What is Anthropology?

What is anthropology? Anthropology is the study of humans and their nature. Or more simply– What is man’s nature?* These are anthropological questions. What is man? What is his purpose? What are humans like? What can they do and why do they do what they do? What is virtuous or vicious for humans to do?


1 Anthropology is relevant to ethics.
Purpose provides a success or failure criterion. Nature contains purpose and human nature contains human purpose. Self-reflection reveals purpose. This is our conscience, which is our capacity to compare our desires, decisions and actions with our human nature and purpose. A person can refine the concept of man’s nature and his purpose, just as an intelligent person can refine their attention to detail in music or carpentry or wine tasting.

2 ‘Know Thyself’
We are complex and limited beings. Full appreciation and experience of life involves a rational component. This requires knowledge of our nature and limitations and purpose. This requires anthropology. So, anthropology is needed to fully appreciate our lives. What is man’s nature? What is anthropology? Know thyself, know your purpose, and try to refine this notion into something intelligent and accurate, according to what God has given you.

3 Anthropology is a launch pad into politics, human destiny, art and language.
You can’t understand an aggregate without the basic understanding of the individual components that constitute the aggregate. What is man in society? What is man in politics? What is man’s destiny? What is man in regards to art? What is man’s relationship to symbols for language?

Popular Nonsense

1 False: Anthropology is necessarily a field of study where cultural relativism is assumed at all levels in inquiry.

Why would we ever assume all cultures are equal? Some decisions and some rituals are bad and some are good. Not all rituals, traditions, and human activity are equally good. Anthropology does not require cultural relativity when it comes to evaluating cultures. Anthropology does not reasonably preclude tentative evaluations of cultures. In fact, why would we assume we can’t evaluate another culture or our own culture, in order to improve them?

What is anthropology? It most certainly isn’t something that should prevent us from improving the habits of mankind. So, if we want to be intelligent about studying man’s nature in cultural settings, we must be prepared to entertain the idea that some cultures (in specific aspects) are better than other cultures.

2 False: Anthropology is non-evaluative and all cultures are equally respectable.

Why would we ever assume that all cultures are equal? If a culture has ever changed in a positive direction, then the latter state is better than the former, and thus certain cultural values may be better than other cultural values.

3 False: Truth and moral values are relative to the culture.

Ethical relativism is false. So, cultural relativism is likewise false. So, any anthropology that adopts cultural relativity as a fundamental pronouncement on truth and moral values is false.

* I use ‘man’ instead of this ‘he/she’ nonsense because ‘man’ is a proper category of ‘human beings’. It has nothing to do with superiority of men over women. I don’t believe that replacing all masculine words with feminine or neutral words is obviously intelligent. Man’s nature is the study of all humanity.

Great Quotes On Human Nature:

Man’s nature? He has a divided nature:

Man is the only creature that refuses to be what he is.  ~Albert Camus

It is easier to denature plutonium than to denature the evil spirit of man.  ~Albert Einstein

The relevance of having an explicit anthropology:

Human nature simply cannot subsist without a hope and aim of some kind; as the sanity of the Old Testament truly said, where there is no vision the people perisheth. But it is precisely because an ideal is necessary to man that the man without ideals is in permanent danger of fanaticism. ~ G.K. Chesterton


“Know then thyself, presume not God to scan, The proper study of mankind is Man. Plac’d on this isthmus of a middle state, A being darkly wise, and rudely great: With too much knowledge for the sceptic side, With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride, He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest; In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast; In doubt his mind or body to prefer; Born but to die; and reas’ning but to err: Alike in ignorance, his reason such,Whether he thinks too little or too much; Chaos of thought and passion, all confus’d; Still by himself abus’d or disabus’d; Created half to rise and half to fall; Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all; Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!”

Alexander Pope,  on the Paradox of Man in “EPISTLE II” IN AN ESSAY ON MAN (T. TEGG: 1811), PP. 61-2.

Do you have any additional resources, lectures, or links, that provide insight into answering ‘what is anthropology’? Send us an email or comment.

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