Naturalism in America Today

Connie Crank Price is a retired philosophy professor from Tuskegee University, USA.

On January 6th, 2021, hundreds of people, for the most part heavily armed rightist white men, broke into the US Capitol building, intending to prevent Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s presidential election. They were extremely violent and injured many Capitol Police, killing at least one. Also, their plan to lynch Speaker Pelosi and Vice President Pence showed many signs of being sincere. Some ideas from political philosophy are applicable to that occasion and can provide a basis for reflection on it. The first of these is naturalism, and its peculiarly American stamp. The second is Thomas Hobbes’ theory of social contract. Thirdly, David Hume’s insights about the relation between morality and politics are useful.

The first concept, displayed with much force, as it were, by the insurrectionists, is naturalism. Through the past two centuries or so, skin color, brain size, and the shapes of facial features were pronounced as natural determinants of character, intelligence, and potential job skills, by “scientists” working for certain racist American and European interests. Today, traits of character and behavior are ascribed to the DNA. [1]

The enduring brand of naturalism in America follows from the white male exceptionalism that pervades our culture. Naturalism is performance art, a modeling of gender and race. A naturally superior man is a cisgender straight white monosyllabic cowboy. His wife is a white passive-aggressive mother of two or more who controls him and their wealth and represents him in society. We may claim to have outgrown such hegemonic valuations, but they linger in the dying coals of fire in the belly. Maybe the Six January bunch are confused (no excuses!) because they hold nostalgic false images of themselves, their relationships, their destiny, deeper inside than they know.

Two political philosophers’ ideas offer contrasting visions for humankind, and the dichotomy is perceptible in today’s crises in the U S. The two very different thinkers were Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and David Hume (1711-1776).

Hobbes was English, and a Royalist during the Civil Wars. He based his social contract theory on his concept of desire. Today, he would be considered a naturalist! He argued that, by nature, human beings accrue unlimited desires, leading to conflicts and fights. This “war of all against all” made people’s lives “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Hobbes said a social contract changes people from a state of nature to civilization. It requires everyone to yield a portion of their desiring to their sovereign, who must rule with an iron fist. As for the citizenry, they enjoy benefits unavailable in the state of nature; safe from invasion and insurrection, people can develop the arts, sciences. and commerce. If a sovereign weakens, s/he can no longer protect the domain, and must be replaced.

Hobbes depicted people in a disturbing way. He postulated that humans can be shifted mechanistically from one nature to another. He identified human inwardness as nothing but acquisitive, and divisible into selective portions, which can be dispatched to the will of a stern monarch. But alienating their very minds would blur people’s memories of their experiences, damaging their judgement, senses, and emotions.

David Hume was a Scotsman, a philosopher, a superb writer, and a statesman. His political view was almost the opposite of Hobbes’. Hume did not believe in a social contract, nor in a pre-civilized state of human nature. For Hume, not only had neither a social contract nor a state of nature ever occurred, but even a figurative use of these could not be salient.

In contrast to Hobbes’ emphasis on desire, Hume considered “sympathy” to be important in moral and social contexts. As with every socially oriented trait, he said, sympathy is not part of human nature, but is attained through education and customs. In today’s terms, Hume’s “sympathy” would probably be called compassion, or perhaps the agape type of love. For Hume, sympathy is the way by which people form and strengthen societies. Hume argued that the first society people dwell in is their family. Maturity finds people learning to extend their sympathies beyond their family and tribe. He said people often come to love the benefits they see others bestow to the world. This leads folks to appreciate each other’s worth, leading to hearts that are more open. [2]

Applying Hume’s insights, the rabble of January Sixth was devoid of sympathy! They would be more mature and less hostile and violent if they learned to extend their sympathies to people outside their tribes. In Hume’s political sense, they are traitors: they damage their country’s moral strength and progress because they choose to militate against the sympathy needed for creating and sustaining better lives for themselves and all citizens. They must become mature citizens. They live here and seem to have no plans to emigrate. Thus, their emotional and practical contributions are important for establishing a human condition that is political, creatively and dynamically so! It would behoove them to engage in peaceful deliberations about today’s issues, be these local, national, or global. These guys, like all of white America, whether landed, by familial heritage in the seventeenth century, or yesterday, must face up to some historical facts: first, many people who were enslaved or in bondage here, or even as fellow citizens were nonetheless imprisoned in camps on our very soil because of their race, have contributed immeasurably to the nation’s resilience. Also, those who persist in rationalizing their ownership of the country must learn humility and turn with joy to an openness of attitude and behavior. We have to befriend refugees, immigrants, and all of our neighbors, including those with “different” physical and cultural traits. Only in solidarity, created and sustained by sympathy, can humans build a vibrant future for democracy. [3]


  • [1] See Serwer 2021. Although “naturalism”, “being natural”, etc. are often used ambiguously, there seems to be reference to material and physiological qualities of living organisms. If we speak of or investigate the naturalistic qualities of the human mind for example, we immediately declare simply that the mind is the brain.
  • [2] In Empiricism and Subjectivity, An Essay on Hume’s Theory of Human Nature. Gilles Deleuze provides an account of Hume’s view of politics as an affirmation of human sympathy and community.
  • [3] My understanding of politics is from the inspiration of Hannah Arendt’s works, her life, and her love of the world. Politics for her is a core human experience of creativity in learning to live together.


  • Arendt, Hannah. 1969. Crises of the Republic: Lying in Politics; Civil Disobedience; On Violence; Thoughts on Politics and Revolution. New York: Harcourt and Brace.
  • Deleuze, Gilles. 1977. Empiricism and Subjectivity: An Essay on Hume’s Theory of Human Nature. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Hobbes, Thomas. 2017 [1651]. Leviathan. London: Penguin.
  • Hume, David. 2011 [1739-40]. Treatise on Human Nature, 2 Vol. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Serwer, Adam. 2021. “White Nationalism’s Deep American Roots” in Serwer, The Cruelty Is the Point. New York: Penguin-Random House, 113-29.