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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Carolyn Merchant gives a good summary of the problems with anthropocentric and non-anthropocentric ethics in Reinventing Eden: the Fate of Nature in Western Culture (Routledge, 2003). She proposes a “new ethic of human partnership with nature” in which humanity and nature are “considered as active agents.”
Self-interested, or egocentric ethics (what is good for the individual is good for society); social-interest, or homocentric ethics (the greatest good for the greatest number); and even earth-centered or ecocentric ethics (all living and nonliving things are morally considerable and have rights) all have problematical implications for a sustainable world. The growth-oriented capitalistic economy from which the egocentric ethic arises and the anthropocentric focus of the utilitarian cost-benefit approach from which the homocentric ethic arises both have negative implications for the environment. On the other hand, the idea that all nonhuman organisms have moral consideration equal to human beings—the ecocentric approach—undercuts the real struggles of the poor and of disadvantaged minorities for a better life. What is called for is a new ethic that arises out of both the needs of nature and the needs of humanity. Both must be considered as active agents. A new ethic of human partnership with nature—is needed, one in which nature is an active subject, not a passive object. (p. 217)
I like that paragraph a lot, but the idea of human partnership with nature seems a little simplistic. Treating nature as an active subject sounds good if you think that there’s something out there called nature with which we humans need to partner up. What if we’ve never been human and nature has never been natural?
I like the idea of an ethics of actors or of active agents, but instead of focusing on a rather anthropocentric sounding partnership between two mega-categories (humans and nature), I would like to see the development of actor-partnership ethics (APE), which would focus on partnerships between any actors (nonhuman, human, and otherwise), so that a tobbaco-flame-pipe-mouth partnership is not occluded by the almighty correlate, human-nature.
A lot of teaching and writing in environmental ethics adopts a geometrical image: the center. The field of environmental ethics began with numerous and varied critiques of anthropocentric values and practices. Here’s how the story often goes: to center on the human is to marginalize the non-human, and developing an ethic that accounts for the moral considerability of non-humans requires an extension of the center from humans to life (biocentrism) or to ecosystems (ecocentrism).
One problem here is that this moral extensionism still starts from the human. It radiates out to include organisms and ecosystems, but it radiates out from the human. An extended anthropocentrism still subordinates nonhumans to humans. How can we develop ethics that account for non-human centers on their own terms?
Some have argued that centrism as such leads to domination and oppression, whereby the center gains superiority over the periphery (e.g., humans exploiting nature or, conversely, misanthropic environmentalisms marginalizing human social issues). Val Plumwood’s critique of hegemonic centrisms is an exemplary case in point. However, privileging acentric systems over against centric systems is an “uncritical reversal” (as Plumwood would say): the acentric is the new center.
The challenge, then, is this: how to think of nonhuman centers on their own terms while subverting any tendencies for centers to become hegemonic centrisms. Anthony Weston provides an excellent articulation of this challenge in “Multicentrism: A Manifesto.” Weston proposes:
a multicentered vision according to which more-than-human others enter the moral realm on their own terms, rather than by expansion from a single center—a vision according to which there are diverse centers, shifting and overlapping but still each with its own irreducible and distinctive starting-point. For a multicentered ethic, then, the growth of moral sensitivity and consideration does not proceed through an expanding series of concentric realms, each neatly assimilating or incorporating the previous stage within a larger and more inclusive whole. No; instead we discover a world of separate though mutually implicated centers. Moral growth consists in experiencing more and more deeply the texture of multiplicity in the world, not in tracing the wider and wider circles set off from one single center.
Weston adds that this approach to environmental ethics is pluralistic. Most environmental ethics debates about pluralism vs. monism are debates about whether we should have many or one theories. Multicentrism is a realist pluralism, implying a “much more radical and polymorphous pluralism,” for which multiplicity is a feature belonging to the real world, “to things themselves.”
Biocentrism and ecocentrism are too big (“mega-centrisms”), totalizing and assimilating the things themselves. Weston is clear that his vision of pluralistic realism is against environmental holism.
Contra holism, though, multicentrism does not assert a single ecological “whole” that is somehow the single, prior ethical center. The multiverse is more mixed and complexly textured, including both ecological “wholes” and individuals of various sorts and levels—species, organisms, biotic communities—all in flux and flow, and none always or necessarily prior.
What does multicentrism look like in practice?
Multicentrism asks us to “take care” with respect to everything, and the sort of mindfulness thus implied can only be called polymorphous too. […] Imperative is to move from the familiar one-species monologue to a truly multi-polar dialogue. […] What multicentrism adds is the wider and wilder vision: a sustainable, participatory, multivocal philosophical practice—a way back into the Multiverse.
Multicentrism is a kind of centrism to end all centrisms. Given the dangers of centric metaphors, Weston considers a couple alternative names for his position. The first is “multiversalism.” The second is my favorite. It’s a term Weston adopts from Irene Klaver: “ex-centric.”