Philosophy of Human Nature

(Philosophy 120 - Fall, 2002 - Prof. Thomas Wren)


Professor Thomas Wren, Philosophy Department, Loyola University Chicago
Crown Center 349 (LSC); phone 773-508-2303; email
Office hours: Tues. and Thurs. 1:00-2:30; Thurs. 3:45-5:00 (when possible); and by appointment

Required: Donald Palmer, Visions of Human Nature (2000)
Required: Selected philosophical readings (as found on the web)

All students should purchase their texts immediately. The books are available at Beck's bookstore, on Sheridan Road across from Campion Hall (between MacDonald's and Carmen's).

Course Description

In this course we will examine the way ten major philosophical traditions of the East and West have interpreted the human experience. We will see how classical and contemporary philosophers have addressed the question, "What does it mean to be a human being?" and such related issues as the nature of personhood, the relation of knowledge and reality, and the meaning of life.

We will explore as many of these questions as possible, going into greater depth with some than with others but always with the aim of doing philosophy rather than just reading about it. We will have regular lectures and discussions on six of the ten philosophical positions represented in our textbook, and at the end of the course you will work with small team to investigate and report on one of the other four positions. With a little luck we'll get some great ideas and even have some fun although the pace will be fairly swift. The main text we will use Donald Palmer's Visions of Human Nature, which takes a lighthearted approach to heavy questions. The author's hope, and mine, is that you will find that philosophy is indeed a "joyful wisdom," as the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche put it. We will also read selected writings of some the philosophers featured in Palmer's book.

This is a special freshman seminar and a core curriculum philosophy course.

Summary of Procedures

In addition to the general comments regarding all sections of Philosophy 120, which can be found in the philosophy section of Loyola's undergraduate catalogue, students should note the following:

This course deals with short, pithy texts that must be read very carefully.
The pace of our course will be relatively swift, as indicated in the schedule of readings.
Student preparedness is needed to ensure that we have lively and knowledgeable class meetings. For this reason, there will be short assignments and quizzes, and class attendance is mandatory (see below).
One mid-term and one final examination will be given. These will be mainly essay tests, covering the reading assignments and the class discussions (the final will be cumulative).
We will use the resources of the Internet quite extensively, not only because they are so useful in themselves but also because today's university student is expected to be comfortable and competent using these tools as well as the more traditional ones such as the library.


A schedule of readings, examinations, and other assignments is published separately, and will be updated when necessary. Please consult this schedule daily. There is a special "home page" for each chapter, which should be visited before you read the chapter itself since it contains the teacher's own interpretation of the material we will be discussing.


Not surprisingly, your attendance is expected at every meeting, for several reasons, the most urgent of which is this: The classes will not consist primarily of presentations of materials to be memorized but, rather, will involve thinking through and analyzing problems and issues — and you must be present to engage in this process. You should take adequate notes during the lectures and discussions. Furthermore, you are expected to contribute to the discussions by asking questions, clarifying issues, challenging solutions, etc. Also, please don't forget that the online activities of the course are not intended to replace in-class discussion but rather to enhance it. (See the remarks on "Participation" below.) There will also be on-line "threaded discussions," but these supplement the in-class experience, and are not a substitute for it.

Writing Assignments, Quizzes, and Exams

As noted above, there will be quizzes and occasional short writing assignments (a paragraph or two), as well as two essay exams (the midterm and final), which are described on the schedule of reading assignments. Practice quizzes are online (I call these "assessment quizzes"). You are expected to take them to monitor your progress as well as to prepare yourself for the class discussions (as well as for the for-credit quizzes that will be given in class on the first day we discuss each chapter). Make-up exams (midterms or finals) will only be given if I receive a note from the nurse or dean's office to the effect that you missed the exam because of serious problems, and it is only fair to warn you that they are usually very reluctant to write such a note. Details of other projects will be given in class.

