Defining Anthropocentrism

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What is anthropocentrism?

Turns out, there is no single, simple answer to this question even among people best known for “liberally strewing” it. (Just among the nearly fifty books on environmental ethics and deep ecology that I have, only one actually offers a definition of the term, despite almost all of them referring to it in their discussions. As with many words, its meaning often has to be teased out and inferred from context.) In my earlier post I hinted at the beginnings of a definition when I referred to an approach to ritual that “takes for granted a worldview in which humans are the only measure of what is real.” The question of how our idea of “the real” and our practical responses to it (for instance, through ritual activity) influence our underlying values and where we locate (or create) meaning is a complex conversation in its own right, and it is in this particular theological meadow that I’ll do much of my lingering and bee-gazing in the following posts. But for now, it’s probably more helpful to sketch out a basic definition, one we can use as a kind of measure against which we can hold up more complex, fidgety ideas later in the conversation. So, here we go.

Anthropocentrism is the philosophical view that human beings are separate from and superior to the rest of the natural world, possessing intrinsic value that other beings and entities (such as plants and non-human animals) lack. In an article on environmental ethics, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy makes the distinction between “strong” and “weak” anthropocentrism this way:

Many traditional western ethical perspectives, however, are anthropocentric or human-centered in that either they assign intrinsic value to human beings alone (i.e., what we might call anthropocentric in a strong sense) or they assign a significantly greater amount of intrinsic value to human beings than to any nonhuman things such that the protection or promotion of human interests or well-being at the expense of nonhuman things turns out to be nearly always justified (i.e., what we might call anthropocentric in a weak sense). [emphasis added]

In other words, anthropocentrism concerns the way that we assign value and meaning to the world around us — it sets the intrinsic value of human beings in contrast to the merely instrumental or utilitarian value of the non-human — and so in this way it has an implicit connection to the question of ethics.

In the introduction to Deep Ecology and World Religions, editors Barnhill and Gottlieb elaborate further that anthropocentrism is the view that “human beings are (because of intelligence, technology, science, political life, language, the soul, etc.) categorically different from their surroundings.” Barnhill and Gottlieb point out that when deep ecologists make the claim that “to be human is to be part of nature,” they are explicitly opposing anthropocentrism. This is an important point to understand, because there are also philosophical views that see humans as “a part of nature” (ie. fundamentally material, physical beings in relationship with natural systems, without reference to a spiritual, supernatural or non-material reality) but which still do not reject basic anthropocentric assumptions about value. In other words, merely saying “human beings are a part of nature” is not in itself a rejection of anthropocentrism.

One example of a naturalistic but still anthropocentric philosophy in environmental ethics is what’s known as “enlightened, or prudential, anthropocentrism” — the view that our responsibility to care for the earth and its ecosystems stems from our ethical obligation to other human beings, who depend on those systems. (This is the stance that Richard Watson adopts, for instance, in his critique of anti-anthropocentric biocentrism, pointing out some important inconsistencies in the views of deep ecology.) This philosophy is similar in some ways to the Christian concept of “dominion” or “stewardship,” the belief that humans have a responsibility to care for the earth because God created the earth specifically as a home for humans. In both cases, humans have intrinsic value, while the rest of the natural world has merely instrumental or derivative value — that is, it only has value insofar as it relates to or serves human beings.

This is one reason why the founders of deep ecology chose to call their philosophy “deep,” calling attention to the fact that there are other philosophical views founded on ecological principles that are “shallow” — views that take for granted certain assumptions about the supremacy or centrality of humanity and its interests, or fail to offer an adequate challenge to those assumptions. For deep ecologists and many modern animists, it’s not only turtles all the way down, but hedgehogs all the way round.

faceinbark_ blondie478Given the legacy of anthropocentrism in religious and philosophical traditions in Western culture, it would be surprising if modern Paganism were completely free of its influence. And we can find examples of it in both naturalistic philosophies and spiritual/religious theologies which draw on anthropocentric views in various subtle ways.

