Thesis Outline


1 Introduction

2 Methodological Framework

2.1 A formulation of the required components for the development and justification of a social theory:  social theory – psychology – ontology.

These three areas of explanation are understood as being necessarily theoretically linked. That is, a given social theory has to rely on a psychological portrait of individuals if it is to be seen as being credible in its prescriptions. Any social theory has to address normative concerns and to do so without a psychological portrait is to fail to both explain and understand ones own subject matter. A social theory cannot be advanced in abstraction from those to whom it would apply, it must be credible in its prescriptions where credible is understood to mean able to justify its particular representation of individuals.

Next, a psychological portrait cannot be advanced without giving further justification in relation to the framework out of which it operates, namely, the ontological dimension of personhood. This is merely to ask the question why does a particular psychology obtain at all, and is generally answered (by those theorists we will be studying) through descriptions of human nature, or, of a particular formulation of subjectivity or selfhood. 

This tri-part formulation is of course not meant to be an exhaustive categorisation of what constitutes a social theory. The judiciary, education, economics and so forth would be examples of how we might want to address the question of building such a theory, rather, the point being made here is that all of the above would also need to be theoretically justified according to the formulation outlined in this section. That is, any theory of economics, education or the judiciary would still have to fulfil the criteria I have proposed because to not do so leads to an explanatory failure which undermines the theoretical credibility of any prescriptive or normative claim.

The three philosophers we will be investigating, then, need to demonstrate two forms of argumentation. The first is to satisfy logical demands when arguing for a social theory from a conception of human nature, i.e. does the argument follow through from point a to point b. Secondly, is their conception of human nature credible and sufficiently explicated. 

2.2 The methodological criteria for assessing and categorising claims about human nature and/or the self.

Having advanced the idea that the psychological and ontological dimensions of human existence need to be included within any given social theory this project turns to the manner in which such questions have been pursued in the theories of Rousseau, Hobbes and Marx. The methodological framework that will be utilised to categorise and assess these claims is one which situates the various components of human nature and/or the self as being either necessary or contingent.

The reason for this methodological categorisation is that human psychology is usually understood as arising out of a particular set of conditions, we normally label these conditions the self or human nature, and the various theoretical descriptions of these conditions advanced by Rousseau, Hobbes and Marx are understood by them as existing either as fixed, malleable, somewhere in between or as a mix of the two. Unsurprisingly, very different social theories arise according to where different components fall on this spectrum and therefore this method both clarifies a complex set of theoretical positions and provides an informative bridge which allows us to understand how their respective social theories are justified by specific ideas about human nature.

3 Hobbes

3.1 Overview of Hobbes’s theory of human nature.

Hobbes was a materialist and a psychological determinist. He was also a naturalist arguing that everything could be understood as ‘matter in motion’, accordingly he denied the existence of an immaterial soul. Interestingly he argued for a number of parallels between animals and humans, and his theory of behaviour was one of them. Hobbes took the motivation of self-preservation as underlying all human action and ultimately his theory of human nature is a product of this key point.  

3.2 Self-preservation and the state of nature.

Hobbes argued that humans are ultimately subject to a psychological compulsion towards self-preservation culminating in a logic of pre-emptive violence against others when in a social arena of lawlessness and competition for goods, this he called the ‘state of nature’. 

3.3 Hobbes’s determinism, the role of education, and social change.

This section seeks to examine and explicate the element of plasticity that Hobbes allows for in relation to development and human nature.

3.4 Concluding analysis of the links between Hobbes’s conception of human nature and his social theory.

Taking the position that Hobbes’s proposal of the state of nature is not a historical narrative but rather a cautionary tale justifying the imposition of state authority, we find that, in turn, the credibility of the state of nature rests upon a particular theory of human nature. The psychological determinism that Hobbes argues for gives rise to the logic of the pre-emptive attack which in turn gives rise to the necessity for a sovereign power functioning as a universal deterrent against violence and lawlessness. A clear line can be demonstrated from the social theory to a particular psychological portrait which in turn arises out of a description of the overall condition of individuals.

