily seeking general laws. Though such definitions provide some insight, none of them gives a adequate account of the various activities that go by the name of "humanities."

In fact, the definition of the humanities has became in effect a negative one -- what is left of academic scholarship after various scientific fields have been split off. In some areas, the splits have been incomplete and there have also been partial mergers. Many areas of philosophy have close ties with mathematics, with the natural sciences, and even with engineering. Linguistics includes researchers who properly regard themselves as natural or social scientists, and also sometimes as engineers. Classics and History overlap in part with Archeology and Economics.

The connections between the humanities and the social sciences have been especially close. As a result, although the humanities are etymologically the study of human nature, many -- maybe most -- humanists now doubt that there is any such thing as human nature. At least, they doubt that "human nature" is a concept with any intellectual content specific enough to be worth studying. In this, they follow the development of the social sciences in the 20th century, which has led to what is now sometimes called "the standard social science model" (SSSM).

The standard social science model:

"A set of assumptions and inferences about humans, their minds, and their collective interaction ... that has provided the conceptual foundations of the social sciences for nearly a century..."

In fact, these assumptions and inferences have been largely shared with the humanities and the arts, at least in the academic world. would be strangely mistaken about our thought if ... he drew the conclusion that sociology, according to us, must, or even can, make an abstraction of man and his faculties. It is clear. . . that the general characteristics of human nature participate in the work of elaboration from which social life results. But they are not the cause of it, nor do they give it its special form; they only make it possible. Collective representations, emotions, and tendencies are caused not by certain states of the consciousness of individuals but by the conditions in which the social group, in its totality, is placed. Such actions can, of course, materialize only if the individual natures are not resistant to them; but these individual natures are merely the indeterminate material that the social factor molds and transforms. Their contribution consists exclusively in very general attitudes, in vague and consequently plastic predispositions which, by themselves, if other agents did not intervene, could not take on the definite and complex forms which characterize social phenomena.

(Emil Durkheim, 1895).

Sketch of the arguments behind the SSSM, taken from Cosmides and Tooby, "The Psychological Foundations of Culture," in Barkow, Cosmides and Tooby, The Adapted Mind (1992):

  1. Rapid historical change and spontaneous "cross-fostering experiments" dispose of the racist notion that intergroup behavioral differences are genetic. Infants everywhere have the same developmental potential.
  2. Althoughs infants are everywhere the same, adults everywhere differ profoundly in their behavioral and mental organization. Therefore, "human nature" (the evolved structure of the human mind) cannot be the cause of the mental organization of adult humans, their social systems, their culture, etc.
  3. Complexly organized adult behaviors are absent from infants. Whatever "innate" equipment infants are born with must therefore be viewed as highly rudimentary -- an unorganized set of crude urges or drives, along with a general ability to learn. Infants must acquire adult mental organization from some external source in the course of development.
  4. The external source is obvious: this organization is manifestly present in the behavior and the public representations of other members of the local group. "Cultural phenomena are in no respect hereditary but are characteristically and without exception acquired." "Undirected by culture patterns -- organized systems of significant symbols -- man's behavior would be virtually ungovernable, a mere chaos of pointless acts and exploding emotions, his experience virtually shapeless" (Geertz 1973). This establishes that the social world is the cause of the mental organization of adults.
  5. The cultural and social elements that mold the individual precede the individual and are external to the individual. The mind did not create them; they created the mind. They are "given, and the individual finds them already current in the community when he is born." (Geertz 1973). The causal flow is overwhelmingly or entirely in one direction: the individual is the acted upon and the sociocultural world is the actor.
  6. Therefore, what complexly organizes and richly shapes the substance of human life -- what is interesting and distinctive and worthy of study -- is the variable pool of stuff that is referred to as 'culture". But what creates culture?
  7. Culture is not created by the biological properties of individual humans -- human nature.
  8. Rather, culture is created by some set of emergent processes whose determinants are realized at the group level. The sociocultural level is a distinct, autonomous and self-caused realm. "Culture is a thing sui generis which can be explained only in terms of itself .. Omnis cultura ex cultura." (Lowie 1917). Alfred Kroeber "The only antecedents of historical phenomena are historical phenomena." Emil Durkheim "The determining cause of a social fact should be sought among the social facts preceding it and not among the states of individual consciousness." Geertz "Our ideas, our values, our acts, even our emotions, are, like our nervous system itself, cultural products -- products manufactured, indeed, out of tendencies, capacities, and dispositions with which we were born, but manufactured nonetheless." (1973).
  9. Therefore, the SSSM denies that "human nature" -- the evolved architecture of the human mind -- can play any notable role as a generator of significant organization in human life... In so doing, it removes from the concept of human nature all substantive content, and relegates the architecture of the human mind to the narrowly delimited role of embodying "the capacity for culture."

From this perspective, the choice of "human nature" as the inaugural theme for the Humanities Forum is surprising and even shocking.