For instance, John Halstead (a naturalistic Pagan) recently explored the possibility of a tropical rainforest ontology — a philosophy which, despite being naturalistic and non-reductionist, asserts that humanity occupies a level of “essential ontological distinctiveness” that is separate from and more highly complex than the lower levels occupied by non-human animals, plants, rocks, chemical compounds, etc. Implicit in his argument that “a hierarchy of complexity is built into the universe” is the assertion that human beings occupy a place of supremacy in this hierarchy and represent the most highly evolved life forms on earth, possessing emergent properties of mind and culture that are lacking in the lower levels.

Anthropocentrism can also be found in the writings of P. Sufenas Virius Lupus (a devotional polytheist), when he rejects the concept of “nature worship” as a legitimate form of Paganism:

Pagan or polytheist practice that emphasizes cultus presupposes a definite being with volition and consciousness on the other end of the interaction. […] To imagine that nature simply as itself (with no theological beliefs attached) should be worshipped for its own sake today is equally not viable or sensible. [original emphasis]

Lupus, like Halstead, believes that there is a categorical difference between the rest of the natural world (which in his view is ontologically inanimate and indifferent) and human beings (who, like gods and spirits, are capable of relationship and response in a way that “nature” is not). As with Halstead’s philosophy, we see that according to this view humans possess unique qualities — consciousness, volition, religion, spiritual awareness, etc. — that set us apart from the rest of the natural world (and, in this case, make us more like gods). While Halstead refers to a naturalistic hierarchy, Lupus relies much more heavily on dualism, a fundamental distinction between spirit and matter. While dualism isn’t necessarily anthropocentric in theory, in application it almost always assigns humans the special role of arbiter or bridge between these two modes of being, placing them “closer” to the gods or the spiritual realm than other physical beings. We can see this tendency expressed in Lupus’s view when he argues that we cannot engage with the sun itself but only with “the Spirit of the Sun” that exists within it; and yet, he clearly does not extend this same reasoning to humans in a way that claims we cannot talk to Bob or Sally directly, only to “the Spirit of Bob” or “the Spirit of Sally.” Thus, for Lupus, the natural world has no value in itself or “for its own sake” (ie. no intrinsic value), although humans can still appreciate it (aesthetic value), try to live in harmony with it (instrumental value) and even include it in our cultus if we direct our attention to the spirits “within” it (practical value). These are all still clear examples of assigning instrumental or derivative value to nature, rather than acknowledging its intrinsic value apart from human use, pleasure or survival.

I chose these two examples to highlight the influence of anthropocentrism in modern Paganism precisely because Lupus and Halstead are usually assumed to be on opposite ends of the theological spectrum. And yet, even when Halstead disagrees with Lupus about his claim that Pagans cannot worship nature “for its own sake,” he does not challenge the basic assumption that humans are fundamentally different from the rest of the natural world, that we are receptive and conscious whereas “nature” is unconscious, inanimate and incapable of receptivity or response:

[I]n point of fact, I do worship natural phenomena for “its own sake” … or more precisely “for my own sake.” Lupus’ analysis seems to assume that worship needs a receptive party on the other end that appreciates the worship. And if you start with that assumption, then it would seem absurd to worship inanimate or unconscious nature. But for me, worship is a natural human response to the wonder which nature evokes. [emphasis added]

Here, Halstead seems to define worship as more like an aesthetic response, rather than as a relationship with another volitional, conscious being. But approaching worship in this way still anchors it in the centrality of human experience — as Halstead himself points out when he correctly notes that this practice is for his own sake, not necessarily nature’s.

