Encyclopedia of Global Bioethics

Living Edition
| Editors: Henk ten Have

Anthropocentrism

  • Gavin RaeEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-05544-2_24-1

Abstract

Anthropocentrism is a concept with a long history. This chapter briefly outlines this history to identify what it entails and show its historical importance. It then engages with its ethical significance by, first, engaging with the ways its proponents have justified it, before, subsequently, examining a number of criticisms that have been made against it.

Keywords

Anthropocentrism Humanism Binary oppositions Bioethics 

Introduction

Anthropocentrism is the belief that the human being exists at the center of existence. While this can take many forms, each form of anthropocentrism shares the foundational premise that the human being is, in some way, unique with regard to other things or aspects of existence. For this reason, it establishes a binary opposition between the privileged human and others. For its defenders, this human privileging (1) is demonstrated by the humans’ capacity to act in ways that other species or things cannot, (2) emanates from religious revelation insofar as humans are taken to be made in God’s image and so given a special place in relation to other species, and/or (3) should be affirmed so as to ensure that all humans are treated with dignity. To its detractors, anthropocentrism is based on a mistaken understanding of the human and the human being’s relationship to the world that has led to environmental degradation, waste, and violence against the nonhuman. This has led many to question the logical assumptions upon which anthropocentrism is built to not only show that it is based on a mistaken understanding of what it is to be human but to also show that the ethic that its defenders state emanates from anthropocentrism does not perpetuate respect, dignity, and equality but actually entails and justifies repression, domination, and conquest. This has led some to try to rethink what it is to be human to show that anthropocentrism simply fails to understand the entwined nature of the human–world relationship, as a precursor to rethinking previous ethical judgments in non-anthropocentric terms.

History and Development

The question of the human being’s role and place in existence is an ancient one. Anthropocentrism is one of the most dominant responses, both in terms of the length of its history and the number of sources through which it has found expression. Aristotle, for example, maintains that “all animals must have been made by nature for the sake of man” (2009, Book 1, Chap. 8), thereby securing a privileged place and role for the human in opposition to a downgraded nonhuman world. This understanding is also sanctioned by aspects of the Judeo–Christian–Islamic tradition. While expressed slightly differently throughout each of these religions, the Biblical statement in Genesis (1:26) that “God said, ‘Let us make man in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves, and let them be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven, the cattle, all the wild animals and all the creatures that creep along the ground’” is taken by some to sanction a privileged role for humans. On this understanding, humans are created in the image of God, thereby ensuring that they have a special status and hold sway over all else created, thereby reaffirming the centrality of human being.

While the spread of the Judeo–Christian–Islamic religions meant that anthropocentrism held sway for centuries and, indeed, continues to hold sway over much of the globe, anthropocentrism’s influence was strengthened in the modern period by others who tried to justify it from secular premises. An important thinker in this respect is Rene Descartes who, in the second of his Meditations on First Philosophy, takes off from the method of doubt established in the first meditation to argue that, because he doubts and because doubting requires a being that thinks which, in turn, requires a being that exists, thinking proves his own existence and essence. With this, Descartes establishes human cognition as the foundation of all else and so secures a privileged place and role for it. This is complemented by his earlier Discourse on the Method which analyzes the human’s relationship to animals and machines to show the special role and unique place occupied by human being. Descartes concludes that the human being is distinguished from (1) machines because the human has greater spontaneity and linguistic capabilities and (2) animals because humans are capable of employing reason whereas animals are defined by instinct (1999, pp. 31–32). By establishing the human being as a privileged, rational entity, Descartes laid the onto-metaphysical premises that shaped modern thinking. This influence is seen from Immanuel Kant’s statement, almost 150 years after Descartes’ death, that “to know the human being according to his species as an earthly being endowed with reason especially deserves to be called knowledge of the world, even though he constitutes only one part of the creatures on earth” (2006, p. 1). The privileged human was understood to face a world filled with things to be used for human purposes. This gave rise to the question of how to most efficiently use the resources available, which ultimately gave rise to the discipline of economics, and a number of philosophical and ethical disputes regarding what humans can and cannot know, what counts as a human/person, how should we treat each other as humans, and to what end human existence should be directed. In turn, this led to the creation of human rights discourse in which the human is defined by a unique set of natural rights that distinguish it from the nonhuman. On this understanding, anthropocentrism is necessary to ensure that humans are treated with dignity.

