The Nature of Human Nature

Ellsworth Faris
The University of Chicago 


The nature of human nature.—Human nature, not originally a scientific term, has been employed to explain the evil which hinders as well as to indicate the admirable qualities of strange and queer peoples. Consciousness of our own selves arises from our comparison in imagination of our own conduct with that of others. Likewise, consciousness of others is possible when we can imagine ourselves performing the same actions. Human nature, therefore, is a product of the sympathetic imagination. Ethnocentrism forms a barrier to this sympathy and may be described in three stages, namely, excessive group consciousness, scientific confusion of nature and customs, and uncritical imposition of one's own vocabulary upon human phenomena. Social institutions do not arise out of human instincts; therefore human nature is a collective phenomenon. The traditional instincts are mere tautologies for ancient custom. Human nature begins in the primary group, is constantly being altered, notably so under the influence of social movements, and reaches its ultimate expression in individuality and character which, while the result of the meeting of multiple social forces, always involves a unique organization where arise the phenomena of conscience and will.

Human nature, as English vernacular speech uses it, is a very paradoxical term. On the one hand it is the culprit explaining, if not justifying, acts that are wicked and lapses that are weak. When our priests and pastors are disappointed in us, human nature is our alibi. It nullifies the work of pacifists and prohibitionists, and might almost be defined as that with which fanatical reformers fail to reckon. On the other hand, human nature is sometimes a beautiful discovery and a pleasant surprise. When queer, fierce, and savage folk act in a comprehensible fashion we call them human as an honorific ascription. When human nature was discovered in the slaves it led ineluctably to their emancipation. Seen in the untouchables of India, it is at this moment in process of raising their status. To find them human is good and leads men to praise and draw near.

In the attempt to sharpen the denotation of the term, which is

(16) the object of this paper, it is proposed to consider: how the experience of human nature arises; some obstacles to its realization; the relation of heredity to heritage; with a briefer mention of the mutability of human nature and the problem of individuality.

There is, then, first of all, this question: How did you and I get to be human, and how do others come to seem to be human? Every careful reader of Cooley and Mead has long been familiar with a clear answer to the first part of the question. One's consciousness of one's self arises within a social situation as a result of the way in which one's actions and gestures are defined by the actions and gestures of others. We not only judge ourselves by others, but we literally judge that we are selves as the result of what others do and say. We become human, to ourselves, when we are met and answered, opposed and blamed, praised and encouraged. The process is mediate, not immediate. It is the result of the activity of the constructive imagination, which is still the best term by which to denote the redintegrative behavior in which there is a present symbol with a past reference and a future consequence.

The process results in a more or less consistent picture of how we appear, the specific content of which is found in the previously experienced social gestures. Not that all men treat us alike. It is trite to say that we have many selves, but it is profoundly true, and these are as many as the persons with whom we have social relations. If Babbit be husband, father, vestryman, school trustee, rotarian, and clandestine lover he obviously plays several different roles. These roles, or personalities, or phases of his personality are built up into a more or less consistent picture of how one appears in the eyes of others. We are conscious of ourselves if, when, and only when, we are conscious that we are acting like another. These roles are differently evaluated. Some have a high, others a low, rating, and one's comparative estimation of the worth of his membership in his several groups has a social explanation, in spite of the fact that many would seek a physiological explanation.

As a banker or realtor Babbit may stand high, though as a golfer he may be a dub; his church status may be low and his club

( 17) self high, and so through the list. The movements, vocabulary, habits, and emotions he employs in these different roles are all accessible to careful study and accurate record, but the point can hardly be obvious since it is so widely neglected that the explanation of these habits and phrases and gestures that accompany the several roles is to be sought chiefly in the study of the group traditions and social expectations of the several institutions where he belongs. No accessible inventory of his infantile impulses would enable the prediction of the various behavior complexes concerned in the several personal roles. Moreover, whatever the list of personalities or roles may be, there is always room for one more and, indeed, for many more. When war comes Babbit will probably be a member of the committee of public defense. He may become executive officer of a law enforcement league yet to be formed. He may divorce his wife or elope with his stenographer or misuse the mails and become a federal prisoner in Leavenworth. Each experience will mean a new role with new personal attitudes and a new axiological conception of himself.