There are arguments you could make that my calling the perspectives of these two Pagans “anthropocentric” is not entirely accurate. For instance, Halstead could argue that simply because humans are categorically different in kind from the rest of the natural world (that they exist at the top of an ontological hierarchy) doesn’t mean they are intrinsically more valuable than other beings. Or he could argue (pretty convincingly, I think) that organizing the practice of worship around the aesthetic response of wonder and awe in the human person doesn’t negate the intrinsic value of the natural object that provoked this response in the first place. Likewise, Lupus could point out that when he discusses the value of nature “for its own sake,” it is only in the specific context of ritual worship, and not meant to be taken as a statement about nature’s intrinsic value outside of ritual practice. He could also claim that, unlike most instances of dualism in Western thought, his particular dualistic worldview is radically egalitarian because it asserts that all beings — not just humans — have spirits “within” them (although that would hardly address the question of whether matter, as opposed to spirit, has any intrinsic value in his view).

This is where it can be useful to remember the distinction between “strong anthropocentrism” and “weak anthropocentrism.” Even worldviews that do not make strong ontological claims about the supremacy or centrality of human beings can have the practical effect of directing our attention, interest and concern primarily or exclusively towards the human being as a locus of meaning and context, at the expense of a more-than-human natural world that is assumed to exist in a state of deaf-dumb indifference. There is room for debate about the details of worldviews like Halstead’s or Lupus’s, but in the end, I’m not convinced either of them adequately challenge the deeply ingrained assumptions of Western culture’s anthropocentric legacy.

Obviously, these are complex — not to mention subtle and tricky! — topics to grapple with, and we’re already at risk of stumbling into a kind of ontological fog. So I’d like to continue this exploration of anthropocentrism in Pagan theology and ritual by looking at what I think anthropocentrism is not.

More specifically, I’d like to address three straw men raised in recent discussions, and explore why I believe they are not actually examples of anthropocentrism. Those straw men are:

  • Human instinct is inherently anthropocentric.
  • Human subjectivity makes anthropocentrism inevitable.
  • Anthropocentrism is a matter of belief, not practice.

The first two of these three points speak to the more general objection that a non-anthropocentric approach to ethics, ritual or theology is simply not possible. This objection is not unique to the Pagan community, either, but has been raised again and again over the past several decades in the many discussions of what exactly anthropocentrism is and how it manifests in everything from environmentalism to religion to philosophy to politics to science. It’s my personal belief that it is most definitely possible to approach ritual and theology from a non-anthropocentric worldview, and that the very act of continually striving to “de-center” ourselves through the process of philosophical discourse is perhaps more important than attaining to some ultimately and conclusively “correct” view. It is also my belief that the work of “de-centering” the human being from our worldview is not only a matter of reasoning and/or religious belief, but also inherently bound up with the various ways we act with(in) the physical, natural world — that is, that you cannot have a non-anthropocentric theology if your rituals are grounded in anthropocentric assumptions. Or in other words, inclusivity is action as well as attitude. I’ll explore this idea more when I address the third of these three points.


Next: Anthropocentrism and Animal Instinct


This post is part of the Animistic Blog Carnival, hosted this month by Brian Taylor on his blog, animist jottings. For details on how to join, click here.


Photo Credits:
• “Faces of Stone,” by Christopher (CC) [source]
• “face in the bark,” by Mary W. (CC) [source]


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Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

8 Comments

  1. John Halstead
    Jan 26, 2014

    Alison,

    Great post! You’ve definitely hit the nail on the head about my own failure to “adequately challenge the deeply ingrained assumptions of Western culture’s anthropocentric legacy.” I appreciate that you anticipated some of my responses above. I look forward to seeing how you work out the challenge of “de-centering” the human being in practice.

    There are two points that I would like to raise that you might address here or in future posts.

    First, the admittedly hierarchical system that I described in my post (http://humanisticpaganism.com/2013/09/08/a-tropical-rainforest-ontology-in-search-of-a-non-reductive-naturalism-by-john-halstead/) did place human being or human culture at the top. But it should be noted that it is an open-ended system, which raises the possibility that human culture will be “transcended” by something else in degree of complexity.