While dominant, anthropocentrism has, however, been subject to a number of challenges. Sigmund Freud (2001, pp. 140–141) famously claimed that these were three-fold: first came the Copernican revolution that challenged the view that the Earth is the center of the universe and, by implication, the anthropocentric view that the human was the center of the universe. Second was the Darwinian challenge that undermined the anthropocentric view that there is a fundamental cleavage between animals and a privileged humanity. And third was Freudian psychoanalysis that, by positing the primordial role of the unconscious libidinal id, challenged the anthropocentric notion that the human is a rational entity in perfect control of itself. These were complemented by renewed interest in the question of anthropocentrism in the twentieth century with critics questioning anthropocentrism’s privileging of human being, insistence on a universal human nature, and, linked to this, its apparent lack of geo-historical awareness.

One of the most influential critics was Michel Foucault who used a genealogical methodology to trace the history of anthropocentrism back to alterations in the understanding of the human that took place in sixteenth-century Europe. Far from being universal, the epistemic conditions that gave rise to the modern version of anthropocentrism were located in a particular geo-historical place. Foucault claimed that these historical conditions were changing and so drew the conclusion that “man is an invention of recent date … [a]nd one perhaps nearing its end” (1994, p. 387). This so-called “death of man” thesis was highly influential and was complemented by work in a number of disciplines that actively challenged the fundamental cleavage between the human and nonhuman inherent to anthropocentrism. These included (1) environmental studies which challenged the notion that the human was distinct from its environment and can/should use the environment for its own ends, (2) animal studies which rejected the division between the human and animal upon which anthropocentrism is based, (3) strands of feminism that have argued that anthropocentrism was not really ever concerned with the human per se but confined itself to analyses of the Western male, with the female being either ignored or downgraded to nonhuman status, and (4) posthumanism, which started as an attempt to chart the ways in which the human/machine division inherent to Cartesian thinking simply misunderstood the entwined nature of the human/nonhuman and subsequently extended its focus to challenge the logic of binary oppositions upon which anthropocentrism rests. These oppositions are understood to be problematic because it is claimed that they prevent us from recognizing the human being’s constitutive entwinement with the nonhuman and, as a consequence, act as intellectual cover for the use and abuse of those considered nonhuman. This led to a reexamination of the ethical implications of the human’s relationship to the nonhuman, in particular, how we are to think and act non-anthropocentrically and, indeed, whether we, as humans, are capable of doing so.

Defining Anthropocentrism

The precise meaning of anthropocentrism is, largely, defined by the discourse from which it emanates. As such, a religiously inspired definition is very different from a secularly defined one. This is further complicated by the fact that “anthropocentrism” has tended to be used interchangeably with “humanism,” “speciesism,” and “homocentrism.” For this reason, “anthropocentrism” is one of those concepts that while appearing to be relatively clear is, in actuality, somewhat slippery. Nevertheless, anthropocentrism can be understood ontologically/metaphysically, ethically, and epistemologically.

Ontologically or metaphysically speaking, anthropocentrism describes the structure of existence in terms of the human being. On this definition, anthropocentrism entails the belief that the human being occupies the central point of reference in existence. This can be refined somewhat to define the human being as existing in a privileged place in relation to other entities, occupying a unique place in existence, and/or being the source of all meaning. This feeds into the ethical understanding which claims that the human’s privileged status over the nonhuman (animals, plants, minerals, and so on) means that the human is free to use these nonhumans to achieve its ends. This can be further broken down into, what might be called, “strong” versions of anthropocentrism that assign intrinsic value to human beings alone and, what might be called, “weaker” versions that assign a greater degree of importance to humans than to nonhumans. Despite this difference, these versions do, however, view existence in such a way that the human is privileged over the nonhuman.