One's conception of one's self is, therefore, the result of an imagined construct of a role in a social group depending upon the defining gestures of others and involving in the most diverse types of personality the same physiological mechanisms and organs. Both convict and pillar of society, churchman and patron of bootleggers, employ receptors such as eyes, ears, and nose, and effectors including arms, legs, and tongue. The way in which these are organized is, however, only to be investigated by studying the collective aspects of behavior. Your personality, as you conceive it, results from the defining movements of others.

And if this be true it is a f fortiori certain that our conception of other selves is likewise a social resultant. The meaning of the other's acts and gestures is put together into an imagined unity of organization which is our experience or conception of what the other one is. In Cooley's phrase, the solid facts of social life are the imaginations we construct of persons. It is not the blood and bones of my friend that I think of when I recall him as such. It is rather the imagined responses which I can summon as the result of my experience with him. Should misunderstandings arise and friendship

(18) be shattered, his nervous organization and blood count would probably remain unaltered, though to me he would be an utterly different person. Whether he be my friend or my enemy depends axiologically upon my imagination concerning him. In order to deal with this material we must imagine imaginations.

The ability to conceive of human nature thus always involves the ability to take the role of another in imagination and to discover in this manner qualities that we recognize in ourselves. We regard as inhuman or non-human all conduct which is so strange that we cannot readily imagine ourselves engaging in it. We speak of inhuman cruelty when atrocities are so hard-heartedly cruel that we cannot conceive of ourselves as inflicting them. We speak of inhuman stupidity if the action is so far remote from intelligent behavior that we feel entirely foreign to it. And conversely, in the behavior of non-human animals and, in extreme cases, with regard to plants and even inanimate objects, there is a tendency to attribute unreflectively human motives and feelings. This accounts for the voluminous literature of the "nature fakers." To sympathize with the appealing eyes of a pet dog, or the dying look of a sick cat, or to view the last gasps of a slain deer is to have just this experience. Wheeler, a foremost authority on the behavior of insects, writes of "awareness" of the difference between her eggs on the part of a mother wasp, and of the "interest" that other insects take in the welfare of their progeny. The fables and animal stories of primitive and of civilized peoples could not have been spoken but for this tendency of our imagination to attribute human qualities when some behavior gives a clue of similarity to our own inner life. Examples of this process could be indefinitely cited from St. Francis preaching sermons to his "brother wolf" and to the birds, the romantic poets who speak to the dawn and get messages from the waves, the lover whose pathetic fallacy sees impatience in the drooping of the rose when Maud is late to her tryst, all the way to Opal, who loved the fir tree because he had an "understanding soul." The experience is entirely normal. The most unromantic mechanist may, in emotional moments, be carried unreflectively into an unwitting and immediate attribution of human impulses and motives to non-human objects.


Human nature is, therefore, that quality which we attribute to others as the result of introspective behavior. There is involved j & certain revival of our own past, with its hopes, fears, loves, angers and other subjective experiences which in an immediate and unreflective way we read into the behavior of another. The German concept einfiihlung while not exactly the same notion, includes the process here denoted. It is more than sympathy; it is "empathy.”

Now the process wherein this takes place is primarily emotional. The mechanism is operative in all real art. In our modern life the drama and the novel are largely responsible for the broadening of our sympathies and the enlarging of our axiological fraternities. There is some plausibility to the disturbing remark of a colleague of the writer who declared that one can learn more about human nature today from literature than from science, so called. If federal regulation continues to increase it might be well to pass a law forcing all parents of small children to read The Way of All Flesh. Books on criminology are valuable, but so is The House of the Dead. Culprits, offenders, and violators of our code are human, but in order that we may realize the fact it is necessary for us to see their behavior presented concretely so that we can understand and, understanding, forgive. "There, but for the grace of God, goes John Wesley." Perhaps you and I might have been murderers.

There is a curious, and at first, puzzling, difference in the attitude of two groups of specialists concerning the nature and the mental capacity of preliterate or so-called "primitive" peoples. The anthropologists and sociologists of the present day are almost unanimous in their opinion that so-called "savages" do not differ in their mental capacity or emotional possibility from modern civilized peoples, taken by and large and as a whole. Contemporary biologists, on the other hand, are in many cases very reluctant to admit this, and many of them categorically and insistently deny it. Now it cannot be the result of logical conclusions from research methods of scientific men in the case of the biologists, for their work is confined chiefly to anatomical structures and the physiology of segments. Their conclusions arise from other than focal interests.


