Ellen Herman

Department of History, University of Oregon


HIST 460/560, Winter 2007
Reading and Discussion Questions, Week 3

Ten Theories of Human Nature and The Study of Human Nature
Questions on the Human Sciences

1. Why do we call Marx’s ideas about history and society “materialist”? How does this kind of materialism compare to the thinking of philosophers and theologians we have already read?

2. “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” What does Marx mean by this? How would you characterize this kind of determinism? What is determining what? How does free will fit into this scheme?

3. What were Marx’s premises about human nature? What do you think he means when he describes his starting points as “real premises”? (p. 146) What do Stevenson and Haberman mean when they write that one of Marx’s most original contributions was to argue that “sociology is not reducible to psychology”? (p. 148)

4. What do you think of alienation as a concept? What does it tell us about both individual experience and social organization?

5. Marx denied the existence of God and disparaged organized religion, yet his vision of human potential and the human future was deeply spiritual. Do you agree?

6. What points does John Stuart Mill make about experience and nature as foundations for social policies related to the status of women? What does the historical record suggest about gendered human nature?

7. Why does Mill suggest that men’s understanding of women, even their wives, is “wretchedly imperfect and superficial”? (p. 159) When, if ever, does he think it will be possible to obtain accurate knowledge about women’s nature?

8. What evidence does Darwin offer for his claim that the human mind evolved through natural selection? What does he say about the evolution of particular social characteristics? Of morality?

9. What kind of determinist was Freud? How did he think about causation?

10. What is the unconscious? What role does it play in Freud’s theory of human nature? Why is Freud’s theory called psychodynamic? What is repression and how does it work?

11. Freud hypothesizes that the mind has several components. What are they and how do they relate to one another? What instincts or drives characterize human nature?

12. Briefly describe Freud’s developmental narrative. Is becoming an adult easy or difficult? What is the Oedipal crisis? What impact did his views have on children and childhood? How do you think psychoanalysis influenced conceptions of normal and abnormal? Masculinity and femininity?

13. Freud insists that nature and nurture exist in profound conflict. Explain. What is his solution to this conflict for individuals? For societies? Freud once described his goal as moving people “from hysterical misery to ordinary unhappiness.” How does this aim compare to others we have encountered?

14. Marx, Engels, and Freud all considered their theories to be scientific. Explain why. Do you agree? What difference does it make whether these theoretical systems are scientific or not?