In contrast to the onto-ethical understanding that thinks of anthropocentrism as describing the structure of existence and how the human should relate to the nonhuman, the epistemological understanding holds that anthropocentrism is defined by a particular way of thinking about existence. This epistemological understanding has become dominant in contemporary posthumanist, post-structuralist, and deconstructionist critiques of anthropocentrism, each of which, in its own way, challenges the epistemic assumptions upon which anthropocentrism is based. More specifically, this understanding of anthropocentrism focuses on the logical schema that underpins anthropocentrism to suggest that there is a common logic that unites the different formulations. As a consequence, it is suggested that anthropocentrism operates through a binary opposition that pits a privileged human against some other. When challenging anthropocentrism, critics who follow this understanding aim to challenge the binary logic that they perceive to underpin anthropocentrism so as to call into question the strict oppositions inherent to it. The consequence is that, on this understanding, anthropocentrism has become shorthand for a method of thinking that works through strict oppositions where one aspect is inexplicably privileged over the other.

Anthropocentrism and Ethics

As a way of thinking about the human and the human’s relationship to the nonhuman, anthropocentrism is of fundamental concern to a variety of ethical questions including: What is it to be human? How are we to treat humans? How are humans to treat nonhumans? And what is the human’s role and place in existence? This is not, however, to say that anthropocentrism has, historically, been the subject of ethical debate. Anthropocentrism has tended to be the presumption upon which ethical theories and debates are based. In other words, ethical discourse has tended to simply assume the importance of the human and so develop an ethical position from that assumption. Once the anthropocentric understanding is adopted, ethical questioning focuses on issues from the perspective of the human.

We see this if we briefly look at three of the major ethical theories: deontology, utilitarianism, and virtue ethics. A deontological ethical framework claims that human ethical action resides in adherence to a universal duty or rule that delineates an action as being inherently good or bad. While the nature of “good” or “bad” is independent of human willing, an action is ethical or not depending on the intention of the agent undertaking it. The intention of the agent behind the action determines the ethical validity of the action. In turn, this is premised on a certain degree of reflexivity that allows the agent to distinguish between different actions. For this reason, it is implicitly premised on reason and reflexivity; ontological traits that are taken to be uniquely and inherently human. In contrast, a utilitarian or consequentialist approach focuses not on the intention of the agent but on the consequences of the action. While there are a variety of different utilitarian approaches, in its basic formulation, utilitarianism suggests that an action is good or bad based on the outcome of the action. Put very simply, an action that produces a good overall result is more moral than one that produces a bad overall result. This approach is, however, based on the judgment of an agent and, as such, remains premised on a privileged rational, reflexive (human) understanding. In contrast to deontological and utilitarian approaches to morality, virtue ethics is premised on the basic claim that an action is good or bad based on the character of the agent committing it, rather than on the intrinsic worth of the act (deontology) or its consequences (utilitarianism). Importantly, this intrinsic worth is normally reserved for and examined from the perspective of humans.

Despite their substantial differences, therefore, these frameworks share basic anthropocentric premises: in the case of deontology, from the claim that ethics is defined from the perspective of the human, in the case of utilitarianism from the claim that human judgment is required to calculate the consequences of an action so as to determine whether it is good or bad, and in relation to virtue ethics from the character of the agent committing the act. Anthropocentrism underpins these theories because their analyses are always defined by the human or tend to be reduced to the question of what is good for the human.

Perhaps the most influential and readily available framework through which the influence of anthropocentrism on ethics can be seen is through human rights discourse. By positing the idea that humans are imbued with certain, natural rights that are innate, universal, and inherently human, human rights discourse implicitly distinguishes humans from the nonhuman; imbues the former with a special, unique sense; and claims that these rights are universal. On this understanding, human rights distinguish the human from the nonhuman and so safeguard the fundamental uniqueness of humans. This is perhaps best summed up by the United Nations “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” the preamble of which starts with the proclamation that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world” (http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/: accessed June 2014) and proceeds to define a number of universal rights enjoyed by all individuals regardless of color, nationality, or sex. The anthropocentrism of these rights is seen from the way it focuses on the human to the detriment of the nonhuman and attributes a number of uniquely and universally applicable rights to the human.

