Anthropocentrism in the Anthropocene

An unfortunate misunderstanding is that humans living in the Anthropocene inevitably are or should be ethically anthropocentric (centering ethical agency and value primarily or exclusively on humans). No doubt the use of the Greek word for “human” (anthropos) in both of those words is partly responsible for the confusion. The Anthropocene is a geological epoch in which anthropogenic effects have reached planetary proportions, shaping not only local ecosystems but whole planetary systems, acidifying the oceans, melting the polar ice caps, warming the global climate, facilitating a mass extinction of species…. If the Anthropocene is a period of time in which Earth systems are covered with anthropogenic effects, does that mean the Anthropocene is anthropocentric?

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The Beginning and End of Nature

When people talk about the end of nature, what exactly is this nature that has ended? It’s not like the whole universe imploded. Earth is still spinning. Nature isn’t the universe, and it’s not a planet. It’s nature. Nature is an idea, a word, a symbol, which is not to say that it is merely those things. Nature is also whatever reality people were referring to when they used the idea, word, or symbol of “nature.” That reality sufficiently degraded so as to indicate to many people that it has ended. There are still organisms, ecosystems, lakes, rivers, atmospheric conditions, roots, fruits, and all kinds of things, so what ended? What is the reality to which ideas of nature were pointing or in which symbols of nature were participating? An answer can be found by returning to the beginning, to the earliest appearances of the idea of nature.
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The Problem with Descartes: It’s Not Dualism

Some people, a lot of people, treat René Descartes as a sort of bogeyman of modern philosophy. Somehow, in the first half of the seventeenth century, Descartes sundered the seamless fabric of Being into two factions, mind and body, a thinking thing and an extended thing, res cogitans and res extensa. With that dualism set in place, soul was thereby evacuated from the universe…except for a tiny piece of property that soul could rent out in the human head, accessed through a steep driveway in the pineal gland. In a universe devoid of soul, humans lost any motivation or justification for caring about anything beyond the solipsistic ego. Thanks a lot, René! There’s no concern for other humans, for community, or for the natural world. Mechanistic thinking thus spurred the rapacious destruction of ecosocial integrity through the development of industrial technologies and market economies. Now, as humans are sawing off the environmental limb that we’re sitting on, it’s more urgent than ever to overcome Cartesian dualism and find a way back into the seamless interconnectivity of existence. No, not really. Something is very wrong with that story. “In order to seek truth,” as Descartes says in his Principles of Philosophy, “it is necessary once in the course of our life to doubt, as far as possible, of all things.” Well, one of the things of which I’m doubtful is the idea that dualism is what’s wrong with Descartes.

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Bacteria and Natural Agency

The latest issue of the Journal of the American Philosophical Association has an article about agency and cognition in bacteria, “Natural Agency: The Case of Bacterial Cognition,” by Fermín C. Fulda. It’s part of a steady stream of research across the humanities and sciences indicating that nonhuman life forms are smarter than most modern philosophers had thought. It’s often billed as a surprise. Even bacteria have cognition! HERE is another piece with an overview of some bacterial cognition research. Fulda’s article is very critical of the looseness with which words like cognition, intelligence, and agency get lumped together, so he adds some philosophical clarity and distinction to those terms, specifically as they apply to research regarding the patterned behavior of bacteria.

Proposing an “ecological conception of agency,” Fulda argues for a move from a Cartesian to neo-Aristotelian perspective. Focusing on different kinds of agency (Aristotle) and not primarily on cognition (Descartes) allows for a broad, fluid boundary between human and nonhuman life instead of the rigid binary of Cartesian mind and matter. Of course, many philosophers make similar arguments for a spectrum of agency. Hans Jonas, Alfred North Whitehead, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin are good twentieth-century examples, but those aren’t exactly the thinkers who dominate discussions in the American Philosophical Association. It’s significant that Fulda is making this argument in an APA context. Is mainstream philosophy becoming less anthropocentric? Maybe. Continue reading

