The Idea Of Human Nature

Nowhere is the danger of science undercutting its own possibility more evident than in the field of the social sciences. Much modern controversy has dwelt on the old question of nature or nurture. Are we the product of our biological inheritance or of our social surroundings? Is heredity or environment the dominant factor in making us what we are? The controversy has political overtones, in that the more it is stressed that human nature is fixed, the less we can, it seems, do anything about it. If it is malleable, and indeed the creation of a particular society, then a change in the conditions of society will inevitably produce a change in the characters of its members. Marxism was always inclined to this view, and it made revolution seem a rational way of changing people for the better. Yet the whole point of such a strategy is that people are created by society and that social structures are the main formative influence on us. If this is so, however, how can Marxists, or social scientists, or whoever, hope to abstract themselves from a particular society, in order to make judgements about how it functions, and about its worth? The very possibility of social science, if it is to be more than the articulation of prejudice, presupposes the ability of individuals to transcend the limitations of whatever society they belong to, and make judgements which claim truth. Any view about the influence of society can over-reach itself in this way. If society is the origin of all our judgements and ways of thinking, then how can even this be articulated from within the society? Social science must aspire to proclaim truth about societies and this is a project that depends on the assumption that we can abstract ourselves, or at least distance ourselves, sufficiently from our immediate culture to make judgements about it. This may be difficult, and may involve us giving up some of our dearest prejudices. If, however, it is impossible because all our thoughts and concepts are determined by our social setting, that must be the death of social science. It is paradoxical that the very practice of social science, which begins to cast doubt on views of ourselves as separate asocial individuals, ultimately depends on the assumption that each of us is a locus of a rationality which can never finally be constrained by its surroundings.

The contradictions implicit in a social science which attacks the idea of rational individuals has not prevented various forms of social determinism from exercising great influence. The question of reflexivity has loomed large for many social scientists. They are aware of the dangers of applying their own theories to their own practices. Nevertheless, many have put forward views which suggest that we are creatures of our culture, and that our social environment is what makes us. This has not just meant an attack on the idea of isolated individuals choosing to cooperate. It has meant a denial of the concept of any human nature constant between different times and places. The issue is crystallized in the words of Hume (1975:83). He asks:

Would you know the sentiments, inclinations and course of life of the Greeks and Romans? Study well the temper and actions of the French and English...Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular.

Is there a common human nature? The more that social conditions are invoked to explain our behaviour, or the concepts embedded in our shared, common language appealed to so as to explain our thought, the more this will be doubted. Societies vary and languages change. Once the differences between them are emphasized to the exclusion of similarities, history becomes crucial. We are then the products of our history, and the problem becomes one of building bridges to other times and places. We can no longer invoke a common humanity as a basis of mutual understanding. To revert to Hume, an ability to understand the Greeks and Romans is put very much in question. Their culture, their economic circumstances, their social background, are so remote from our own that we are likely to understand their thought-forms only after they have been filtered through our own. The question of the translation of their languages becomes especially problematic. Indeed, many would allege that the gap between our own day and Hume's in the eighteenth century is nearly as great as that between now and the first century CE. The revolution in industrial methods and in science has, it is claimed, made a new age, and a new humanity.

The Marxist tradition has been particularly influential in emphasizing the role of society and questioning the idea of a common human nature. With its concentration on the communal nature of human life it has had its own influence in the twentieth century on many theological views and has served as a useful antidote to positions which ignore the crucial fact that humans need society and are culture-producing creatures. We are all embedded in a particular historical background, and an emphasis on the relevance of history and on the potency of social institutions can help to counteract views which see us exclusively as biological organisms or exclusively as isolated, ahistorical individuals. Nevertheless, any theory can over-reach itself by concentrating only on one aspect of human life. Marxists can very often both argue that we are all historically determined, and somehow assume that Marxist theory is itself exempt from being regarded as the product of social conditioning.

In the Anglo-American tradition the later work of Wittgenstein has stressed that all our concepts, and hence our reasoning, are learnt and used in a social setting. Particularly in his argument against the possibility of a private language, Wittgenstein was totally opposed to traditional Cartesian dualism. Instead he emphasized that concepts to be meaningful have to be shared, and misuse publicly corrected. This has the effect of making a shared language the pivot on which all our understanding depends. We are not isolated individuals, each reasoning towards truth in a private vacuum. We are the products of a communal 'form of life', using language according to public rules. We are rooted in what is public and social, and the private and individual is secondary to this. Reason is viewed as a component of our way of life, and cannot be separated from it, or stand in judgement on it. Although Marxists have seized on the priority of the social evidenced in Wittgenstein's stress on the communal nature of language, the idea that we are each members of a tradition, and created by it, is also consistent with facets of conservative thought. Certainly there seems very little motive to change for members of any particular form of life, however it is identified. Deliberate change itself requires the very ability to stand back from a culture which is being denied.