As a consequence, some of anthropocentrism’s proponents claim that anthropocentrism is a necessary foundation for human rights which provide universal standards against which human action can be judged to ensure that humans are treated with dignity. For its detractors, however, the notion of universal human rights is inherently problematic not least because it is unclear what exactly constitutes a “human” or a “right.” These are philosophical debates with a long history. Furthermore, by basing the argument on anthropocentric premises, its critics claim that the proponents of human rights discourse are unable to think of the nonhuman and/or actively encourage the degradation of the nonhuman. While its defenders think from the perspective of the human being to safeguard the dignity of human beings, its detractors claim that, in doing so, human rights discourse ignores and so downgrades the dignity of the nonhuman.

Perhaps the major criticism leveled against human rights discourse, however, is that it entails a particularly Western, Eurocentric understanding of humanity that, by positing a universal human essence, is unable to recognize and/or respect the differences inherent to different cultures, peoples, races, and sexes. This disagreement arises because the two positions premise their conclusions on different understandings of what it is to be human. Defenders of human rights discourse tend to think of the human as entailing an amalgamation of a transcendental aspect, defined by an essence shared by all humans, and an empirical aspect that entails a specific sociocultural physical existence. The universal transcendental aspect is taken to define the essence of human being, meaning that, regardless of culture, language, or sex, each human is defined by common traits that delineate how each is to be treated. Critics of human rights discourse tend to reject this transcendental aspect and, instead, insist that the human is an effect of its empirical environment with the uniqueness of each environment ensuring that each human is different. Insisting on a common essence is, on this understanding, to impose a universal meaning on human being that fails to understand and appreciate the uniqueness of each. Feminist critics have also suggested that the universality of human rights overlooks the difference between men and women and so ignores the sexual difference between the two that is fundamental to securing the dignity of both sexes. The proclaimed universality of human rights actually masks a specifically Eurocentric patriarchal understanding of humanity. While the resolution of this debate depends on a prior ontological analysis of what it is to be human, it also reveals that anthropocentrism has morphed from being an implicit assumption upon which ethical analyses are based to being the subject of ethical debate itself.

Environmental Ethics and Anthropocentrism

One of the major discourses in which the question of anthropocentrism has taken place is environmental ethics which is a branch of philosophy that deals with the ethical relationship between the human and its environment. What distinguishes environmental ethics from traditional ethical frameworks is the emphasis given to the environment when thinking through the human–world relationship. This in turn has given rise to a number of debates regarding anthropocentrism and non-anthropocentric positions, including biocentrism and ecocentrism.

The seminal work in environmental ethics is the essay “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” by Lynn White Jr. (1967) which claims that a lack of care for the environment is embedded within and so emanates from the anthropocentrism inherent to the Judeo–Christian tradition. On this understanding, anthropocentrism is an integral part of Western culture and is the driving force behind overpopulation, species loss, environmental degradation, and air and water pollution. The conclusion drawn is that a new non-anthropocentric ethics is required to ensure that humans have a more harmonious relationship with the natural environment. White’s article was hugely influential in the subsequent decades giving rise to various attempts to create a non-anthropocentric ethic.

The attempt to found a non-anthropocentric ethic was, however, challenged. In particular, a number of environmental ethicists suggested that the non-anthropocentric position was premised on a fundamental misunderstanding of the role and influence of anthropocentricism in past thinking. Passmore (1974), for example, suggests that the anthropocentric moral tradition is far more sophisticated and multidimensional than its critics realized with the consequence that it had more tools at its disposal to think through the questions raised. This was supported by Norton’s (1984) suggestion that anthropocentrism does not simply lead to environmental degradation but can also lead to its opposite, as human interaction with the environment can actually lead humans to take better care of nature. Both arguments were highly influential with the consequence that a strand of environmental ethics defends the anthropocentric position underpinning both. Those following Passmore’s analysis have tended to defend a strong anthropocentric position which holds that, because the human is privileged over other entities, the natural world is but an instrument for human use. The human must not only use nature for its ends but is perfectly justified in doing so. There are no limits to human usage. Those following Norton’s analysis have defended a weak anthropocentric position that continues to insist on a privileged place and role for the human being but recognizes that this is not absolute. The human is recognized to exist within an environment, which she/he cannot live without and, as a consequence of this realization, voluntarily takes steps to ensure that its actions do not harm the environment. Rather than the unlimited usurpation of the environment inherent to strong variants of anthropocentrism, weak versions of anthropocentric environmental ethics necessarily entail “considerable constraints on [the] ways in which agents may use their environment” (O’Neill 2014, p. 130).

