On your Marx for a philosophical race through human nature

Ten Theories of Human Nature

July 9, 1999

This was a good book when it came out, dealing then with only seven theories on this fascinating topic. It is a still better one now.

In 1974 its first edition was an early swallow, one of several philosophical books announcing - after a long winter - a spring of renewed attention to contemporary life and thought. (Others included Iris Murdoch's The Sovereignty of Good , Peter Singer's Animal Liberation and Sissela Bok's Lying .) Leslie Stevenson explains that his book grew out of lectures that he had to give to one of those huge first-year classes who, at Scottish universities, were then compelled to study philosophy. The young Stevenson had the original idea of asking himself what would actually interest these people, and in consequence outlined for them the divergent views on human nature expressed in the Bible and in the works of Plato, Marx, Freud, Sartre, B. F. Skinner and Konrad Lorenz. The resulting book became, and has remained, not just a knockdown success for introductory philosophy teaching, but a deeply helpful read for a great variety of people who simply do not know where to start mapping the bewildering landscape of contemporary thought. It sorts out admirably some of the main territories in and out of which we are perpetually stumbling, outlines the different motivations that account for their different emphases, and suggests how we might manage to bring them into perspective together.

Time, however, has moved on, leading Stevenson to update his book in rather interesting ways. It now starts with chapters on Confucianism and Hinduism, contributed by his collaborator David Haberman. This addition reflects - surely rightly - the increased contemporary interest in worldviews that come from outside the tradition that runs from Plato to the Enlightenment. It also provides the Bible with a context that saves it from looking quite so isolated.

What else should be added? As he says, there were countless competitors, but he eventually settled for contributing a quite new and surprisingly intelligible chapter on Kant, on the grounds that Kant provides the most helpful tools for our painful task of combining and relating many different approaches, rather than triumphantly celebrating one as victorious. I think this was a good choice. It enables him to spell out the need to avoid both dogmatic simplicity and mindless relativism - the need somehow to combine fairness and realistic commitment that guides his discussion throughout.

Apart from this he has updated the other chapters in a way that succeeds better than might have been expected. Should he have dropped some of them? Marx might seem the most obvious candidate for the chop but, as Stevenson says, Marx's response to the industrial revolution is still a crucial one and we still have plenty of use for the concept of alienation. Skinner has been officially dethroned in psychology, but the Skinnerist temper and the Skinnerist concept of science still dominate much of the social sciences. No later individualistic prophet, not even Margaret Thatcher, has yet managed to upstage Sartre's glorification of freedom. And Konrad Lorenz was a much more interesting thinker than his sociobiological successors. Altogether, this book is still surely a fine introduction to the big philosophical problems, a well-made map for bewildered students genning up to clear their minds for the next millennium.

Mary Midgley was formerly senior lecturer in philosophy, University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Ten Theories of Human Nature

Author - Leslie Stevenson and David L. Haberman
ISBN - 0 19 512040 X and 512041 8
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £20.00 and £11.99
Pages - 239

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