Key Concepts

Human Nature and the Organization of Society - how do they relate?

The relationship between the nature of the human being and society is constantly evolving or changing, and several disciplines are trying to address it. From a psychological point of view, it is called the question of socialization. How does the human subject learn to become a functional member of society? How does society shape and utilize human nature, the impulses and drives that are inherent in us when we come into this world, so that they become socially productive forces? And what can go wrong in this process? How and why do individuals resist social pressure to conform, and how can we explain deviant behavior, which occurs not only in the relation between individuals and society, but also between social groups?

Political philosophers are also interested in these questions, but their focus is somewhat different: The organization of social and political systems must reflect and respond to human nature in order to function well. This question directly determines our expectations towards the political: Is politics a process of taming the primitive forces of human impulses, which can be enormously magnified when they become the impulses of a crowd? Or, is politics itself the process that transforms the human being into a social creature that fulfills its potential only in a well-organized society? Can we achieve a peaceful world society through political means?

Reality, Language, Subject

Let's start with some philosophical concepts:

  • reality (the real). What is it in itself, rather than how does it appear to us.
  • language understood as a semiotic dimension (everything is also information - it can function as a sign)
  • Subject - characterized by a mind-body split that is insurmountable.

In short philosophical claims:

  1. The real is incomprehensible.
  2. Nothing is outside.
  3. Reality emerges towards more complexity.
  4. We transcend physical reality only through language .
  5. The mind-body problem is insurmountable.

The Human Being

What it means to be human from a philosophical perspective.

  • The dialectic of nature, spirit, and basic emotions.
  • The subject of psychology: psyche, consciousness, and ego.
  • What, or Who? - Defining the Human Being.
  • The Ego as Executive Agency.
  • The Legalization of the Subject: Personhood.


  1. What is a free agent? Can we identify freedom with rationality?
  2. Negative and positive freedom (Isaiah Berlin)
  3. Distinctions between different concepts of Freedom:
    1. X is (not) free from y to do (not to do) z.
    2. X: agent, Y: constraint or obstacle. Z: goal, or end.
  4. Effective freedom vs. formal freedom.
  5. Freedom as autonomy vs freedom as doing what one wants.
    1. Autonomy as self-rule. (higher self, true self, or authentic self; individual self vs. collective self: Nation, proletariat, general will, etc.
  6. Freedom as political Participation vs. Freedom beginning where politics ends.
  7. Is freedom inherently bound to morality? What is the relationship?
  8. How can you be free and still bound by the law?

Active and Passive Mind

We realize through reflection that mind and body are irreducibly different dimensions, but we experience ourselves as embodied creatures. The deep intertwining of nature and human spirit is prior to all conscious self-reflection; but as human self-consciousness wakes up it realizes that it is fundamentally different from its surroundings. The dia­lectic of spirit and nature is determined by this original and primordial shock. Nature, inside and outside, is overwhelming. As Adorno stated, fear is the motor of history. We realize our inter-relatedness with nature, but nature appears as otherness, it exposes us to strange and foreign forces. Consciousness by itself is not a force of nature. It is as such powerless in relation to the material forces that shape human life, and the resulting fear causes the need for domination. The history of human societies can be explained as a process of widening and increasing control: domination of nature, of other human beings, and of nature within the human being itself. The challenges we face require enormous self-discipline; we pay for this by sacrificing pleasure, play, spontaneity, and contemplation. Social groups as well as individuals are deeply shaped by the struggle for control and self-mastery. But the more power we gain, the more we are removing ourselves from nature, and thus from ourselves. The question is if we can reverse this trend in the future: Can we curb our ferociousness and hypocrisy enough in order to remember and respect the nature that creates and sustains us?

The dialectic of fear and control, of the powerlessness of self-consciousness and the extraordinary creativity of the human mind, has several consequences:

Anthropomorphism and religion

The experience of subjectivity can be projected into nature. When the volcano is seen as an “angry” force of nature, or when a flooding becomes the punishment for human failures, then we have merged the force of a natural phenomenon with an imagined subject behind it, as if the natural force is itself only the expression of a subject-like spirit. This projection is a form of magical thinking, and it is also the mechanism that creates the idea of gods – non-human subjects which have vastly more power than we experience in our lives. The projection creates an echo of the human psyche, except that this echo is imagined to be infinitely more powerful. The step from polytheism to monotheism is not very far. Mythological explanations “normalize” human experience in the face of an all-powerful and overwhelming nature, and the idea of God as one, as the infinitely powerful creator of the world, organizes and transforms mythological explanations into a universal religion. Once subjectivity gets projected into nature, fear can be converted into an experience of the sacred by giving it a religious interpretation.