From the late 1980s, the anthropocentric position increasingly came to be rejected as a consequence of perceived flaws in its understanding and growing awareness of environmental degradation. There was a return to White’s original thesis to suggest that the anthropocentric position is simply based on a flawed fundamental premise that the human is, in some way, unique or to be privileged over its environment. Rather than the human being privileged in the human–environment relationship, the privileged term was reversed with the consequence that renewed focus was given to what is good for the environment. This was defended using a realist position that recognized that the environment has intrinsic value that must be protected. Alternatively, it was simply thought that the fundamental division between the human and environment constitutive of the anthropocentric strand was based on a mistaken metaphysical/ontological analysis of the human–environment relationship. Correcting this required a fundamental rethinking of the foundational premises of ethics so that thinking does not operate through the binary oppositions that inform the anthropocentric stance.

Hayward (1997) has, however, suggested that the non-anthropocentric position is based on a conceptual misunderstanding because in trying to overcome anthropocentrism, it fails to realize that its analysis, indeed any ethical analysis, is always conducted from the perspective of the human and so is based on a degree of anthropocentrism. However, Hayward recognizes that, while humans cannot help but think from an anthropocentric position (a human can only think as a human), this does not mean that the analysis that results has to privilege the human or exclude other natural phenomena. As a consequence, he suggests that what the bio-/eco-centric position really develops is not a non-anthropocentric ethic but an ethic that is anthropocentric because it starts from the perspective of the human, non-speciesist because it does not discriminate or hierarchize between the species but treats each as an equal part of nature, and nonhuman chauvinistic because it does not privilege the human over other species. Others have, however, responded to Hayward’s suggestion by simply denying that a remnant of anthropocentrism must remain in any human-based analysis. As a consequence, the debate over anthropocentrism continues to rage in this field.

Posthumanism and Anthropocentrism

While debate in environmental ethics continues to rage regarding Hayward’s conclusion and, by extension, the relationship between anthropocentrism and non-anthropocentrism, the logic of Hayward’s position has been challenged in other discourses, most notably posthumanist theory. The problem with Hayward’s position from a posthumanist perspective is that it continues to operate with a clearly defined entity called “the human being” that is opposed to other species. This fails to recognize (1) the temporal change inherent to human being and (2) that the human being is not an individuated entity existing in opposition to other species but is an effect of the entwined relationships between “humans,” animals, and technology. Posthumanist debates are further distinguished from debates in environmental ethics because they start from the foundational premise that the natural world has fundamentally changed as a consequence of technological developments. Linked to this, posthumanism recognizes that the “nonhuman” is heterogeneous and so works hard to analyze and breakdown the anthropocentric barriers between the “human” and “other than humans,” whether these are different cultures, animals, technology, language, computer code, and/or aliens. The conclusion drawn is that the human is embedded in a range of relational networks which give it meaning. The point is to return to the binary oppositions between human, animal, and technology upon which Cartesian anthropocentrism depends to challenge this logic and so rethink ethical issues in non-anthropocentric terms.