One strong tendency in the thought of those who follow the later work of Wittgenstein is the reluctance to justify attitudes or practices in terms of metaphysics. Our attitudes to each other are, it is suggested, not grounded in a metaphysical picture of what a person is. Rather, we are told (Cockburn 1990: ix) that 'the metaphysics is an expression of the attitude, and the attitude itself has no ground'. Thus, the hunger for metaphysics which motivates much theology is dismissed. Instead, we are told to start with human practices and to avoid the search for rational grounding. Dualism is an example of such an attempt, and it is a characteristic of those echoing the later Wittgenstein that they eschew such grand philosophical doctrines by attempting to take our ordinary social and linguistic practices seriously. Such an approach in effect undercuts the whole idea of a theological anthropology which attempts to ground our thought about human beings in a metaphysics. It does have the virtue of showing that we do not have a simple choice between dualism and materialism. The basic problem with such approaches, however, is that very often it is not just a question of how we do talk and behave, but also whether our traditional ways of regarding each other are rationally justifiable. The repudiation of metaphysics stops us ever facing this crucial question.

All views about human nature, and denials that there is such a thing, have theological import. Theologians are often very quick to adapt them for their own purposes. Theories, however, which stress the priority of the social and which under-value the individual spell danger for Christian theologians. The very fact that they can easily place the responsibility for the ills of humanity solely on society, with little mention of the individual or the fact of an inherited human nature, carries vast implications for ideas of salvation. If what is wrong with us is simply the fault of society, this not only removes any question of personal responsibility and sin. It also suggests that the path to change lies wholly in political, even violent, action in removing structures which are perceived to be the root cause of injustice and evil.

Liberation theology has taken this path, and post-modernist theology in North America is also intent on identifying social causes of oppression and domination. Liberation and emancipation are seen as the routes to salvation, and people are seen as being liberated from concrete political sufferings. Our contemporary experience of injustice becomes the way to an understanding of the Christian message. 'The theme of liberation, so desired by those involved in contemporary struggles for justice, becomes a hermeneutical key to the message's meaning' (Taylor 1990:179). When liberation of a political kind becomes the key to Christianity, it follows that our understanding of the historical Jesus will also change. Indeed the theologian just quoted sees the heart of Christianity not so much in the man Jesus as in 'historical realms of communal interaction'. He says: 'This approach to the divinity of Christ understands divine presence—ultimate and healing presence, value and meaning—to be operative in a distinctive, interpersonal communal praxis, and in persons as participants in that communal praxis' (ibid.: 173). In other words, Christ is not to be understood as a historical person at all, but merely as the aspiration of a particular community.

The path to this position is clear enough. Once we stress the absolute priority of the social, and the crucial role of social structures in creating individuals, the radical changes of history will make the historical Jesus remote and irrelevant. Without Hume's confident belief in a common human nature, there will be nothing to unite us with the Greeks or Romans. Their life was not ours. There is no point of common reference, and no similarity of understanding of any common world, no shared hopes or fears or anything else. Yet for a faith, like Christianity, based on particular historical events, this is dynamite. If even the practice of history and the possibility of understanding other languages and the thought-forms of other cultures are put in question, the origins of Christianity, and of any other religion, are put beyond our reach. The historical Jesus is made at best irrelevant, and at worst incomprehensible to us. If the most important thing about us is that we are human, we can share that with Jesus. We can identify with him and he can be an example to us. If, though, he is to be dismissed as a product of an alien culture, the speaker of an alien language, and the inhabitant of a world long gone, Christianity, if it is to survive, can only do so by turning its back on the historical Jesus. Instead it will see the Christ as something quite different, something that is the reflection of whatever are the current concerns of our own society. It is questionable whether the result can be Christianity as it has been traditionally understood. Indeed, since we are trapped in our own age, even the traditional understandings of Christianity are going to be beyond our reach.

The Incarnation, in fact, has traditionally been seen as God somehow sanctifying human nature, so that Jesus' nature is somehow meant to be the pattern for all humanity. Yet it can only be of significance to us that the Word was made flesh, if the divine Word is relevant to us today and if the flesh referred to is our flesh too. Christianity, it seems, needs a doctrine of humanity as much as it needs a doctrine of God. Once it is suggested that there is no such thing as humanity or human nature, the idea of Jesus being both human and divine is no longer applicable. This is not just a question of the irrelevance of the thought-forms of one society to our own. The point is that the very category on which the doctrine depends has been undermined. It has always seemed problematic how a particular man could also be God. Now in some quarters, the category of 'man' or 'human' is in doubt. When who we are depends on our social circumstances, it becomes impossible to appeal to a category of being human in a way that can bridge and transcend all particular societies. There is no longer such a thing as the human condition. Human beings as such can no longer be in need of a Saviour. Human needs become localized and made specific to the needs of those in particular societies. There is no possibility of standing outside all societies and talking of human sin, or even of injustice in the abstract, let alone human rights. What we need, it is concluded, must be totally different from what those alien members of far distant cultures once perceived as important and necessary.

