Human Needs aren't Dependent on Human Biology

All human needs, including sexuality, lie beyond the animal world. They are historically determined and historically mutable.

I circled this quote on the reading because I had no idea what it meant.

I have started going to a weekly reading group where we bring interesting articles, lectures, or any media to discuss. This quote is from what I’m told is a famous lecture by Herbert Marcuse, first delivered in 1967, called “The End of Utopia”. I know I ostensibly write about philosophy on this blog, but I would say that the breadth of my knowledge is woeful - attending this reading group is part of how I am educating myself.

Luckily for me, the person who brings the reading to the group leads the discussion. So I confessed my ignorance of Marxist philosophy and asked for an explanation of the quote.

What followed was incredibly though provoking for me.

Marcuse is saying that human needs are determined by culture. What we refer to as needs are all a level above the “animal world” needs like water or breathing. He argues that our needs are not defined by our biology and are infinitely open to change.

If your needs are not defined by your biology, then how are they defined? The world around you is the primary driver. Above any beyond the most basic needs, what you know and can perceive defines what you need. Aristotle has a useful model (check out this summary if you’re interested: Aristotle on the soul) for this idea in his degrees of soul hierarchy.

Aristotle's model on the soul. 

Aristotle's model on the soul. 

  1. The nutritive soul (plants): Growth, nutrition (reproduction)
  2. The sensitive soul (all animals): Movement and perception
  3. Rational soul (humans): Intellect and thought.

This model is a useful way to think about how you navigate the world as a human. There is an immediate connection between sensing something and action. How can you act if you don’t sense something? You need to be able to see it, smell it, feel it, touch it, or perceive it in some way before you can do anything about it. So, your sensitive soul defines your needs. How you move through the world defines your needs. You can change what you need by changing what you perceive.

Changing how you move and going outside to see new things is a really good way to change your perceptions and reset your needs a little. 

Changing how you move and going outside to see new things is a really good way to change your perceptions and reset your needs a little. 

Humans have the capacity for intellect and thought too. Needs derived from thinking are just as real as needs derived from the lower levels of the soul hierarchy. And yet, the basis of the needs derived from thought are affected by the lower levels.

I don’t know where I’m going with this yet. I have questions: to what extent is this theory is based on a Western perspective? Is there a way to figure out our biological needs apart from what would be torture? Do the Levels of the Soul really matter when the individual experiences needs as real regardless of what level the need derives from? This is weird to think about. How do you think about your needs? Let me know in the comments!

Photo by Anthony Intraversato on Unsplash