Since this is a philosophy course, part of your grade will depend on your ability to express your ideas in clear, correct, and reasonably sophisticated prose. However, some of the shorter written exercises will not actually be graded, except in the basic sense that anyone who fails to turn in minimally acceptable work on the day assigned will lose points just as if no work were turned in at all. If you have special writing difficulties, please use the excellent writing assistance programs provided by the univeristy.

Service Component and Other Extracurricular Activities

Following Loyola's current emphasis on service learning, there will be a service component to this course, the details of which will be announced in class. This is not intended to be an especially heavy burden on students, and the planning will be very flexible. The basic rationale for including service activities in this course is two-fold: (1) in the "multicultural laboratory" of Chicago, service activities provide interesting opportunities to see certain ideas of this class actually in play; and (2) even a small service component makes it clear that college education is a privilege which culture/society offers to the individual (regardless of how his or her education is being financed). For these and other reasons, service learning enables students to integrate their intellectual development with other aspects of their socialization.

Overlapping with the service component is an extracurricular-event component. Part of your university education involves connecting your in-class experience with the world around you. At Loyola, this means exploring the "visions of human nature" (to use the title of our textbook) that are displayed in local cultural events, especially those events that take place on campus (and for which you have already paid a substantial activity fee!). You are expected to attend three such events during the semester, at least one of which should also have a service dimension, and to submit very short reports relating each event to the theme of our course. Further details are provided at the bottom of the event report form found on the course web site. If in doubt, consult the teacher about whether an event will satisfy this requirement.

For record-keeping purposes, both of these components will be considered under the category of "participation" (see below).


Grades are the professor's assessment of the quality of your course work according to the criteria established for this course and the Loyola University standards. Only your performance will be graded, not your total personal worth, which means that a very nice person could get a low grade and vice-versa. Your course grade will be based on two exams, short reports and quizzes, and participation. The midterm exam counts for 20% of your total grade, and the final exam as 30%. The in-class quizzes, team report, and other short written work will count as 20%, and the participation will count for 30%.

Participation is more than simply talking in class, though oral activity is certainly important. Verbal participation in class discussions will be scored negatively, such that poor in-class participation can have an adverse affect on your grade to the extent of 30%. This means it is possible (though highly unlikely for anyone who faithfully attends class) for a nonparticipating student to get high individual test scores but still fail the course as a whole. I say that this is highly unlikely because even a naturally quiet student will usually do all right on class participation as long as he or she has read the material and is able and willing to participate when called on. (In other words, a properly motivated student is not likely to lose any participation points just because he or she is not an extrovert.) However, it is impossible to participate if you are physically absent from class, and so the participation component of your total grade is related to the attendance policy announced above. That relationship is as follows. After three absences (regardless of whether they are excused or unexcused), the following rule goes into effect. A completely unexcused absence will lower your final grade by one step, i.e., one letter grade, and you will not be able to make up any essays or quizzes for the day missed. A partly excused absence will lower your grade approximately half a step, depending on the nature of the problem and the work you do to repair the absence (however, you will still lose any quiz that you missed). A completely excused absence (e.g., excused by the dean or school nurse) will not affect your grade at all, assuming that you make up whatever work you missed within a reasonable amount of time. Obviously, you should try to attend all classes, and the three-absence allowance is not meant to encourage cutting class for frivolous reasons. Furthermore, you should be careful not to "use up" your three uncounted absences early in the semester, since it is always possible later in the semester to have some problem (e.g., a bad cold, parents visiting, a tragic love affair) that are somewhat serious, but would not be considered serious enough for a complete excuse from the nurse, administration, or instructor. This is especially important if you cannot afford to miss any quizzes.