Ptolemy’s Revenge II: The Balls of Serres

Meillassoux suggests that Kant’s Copernican revolution was not actually Copernican at all.  Kant (and so many post-Kantians) improperly inverted Copernicus, returning to a pre-Copernican anthropocentrism (see “Ptolemy’s Revenge” in After Finitude).  Kant is obviously anthropocentric, but is that really an inversion of the Copernican turn?  Or…might we be able to speak about the birth of the Copernican revolution out of the spirit of anthropocentrism?  If Meillassoux wants to get past Kantian idealism, he might need Ptolemy more than he knows.

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Socrates and Place

Socrates can’t learn from place.  He’s too anthropocentric.  I always think of Plato’s Phaedrus (230d), where Socrates says this:

You see, I am fond of learning. Now the country places and the trees won’t teach me anything, and the people in the city do.

He is fond of learning (philomathes), but country places (chorai) and trees (dendra) don’t help, whereas anthropoi do.  What really interests me here isn’t the obvious anthropocentrism of Socrates, but this: Phaedrus is able to use written discourse as a drug to lure Socrates to the countryside (where he might be capable of learning in place, of place), and after he is drugged-dragged out into place, he asks forgiveness for his anthropocentrism.  Here’s a slightly more complete version of the passage.

Forgive me, my dear friend. You see, I am fond of learning. Now the country places and the trees won’t teach me anything, and the people in the city do.  But you seem to have found the charm [pharmakon] to bring me out.

 

Objects: Between Whitehead and Heidegger

One of the exciting things happening in object-oriented philosophy is a synthesis of Whiteheadian and Heideggerian insights, namely, 1) Whitehead’s pan-experientialist concept of feeling or prehension, which deals a severe blow to human exceptionalism, and 2) Heidegger’s concept of the retreat or withdrawal (Entzug) of things.

It’s a mutually beneficial synthesis: Whitehead helps avoid the anthropocentrism of Heidegger’s philosophy, for which nonhumans are either poor in world or worldless; and Heidegger helps avoid the relationalism of Whitehead’s philosophy, for which individual entities do not harbor any actuality withdrawn from experience.

Heideggerians and Whiteheadians push back.  Heideggerians might argue that Heidegger isn’t entirely anthropocentric (maybe anthropocosmic instead), and Whiteheadians can claim that Whitehead honors the non-relational (i.e., non-experiential) dimension of actuality.  Those claims are not without their merit, as indicated by a recent post by Matt Segall in defense Whitehead’s objects (contra Graham Harman and OOO).  However, at the end of the day, it seems pretty clear to me: Heidegger’s thought is anthropocentric, and Whitehead’s is relationalist.

Regarding Whitehead, it’s important to clarify that he is indeed an object-oriented thinker.  He posits discrete individual entities (actual occasions) as the basic units of existence (see his “ontological principle”).  In this sense, Whitehead is similar to Latour, but he is unlike Bergson and Deleuze, who tend to think of individual entities as products of an underlying continuity.

Is Whitehead object-oriented?  Yes.  Does a Whiteheadian object have a non-relational dimension?  No.  Whitehead’s individuals are experiential through and through, experiencing and experienced, private and public, making actual while decisively cutting away (and negatively prehending, which is a kind of relating).

If there’s a non-relational dimension in Whitehead’s objects, it is the sundering of all relationality that takes place in the creativity of pure becoming, but such a fountain of creativity would amount to a monistic undermining of the plurality of objects.  Even aside from the pluralism/monism problem, a non-relational dimension of objects would be a dimension that is “void of subjective experience,” a “vacuous actuality” that Whitehead denounces (Process and Reality, 167).

I first read Whitehead a little more than 11 years ago (thanks, Pete Gunter!), and I liked his philosophy from the start.  Aside from the specifics of the debate regarding the new Heidegger-Whitehead synthesis, I’m just happy to see that Whitehead’s name is making its way into more and more philosophical discussions.