No Human Nature is the Best Theory of Human Nature
It was not until Socrates, the philosopher, decided to start studying human beings, did the philosophical study and debate of human nature begin. As time grew onward, more philosophers followed and tried to determine what key phenomenal features humans possessed. Those certain features that made human beings so unique. Thus creating different theoretical outlooks of human nature. With each of these theories of human nature having their own strong points and faults, we run into the issue of how we go about choosing which theory is most reasonable and the one we should believe. This is where the four criteria, used when evaluation worldviews, becomes handy. The four criteria are consistency, coherence, comprehensiveness and correctness. These criteria give us a way to analyze and decided for ourselves which outlook does the best at having no contradictions, having all the parts support each other, takes into account all the data that is available to us, and gets to the truth. In this paper, I will discuss how existentialism is the most sensible theory of human nature.
In my exploration of existentialism as the most reasonable theory of human nature, I will begin by define what the phenomenal features of human experience are and explain what I believe to the most essential features in the philosophical study of human nature. Only then will I continue by demonstrating how existentialism, the outlook that I believe is most correct, addresses these phenomenal features that I have discuss beforehand. Like every philosophical theory, not everyone is in agreement with it. Subsequently, I will explain an objection that might be brought up against the points I intend to discuss and will follow the objection with a response. Lastly, I will wrap up my essay with a concise summary of my conclusions.
In the philosophical world of the study of human nature, there are phenomenal features of human experience. Phenomenal features of human experience is just a fancy way of saying apparent key features, or data, of human beings. Essentially, it is the appearance of what is true about the understanding of ourselves as humans. It is the starting point when evaluating a philosophical theory of human nature. For me, I consider the important phenomenal human features to be that there is no pre-given nature. No pre-given nature means we define who we are to become. We are completely free beings. This means our values, truth, morals, purpose in life, and rules are subjective and personal. In turn, we construct our future and destiny by the choices that we freely make. However, because we are radically free, and unable to escape this freedom, that also makes us responsible for the choices we do make. Every choice not only effects ourselves, but those around us as well. Furthermore, as humans, we are unique dignified creatures that are a part of nature.
I believe that existentialism is the best theory of human nature to address the phenomenal features I laid out earlier. Existentialism is by definition a theory that makes human life plausible. It starts on the mental side of things, and states that every action we take and choice we make, “implies a human setting and a human subjectivity” (Sartre 10). What is meant by this, is that existing comes before our human nature. Jean-Paul Sartre, an existentialist philosopher, describes it best, “existence precedes essence, or, if you prefer, that subjectivity must be the starting point” (13) when it comes to human beings. Sartre continues to explain what he means by existentialism. In his explanation, he states that, “there are two kinds of existentialism; first, those who are Christian….and on the other hand the atheistic existentialist” (13). Existentialism leaves room for both religion and those who are atheist because they both believe existence precedes essence. Atheistic existentialism is what Sartre himself believes to be more coherent. For him, God is a contradictory combinations of agent qualities, characteristics that seem to belong to a subject or person, and being qualities, characteristics we associate with things or objects. For example saying God is unchanging is a being quality. That would mean that he does not act or is active in any way. Nevertheless, active is an agent quality given to God. Sartre believes that since the idea of God is contradictory, that God does not exist. This is where things get little complicated. Since Sartre says there is no God creating humans and, “man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself” (15), then this means that his theory of human existence is not one of human nature. There is no human nature due to the fact there is no God to create this human nature. This is somewhat ironic since I am arguing that existentialism is the best theory of human nature, which really means the best theory of human nature is no human nature. Sartre goes on to explain that we do have a nature when we are dead, but it would not be a human nature since once we are dead, we are no longer human. We are not human when we are dead because when we are alive we are human. When we are dead we are not the same as when we were alive. Therefore, we must be something else when we are dead giving us some kind of nature, just not a human one. Theistic existentialism does say there is a God or human maker, but does deny that this divine creator pre-exists human nature. What this all means is that with no God, or no God pre-existing human nature, and no nature to define who we are, we are radically free beings. “Man will be what he will have planned to be” (16). All the choices we choose to make, shape who we are and are freely chosen. Additionally, since we just exist, we are part of nature because we are not given a nature. Sartre says, “[externalism] is the only one which gives man dignity, the only one which does not reduce him to an object” (37). He is referring mostly to materialism which reduces all living things, including humans, to substances. I agree with existentialism on this point because I do think that humans are more than just the elements of which they are made.