    Second, setting aside any general objection to hierarchies on principle, do you disagree with the proposition that human self-consciousness represents a new order of complexity in nature? With the possible limited exceptions of some other primates and marine mammals, it seems that human beings are unique in our reflexivity. We represent the point where nature begins to reflect upon itself. I wonder, is there a way take account of this uniqueness without privileging it?

    This is something that has always bothered me about challenges to anthropocentrism. While I agree about the disastrous *effects* of our anthropocentrism, I’m not convinced that there is not something unique about human being.

    • Alison Leigh Lilly
      Jan 27, 2014

      John, This is the fun part! I anticipate your arguments, you anticipate mine, and now we’re dancing… :)

      The question of nature’s self-reflexivity is something I’m planning to talk about — or at least touch on — when I get around to talking about human subjectivity. To put it simply, yes, I do disagree that human consciousness is a new order of complexity. I think human consciousness is unique to humans, but I also think (and pretty much always have, at an intuitive, gut level) that all things have their own unique forms of consciousness and reflexivity as well. Human brains certainly are not the most complex systems that exist in the world, and our tendency to define consciousness as constituting only brain-activity is a bias that, even in the human being, is slowly being eroded as we learn more and more about how embodiment and environment shape consciousness in profound ways.

      It’s only recently that Western philosophy has started to take this view seriously (in a kind of post-Kantian way)… so I’m still finding the language to articulate what I mean, exactly. Maybe “consciousness” is not even the best word here. I have to do more thinking before I firmly commit to that word choice. I like what Emma Restall Orr did in her recent book when she talks about “mindedness” and “wakefulness” as perhaps better ways of expressing it. In which case, human consciousness would be merely one expression of form of this mindedness that permeates all things (but not necessarily a “higher” or “more complex” expression, just different). We have no reason to privilege this kind of mindedness (except that, because it is ours, we have a more intimate understanding of it than we do of other kinds), or to suppose that other kinds of mindedness are not self-reflective. To me, it seems obvious that the natural world is inherently self-reflective — it is constantly in conversation with itself and always has been, long before humans arrived on the scene.

      It is a challenge to talk about non-human consciousness from a human perspective. I definitely agree that human consciousness is unique to humans (in the same way forest-consciousness is unique to forests), and you hit the nail on the head that our challenge now is to learn how to talk about this uniqueness without privileging it. There is some really interesting stuff being done by the “object-oriented ontology” philosophers right now (like Graham Harman, Levi Bryant, Timothy Morton, Jeffrey Cohen, Eileen Joy, etc.) as well as “new animists” (like Emma Restall Orr). I’m a slow, plodding reader when it comes to philosophy, so I’m only just beginning to delve into this stuff… I’m name-dropping, though, because if you haven’t heard of these guys, they might be of interest to you! :)

      • John Halstead
        Jan 29, 2014

        Sorry it’s taken me while to respond. I look forward to reading your thoughts on nature’s self-reflexivity.

        I wondered if you were familiar with Martin Heidegger’s philosophy; he treats human subjectivity (Daesin) as unique, but also seeks to decentralize it with a phenomenological approach. It’s pretty dense stuff though.

        >”Human brains certainly are not the most complex systems that exist in the world …”

        My son recently told me that locusts have the longest genome. I haven’t verified that, but it’s interesting.

        >”To me, it seems obvious that the natural world is inherently self-reflective — it is constantly in conversation with itself and always has been, long before humans arrived on the scene.”

        I agree, but does it know that it is involved in a conversation with itself?

        Thanks for the reference to the “object-oriented ontology” philosophers. I’ll check them out.

        • Alison Leigh Lilly
          Jan 31, 2014

          John, I haven’t gotten around to replying until now because your question — “does it [the natural world] know that it is involved in a conversation with itself?” — actually left me kind of stumped.