In this way sin becomes by definition merely a social category and not one which can be applied to individuals. Responsibility for injustice is laid firmly on social structures. Individuals are seen as mere puppets being directed by social forces of which they may not be fully aware. It is hardly surprising that those who are impelled by this collectivist vision see religion in increasingly political terms. The remedy for evil can only be social. They would deny that changing individuals will do anything to eradicate what is seen as wrong. Yet the relativism implicit in the collectivist emphasis on society is itself corrosive. Not only is human nature denied, but all moral categories have to be viewed as relative to the thought-forms of a particular society. Evil and sin are no longer terms with any cosmic significance. Different societies will see injustice and evil so differently that there is likely to be little connection between what is denounced in different cultures. Without a human nature there can be no natural law nor any fixed moral standards applying to all humans everywhere. Christianity will then inevitably be seen itself to take different shapes in different epochs and places. Even what it is against may vary from time to time. It is, of course, obviously true that Christianity has been expressed in many different social forms over the last two millennia. This fact can itself seem to provide a spur for relativism. Many, however, would still maintain that the basic message of Christianity, addressed to the same human condition, has persisted through that time. Whether there can in fact be such a thing as 'the Christian Gospel' proclaimed unchanged through the ages to meet unchanging human needs remains one of the great controversies of this age. Yet the shifting sands of relativism can provide no firm basis for religion or for theology. There will no longer be any agreement about what is wrong with human beings or what is needed to put it right. Indeed, as we have seen, the idea of 'human' beings is suspect. This in turn means that doctrines of sin and salvation lose their import, unless these are given very particular application to the passing characteristics of one society.

It is not just the person of Christ which is made to seem remote and irrelevant to us. The whole of the Bible, and indeed of any other sacred text in any religion, must be seen as the product of a historical period with which we have little in common. In the case of the New Testament, the denial of any common human nature removes any possibility that the desires and interests of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire in the first century CE will be echoed by our own. In fact the abyss that is thus dug between the two historical periods becomes so great that no amount of hermeneutical understanding will suffice to cross it. It is indeed curious that the discipline of hermeneutics which began with the question of how to understand biblical texts can easily in the end produce the conclusion that all such understanding is strictly impossible. It is always going to reflect our own presuppositions and the prejudices of our culture. Texts can then be read in a myriad ways, with no way being better than any other. That in fact is the post-modernist view.

The collectivist position is mirrored philosophically at the other extreme by a strongly individualist one. Yet just as the collectivist image left no room for individual responsibility, the individualist one can do the same. This time it is not because it fails to recognize individuals, but because it fails to accept that they have any responsibility to each other in a social setting. An emphasis on society and its structure can easily result in human relationships being seen exclusively in terms of power, of domination and oppression. Different impersonal forces meet and clash, and different group interests are pursued. The same emphasis on power, conflict and coercion can occur in a second influential picture of society, which stresses that a society is merely the sum total of its parts. We are each regarded as separate atoms, ultimately unrelated to each other and all ruthlessly pursuing our own interests and desires. Such views often hope that out of this chaos an invisible hand, perhaps God's, will somehow produce a common good. Yet each individual will manipulate and use the other for his or her own ends. Everything is reduced to the calculation of personal interest, and altruism is made to seem deviant. Even morality, if it enters the picture at all, is made merely the object of personal preference. Human beings are regarded simply as the owners of desires. Rationality is seen in a purely instrumentalist fashion as the means to working out the fulfilment of our fixed desires. There is no question of our standing back from what we want and questioning whether we ought to want it. That would presuppose the existence of a self, fully responsible and able to make significant decisions. Once again, as in so many areas of philosophy, the role of reason is downgraded.

The idea of a human community as simply a collection of individuals is nowhere more graphically illustrated than in the engraving at the front of the early editions of Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan. There the king sits in his regalia, but on closer inspection his body is seen to be made up of lots of little men, each whole and separate from the rest. The idea is that the state is formed by the voluntary association of selfish individuals banding together for their own protection. This is very different from the picture favoured by St Paul and referred to frequently by him, of the Church as a living organism, identified with Christ or else with Christ as its Head. This idea is that we each belong to each other, as do the various parts of the body to the other parts. Disease in one area affects the whole. It follows that we each have a special responsibility to contribute to the good of the whole. We have an identity apart from the rest, and so this is not collectivism. Yet at the same time we are not isolated egoists but have an obligation to care for the other members of Christ's body. Relationships between people should, it seems, be ones of love and not of power. We each matter, because we are all God's children. We should love because he first loved us. Faced with the alternatives of a collectivism which is also willing to sacrifice the individual for the sake of the mass, and an extreme individualism which seems to exalt the amoral and ruthless pursuit of self-interest, this traditional image of the Church as the body of Christ might seem an attractive one. The relationship of the individual to the community, and in particular to the Church, has, however, been an issue which has caused great divisions. Whether this has occurred because of different visions of our relationship with each other, or just because of competition for power within the Church is another matter. The fact remains that from the authoritarian structures of the Roman Catholic Church to the individualism of a Quaker meeting there is a wide gulf of understanding in how we each relate to a wider community.

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