4 Rousseau

4.1 Overview of Rousseau’s theory of human nature.

Developmental, with change driven through changing social circumstances; amour de soi and amour propre; social identity and the self.

4.2 Subjectivity in the state of nature.

Humans’ psychological and epistemological faculties and tendencies are shaped by the situations surrounding them. For Rousseau, individuals in the state of nature were proto-humans lacking some of the chief characteristics which we would associate with being human. For example he argues that they have no capacity for forward planning, implying the absence of the sort of temporal sophistication that we take for granted in ourselves. A key claim by Rousseau is that individuals are herein characterised by amour de soi, a desire for self-preservation which, however, does not exclude a basic sense of pity in regards to the suffering of others. 

4.3 Subjectivity in the nascent society and the rise of amour propre.

When capacities such as foresight emerge the basis for society emerges alongside them because of the impulse to live in fixed dwellings. Rousseau, like Locke before him, argued that property was the basis for society. With the rise of society comes the transformation of amour de soi into amour propre, and introduces the role of the social identity in Rousseau’s conception of human nature and human behaviour. The only way, Rousseau argues, to substantiate a social role and its concomitant identity is through the eyes of those individuals within that society. Accordingly, individuals were now tied to one another on the basis that the craving for the approbation of one’s social group was a necessary component for the maintenance of one’s identity. In this way, then, a new form of subjectivity is born, composed of a social identity and new psychological drives and needs. Thus, a fundamental lack of secure psychological territory is posited by Rousseau as the very basis for social identity.

4.4 Subjectivity in civil society and in ‘society as it is’.

We now see Rousseau asserting the role of amour propre in the ordering of a newly bourgeoning civil society founded upon a social contract. In this case, however, the social contract – as a manifestation of amour propre – is tailored to favour the rich in order that they can maintain their status and thus secure the psychological need for the esteem of those around them. In this phase we see the role of unchecked amour propre coming to the full, dominating individuals and propelling the status quo in relation to social mores, institutionalised inequality and political failure. 

4.6 Society as it should be – the social theory.

To avoid political failure, an illegitimate social contract, and the ongoing detraction that is amour propre, Rousseau in his prescriptive social theory argues for a series of positions all aimed at mitigating and channelling the otherwise unavoidable psychological conditioning and impulse of amour propre. For Rousseau amour propre is the ultimate detraction from the possibility of political success as such he is in need of a solution to this critical problem. His answer is to take the need for esteem that the individual demonstrates and marry it to the self-image of the country or state as a whole, thus, patriotism transforms amour propre in a social glue because individuals live their lives for the good of their country and so satisfy their need for approbation and at the same time cooperate with their fellow citizens.  

4.7 Concluding analysis of the central points regarding the use of human nature as a justification for the social theory.

Rousseau explicitly frames his social theory as an answer to a particular problem of human nature – amour propre. Amour propre, however, is the desire for the preservation of the social identity, unlike in Hobbes where the preservation of the individual qua being is the dominant motivating factor. According to our criteria of successful argumentation Rousseau must justify his reliance on the role of amour propre if his social theory is to be logically consistent, and, he must demonstrate the credibility of his account. For example, how thoroughly does he characterise the link between amour propre and the social identity? Positing a fundamental insecurity at the very basis for identity results in a set of very specific set of psychological conditions, does Rousseau follow through on his ontology of the self and provide a convincing depiction of these implications?

5 Marx

5.1 Overview of Marx’s conception of human nature.

An analysis of the extent to which Marx’s conception of human nature consisted in historically determined social identities and their concomitant behaviours, and, that of a biologically determined and thus fixed set of motivating conditions. Alienation and the promise of reconciliation in the Communist state; their relationship to a concept of human nature.