          Part of me wants to challenge the idea that even we humans are actually very good at knowing when we are in conversation (with ourselves or with others)… Emma Restall Orr has a great quote on this from her book The Wakeful World, but I don’t have it on me right now.

          Then just today, as I was working my way through Morton’s Ecology Without Nature, I came across this passage that I think might get at something I’m trying to articulate:

          “Aristotle’s pragmatic definition of mimesis links humans to animals: man is the ‘most imitative of creatures.’ […] Despite his comparison of poets to bees, Plato’s view of rhapsody removes humans from the animal realm. Likewise, Heidegger said explicitly that animals lacked precisely a sense of their environment as a surrounding ‘world.’ More recently, David Abram has tried to link environmental poetics to an attunement to the animal aspects of human being. There is a zero-sum game going on here, however one thinks of animals. Either one is more conscious and less attuned to the world, or more sensitive to the world and less conscious. (emphasis added)

          I think what I’m trying to get at is this idea that perhaps this need not be a zero-sum game at all, that being “sensitive/attuned to the world” is itself a kind of (self-)consciousness. Does that make sense? I’m not sure it even quite makes sense to me… at least, it feels like a very slippery concept at the moment (and maybe it will remain so). I guess another way of putting it is this: if you imagine self-reflexivity to be like looking in a mirror and recognizing the reflection as yourself, then isn’t there also a way in which recognizing that it is not yourself is also an accurate/legitimate form of consciousness? Aren’t there ways in which the perception of reflection-as-self is actually a confusion of self-consciousness, rather than its source? Anyway, these are just the kinds of questions I’m trying to ask…

          Heidegger is dense! I read him back in high school and haven’t really been back to him since, so I’m not sure I can really claim to “get” him enough to either agree or disagree with him… I feel the same way about Morton, mostly because I’ve only just started to dig into his stuff.

  2. Jeff Lilly
    Jan 31, 2014

    Hey folks — I’m interested in addressing the question of self-consciousness and self-reflexivity, and whether humans are unique in that, and whether that’s an important point. (I’m starting a new comment thread here, because of indentation.)

    First, looking at this from a very physical level: brains. Brains are neural nets, and we know quite a bit about how neural nets work. What does it mean for a neural net to be conscious of something? Well, a neural net is only conscious of what it’s been trained to see. If you train it to distinguish colors, it will be good at telling blue from green, but awful at distinguishing cars from bicycles, or salty from sweet — even if the net is very large and flexible. So being able to distinguish self from non-self (i.e. being self-reflective) is not a sine-qua-non quality of intelligence; it’s perfectly possible to imagine extremely intelligent nets (brains, intelligences) that can’t tell the difference between self and non-self, but are much better than humans are at other things. Self-reflexivity is not a good proxy for intelligence, value, or ability to learn.

    There’s no question that being able to distinguish self from non-self is an important ability for humans, but perhaps less important for other creatures, regardless of how intelligent they are. You could imagine a nonsocial intelligent creature, like an octopus perhaps, that might be very good at distinguishing food from non-food, orchestrating eight dextrous tentacles, tasting the subtle variations in seawater caused by fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic field, teasing apart the subtleties of a mathematical argument, or manipulating and recognizing categories of existence that we have no conception of, but is not good at recognizing its own reflection because it’s just not an important problem for an octopus to solve.

    And that brings us to the whole question of what exactly it means to be conscious of a self. Those words (‘self’, ‘conscious’) are very slippery in non-human contexts. Like all abstractions, there are some cases that are very clear, and others that are extremely fuzzy. We might or might not agree about whether a forest is self-conscious (we really don’t know), but there are genuinely confusing cases. Is a dreaming person conscious of a self? How about someone who is concentrating on a math problem? How about a dog, or a nine-month old child? How about England? …

    In these fuzzy cases, it might be better to set aside the distinction entirely as non-useful. If you want to know about England, dogs, nine-month-olds, or mathematicians, the self-reflective / non-self-reflective distinction is really not an essential fact.

