|Philosophy and Human Nature
Instructor: Doug Al-Maini
Class & Room Time: NH16 Mon. 10:15-11:00, Wed. 9:15-10:00, Fri. 8:15-9:00
Office & Office Hours: NH518 Mon. 11:15-12:00, Wed. 10:15-12:00, Fri. 9:15-11:00
This class is intended to introduce students to the philosophical analysis of human nature. We shall begin by familiarizing ourselves with one of the earliest Western excursions into the theory of natural law that was carried out in response to queries concerning the human condition. The premises that serve as the foundation for the theory of natural law will help in guiding our analysis of subsequent theories of human nature, especially in Plato, Aristotle, and the Bhagavad Gita. By the end of the course, students should be able to give a somewhat insightful response to the question, “What does it mean to be human?” from various philosophical perspectives and be able to enunciate why the study of such a question is so important. Topics to be covered include the nature of the soul, the role of the appetites, the mind/body problem, what constitutes a “good” relationship with other people, gender differences, essentialism vs. the plasticity of human nature, and what it might mean to have an aesthetic sense.
Week Topic Readings
1 Natural Law Theory The Sophists on Human Nature (handout)
2 Physis/Nomos debate Handout; Plato, Phaedrus
3 Tri-partite soul Plato, Phaedrus (entire dialogue)
4 Immortality of the Soul Plato, Phaedrus
5 Love Plato, Phaedrus
6 The Vegetative Soul Aristotle, De Anima bk. II, 1-4.
7 Perception Aristotle, De Anima bk. II, 5-6, 12.
8 The Mental Faculties Aristotle, De Anima bk. III, 1-6
9 Knowing, Memory Aristotle, De Anima bk. III, 7-12
10 Death Bhagavad Gita 1-6
11 Action and Yoga Bhagavad Gita 7-12
12 Holism vs. Discreteness Bhagavad Gita 13-18
Assignments: Students will be required to complete four short written responses to the ideas presented in the text, and a final exam. The first response should only be one page in length, and will only be worth 5%; it will serve as a diagnostic work as well as a graded example. Each subsequent response will be worth 15% of the final grade, the essay will be worth 25%, and the final will be worth 25%. A response will consist in an answer to one of the questions given in the assignments below. Students must provide a response to one question from each section. The response should be roughly two to three pages in length (500-750 words). The essay should be roughly 5-7 pages in length (1250-1750 words). In the first class I’ll go over some general comments on how to construct a philosophical response, or at least what kinds of things I’m looking for in the assignments; responses will be evaluated according to the attached assessment form.
Response Questions (answer only one question from each section):
1st Section: Due Sept. 24th (This assignment should only be 1 page in length, and is worth 5%)
1) Explain the reasoning behind the Sophists’ conclusion that the relationship between human nature and society is strained. You must include the Sophistic justification for the necessity of living in society and their basic principles of human nature.
2nd Section: Due Oct. 15th
1) The Phaedrus gives an extended analysis of the human mind, and one topic that Plato fixates on is the extent of human knowledge. Does Plato believe that at least some humans are capable of perfect and full knowledge? Do you agree with him?
2) Can people who never fall in love achieve their full potential as human beings? Be sure in your answer to make use to Plato’s analysis of love in the justification of your opinion.
3rd Section: Due Nov. 5th
1) Why does Aristotle think plants and animals consume food and reproduce? Here students must make reference to the principle end that Aristotle thinks all life aims at.
2) According to Aristotle, can a person who is born completely blind and totally deaf still contemplate? Why does Aristotle have this opinion?
4th Section: Due Nov. 30th
1) Krishna is generally very supportive of Arjuna’s bewilderment, and mostly seeks to ease Arjuna’s discomforts. One might even say that Krishna handles Arjuna with “kid gloves”. But crucially, Krishna does show a different, less gentle facet to his nature. When does this occur? And why is it necessary for Arjuna to experience it?
2) The task of the Bhagavad Gita has been described as providing a road map to self-understanding, but curiously, this is accomplished through empathy: “When a person responds to the joys and sorrows of others as if they were his own, he has attained the highest state of spiritual union.” How is it that this level of empathy in fact leads to self awareness, rather than a dissolution of the self?
Essay Questions (answer only one of these questions): Essay due in Exam Period
1) All the major philosophers studied so far hold an immaterialist position in the philosophy of the mind; that is to say they all believe that the mind is not (or at least not solely) a physical object. What are the arguments they marshal in support of this position? Do you agree? Why or why not?
2) Similarly, all the major authors we have studied have argued for some kind of immortality of the soul. The question here revolves around what kind of a soul could be immortal. For Plato, Aristotle, and the Gita, what does the immortal soul have to look like in order to meet the constraints of their various metaphysical positions?
