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EDU 4290
Philosophy of Education




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Complex Philosophical Concepts:
Philosophical Anthropology

"Philosophical anthropology" is the study of human beings from the perspective that human beings are, by their very nature, "hotwired" to desire truth (or wisdom). As Aristotle noted this concept in The Metaphysics, "All [human beings] by nature desire to know" (I.1.108). This area of speculative inquiry examines the basic elements that comprise the human being, how these elements can work in concert with one another to promote knowing (or learning) about truth and arriving at wisdom, as well as how human beings can achieve true happiness or be thwarted from achieving it through one's freely willed choices.

When students are first introduced to this area of inquiry, it is oftentimes difficult for them to appreciate how the ancients viewed the human being.  Some of the difficulty students experience is attributable to the pervasive influence of 20th-century psychology. With its emphasis upon ego, cognition, and the purported causal relationships between human growth and development and determinative power of the environment, students think about human beings as products of their environment.

Upon reading and considering the ancients, some of the difficulty students experience is attributable to the seemingly uncompromising and unyielding view of the ancients who attribute human behavior to freely willed choices and not to one's environment. In this sense, women and men are not "victims," the ancients would argue, but free and autonomous beings who make choices and direct the power of will to achieve what they believe will bring happiness. But, sometimes, the object of desire does not bring true happiness and functions, instead, to stunt growth and development and, ultimately, to enslave human beings. In this sense, then, human beings bear responsibility for their freely willed choices and have no one else to blame for any ensuing unhappiness. Students tend not to feel comfortable with having to look at themselves as the source of their unhappiness. After all, it's much easier to point the finger of blame and responsibility elsewhere!

Plato's philosophical anthropology...

One approach to philosophical anthropology, that advocated by Plato, views the human being as a tripartite entity whose basic elements include: the body, the will, and the mind.

The most basic element is the body (or flesh, sarx).  Corporeal by nature, that is, comprised of matter, the body is "hotwired" to seek pleasure through the senses.

In some ways, that human beings seek pleasure through the agency of their body is a good thing. For example, people derive pleasure from eating, an activity that provides the nutrition the body needs to remain healthy.  People also derive pleasure from imbibing beverages, for example, to slake one's thirst. Pleasure also accompanies copulation, through which human beings procreate, thus insuring the continued existence of the human race.

But, in other ways, pleasure seeking may not be a good thing for human beings. For example, some people enjoy eating not for nutritional purposes (that is a secondary or derivative effect) but rather because of the pleasure one's palate derives from eating. Others enjoy imbibing in drugs, like alcohol, because of the pleasure the body derives from drugs. Arguably, sexual pleasure is perhaps the greatest form of physical pleasure human beings experience and some people engage in sexual activity solely because of the intense pleasure it gives them.

The point Plato is arguing by looking at the body the way he does is that one can equate "happiness" with "pleasure" in ways that do not promote true happiness but, in the end, addict the human being to pleasure that ultimately will lead to the destruction of the body. 

Conversely, people generally refrain from engaging in those things that do not give pleasure. 

Each of these activitiesthrough which the body experiences pleasurecontribute to human "happiness."

"In the middle is virtue to be found" (in medio stat virtu est) the ancient Stoics taught because, too much food, drugs, and sex can and, as such, its matter is destined over time to wither and decay. The end of the body, then, is death.


Aristotle. (1958). Metaphysics (W. D. Ross, Trans.). In J. D. Kaplan (Ed.), The pocket Aristotle (pp. 106-156). New York: Simon & Schuster.

McKechnie, J. L. (Ed.). (1979). Webster's new twentieth century dictionary (second ed.). New York: Simon and Schuster.

Plato. (1981). Meno. The five dialogues (G.M.A. Grube, Trans.). Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co.