On the face of it the situation is curious. The biologist has long ago demonstrated the surprisingly essential identity of the nervous system in all mammals. The rat or the dog is almost as useful for the vivisectional investigation of the human nervous system as a human subject would be. Element for element, the nervous system of the sheep is the same as in man, the differences being quantitative. A fortiori, the nervous system of the Eskimo and the German are not significantly different. The biologist works with identical material, but concludes by assuming great and significant differences between the different races. The anthropologist and sociologist works with strongly contrasted phenomena. He discusses and studies polyandry, witchcraft, and shamanism, socially approved infanticide, and cannibalism, and such divergent practices that one would expect him to posit much greater differences than even his biologist colleague would assert. An investigator from Mars (one may always invoke this disinterested witness) would probably expect the biologist who studies identical forms to be inclined to rate them all alike, and might infer that the anthropologist who studies such divergent customs would place them in a contrasting series.

The explanation seems fairly apparent. The biologist deals objectively, thinking in terms of dissections and physical structures. The anthropologist deals sympathetically and imaginatively. His work takes him into the field where he gets behind the divergencies and finds that the objects of his study have pride, love, fear, curiosity, and the other human qualities which he recognizes in himself, the differences being only in the form and expression. Thus, by an introspective sympathy, he comes to know them as human.

The limitations of introspective psychology need no elaboration in these days when extreme behaviorism has thrown out the infant with the bath. The uncontrolled exaggerations that arose out of the unverifiable imaginings of introspectionists brought about a violent reaction not wholly undeserved. It is not proposed here to make even a disguised plea for introspective methods. The essential point is not the desirability, but the inevitability, of just this type of imagination by which alone we recognize others as hu-

( 21) -man, and which ultimately rests on our ability to identify in others what we know to be true in ourselves.

Imaginative sympathy enables us to recognize human nature when we see it and even to assume it where it is not. Conversely, when the behavior is so different that we lack the introspective clue we find difficulty in calling it human. Such limitation is more true of our emotional moments than of calm and reflective periods. Recent questions on race prejudice reveal the fact that, in the American group which was investigated, the most violent race prejudice, the greatest social distance, existed in respect of the Turks. It was further revealed that most of those who felt a strong aversion against Turks had never seen a Turk, but they had heard and read and believed stories of their behavior which account for the attitude. One story describes Turkish soldiers stripping a captured pregnant woman, betting on the sex of the foetus, and disembowelling her to see who should win the money. Such conduct we call inhuman since we cannot imagine ourselves as engaging in it under any circumstances. If we are to regard all members of the genus homo as human it is essential that the traditions of all races and their mores be sufficiently like our own to enable us to understand them sympathetically. It is easy to show that Americans who go to Turkey and understand the Turks not only find them human, but often praise and admire them. And all because the emphatic imagination enables us to play their part and understand their motives.


The chief limitation to the imaginative sympathy enabling us to call others human is the phenomenon which Sumner calls ethnocentrism. By an extension of the term, which is here presented with a prayer for indulgence, we may distinguish three types of ethnocentrism which are in effect three degrees of the phenomenon. Ethnocentrism, as ordinarily used, is the emotional attitude which places high value on one's own customs and traditions and belittles all others, putting as least valuable those that differ most. The universality of ethnocentrism is evidenced from the discovery that all preliterate peoples who have considered the question have worked out the answer in the same terms. It is obvious to a Nordic that the

( 22) African and Mongol are inferior to himself, and hardly less obvious that the Mediterranean is intermediate between his own highness and the low-browed tribes of the tropic forests. But for more than a generation it has been familiar to specialists that Eskimos, Zulus, and Pueblos have exactly the same feeling toward us. The customs with which we are familiar are best. Mores which differ most widely arise from the social life of an inferior people. We are supremely human; they are only partially so. To Herbert Spencer the highheaded and proud-hearted Kaffirs—who would in their turn have spoken contemptuously of his bald head and his helplessness in the forest—were intermediate between the chimpanzee and the English. They were only partly human. The writer of these lines once made what he felt to be a very good speech to an audience of naked savages, speaking in their own tongue with certain native proverbs and allusions to their folk-tales. The reward for this skill was the frank and surprised admission that at least one white man was intelligent and could make a decent argument like any other human being. The Texas farmers whose province had been invaded by an agricultural colony of Bohemians used to refer to them as hardly human since their women worked in the fields and often the whole family went barefooted. Ethnocentric narrowness includes the group in sympathy-proof tegument which blinds men to the human qualities of differing peoples.