The religious experience is often an experience of submission to a higher power, it is experienced as a surrender of oneself or one’s own will. It allows the acceptance of fate based on the belief in a deeper meaning, one that is grounded in an eternal truth. Religion is an ultimate answer to ultimate questions, and it enables hope in the face of enormous uncertainties and threats.

Identification and Repetition

Projection of subjectivity into nature allows us to identify with our surroundings, to see nature as human-like. This identification is the basis of compassion, but it can also be ritualized in various ways. We can become nature, and anticipate what will happen to us, thus translating the power of nature into human affairs, like in shamanism. We can do to ourselves what nature does to us. We bring ritual sacrifices, we personify aspects of nature into Gods or divine powers and we try to bargain with fate through ritual, sacrifice, law, and obedience. Sometimes, humans identify with the forces that cause fear, and then they inflict on each other what they dread the most

Science as Demythologization.

The scientific project de-mythologizes and attacks false explanations; it explores the unknown and questions what seems familiar. It leads to a secularization that abolishes the need for religious belief. From a scientific point of view, nothing is sacred, unless humans decide to elevate something natural into something sacred. This is exactly the opposite of the original belief that something is sacred because it is from God.

Subject as Agency

The self-conscious ego is a place of integration, where emotions and thoughts come together and decisions are formed and put into action. It is an executive agency.

The mind is not just consciousness; it also produces a self-aware agency, the ego, that steers our actions and balances between the perceptions, needs, desires of the subject on the one hand and the conditions of the external world on the other (Freud’s reality principle.) This ego hardens into character or personality; it processes and filters perceptions, and creates a subjective picture of the world that supports its executive function. We begin to act with will-power and determination; we set goals for ourselves and we are able to make decisions about our life as a whole. We act with a degree of freedom that is not possible for other animals or physical objects. From a strictly deterministic point of view, will-power is only an illusion of control, not a reality, but this perspective leads to a negation of all freedom of thought, and is therefore a contradiction in terms. Humans have intentions that are not only driven by instinct or self-interest; they also reason, and they try to act morally by considering what is good for others. The mind has intentionality, and humans are capable of purposeful action. These actions are not just physical behavior; they also have symbolic meanings and they can be judged under moral, legal, or political categories. We act out of responsibility, guilt, anxiety, hope or love, and these actions define who we are.

The reasons for our actions are not identical with our attempts to justify them. The difference between rationality and rationalization is sometimes subtle and sometimes huge, and we have many examples for groups of people who live under the spell of false beliefs, or with irrational ideologies. Individual humans may have the capability to act freely, but their ability to reason independently is very weak and prone to errors. It is not just group effects that pre-determine or over-ride individual mind-sets, there are also intrinsic errors of judgment. We belief what we want to belief, our fantasies are often stronger than our sense of reality, and we tend to make ourselves more important than we really are.

Our built-in ego-centrism leads to all kinds of hypocrisies, self-aggrandizement, and delusions. Just like we imagined for centuries that the earth is the center of the universe, we tend to think that we are the center of the world, because we can see the world only from the place we occupy, which is always ground zero of our perception and understanding.

What, or Who?

When do we define something as a thing, and when do we consider it as a subject? How do we define the human-ness of the human being? At a certain point in the scientific inquiry, the question changes from “what is a human being,” to: “who” is this human? The transition from “what” to “who” is based on the realization that human beings are not like other objects in the world, they do not just belong to the physical sphere, but they are actors in social worlds that are defined by symbolic meaning systems. As such, we define humans as endowed with reason and conscience, and we attribute to them the freedom of will and self-determination. They are rights-holders, and therefore we treat them with respect. This ethical stance finds its expression for instance in Kant’s Categorical Imperative, where he demands that others should be treated not “merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end in itself. This view of the human being as an ethical entity requires recognition, therefore it can only function within a group.

According to the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” the human being is born “free and equal in dignity and rights” (Article 1). In this formulation, the lines between what is and what should be are blurred. A moral imperative is written into the nature of the human being, but this operation is itself an ethical act that can only succeed if there is a sufficiently strong acceptance of this view within the human community. There has to be a political willingness to codify and enforce it if governments or political groups decide to ignore these human rights. The decision that we should treat each other in this way is itself a social, political and historical choice. The view that the human being has inherent “dignity and rights” can be delineated into a psychological and a philosophical dimension. We can distinguish between the executive agency of the human mind, the “ego”, and the human being as “person.”

The Person

Humans also live in a world of law. The are held responsible for their actions, and the legal term for the human subject is a "person". It took a long time to from the concept, and it can be used for more than human beings. corporations, for instance, are also considered to be "persons."

