Chapter 03



A. Chapter Summary and Goals
B. Discussion Text

2.A. Determinism vs. Free Will
2.B. Identity and Survival
2.C. The Self as Active Being
2.D. The Self Connected with a Larger Reality

C. Discussion and Essay Questions
D. Topical Links, Web Links and Activities
E. Self-Test Questions and Answers
F. Suggestions for Further Reading

A. Chapter Summary and Goals

Summary: This chapter examines various views of human nature, self-hood, personal identity, and the relations of the self to the rest of reality. Some of those views deny any special status to humans in the overall scheme of things. Determinists like Holbach and thinkers like Darwin argue that humans are a function of natural processes. Determinism is the result of the widespread influence of science, as well as of common intuitions about universal causation. But Hume argued that determinism is compatible with the deeply entrenched idea that humans have some freedom to shape themselves. Reid and Taylor have argued that determinism is false. The debate between determinists, compatibilists and various kinds of libertarians or believers in free will is far from over. Some philosophers, like Frankfurt, believe that the discussion has often depended upon confusions, and has failed to address real human concerns. Other views on human nature and the self construe freedom in a way that might seem more practical, or more engaged with what we really care about. Kierkegaard, for example, denies that "anything comes naturally" for humans, and that our most distinctive trait is our capacity to shape ourselves according to many different ideals. Nietzsche and Heidegger would agree to a very large extent with Kierkegaard. Marx thinks that economic conditions can overcome our freedom, but he assumes that humans are capable, at a very basic level, of seeing their condition as requiring a kind of freedom through which they can develop their true, non-alienated selves. However, some philosophers, Eastern and Western, argue that the very notion of personal identity, which is assumed by the writers just mentioned, is deeply problematic. What makes a person the same person from day to day, year to year? Some skeptics deny that we have any coherent notion of personal identity. Others argue that it is possible to make sense of the notion of a continuing self. But the idea that the self might continue beyond death contains very special difficulties. Finally there are deep challenges to the very notion of self or human nature which have tended to dominate in the west. Eastern religion and philosophy try to show how the self can be identified with a great, super-personal reality, or with nature. Our thinking about human nature affects our thinking about morality, religion, the environment, politics, the relations of mind to body, the nature of knowledge, and much else. Even when our ideas about what is distinctive in human nature are not articulated, they are back of our institutions and nearly everything we do from day to day. They are right at the center of the philosophical can of worms.


  • Understand the tension between determinism and free will
  • Understand the problem of personal identity and survival
  • Understand the different interpretations of the self as active being
  • Understand the theories of self connected with a larger reality

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