The second form of ethnocentrism is harder to establish, but must be asserted. It is seen in its quintessence in the writings of McDougall and his followers. Human nature consists of instincts and if a list of these be called for they are promptly produced. The instinct of warfare is axiomatic and the proof is found in the military history of our people. But the list of instincts turns out to be merely a renaming and hypostatization of our own social customs. The instincts have been set down in a fixed list because men failed to distinguish between their immediate social heritage and the inborn tendencies of their infants. It is therefore a kind of scientific ethnocentrism, which conceives as native and human that which is acquired and social and leads to the conclusion that those with widely different customs must either have some instinct omitted from their repertory, as McDougall plainly says of some of the in-

(23) -terior Borneo tribes, or else (and this comes to the same thing) they have these instincts in a different degree from those which we have received from our forebears; that is to say, the customs of other people, if they are sufficiently different, are due to the fact that their nature is not quite like ours. They are really not quite human, or, to say the least, differently human.

The third variety of ethnocentrism is somewhat more subtle. It is the limitation due to language. It is the penalty for having to speak in one language without knowledge of the others. The dreary list of sentiments, feelings, and emotions in some books is written as if all the words in the world were English words. We make sharp distinctions between fear, terror, and awe and, forgetting that these are limited to our vocabulary, expect to find the fundamental traits of human nature adequately described thereby. If we read German we may become interested in the distinction between Mut and Tapferkeit. Not knowing Japanese, we lose the precious insight which their idioms would give us in the inability of their language to make a neuter noun the subject of a transitive verb. A yet unpublished statement by a most eminent psychologist, written three months ago, is concerned with a discussion of "what emotions do" and "what intelligence does," in the behavior of human beings. No Japanese would make such an egregious blunder —not necessarily because of different capacity for analysis, but because his mother-tongue is incapable of such erroneous metaphysical reification. Linguistic ethnocentrism, if we may so name this, would disappear if our minds were competent and our years enough to allow us to know all the languages of the earth; but until utopia comes the handicap can be partly overcome by a conscious recognition of its existence and by an obstinate and repeated attempt to get outside of the limitations of our own etymology into a sympathetic appreciation of the forms of speech of stranger men.

Ethnocentrism, then, is essentially narrowness. It is enthusiasm for our own due to ignorance of others. It is an appreciation of what we have and a depreciation of what differs. It is essentially a lacking of sympathetic dramatization of the point of view of another. It must be transcended if we are really to know what protean varieties human nature may assume.



From the question of how human nature is recognized it is a natural transition to the problem of how it is constituted. The current form of most interest is an old problem still exciting lively interest; the relation of inherited tendencies to social organization; the relation of instincts to institutions; heredity, to environment; nature, to nurture.

Current discussions of instinct reveal surprising initial agreements among authors who seem to be, and who imagine themselves to be, very different.Allport rejects instincts and McDougall has a fixed list (subject to periodical revision), yet both Allport and McDougall agree in making an uncriticized assumption that the customs and institutions of men are the outgrowth of the infantile and adolescent inherited impulses. Thus warfare is ascribed to the instinct of pugnacity, to which statement Allport objects and asserts that it is rather due to the conditioning of the prepotent reflex of struggling. It would be easy to make a long list of citations, but at random one may mention Parker, Trotter, and Bartlett. To such men the key to the understanding lies in an adequate genetic psychology. If we could only get at the infant and chart all his initial responses and impulses, they feel the problem of social organization would be solved.