While the ego is a psychological concept that can be used to describe the “what-ness” of the human being, we need a concept that fully expresses our “who-ness.” Such a concept was developed over centuries in the Western tradition; we find it in the idea of the “person.”[3] This concept was formed by Christian theologians in the first three centuries after Jesus. They tried to come to terms with the Christian belief that Jesus is human as well as God; and they succeeded by borrowing the distinction between actor and mask from Greek theatre. The actor’s role, his “persona,” is different from who he is in his nature. The distinction gets transposed into the theological and later the anthropological realm. Jesus is one person with two natures. Or, more generally, “who” we are is not identical with “what” we are. A person is someone who “has” a nature, rather than “is” nature, but therefore the “who” remains undefinable in physical terms. Kierkegaard went so far as to define the human being as “synthesis between the finite and the infinite.”

The philosopher who first applied the concept of the “person” to all human beings is Boethius (480-524.) According to him, a "person is an individual substance of a rational nature.” “Person” means the unique form in which beings of a rational nature individualize themselves. In the following centuries, the debate centered on the questions what “nature” (physis) means in relation to “person,” and how this relationship of “having” a nature (individuation) is to be understood. The definition of Boethius is far-reaching but inadequate, because it is based on a metaphysics of substance. The struggle for a better understanding of “person” is the struggle for a relational understanding of the concept.

Over the centuries, the concept became secularized and moved from the theological and philosophical realms into the domain of legal thinking. Today, we understand a “person” to be a rights-holder. “Person” is not identified with mental functioning, and does not even have to be a human subject any more. Companies, organizations, and even states, are also treated as “legal persons,” which allows us to hold them liable for their actions, and separates these institutions from the people who represent them.

The legalization of the concept frees it from its religious foundation, and makes it expandable into a universal term that defines humanity. But this operation comes with at a cost. As rights-holder, the human being is not defined by her wishes and the flux of existence; it is a reified entity with circumscribed rights and duties, and defined as such from the standpoint of a legalized and generalized “Other” who represents the “Law,” and society at large. This attempt to construct humanity with the help of legal procedures and laws is similar to the way we construct things and social interactions in modern industrial and social-economic processes.

What we forget in this approach is the nature of the subject: it is not an entity; it is fluid, and it is essentially characterized by its relationship to the void, and to non-existence. As legal subject it is timeless; as real subject it is constituted through its relationship to its own body, which means through its relationship to death. It is marked by loss, because it recognizes its own mortality. Its existence is transitory and unstable, and therefore it cannot find peace in this world. Being a rights-holder creates a semblance of permanence, and it has to be seen as an attempt to create some stability for an otherwise fleeting existence. Even though it is endowed with reason and rights, it cannot find a place in this world, and it cannot find a satisfying definition for itself. In its essence the human subject is an embodied self-contradiction, spanning between life and death, mind and body, half animal, half spirit. We search for redemption, for liberation, and if this fails, for consolation.

Subjectivity as object of study

What is the subject of psychology, its object of study? We are using different terms for the primary psychological substratum: psyche, consciousness, or ego.

Not only is there a difference between mind and brain, the mind itself is not a monolithic phenomenon. We have many terms that capture aspects of it, like perception, memory, awareness, the psyche, consciousness, identity, ego, or the self. Psychology demonstrates that the psyche is a multi-faceted phenomenon; the history of the discipline demonstrates the struggle to apply scientific methods to the realm of the psyche. The spectrum of psychological methods ranges from introspection to the statistical and functional analysis of human behavior, as if the human being is just another object of study, except with a much higher degree of complexity. In a broad sense, the mind is an information-processing system that transforms sensual data into experienced reality, and functions as the executive agency for the control of behavior. We still don’t know exactly what creates the identity of the agent, because the mind also functions in many aspects entirely without consciousness. We are largely unaware of the physiological and psychological machinery that transforms sensory input into human experience, or that allows us to remember certain events, but not others. We have emotions, and we dream, which makes us participant-spectators for our own inner dramas. Consciousness itself is a mysterious quality of mental processes, one in which awareness folds back onto itself, and this self-reflection creates a sense of identity that gives rise to what we know as “ego.” Once self-awareness exists, the subject begins to see itself as different from its experience of the world, and different from the world itself. With the emergence of the ego comes a somewhat inflated sense of control over oneself and the environment.

Given these experiences of human identity as a flow between conscious and unconscious states, between process and state, psychology must be more than just behavioral science, or the study of consciousness. It is perhaps adequate to talk about a psychic field, akin to electromagnetic fields, and to consider the mind as a complex phenomenon that occurs at the intersection of several dimensions. According to Lacan, the ego emerges at the place where language (the symbolic), a biological organ (the real), and subjective states of feeling (the imaginary) intersect.[2] Individuation only occurs because the psychic field materializes in a unique physical body which is an organism with a history, or a life-span.

