From ancient Greece to the Middle Ages, human nature in the West was understood in terms of Galen’s theory of the ‘four humours’ – black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm – which were derived from the four elements: earth, air, fire and water. A person whose dominant humour was blood would have been ‘sanguine’ (warm, optimistic and easy-going); a melancholic person’s body was dominated by black bile. The theory implied that everyone had a place in the great table of life. Since the end of the nineteenth century there has been a revolution in the study of human nature. Entire professions such as psychiatry, psychology and anthropology are now devoted to the study of the mental and social life of human beings. But whereas premodern thought conceptualised human nature as a function of substance, today it is understood in terms of performance. The human sciences have come to depend on three performative models of human nature in their examinations of human behaviour. Employing differing assumptions about science and occasionally divergent methods of investigation, they have nevertheless demonstrated that ‘man’ can be understood either as a ‘Puzzle Solver’, a ‘Tool User’ or a ‘Story Teller’. Sometimes in conflict, sometimes in harmony, these three models continue to inform contemporary debates about what we are – and what we can become.
The model of human as Puzzle Solver was promoted late in the nineteenth century by Wilhelm Wundt. His focus on behaviour and its successor, behaviourism, has now been superseded by cognitive neuroscience. > more
The Tool User is a pragmatist: what counts is what works. It is hardly surprising, then, that this model is normally applied in administrative and practical contexts. And of all tools the most powerful is language. > more