This paper is written under the conviction that sociology and social psychology must rely chiefly on facts from the collective life of societies for their material. Two fields of inquiry, among many study of preliterate peoples and the other is the consideration of others, can be cited as providing relevant material. One is the modern isolated religious groups. There is found among primitive people such a protean variety of social and cultural organization, such various forms of religious, political, and family life, that it would seem impossible to account for them on the basis of definite instincts. When one society refuses entirely to produce children, another tribe kills all unbetrothed girls, still another practices infant cannibalism, while yet others manifest tender solicitude for all their children, and when unto these are added accounts of bizarre marriage customs and religious conceptions and tendencies, it is

( 25) hard to see how the conception can be carried through without assuming different instincts in each tribe.

The isolated religious sects of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are even more valuable to the theorist since the complete history of many of the customs is known, an advantage not possessed by the ethnologist as a rule. It is possible to describe in detail a time when there were no Quakers, Dunkards, Mormons, Shakers, or Perfectionists. The rise of polygamy can be traced in Mormonism, and the abandonment of the marriage relation among the Shakers can be dated and described.

McDougall has seen this difficulty and has met it with a certain naïvete. He has only to assume that strikingly different customs have been produced by peoples with differing instincts, or with instincts of different degrees of strength or intensity. The Shakers would therefore be adequately explained by assuming a selection of people who had no sex instincts, or very weak ones. The peaceful tribes would be those lacking the instinct of pugnacity, which leads him to the logical conclusion that the French have a different instinct from the English, and to the popular psychology which gives to the Anglo-Saxon the instinct for representative government which the Italians and Orientals are assumed to lack.

Thus the assumption that instincts produce customs turns out to be a mere tautology, and the human race disappears as a biological species. A zoologist who describes the migrating salmon or the breeding habits of seal or the incubating instincts of penguins is dealing with a single species whose members exhibit a universality of action. But if this formulation of instincts be followed out, every tribe or race must be assumed to have different instincts, and the basic error of the whole instinct psychology stands revealed. Then instinct merely becomes another name for custom.

Were all our knowledge of human nature limited to a single flash of information through a given moment of time it might be impossible to criticize this serious error. Fortunately, there is history. The Mormons began without polygamy, lived through a long period when plural marriage was customary, and then, through the stress of circumstances, abolished the practice. The English colonies have circled the earth, while the French remain at home drink-

(26) -ing in the cafes of Paris, but there was a time when the French colonies occupied vast territories in the New World, and there is ample evidence of a considerable settlement of French both in Canada and Louisiana. The warlike Nordics dreamed of a heaven of warfare and slaughter, but when Norway seceded from Sweden something went wrong with their fighting instinct and, obstinately enough, they settled the matter by a peaceable arrangement. If customs change, and they do, and if instincts cause customs, then instincts change as often as the customs. But a changing instinct is no instinct, for instincts by hypothesis are constant.

The problem of social origins is not solved, but the history of many customs and institutions is in our possession and it is quite certain that the whole concatenation of unique and unrepeated circumstances must be invoked to explain the creation of any one of them. And when once the organization appears, the new members of the group who grow up within it or who are initiated into it take on the group attitudes as représentations collectives, securing all their fundamental satisfactions in ways which the group prescribes. The true order, then, lies in exactly the reverse of the instinct-to-institution formulation. Instead of the instincts of individuals being the cause of our customs and institutions, it is far truer to say it is the customs and institutions which explain the individual behavior so long called instinctive. Instincts do not create customs. Customs create instincts, for the putative instincts of human beings are always learned and never native.

Exactly when human nature begins is a problem. But that it does, in each individual, have a definite beginning is an axiom. The newborn has not a developed personality. He has neither wishes, desires, nor ambitions. He does not dream of angels nor think the long thoughts of youth. He acquires a personality. He does not acquire his heredity. He acquires his personality. A quarter of a century ago this acquisition was shown by Cooley to happen in the first groups, the primary groups, into which he is received. He becomes a person when, and because, others are emotional toward him. He can become a person when he reaches that period, not always exactly datable, when the power of imagination enables him to reconstruct the past and build an image of himself and others.