Animals have minds too, they think and have feelings, and in this regard they have consciousness, but they don’t have self-referential language that separates the speaker from her representation in speech. The ego is a phenomenon of speech, it is the linguistic production of a subject that is fundamentally unconscious of itself. The language we use to talk about ourselves carves up the bodies and the lives of human beings; it creates a network of meanings and definitions that are not simply biological any more, but dictated by social and political conventions.

A scientific theory of the human psyche even requires the re-definition of “science,” because we study a phenomenon that has no equivalent in the physical world.

The root of politics

Human self-consciousness can only emerge within a group, and the ability of groups of humans to act in concert creates the political realm. Politics is prior to the form of government; it is the process by which these groups come together and make decisions for themselves. This is necessary because many of the problems we face can only be addressed collectively. The political dimension is intrinsic to any group process; no group can exist without some kind of political decision-making or leadership process in order to define itself. Political power, which is based on the authority to define group identity, and therefore the inside/outside of the group, is also an emergent phenomenon.

Societies are hierarchical as a consequence of decision-making about the boundary and the structure of the community; there is no natural hierarchy or norm that precedes it. Nothing “anchors” social order prior to politics and history; there are no God-terms or sacred origins for any kind of social group. Seen from this point of view, societies are the result of emergent self-organizing processes that interact with factors like geography, language, religion, history, or distinguishing traits like skin color, culture, or gender. They also define themselves in relation to each other. This self-organization, however, is often not a peaceful coming-together, but a process rooted in violence, of fighting it out, and imposing order based on discrimination and the subjugation of people. The emerging group identity is often aggressive, as we can see by the size and skills of armed forces. The specific politics of a state result from the determination of the boundary, and from the question who is friend and who is enemy? The determination of an external enemy or a threat is a simple way to internally unify the group. What counts is the perception, not the reality, of the threat. Political action cannot be deduced from a general norm, or from ethics or morality alone. It is determined by the powers, interests, identities, or fears of political actors in their current or historical contexts. Therefore, one cannot design a general political theory; one can only identify some basic elements that are constitutive for politics.

Governments are the executive organs of states. States are social entities that have their roots in warfare; their first task is to claim a monopoly of power over their territories. We commonly use the term “Sovereign” to identify the independent political authority to rule and to make laws that govern a society. Governments act on behalf or as the Sovereign for their country, and in order to accomplish this, they need not only the actual power to do so, but they also need legitimation. The justification for the use of power requires the agreement of a majority, at least in principle. Governments therefore have the duty to align power and justice, and to seek broad acceptance for their actions.

Political action determines the direction of the development of societies; in this regard it has to align visions and ideals with pragmatic considerations. Politics is also the art of compromising; it looks for what is possible in a given situation, and it has to strike a balance between individual freedom and equality.

Economy and Globalization

Technology, Democracy, and free markets transform traditional societies.

More freedom in society leads to less equality, and vice versa. This difficulty becomes especially obvious in the economic sphere. Market economies emphasize the basic value of freedom for individuals and corporations over equality, which generates persistent questions of social justice in advanced capitalistic societies.

“Economy” refers to the system of production and distribution of goods and services; it determines how a society produces and reproduces itself materially. Markets are self-regulating: supply, demand, and price balance each other dynamically without external interference. The system functions best with minimal or no government intervention. It is the most efficient mechanism for the production and distribution of goods, as long as certain parameters are enforced: one needs multiple participants who act independently from each other (no monopolies), market transparency (equal access to market information), stable money supply (low inflation), and common rules for everybody (no unfair advantages.) As long as these conditions are guaranteed by governments, markets function optimally: suppliers produce goods effectively and consumers get the best prices in a competitive marketplace. The incentive for innovation lies in higher profits. Governments participate as regulatory force, as well as through monetary and fiscal policies: They re-distribute wealth through taxation, and they create and regulate the money supply. Governments also act as market participants (US government spending, for instance, represents approximately 35% to 40% of GDP.) Seen from this point of view, the markets are not free: the market system is a highly constructed sphere of the exchange of services and goods, and very vulnerable to external interventions or manipulations.

The bigger the markets, the more profits are possible. Capitalism creates world markets, and thereby also globalization, the growing together of world cultures into one global society. Capitalism outgrows the confinements of nation states, which means that their political interests become subordinated to the global economic situation. Nation states and their underlying cultures struggle to hold on to their independence, their identity, and their purpose in a rapidly globalizing world. Nevertheless, they are still the primary producers of social identity for their citizens, and they mediate the global political and economic conditions for their people. In a situation of world-wide imbalances the question of justice shifts from political movements that focus on social justice in a given system, to demands for global justice. These demands are so pressing because international institutions that could effectively address them don’t exist yet. We need an effective and just global political order that has the power to affect real change in the world in regards to economic justice, human rights, equality for women, fair distribution of scarce natural resources, global warming, poverty, or the wide-spread lack of education in some parts of the world.