In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Human Nature in International Relations

  • Introduction
  • Classical Texts
  • Introductory Interdisciplinary Writings
  • Introductory Disciplinary Writings

International Relations Human Nature in International Relations
Daniel Jacobi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0286


“Human nature” is not a notion that has originated from theories of world politics. On the contrary, it represents one of the oldest points of reference in various cultural traditions of thought. An aspect, however, that makes the current status of the human in international relations (IR) interesting is the fact that since the 1980s, the discipline has undergone a rigorous and critical examination of its core terminologies. Above all, this effort has led scholars to become aware of the concurrent appropriations of their terms: once as scientific concepts and once as ontological facts. However, while various aspects of the human have always found their way into the theorization of world politics, so far the actual impact of the equally diverse “models of man” on the latter has hardly been subjected to systematic consideration. Observing “human nature” not only as a “naturally given fact” but also as an observational concept connects IR with the broader literatures on how the (political) world may be interpreted and analyzed. The proposition to begin a reappraisal of “human nature’s” framing effects on the basis of the distinction of anthropological and post-anthropological approaches (Human Beings in International Relations. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015) calls upon IR scholars to appreciate what happens when they study world politics through a lens that either places the human at the center of its observations or one that opts to decenter it to different extents. A reflection on the distinction of an international political anthropology and an international political post-anthropology as a starting point for theory building then not only draws attention to what is included and excluded in regard to the human when studying world politics. It moreover exposes how different views on the (post)human come to shape different theoretical architectures. What is more, it also reveals that such foundations do not run parallel to the classical IR heuristic of distinct paradigms. A closer look at their post-human foundations then shows how much these schools of thought, once conceived as highly coherent, have now been differentiated internally. The said absence of a systematic debate on the status of the human in the IR theories also poses a challenge to this article. Not only is the human still rarely reflected upon as a theoretical core concept; at the same time, parallel debates exist that are guided less by theoretical frameworks but rather by the problems that arise from specific ideas about the post-human. In this sense, this article also pursues a dual strategy: on the one hand, the listing either of obvious or subtle uses of post-human views by various theoretical traditions, and on the other hand, the identification of specific core problems that have formed in the wake of specific angles on the post-human. Since inquiries into the post-human also include an intersection of IR theories with other scientific literatures, the article also features text references that will help readers find their way into the state of the art of those important adjacent debates.

Classical Texts

Notions of “human nature” do not originally stem from IR scholarship. Rather, they can already be found at the earliest stages of making sense of and describing the (political) world. The following sources are not IR texts but rather are some of the works that have laid the groundwork for and thus strongly contributed to the many latent and manifest views on the (post)human in world politics. Their authors are the major contextual and rhetorical “attractors” of various debates about the human, and particularly “human nature.” Many of them have provided and still do form the backbone of various international political theories and philosophies. In this sense, Aristotle 1995 and Plato 2008 lay the foundations for ideas about how being human is inherently connected with political-community formation. Descartes 2008, Hume 2001, Kant 2006, and Marx and Engels 2011 elaborate from different angles on the potential of human autonomy. Hobbes 1991 and Darwin 2008 focus on the malleability of the human via education and evolution.

  • Aristotle. Politics. 2d rev. ed. Translated by Ernest Barker. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

    Aristotle’s work traces the interdependence between the human and the political. He argues that both reveal and take on their true form only in relation to each other. Politics, always conceived as political community (polis), is the environment in which man appears as a political animal (zoon politicon). Only in this can he perform his unique natural function of “the active life of the rational part of the soul” (chapter XII) and at the same time realize the teleology of “good for man” (eudaimonia). As the idea of striving for happiness, this undoubtedly still finds strong resonance in early-21st-century politics.

  • Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. Rev. ed. Edited by Gillian Beer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    Darwin’s work, originally published in 1859, sits at the intersection of diverse approaches to the concept of evolution: while the idea that the human species changes over time had been around since Greek antiquity, it was commonly accepted only after this publication. It is relevant as a basic read because evolutionary perspectives are now also common in IR. Particularly Darwin’s tripartite explanatory mechanism has now been applied to the analysis of many core phenomena of world politics and is also recognizable in other theories of the political.

  • Descartes, René. Meditations on First Philosophy with Selections from the Objections and Replies. Translated by Michael Moriarty. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    In his Meditations, first published in 1641, Descartes rewrites the classical notion of the hypokeimenon—a self-sufficient entity that founds its own being and, in turn, everything else—by combining it with the idea of the cogitans and subsequently delegating the grounds of certainty from an objective outside to the subjective inside. Hence, humans were no longer simply “things” in a world of other things but became the foundation of the world. This laid the basis for the still-prevailing view that humans are individuals whose subjectivity rests on their consciousness.

  • Hobbes, Thomas. Man and Citizen: De Homine and De Cive. Edited by Bernard Gert. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1991.

    Usually recognized for his influence on realism, this volume, originally published in 1642, presents a differentiated view of the human. It reveals why Hobbes’s “state of nature” must not be mistaken for an account of a universal “human nature.” The book shows that his writings present mostly select (albeit negative) aspects of human behavior rooted in a misguided education and socialization. While humans do have a biological nature, it is nevertheless assumed to be malleable.

  • Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. Edited by David Fate Norton and Mary J. Norton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    Directed against the Cartesian project of certainty, Hume’s philosophy of “human nature” elaborates on the mind not in the sense of reason but rather with a focus on its experiential dimension as well as potential for imagination. This work, first published in 1739, is groundbreaking insofar as it not only introduces a historical dimension to common life but also grants the human the agency to actively shape his own societal and political contexts.

  • Kant, Immanuel. Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    Kant held that the first three core questions of philosophy converge to answer a final fourth question of “What is the human being?” In distinguishing a pragmatic anthropology from a biological one, this book, first published in 1798, is post-anthropological insofar as it focuses mostly on autonomy (i.e., the potential of the indeterminateness of humans). It is important since it subsequently and together with Kant’s other treatises lays the foundation for a still-prevailing understanding of the human as a subject.

  • Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The German Ideology. Edited by Roy Pascal. Mansfield, CT: Martino Fine Books, 2011.

    Long unpublished (written in 1846 but not published until 1932), it outlines Marx’s philosophy of history. Particularly in building on his sixth thesis on Feuerbach, this reveals his view of the human. Criticizing classical ideas of “human nature,” Marx prefers the term “species-being” and lays out how humans are shaped not by nature but rather by their social interactions. The term can be read both anthropologically and post-anthropologically, since the status of the “true nature” from which man is supposedly alienated is contested.

  • Plato. Republic. Translated by Robin Waterfield. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    As a representative of mind-body dualism, Plato focuses on the former, understood as soul and its tripartite structure (reason, appetite, will). The different conceivable relations of these elements create different societies as well as structures of rule. However, only when the soul is in harmony is the individual and thus society in balance. Plato’s way there leads through a just society organized via political education. Similar to Aristotle, the close interlocking of concepts of “human nature” with the organization of political communities is also evident here, albeit from a different angle.

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