( 27)


An inescapable corollary of the foregoing is the mutability of human nature. Despite the chauvinists, the cynics, and the absolutists of every sort, human nature can be changed. Indeed, if one speaks with rigorous exactness, human nature never ceases to be altered; for the crises in life and nature, the interaction and diffusion of exotic cultures, and the varying temperaments possessed by the troops of continuously appearing and gradually begotten children force the conclusion that human nature is in a continual state of flux. We cannot change it by passing a law, nor by a magical act of the will, nor by ordering and forbidding, nor by day-dreaming and revery, but human nature can be changed. To defend militarism on the ground that man is a fighter and the fighting instinct cannot be changed is merely to misinterpret and to rationalize an important fact; that the custom of warfare is very old and can be abolished only gradually and with great difficulty. To assume that the drinking habits of a people or their economic structure or even the family organization is immutably founded upon the fixed patterns of human nature is to confuse nature and custom. What we call the stable elements of human nature are in truth the social attitudes of individual persons, which in turn are the subjective aspects of long-established group attitudes whose inertia must be reckoned with but whose mutability cannot be denied. Having been established through a long period of time, and appearing to the youth as normal and natural, they seem to be a part of the ordered universe. In reality they are continually being slightly altered and may at any time be profoundly modified by a sufficiently serious crisis in the life of the group.

The history of social movements is but a record of changing human nature. The antislavery movement, the woman's movement, the temperance movement, the interestingly differing youth movements in Germany, China, and America these are all natural phenomena in the field of sociology, and are perhaps most accurately described as the process of change which human nature undergoes in response to the pressure of unwelcome events giving rise to restlessness and vague discontent. Such movements, when they generate leaders and develop institutions passing on to legal

(28) and political changes, create profound alterations of the mores and thoroughly transform not only the habits of a people and their nature as they live together but also the basic conception of what constitutes human nature. The present conception in the West of the nature of woman, including her mental capacity and ability to do independent creative work, is profoundly different from the conception which anybody entertained in the generations before the woman's movement began.

But for the limitations of space the problem of individuality and character should receive extended treatment in this discussion. This being impossible, a brief word must suffice. There is so much of controversy here and so much of confusion that many seem to be hypnotized by mere phrases. It is much too simple to say that the individual and society are one, for it is difficult to know which one. The heretic, the rebel, the martyr, the criminal—these all stand out as individuals surely not at one with society. Nor does it seem adequate merely to say that the person is an individual who has status in a group. For it does not appear that before the acquisition of status the individual has any existence. Certainly if he has he does not know it. The conception which it would be profitable to develop lies in the direction of the assumption that out of multiple social relations which clash and conflict in one's experience the phenomenon of individuality appears. The claims of the various social groups and relations and obligations made on a single person must be umpired and arbitrated, and here appears the phenomenon of conscience and that of will. The arbitrament results in a more or less complete organization and ordering of the differing roles, and this organization of the subjective social attitudes is perhaps the clearest conception of what we call character. The struggles of the tempted and the strivings of courageous men appear, when viewed from the outside, to be the pull of inconsistent groups, and so indeed they are. But to you and me who fight and hold on, who struggle amid discouragement and difficulties, there is always a feeling that the decision is personal and individual. Someone has been the umpire.` When the mother says, "Come into the house," and Romeo whispers, "Come out onto the balcony," it is Romeo who prevails, but it is Juliet who decides.


Individuality may then, from one standpoint, be thought of as character, which is the subjective aspect of the world the individual lives in. The influences are social influences, but they differ in strength and importance. When completely ordered and organized with the conflicting claims of family, friends, clubs, business, patriotism, religion, art and science all ordered, adjudicated, and unified, we have not passed out of the realm of social influence, but we have not remained where the social group, taken separately, can be invoked to explain the behavior. Individuality is a synthesis and ordering of these multitudinous forces.

Here human nature reaches its ultimate development. Henley, lying weak and sick, suffering great pain, called out that he was captain of his soul. To trace back the social antecedents of such a heroic attitude is profitable and germane, but it is never the whole story until we have contemplated this unique soul absolutely unduplicated anywhere in the universe—the result, if you like, of a thousand social influences, but still indubitably individual. It was Henley who uttered that cry. That you and I so recognize him and appreciate him only means that we also have striven. We know him and understand him because of our own constructive, sympathetic imagination. He who admires a masterpiece has a right to say, I also am an artist.


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