While there is debate regarding what exactly posthumanism entails and, indeed, when it started, it is possible to identify four distinct historical sources: (1) the death of man thesis which posits that the human, understood in anthropocentric terms, is a consequence of a particular epistemological formation that is now coming to an end, (2) the recognition that humans are not distinct from the environment but are entwined with a world that is increasingly technological, (3) the recognition that the human environment is not singular but is composed of many others (animals and technology being the main two), and (4) the conclusion that the rational, individuated human of anthropocentrism must be thought in terms of its embedded, entwined relationship to a range of others. The unifying force that brings coherence to posthumanist theory is the perception that anthropocentrism is based on unwarranted and unjustifiable binary oppositions between a “pure” human and “impure” others. Posthumanism diagnoses this problem to suggest that overcoming it and so truly understanding the world requires that the logical schema of binary oppositions upon which anthropocentrism rests be overcome.

In many respects, the founding document of posthumanist theory is Donna Haraway’s 1987 “A Cyborg Manifesto.” Haraway starts by explaining that Western thinking is characterized by a number of oppositions, including the self/others, mind/body, culture/nature, male/female, civilized/primitive, reality/appearance, whole/part, agent/resource, maker/made, active/passive, right/wrong, truth/illusion, total/partial, and God/man oppositions (1991, p. 177). Her position is that these binary oppositions simply do not hold in an era where the human–technological relationship, aided in part by technological developments, is breaking down. She argues that we have become cyborgs, part biological, part machine, and uses this metaphor to show why the anthropocentric boundaries between human and nonhuman no longer hold. In other words, far from being opposed to technology so that the human has an instrumental relationship to technology, Haraway suggests that the machine has melded together with the human body to form a synthesis of the two. As such, the machine is increasingly organic and the organic increasingly machinic (1991, p. 152). Haraway’s ironic use of cyborg imagery is not, however, simply confined to discussions about the way the humanist human–technology division no longer holds but is extended to call into question what the categories “human” and “nonhuman” mean, while also questioning the relationship between these categories.

Subsequently, however, Haraway’s ironic use of cyborg imagery morphed into a “serious” questioning of the ways in which technology was, or could, be used by the human to improve the human being by making it stronger, immune from disease, or simply able to do things that it previously was not able to do. This transhumanist perspective was attacked by posthumanists who argued that it is a betrayal of the original purpose behind Haraway’s cyborg imagery – that is, the attempt to overcome the binary oppositions upon which anthropocentrism resides – and that, far from overcoming anthropocentrism, transhumanism simply entails a hyper-anthropocentrism where technology is not only seen to be a tool for human use but a tool designed to ensure that the anthropocentric vision of a dominant human is strengthened.

Later posthumanist thinking has tried to overcome this turn to transhumanism by exploring alternative ways in which the human/nonhuman schema of anthropocentrism can be overcome. One strand, exemplified by the work of Wolfe (2003), criticizes anthropocentrism by focusing on the issue of speciesism. Continuing with the non-anthropocentric critique that anthropocentrism overlooks the nonhuman, Wolfe focuses on the relationship between humans and animals to show that the strict anthropocentric division between the two is simply not warranted. Recognizing the intimate relationship between the two not only corrects a perceived onto-epistemological error in anthropocentrism but also has political importance insofar as it calls into question anthropocentric speciesism, which, on Wolfe’s reading, entails a logical structure, between human and animal other, that can too easily be used to sanction and justify discrimination against any “other,” whether this is the gender, racial, class, or sexual other. Overcoming the logical categories of anthropocentrism is, therefore, a way to overcome the discrimination inherent to anthropocentrism and so is inherently political.

Running alongside Wolfe’s encounter with speciesism is another strand of posthumanist thinking, exemplified by Eugene Thacker’s work on biomedia (2004) and N. Katherine Hayles’ work on “intermediation” (2005, p. 7) that aims to undermine the human/language divide of anthropocentrism. By holding that anthropocentrism is structured around an instrumentalist account of language, wherein language is taken to be a mere tool that humans use to express themselves, posthumanists have charged that anthropocentrism fails to understand the ways in which human being is constituted by linguistic meaning. Far from simply using language, this aspect of posthumanist thinking holds that the human being is a linguistic construct. In this way, posthumanist thinking tries to show that the presuppositions of anthropocentrism are baseless: the human is not distinct from linguistics or code but is intimately connected to, immersed in, and formed by linguistics. As a consequence, speaking of “the human” does not refer to an actual entity distinct from other entities but entails a linguistic construction. We must look beyond this “superficial” construction to recognize that what we call “human” is not only a construction but one composed of a multiplicity of relations and reference points. We must, therefore, work much harder to think of “the human” in non-anthropocentric terms.