Grade Requirements

Completion of all assignments and fundamentally correct general understanding of readings and lectures is required for a "D." This is a minimum requirement since the readings and lectures are not ends in themselves but rather the means for orienting reflection and intelligent reaction to the problems and issues which they raise. Completion of all assignments, accurate knowledge of the readings, lectures, and discussions, and intelligent reaction to them is required for a "C" (= fully satisfactory) or, at a higher level, a "B" (= good). This includes the demonstration of the ability to interpret the readings, lectures, and discussions adequately, to compare and contrast the various positions, and to see the relevance of criticisms leveled against them. Outstanding understanding of problems and issues is required for an "A" (= excellent). This includes the ability to use the critical skills employed in the lectures and readings (required and recommended), to evaluate the various positions and criticisms, to come to clear and definite conclusions, and to back them up with cogent reasoning, expressed in clear and ordinary English. Please note that although this is a special freshman seminar, you will be graded with the same criteria that I use for all university students. What makes this course special is primarily the quality of discussion (online as well as in-class), not the severity of the grading.


Philosophy, perhaps more than any other subject, is a blend of intellectual and moral responsibility. Most students seem to appreciate this, and so the general level of academic honesty in properly taught philosophy classes is, I think, fairly high. But to protect us all against temptation and the demoralizing effects of knowing a classmate is cheating, I will usually ask anyone caught plagiarizing, copying, or otherwise violating the standards of academic integrity to withdraw from the course. However, if the violation is especially flagrant I will assign the student an "F" (for having failed to do the job right) and, where appropriate, advise his or her dean of what has happened. I know that all this sounds terribly negative, but it's my hope that my being "hardnosed" about academic honesty will actually promote a positive spirit of fellowship in our class. (Please note that all writting assignments are subject to electronic screening to detect web-based plagiarism.)

Office Hours, Telephone, and E-mail Addresses:

As noted above, the regular office hours for this class are Tues. and Thurs. 1:00-2:30; Thurs. 3:45-5:00, as well as by appointment. Note that on some Thursdays I may have to reschedule the afternoon session because of meetings. I will usually be around on the other days of the week, but appointments should be made beforehand if possible. You may also communicate with me by e-mail, at Everyone is encouraged to visit my home page at, which contains some autobiographical information as well as a link to the web site for this course.


It is important for every college student to develop good study habits. A lucky few have already developed them in high school, but for the majority of students the greater demands of college work require some adjustment. Good study habits are based on two things: a mature mental attitude and appropriate physical techniques.

Everyone should remember that being a college student is a demanding full-time job, and he or she should be prepared to spend about forty-five or more hours a week at it. Like any other job, it requires effort and concentration. Some students are indifferent toward required courses because they consider them uninteresting or unrelated to their chosen field. They should remember that such courses are required because they provide general knowledge expected of every college graduate. Students who neglect these courses are limiting their intellectual growth and usually regret it later.

Full concentration is essential both in the classroom and in the study room. Students sometimes complain that they do poorly in courses even though they spend many hours studying every day. But to many of them "studying" means inattentively running their eyes over a page between frequent distractions from the radio, conversations with their roommates, or daydreams. Five hours of this kind of studying is worth less than an hour of uninterrupted concentration. The same principle applies to class attendance. A student who goes to a lecture without having done the assigned reading and without having reviewed his or her notes from the last lecture is not concentrating on acquiring new information and relating it to what he or she already knows.

An erratic and undisciplined approach to study is usually disastrous. Students with poor study habits ignore course assignments until just before an examination. Then they frantically do all the required reading in a day or two, try to decipher their sloppy, disorganized notes, and stay up all night over black coffee cramming hundreds of facts into their heads. The result usually is that they come to the examination not only exhausted but also confused by a mass of unrelated facts. They could have avoided all this by keeping up with their assignments, making orderly notes, and reviewing their notes regularly. Studying for an examination then would involve no more than glancing over the material and mentally organizing it in terms of the questions most likely to be asked.

From P. G. Perrin & J. W. Corder, Handbook of Current English (4th ed.), Glenview: Scott, Foresman and Co., 1975, pp. 291-293.

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