    The fact that the distinctions between self/non-self and conscious/non-conscious become difficult to nail down in nonhuman contexts might mean that what we’re looking at is not a hierarchy with humans at the top, but just something about human perception. That is, self/non-self is an important category for humans, but that’s a fact about our species, not something generally true of all consciousness or intelligence or our inherent value. Note, in particular, that these concepts are essentially social. That is, humans care a whole lot about other humans’ social status, and the distinction between self / non-self (and near categories like family non-family, mine not mine) are vital for social interaction. Same with consciousness (is this person awake / sane / adult?). It might be that these categories really aren’t very useful outside of the communities of social animals. Other categories that aren’t useful outside of social animal communities would be, for example, ideas about moral or social obligation, contract, or convention (like “defendant”, “landlord”, “mated pair”). Would we think humans are above all other creatures because we’re the only ones to have defendants or landlords? No, this is just a unique aspect of human social structures. Other social animals have their own unique categories. Similarly, the self-reflectivity of humans is something that’s valuable to us, but really not that important for most of the rest of the universe.

  3. Joanna van der Hoeven
    Feb 4, 2014

    Very interesting and well written! I’ve often wondered if Buddhism manages to avoid the anthropocenric hurdle, in the loss of ego and the integration with world – something which I am currently exploring on gentler levels! x

  4. CrisisMaven
    Jun 20, 2014

    That is rather a special definition of anthropocentrism. In cosmology for example, this term denotes the idea that the universe is observable as it is because everything “just fit together” to let humankind as a species evolve to philosophize about it. Were it not so, it would maybe exist but we would not and hence not be able to comment upon it. However, as for the above, let’s say, narrower definition of anthropocentrism, it is rife with pitfalls: when the US constitution or the Declaration of Independence was drafted, the “fathers” (aha) of the constitution did not even wonder if other people than “white males” were to be included in the definition of “man”. One may safely say that until the end of World War II (and de-colonialization) the notion of a universal human perspective that would include all bipeds of the homo sapiens biological species was a rather unusual idea in most of academe and more so in the society at large. That being said, I wonder if, after such short an elapsed time-span, we are already capable of truly all-encompassing anthropocentric reasoning?

    • Alison Leigh Lilly
      Jun 20, 2014

      Thanks for your comment, CM. I think you might be confusing a few different terms here. The cosmological concept that you mention is actually what’s known as the “anthropic principle” (an aspect of modern multiverse cosmology), which is something different from anthropocentrism. The term “anthropocentrism” came into popular usage in the 1960s and 1970s, to describe an aspect of Western philosophical and theological traditions that scholars saw in contrast to non-Western cultures (such as in Eastern and indigenous societies). Since then, it’s been developed and refined in ways that make it clear that non-Western traditions also sometimes suffer from anthropocentric assumptions.

      I’m not sure I understand what exactly you mean by this definition of anthropocentrism — which I should note, isn’t my definition, but the generally accepted definition of the term — as being “rife with pitfalls.” I agree that anthropocentrism itself is deeply problematic, and when philosophical traditions suffer from an anthropocentric bias they need to be challenged and deconstructed (this is just as true, if not more true, when that anthropocentrism is coupled with colonialism and patriarchy in a way that privileges white males, as in the example you mention). But it sounds like you’re saying that you have a problem with using the term “anthropocentrism” merely because it’s a newer term that would have been unfamiliar to philosophers of the past? I don’t follow this logic. The word “racism” wasn’t coined until 1902, but no one would deny that the enslavement of Africans and the forced assimilation of Native Americans in America in the 1700s and 1800s were glaring forms of racism, even if there wasn’t yet a term to describe it. In the same way, Western philosophers and politicians in the 1700s (and much earlier) would today be described as anthropocentric even if they themselves wouldn’t have known the term.

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