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Human self-reflection is the capacity of humans to exercise introspection and the willingness to learn more about our fundamental nature, purpose and essence. The earliest historical records demonstrate the great interest which humanity has had in itself. Human self-reflection invariably leads to inquiry into the human condition and the essence of humankind as a whole.
Humans consider themselves to be the dominant species on Earth and the most advanced in intelligence and ability to manage their environment. This belief in Western culture is derived in part from the Biblical creation story in which Adam is blessed to rule over and have dominion over the Earth and all of its creatures (Genesis 1:26).
Prehistoric notions about the status of humanity may be guessed by the etymology of ancient words for man. Latin homo (PIE *kþonyon) means "of the earth, earthling," probably in opposition to "celestial" beings. Greek ἂνθροπος (mycenaean *anthrokwos) means "low-eyed," again probably contrasting with a divine perspective.
From the 3rd millennium Old Kingdom of Egypt, belief in the eternal afterlife of the human Ka is documented. From the earliest times, man made out a claim of dominance of humanity alongside radical pessimism because of the frailty and brevity of human life (In the Hebrew Bible, for example, dominion of man is promised in Genesis 1:28, but the author of Ecclesiastes bewails the vanity of all human effort).
Protagoras made the famous claim that "Man is the measure of all things; of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not". Socrates gave the (doubtlessly tongue-in-cheek) definition of humans as "featherless bipeds" (Plato, Politicus). More serious is Aristotle's description of man as the "communal animal" (ζῶον πολιτικόν), i.e., emphasizing society-building as a central trait of human nature, and "animal with sapience" (ζῶον λόγον ἔχον, animal rationale), a term that also inspired the species' taxonomy, Homo sapiens.
The dominant world-view of medieval Europe, as directed by the Catholic Church, was that human existence is characterized by sin, and that its aim should be to prepare for divine judgement after death. The 13th century pope Innocent III wrote about the essential misery of earthly existence in his "On the misery of the human condition" – a view that was disputed by, for example, Gianozzo Manetti in his treatise "On human dignity."
See Renaissance humanism.
- What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
The Enlightenment was driven by a renewed conviction, that, in the words of Immanuel Kant, "Man is distinguished above all animals by his self-consciousness, by which he is a 'rational animal'." In the 19th century, Karl Marx defined man as "labouring animal" (animal laborans) in conscious opposition to this tradition. In the early 20th century, Sigmund Freud dealt a serious blow to positivism by postulating that human behaviour is to a large part controlled by the unconscious mind.
Some feel that the modern culture of materialism leaves little room for reflection; the tendency to focus on worldly goods naturally denies the opportunity to ponder one's life and its place in the universe. The idea of philosophy being discarded as it runs counter to the pursuit of pleasure is a common theme in certain works of dystopian science fiction, such as Brave New World or Fahrenheit 451.
However, it could be argued that a culture of self obsession leads to more self-reflection, since, in the quest for the ideal life, individuals will constantly analyse their characters, faults and ambitions. This can be shown in the trend to seek psychotherapy as the panacea to one's emotional woes. The current popularity of the Humanities amongst the academic disciplines also shows an increased public interest in mankind and its place in the cosmos.
Spiritual movements that encourage the reflective arts of prayer and meditation as a practice are on the rise, both as branches of existing religions and as part of more eclectic movements like the New Age.
Theories in psychology, like the construction of the ego as suggested in the mirror stage by Jacques Lacan reminds us about the possibility that self-consciousness and self-reflection may be at least in part a human construction.
Comparison to other species
Various attempts have been made to identify a single behavioural characteristic that distinguishes humans from all other animals. Some anthropologists think that readily observable characteristics (tool-making and language) are based on less easily observable mental processes that might be unique among humans: the ability to think symbolically, in the abstract or logically, although several species have demonstrated some abilities in these areas. Nor is it clear at what point exactly in human evolution these traits became prevalent. They may not be restricted to the species Homo sapiens, as the extinct species of the Homo genus (e.g. Homo neanderthalensis, Homo erectus) are believed to also have been adept tool makers and may also have had linguistic skills.
In learning environments reflection is an important part of the loop to go through in order to maximise the utility of having experiences. Rather than moving on to the next 'task' we can review the process and outcome of the task and - with the benefit of a little distance (lapsed time) we can reconsider what the value of experience might be for us and for the context it was part of.