3) We have spent the semester studying traits and characteristics shared by human beings, but, following a famous Scottish philosopher, one might wonder what the importance of such a study is. Does human nature itself provide the necessary guidance to determining how should live? Why would this be the case?
4) Is the philosophical life the most fulfilling life? Students must use arguments gleaned from all of the major texts we studied this semester in answering this question.
5) Is there such a thing as a fixed human nature? If you believe there is such a thing, provide what you think are the essential features of this nature, and explain why they are fixed, never to be altered. What does this view entail for the scope of human freedom? If you think human nature is not fixed, then explain all the regularity in human action that you see around you.
6) Are humans inherently selfish and individualistic or altruistic and community-minded? Making use of at least two of the authors we have studied, defend your response to this question.
7) Create a work of art that provides an examination of some philosophical problem or theme we have covered this semester. If you are enrolled in the Fine Art program, you may paint a picture, do an etching, or sculpt a figure that does the same. If you are a musician, write and record a song. Include with your art piece an explanation of how it illustrates the point of the principle or argument you wish to explore, and how it builds upon what you have learned in this class. The explanation of your art MUST be at least three pages long, and it must explicate the art, not just give a summation of some philosophy. A word of warning here: this is not the time to discover whether or not you can draw. I also expect to keep all artwork handed in, unless you make a special plea to get it back. If you wish to see examples of previous art assignments handed in, I should have a few examples hanging around in my office.
Technical Considerations for Written Assignments:
1) All written assignments must be typed (black ink, please) and double-spaced on pages with at most 1 inch margins. No extra line spaces between paragraphs. Indent the first line of a paragraph. Printing on both sides of a sheet of paper is quite acceptable.
2) Please no title pages. Also no “Works Cited” or “Bibliography” pages referring to one work; do bibliographic references in a footnote if you must. Also no enormously large-fonted titles, names, dates, course numbers, student numbers, phone numbers, or due dates that take up half a page of space. Your title, name, and student number at the top of the first page is quite sufficient. Please visibly number any multiple-page assignments. If for some reason you must hand in the assignment to the office, please include my name at the top of the assignment as well.
3) No duo-tangs, folders, binders, or paperclips. Please staple the pages of your work together. Do not hand in loose sheets of paper.
4) Under no circumstances will emailed assignments be accepted. Please hand in your assignments at the start of class on the day they are due.
5) For help on writing humanities papers, please consult the website
This site gives an excellent overview on what a philosophy paper is all about and how to write it.
6) The final page of this outline is the evaluation form that will be used in the assessment of your writing. This evaluation form provides the clearest explanation of my requirements for an essay. Please, study it carefully before you write your work.
7) Many of the above requirements are arbitrary demands on my part, but they really do facilitate the assessment of your work. If you do not follow these guidelines, YOUR MARK FOR ORGANIZATION ON THE EVALUATION FORM WILL SUFFER DRASTICALLY.
8) My late policy is a 3% reduction per day late. You will have known the due dates for your assignments since the start of the semester, thus providing you with ample time to complete your work, so last minute excuses will be met with some skepticism.
9) Plagiarism is completely unacceptable. If you make use of an idea that is not of your own devising, you must cite the source of that idea.
10) Students are obliged to keep a spare copy of their completed assignments for themselves.
Plato, Phaedrus, Hackett Publishing Company (March 1995). ISBN: 0872202208
Aristotle, On the Soul and On Memory and Recollection, Green Lion Press (September 2001). ISBN: 1888009179.
Eknath Easwaran, The Bhagavad Gita, Nilgiri Press, 2007
(Late assignments will not receive comments)
Grammar: Are the sentences understandable? Are there any spelling mistakes? Is the diction clear and
concise? Can the thought behind each sentence easily be grasped?
Organization: Do the ideas logically follow each other, or were they haphazardly strewn together? Do the ideas flow from each other, with explicit premises deductively producing conclusions? Are the arguments connected at all, showing a chain of reasoning?
Thesis: Do the assignment give an answer to a question or problem put forward? Is the answer more
than a simple “yes” or “no”? Is the answer insightful, being an interpretive idea itself? Is the
thesis explicitly stated?
Arguments: Are there arguments presented in the paper? Are the arguments interesting or banal?
Do the arguments explicitly outline broad premises that act as guides to understanding and reveal
The unquestioned perspectives adopted in the paper?
Originality: Does the student provide input into the conceptual debates the text engages in? Is there evidence
of insight on the student’s part into the topic? Are there any new ideas being explored in the
assignment? Is the student able to go beyond ideas raised in class discussion?
Evaluation: Does the student give a fair summation of the ideas contained in the texts used? Are passages
from the text cited? Does the use of these ideas meaningfully contribute to the thesis of the essay,
or is the use of material a mere addenda to the main arguments of the paper?