Ellen Herman

Department of History, University of Oregon


HIST 460/560, Winter 2007
Reading and Discussion Questions, Week 2

Ten Theories of Human Nature and The Study of Human Nature
Questions on World Religion

1. What are the major texts involved in the interpretation of Confucianism, Hinduism, Judaism, and Christianity? Do you think it is significant that each of these traditions relies on textual authority? Why or why not?

2. What is the “Decree of Heaven”? One of its components is “Destiny.” What characterizes Destiny for Confucius? What common mistake do human beings make in regard to Destiny?

3. Why is benevolence such a central value in Confucianism? How is it achieved? Name several other moral goals and explain the obstacles to achieving them. What is “filial piety” and why does it matter?

4. Why does Mencius compare human nature to water? Why does Hsun-tzu constantly emphasize “conscious activity”?

5. Hsun-tzu makes the point that the desire to do good (and perhaps the existence of religion itself) is evidence that human nature is evil. Do you agree?

6. Why do Stevenson and Haberman characterize Confucianism as a conservative religion on p. 25?

7. What does ontological unity mean? What Hindu concepts represent it?

8. What is the origin story in Hinduism? What does it suggest about the relationship of parts and wholes, or unity and diversity?

9. What is “atman”? What relationship exists between the knower and the known in Hindu philosophy? What is the Hindu position on individual difference? On material struggles? On death?

10. What kind of life is exalted in Hindu tradition? What are the best ways for human beings to perceive and pursue the divine?

11. How would you compare Confucianism and Hinduism on questions of social welfare and social engagement? On spiritual matters related to life and death?

12. What is the Judeo-Christian origin story? What does the excerpt from Genesis tell us about human nature, the meaning of divinity, and the human relationship to God? How do the old and new testaments compare on these subjects?

13. What choices do Christians and Jews have about their lives? Do you think the concept of original sin is the same as evil nature?

14. According to St. Paul, does faith in God alter human nature? If so, how? If not, what is the nature of humanity, and what does faith offer to human beings?

15. Why does St. Paul contrast law with spirit in his letter to the Romans?

16. St. Paul argues that male and female natures are significantly different. Why? What implications does this have for both temporal and spiritual life?

17. Why does Ayatullah Mutahhari make such a point about the difference between human and non-human animals? How would you characterize the main differences?

18. What relationship must there be between science and religion in Matahhari’s Islamic philosophy? How does he contrast this with western and Christian debates about this subject and about human nature?

19. After doing the readings about religion in these books, how would you characterize the major similarities and differences in the Confucian, Hindu, Judeo-Christian, and Islamic traditions? How does each define nature? Nurture? What philosophical differences exist within as well as between these major religious traditions?

Ten Theories of Human Nature and The Study of Human Nature
Questions on Ancient and Enlightenment Philosophy

1. How does the emphasis in Plato on rational inquiry make his ideas (or those of other ancient philosophers) different than those conveyed through world religions?

2. What does Plato mean by logos? What is his theory of forms? Can you give an example of a form? Why is knowledge of forms more exalted than knowledge of the material world? How does this theory contrast with nominalism?

3. What major points is Plato making in the excerpt you read from Republic about 1) opportunities for knowledge, 2) the responsibilities of educated people, 2) the organization of the individual mind, the social order, and the balance between the two?

4. What is dualism? What dualism characterizes human beings, according to Plato? What were the three main components of the human soul? How were these expressed socially, and what kind of balance did Plato envision among them? What was the ideal state for individuals? For societies? Why do Stevenson and Haberman conclude that Plato’s social vision was “authoritarian,” or even “totalitarian” (p. 85)? How does Platonic dualism compare to the dualism explained by Descartes in the excerpt from Discourse on Method? Why does Descartes single out language in order to explain dualism?

5. How does Aristotelian realism differ from the Platonic theory of forms?

6. What important contribution did Aristotle make to thinking about causation?

7. Plato and Aristotle both believed strongly in the human capacity for reason, yet they also believed that there were dramatic differences in how people exercised this capacity. What social implications did this have?

8. Explain Aristotle’s concept of welfare, or “flourishing.” How did he understand virtue? What ideas did he have about socialization and education?

9. Thomas Hobbes was famous for his description of the state of nature as warlike and brutish. In Leviathan, he argued that sacrificing freedom was necessary for any kind of social order or progress. How can you reconcile this pessimistic view of human nature with Enlightenment optimism about social reform and the conviction (in Rousseau, for example) that the state of nature is idyllic and civilization corrupting?

10. What do Stevenson and Haberman suggest was most original about David Hume? What kinds of experiments and methods does he believe are necessary to establish a “Science of Man”? What is the implication of his view that selves are “nothing but a bundle or collection of different sensations”? (p. 107)

11. When was the Enlightenment? Why do we use that term to describe that era?

12. What relationship did Enlightenment philosophies have to 18th-century democratic revolutions, such as those in France and the United States?

13. Kant explained that we know the world “as it appears” and not “as it is in itself.” Explain. Why is this important?

14. What is the difference between hypothetical and categorical imperatives, and what are the implications for morality?

15. Why is Kant such an important thinker on the issue of free will and determinism? Explain what he means when he writes that humans act “under the idea of freedom.” Does he believe that evil (along with virtue) is a product of choice? What role does religion play in reinforcing or counteracting human nature?