5.2 An analysis of plasticity as the precondition for the obtaining of a historically contingent self.

Given Marx’s reliance on the historical nature of the self and behaviour it has been claimed that it follows that in distinction to many ‘classical’ philosophers Marx rejected any form of universalist or essentialist thinking when it came to human nature. In so doing he described individuals as social beings whose natures contingently develop over time according to social circumstance. The question that looms here is to what extent can the conditions for such plasticity themselves be understood as constituting a human nature? Does it make sense to talk about an absence of a human nature at all? If, for example, plasticity is a necessary condition for a historically conditioned self, is it right to understand such plasticity in negative terms as a lack, or rather, would such plasticity also necessarily provide its own determining characteristics?

5.3 Concluding analysis of Marx’s theory of human nature.

Is Marx’s theory of human nature robust, i.e. is it answering the questions it throws up? Is the theory internally, logically, coherent, i.e. does its conclusion follow from its premises, especially in relation to the justifications deployed for the social theory? In regards to 2.2 where does this theory fall?

6 Human Nature and Social Theories

6.1 Describing the shared characteristics of human nature as construed by Hobbes, Rousseau and Marx; the components usually considered the most salient when discussing human nature.

Free will; the self; self-interest; emotions, impulses; animal nature; sociability; rationality; developmental; fixed; teleological; unified; compartmentalised; essentialist; non-essentialist.

6.2 What isn’t human nature. A discussion of which aspects of human beings constitutes their ‘natures’ and that which doesn’t.

What it is that is meant by the term human nature when it is deployed by Hobbes, Rousseau and Marx? The purpose of this is to ascertain whether the term itself is used consistently, in reference to two points. The first is simply a philosophical analysis of consistency in relation to the manner in which a term such as ‘human nature’ is used and misused theoretically. Examples of misuse are when it is deployed to contradictory ends without justifying such contradiction, and, when it is conflated with other aspects of human existence such as those which are in fact outside of the scope of what can be considered human nature. Secondly, an argument will be put forth that because of the social impact occurring as a result of theories of human nature, the manner in which such a term is utilised is in fact a politically meaningful one. This second point is argued in relation to the overall point of the thesis, namely, that theories of human nature have and continue to have political relevance and currency.

7 The real world impact of the theoretical

7.1 Rousseau, Hobbes and Marx: social policies and human nature.

This section seeks to highlight the exact manner in which elements of a theoretically advanced human nature are utilised to advance specific social policies, beginning with a look at Hobbes, Rousseau and Marx. For example, Hobbes’ use of the Sovereign as a protection against the war of all against all and as a justification for the political power of the state; Rousseau’s arguments for the distribution of wealth, patriotism, and education as an answer to amour propre; Marx and the implications of a need within the individual for a relationship to the product of their labour and an envisioned Communist society.

7.2 Modern examples of social theories and human nature.

Game theory; rational choice theory; Friedman, Keynes, and the political landscape they influenced.

7.3 An argument for the necessary link between social theories and conceptions of human nature.

8 Conclusion.  

3 thoughts on “Thesis Outline

  1. I think it is important to make a distinction between pity and compassion when talking about Rousseau’s view on human nature. At least in the text we read in Iceland I found only one occasion where the term “pity” was used and several “compassions” (of course it was a shortened edition). Maybe it just sticks to my eye, because pity is a Christian sickness for me – the need to help regardless of how others have gotten in to the situations they are in (with the patented Christian solution banalizing every actual particular problem/suffering). Compassion is recognizing the possibility I could be or end up in the same situation myself – understanding at least something of it and offering assistance, not solution. I’m not sure what Rousseau emphasized but I think this distinction is crucial.

  2. You are talking about theory and norms. The essential element is missing – reality. That’s why theories fail. If you do not need theory for theory, of course.

    • Hello Yuriy, thanks for the comment. Yes, you are right, theory and norms indeed, however, if you look at the last paragraph of section 2.1 which describes how a conception of human nature should, according to me, be justified, you will see that it needs to be ‘credible’ and should satisfy ‘logical demands’. These qualifiers point towards your second point about reality in that ‘credible’ relates to how well they can be empirically justified, and, to how well they are logically explained. One of the motivations for my thesis is to highlight the manner in which explanatory gaps can be found in social theories relying on philosophical anthropologies, which in turn implies that they are not, as you say, connecting to reality.

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