Friedrich Nietzsche, an earlier existentialist philosopher, has the same ideas as Sartre. Through a story about a Madman, Nietzsche explains that because the belief in the existence of God no longer shapes the way people carry out their lives, culturally God is dead. Subsequently, with no God, there are no longer standards which allow us to evaluate things. This means we cannot make judgments, whether morally or otherwise. We do not have a standard in which to value or find the purpose of things. Nietzsche determines that we must take the place of God. We must create our own reality and rules. All our values, morals, purpose, and truth are invented by ourselves making them all subjective and personal. For instance, gold, silver, and platinum are all considered precious metals. These things did not come with a sign on it saying “high value.” We created its value. It is the same with salt. In World War II it was rationed and therefor very valuable, but now it is not a treasured commodity. I consider a dream catcher that was my grandfather as one of my prized possession, but to someone else it is just another dream catcher with little value. We all value things differently.
Nietzsche also explains that we invent the notion of truth. Truth is just using words in a consistent way. Therefore a lie would be not using words in that consistent way. Both Nietzsche and Sartre reach the conclusion that we create our own rules, morals, truth, values, and purpose. As a result we are completely free and we shaping who we will become. “Man is the future of man” (23) and “man’s destiny is within himself” (36). Sartre clarifies that this freedom is not something we can escape from since even trying to fail to freely choose and define ourselves, is actually an expression of our freedom. Moreover, as free humans, “once thrown into the world, [we are] responsible for everything [we do]” (23). We are responsible for the choices we make because they not only will shape ourselves, but our choices will affect others. Alternatively, Nietzsche believes that, “one lives for the day, one lives very fast, one lives very irresponsibly; precisely this is called ‘freedom’” (Nietzsche 39). He does not think we should be responsible for the choices we make. I do think part of what Nietzsche says is true. I agree there are those, including me, that “live for the day.” Personally I think that it is not a bad thing to live every day as if it would be your last. That does not mean I think we are irresponsible for the choices we make when living every day like the last. Like Sartre says. “Everything happens as if all mankind had its eyes fixed on him and were guiding itself by what he does” (Sartre 20). We should be responsible for whom we become since we made those choices that make us who we are as well.
Not surprisingly, not everyone agrees that existentialism is the best theory of human nature. There are those, including the post-modern philosophers such as Walker Percy and C.S. Lewis, that would argue that with everyone having subjective morals, values, and rules, it will lead to relativism. There is no objective ground for any shared values, morals or nature for that matter. Subjective morals would mean everyone would be practicing different morals so no one is ever right or wrong. It would be my argument that the fact that everyone one is free and must choose themselves is in itself the value of authenticity. There is also the value of solidarity which is the realization that the choices I freely make entail that it will be a model for others. Furthermore, Sartre states that although it is impossible for everyone to have a universal nature, “there does exist a universal condition” (38). He goes on to say that the “thinkers” of today talk more about the human condition then human nature. By condition, these thinkers actually mean “the a priori limits which outline man’s fundamental situation in the universe” (38). “A priori limits” are limits that come from logical reasoning and not from experience. They do not require hard evidence to be considered to be true. These limits are both objective, since they are found and recognizable everywhere, and subjective because they would be nothing without man living freely and determining his own existence with a reference to these limits. One example Sartre gives, is that it may differ what family different people are born into, but it does not differ from the fact that they must exist and live. “Consequently, every configuration, however individual it may be, has a universal value” (39). Every ‘configuration’ can be understood by man making it a universal value in that respect.
In a nutshell, existentialism for me seems like the best theoretical outlook of human nature. It is the only outlook that gives humans dignity by not reducing them to mere objects as well as has room for both theists and atheists. Furthermore, existentialism states that “existence precedes essence.” We are not given a nature prior to existing, meaning that we are entirely free beings that define ourselves in addition to our own destiny through the choices we make. Despite being free, we are still responsible for our choices. Being radically free also means that our values, morals, truth, rules, and purpose in life are subjective and individual. Some would say that this means there are no shared values, but authenticity and solidarity are two values that are shared by everyone. Not to mention that every “configuration” has a universal value. This all goes to show that not having a pre-existing human nature turns out to be the most reasonable theory of human nature in my opinion.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Portable Nietzsche. Trans. Walter Kaufman. Penguin, 1954. Print.Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism and Human E