Despite their divergent approaches, these posthuman analyses all attempt to show that what we call “human being” is not a distinct thing facing an environment but is an embedded, emergent, entwined entity that results from relationships between, what we have traditionally called, humans, animals, and technology. Such a radical rethinking has, naturally, led to a number of questions regarding ethics. Indeed, it has even been suggested that the posthumanist framework does not have any answers to ethical issues. In response, there has been a noticeable ethico-political turn in posthumanist thinking to engage with this criticism; this is an ongoing project. One of the biggest problems that posthumanist theory has faced, however, is simply that of defining itself, especially regarding what the “post” in its title means. Two positions are dominant.

The first option is to think of the “posthuman” temporally, that is, as entailing a fundamental rupture between anthropocentric humanism and posthumanism. The “post” in posthumanism is to be thought epochally; an epoch that, in terms of its structure and values, is irreducibly different to what preceded it. Critics have argued, however, that there are two fundamental problems with this understanding. First, by claiming an absolute temporal distinction between anthropocentrism and posthumanism, this understanding sets up a binary opposition between the two. By establishing two temporal epochs that are irreducibly different from one another, this understanding of posthumanism appears to utilize the binary oppositions it aims to overcome. In turn, this shows that, second, claiming a fundamental break from anthropocentrism fails to understand the ways in which the binary oppositions underpinning anthropocentrism continue to subtly infiltrate thinking, even as that thinking claims to be non-anthropocentric. What appears to be “post”-anthropocentric actually masks the anthropocentric structures it is supposed to overcome (Rae 2014).

As a consequence, the second way of thinking the “post” in posthumanism suggests that it be thought as a style of thinking that aims to overcome the binary logical schema underpinning anthropocentric humanism. Far from describing a temporal transition from humanism to an after-/post-humanism, on this understanding, posthumanism aims to deconstruct the “false” boundaries imposed on the human and nonhuman by anthropocentrism to not only rethink the categories “human” and “nonhuman” but to also reveal the complexity of the human/nonhuman relationship. As such, it aims to call into question anthropocentrism’s notion of a self-referential entity called “the human” and to do so in a way that reveals its intimate connection to the “nonhuman.” The challenge is to rethink the categories through which we have thought to recognize those aspects of existence that have been overlooked by the anthropocentric framework. On this understanding, posthumanism aims to deconstruct the binary oppositions of anthropocentrism to open alternative vistas. The aim is to pay attention to the “post” and “human” in posthuman to radically redraw the boundaries through which we understand the world. This does not entail a one-off event but a continuous project whereby the danger of reinscribing anthropocentric categories is recognized and constantly contended with.

Conclusion

Anthropocentrism is a crucial and fundamental aspect of Western culture and thinking that places the human as the Archimedean point of existence and/or insists that ethics emanate from the meaning attributed to events by humans. Despite this historical dominance, much effort has been exerted, across a range of disciplines, in the last 100 years or so to challenge its dominance in the hope of not only correcting a perceived ontological misunderstanding about the nature of the world and the human being’s place and role “in” it but to also rethink ethics in accordance with a non-anthropocentric understanding. As this has progressed, the very nature of what it means to think non-anthropocentrically has increasingly come to the fore, an issue that continues to focus the debate.

Cross-References

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Further Readings

  1. Boddice, R. (Ed.). (2012). Anthropocentrism. Leiden: Brill.Google Scholar
  2. Pojman, P., & Pojman, L. (Eds.). (2011). Environmental ethics: Readings in theory and application (6th ed.). Boston: Cengage Learning Publisher.Google Scholar
  3. Steiner, G. (2010). Anthropocentrism and its discontents: the moral status of animals in the history of western philosophy. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.Google Scholar
  4. Wolfe, C. (2010). What is posthumanism? Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyAmerican University in CairoCairoEgypt