Critical Perspectives on Human Nature

Course Description: 

Is talk about ‘human nature’ in “crisis” as Ernst Cassirer (1944) postulated? Is ‘human nature’ even a “Western illusion,” as Marshall Sahlins (2008) recently suggested? Does it exist? If it exists, what does it amount to and why should we care about it? Can sciences tell us what it amounts to? Do humans use it as an ideal, i.e. to ascribe normatively how humans should be? Is it a social tool, used to exclude people on the margins of a society (e.g. poor people) or specific groups (e.g. refugees, ethnic groups, women) by perceiving them as ‘less human’? These and similar questions will concern us in this course.

After a historical and systematic introduction, we will start with Marshall Sahlins (2008) challenging book “The Western illusion of human nature” and then go into material related to the study of human nature in Post-WW2 sciences. We will then diversify our perspectives with selected scientific and philosophical papers from the recent collection “Arguing about human nature” (2013), ed. by S. Downes and E. Machery, and read further material pertinent to issues such as essentialism, genealogy, innateness, nature-nurture, dehumanization, normalcy, enhancement, pluralism versus unity of science. Ample room will be provided for the specific research interests of students and no specific philosophical background knowledge is necessary. 

Learning Outcomes: 

Students will understand the core philosophical issues involved in a broad and interdisciplinary topic such as human nature. They will practice their reading, analytic and discussion skills. No preliminary knowledge about the subject is necessary for successful participation.


Students are required to read the mandatory material for each class and to participate in oral and written discussions. For that, each student has to start two discussion threads in the online chat room of the course and to react to at least four threads with a substantial comment.

Because of the research-focused style of the course, it is essential to participate regularly. During the course students will have to already formulate their own research proposal, which they develop over the last weeks into their final paper (3000 words) under the guidance of the lecturer. Students are encouraged to follow their own interest, disciplinary background, material covered (be it diverse fields from philosophy, anthropology, sociology, gender studies, history of science, visual studies, literary studies, nationalism studies, religious studies, etc.)

Grading will be based on: written final paper 50%, in class and online discussion participation 50%.

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