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Conceptions of the Human from the Enlightenment to Today


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 5

Module description

What is it to be human? This course begins with the Enlightenment and focuses on the idea of the human as a kind of being distinct from all others. It traces key developments that occurred in and after the eighteenth century, explores the impact of the social sciences, and maps competing visions of the human in modern thought, systems of governance, and accounts of good and evil.

We examine nineteenth-century accounts of evolution and show how narratives of progress have been accompanied by theories of degeneration. In addition, lectures and classes investigate different perspectives upon the idea of the human being as such, and consider the fragmentation of the notion of a common human nature in the development of biological notions of sexual and racial difference.

The course ranges from eighteenth-century depictions of the ‘feral child’ though modern accounts of infantile phantasy, the unconscious and the divided self, to contemporary experiments in remaking human nature via technological interventions.

The course aims to provide you with an understanding of key debates about the idea of the human as a kind of being distinct from all others. It does so by examining key developments in the idea of the human in philosophical and social scientific discourse from the eighteenth century on.

Learning objectives

By the end of this course you will be able to:

  • demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the development of modern systems of reasoning and of governance that take as their object ‘the human’
  • identify and critically appraise the main theories, models and conceptions of the human found in philosophical and social scientific literature, and analyse the issues arising from these conceptions
  • discuss and understand the three disciplines, politics, philosophy and history and their inter-relations, and specifically their approaches to the human, in line with the broader interdisciplinary objectives of the BA in Politics, Philosophy and History
  • demonstrate transferable skills, including critical evaluation, analytical investigation, written presentation and oral communication.