Anthropocentrism X 3

Jeremy Trombley has a neat post listing three criticism of anthropocentrism: boundary, agential and perspectival.

The boundary criticism holds that anthropocentrism is wrong because it makes arbitrary distinctions between beings that merit ethical consideration and beings who do not.

The agential criticism is that anthropocentric philosophies fail to recognize nonhumans as active participants in the constitution of the world (including the human world).

The perspectival criticism is that anthropocentric philosophies fail to understand the world from nonhuman “points of view”. Since this is liable to be impossible, Trombley suggests, we must “content our selves with boundary or agential non-anthropocentrisms, but these will always fall short of the true non-anthropocentric ethics that we need.”

This typology is arguably incomplete. I’d add two related complementary forms to the mix – transcendental anthropocentrism (or transcendental humanism) and instrumentalism.

Transcendental anthropocentrism (TA) is really just another word for what Meillassoux refers to as “correlationism”. It is the claim that the nature of value, agency, or reality consists in the way these are  disclosed or represented – where disclosure or representation is invested with forms derived from human phenomenology or human language.

Instrumentalists claim that only humans or persons are authentic actors while the “agency” of nonhumans like animals or tools is a human construction or projection. For example, if one believes that language use is the sine qua non of intentionality and agency, then humans (and notional non-human language users like Mr Spock) are the the only agents and representers.

Instrumentalism short circuits the agential and perspectival critiques. If instrumentalism is true we properly speak of nonhuman agency or representing in quotation marks. Something similar is implied by transcendental humanism. If a world is only disclosed to entities with culture then animals and tools clearly don’t have access to a world and thus no perspective on it.

The best reason for thinking that instrumentalism is false is arguably Darwinian. Our representational capacities are evolved from the representational capacities of nonhumans lacking human linguistic prowess. Thus, however remarkable our propositional understanding is, it could not have arisen by saltation. Some form of representation – hence misrepresentation – must have preceded it (e.g. map-like or array-like representations). Or as Patricia Churchland puts it in Brainwise: “Even if human language is unique in its complexity and representational power, general considerations from evolutionary biology imply that a theory postulating the absence of any continuity between linguistic representations and nonlinguistic representations would need skeptical scrutiny” (283).

However, even if instrumentalism is false, it does not follow that we are wrong to make ethical boundary distinctions between humans and nonhumans. Transcendental humanism might be false, even though only a very restricted subset of nonhumans has a perspective. Similarly, it seems likely that only a fairly restricted set of nonhumans have any agency to speak of. Finally, capacities for agency and representation may be widely distributed but hugely variable in nature and scope.




3 thoughts on “Anthropocentrism X 3

  1. So where would anthropomorphism fit in this picture? The threat is that this categorization is itself a thoroughly anthropocentric exercise. The argumentative ambit is clear enough: some kind of peeling back of human exceptionalism. Can this be accomplished without anthropomorphizing nonhuman species?

    Short of some consensus-compelling definition of the ‘human’ we have no way of knowing whether we are talking about pretending other species are human as opposed to ‘knocking the human down to size.’ Domestication can, and often is, discussed in terms of various species yoking humans to facilitate genetic transmission. Abolishing horse-racing, for instance, means the extinction of thoroughbreds.

    This is all slippery, slippery stuff.

    This really shows the difficulty incumbent upon any attempt to reason outside the contextual bottleneck of being a subject embedded in a social and historical context. It might just be me, but whenever I read this stuff I almost feel as if I’m reading wilful dogmatism: since God is dead, and given the cognitive psychological demolition of theoretical reason, the simple question (and the most ethical question anyone can ask anyone claiming cognitive authority), How do you know? shows that the constraints imposed by subjectivity and normativity are more problematic than ever – whether we diagnostically rename them as ‘correlation’ or no. We simply lack the rational resources to distinguish what ‘impute’ from what we ‘discover’ when arguing these issues, which means we have no way of knowing whether our attempts to enfranchise nonhumans are simply examples of anthropomorphism – the imperialism of rulers who call their servants (or pets) kings.

    The ideology of individualism, in other words, extended to the ‘animal kingdom.’

    Am I being too harsh with this criticism? I just don’t get this intellectual movement once it moves beyond boilerplate arguments from analogy.

    1. Hi Scott, I recognize and sympathize with your objection: one reason I expressed caution about the distribution of ‘perspectives’ in the non-human world. I don’t yet see any compelling reason to embrace panpsychism other than as a really neat SF premise. Moreover, the perspective-metaphor may be anthropocentric to the extent that it imputes a unitary subject of representation (the implied spectator) whereas representation maybe does not require a subject at all.

      That said, while I reject any transcendental theory of the human, I don’t see any problem with naturalistic approaches that carefully explores affinities and contrasts between humans and nonhumans. For example, it doesn’t seem speculatively anthropocentric to observe that humans have powers of cultural acquisition that no nonhuman has to date: if you bring up a chimp baby in an environment full of human speakers, it won’t usually acquire a language. This does not mean that primates, say, cannot acquire any kind of structured language, they just need special help and attention to acquire limited competence with standard sign languages, etc.. Non-humans like chimps also exhibit cultural acquisition/transmission skills of other kinds. So there are human/nonhuman differences in our psychology of cultural acquisition that are a) decisive and b) probably consistent with all manner of biological continuities (oxytocin uptake). A statement to the effect that Bonobos use sex to reduce social tension doesn’t seem too far fetched and presumably there are ways in which a talented primatologist can observe relationships between tense situations among bonobos and whether sex has that particular social function, etc.

      Likewise, Marx’s claim that human production has certain unique facts which differentiate humans from other species seems born out by the facts even if we prefer to decouple it from moral teleology he imputes to our species-being.

      I suppose I want to suggest that there’s a perfectly empirical way of examining human distinctiveness which, while not ontologically innocent, is not empirically unsupportable either.

  2. I’ve been reading Wolfe’s book and posted some further thoughts on the topic at,

    I understand how animal rights proponents see conceptual opportunity in the naturalization of the human: in a sense it makes their arguments by analogy *for* them. Naturalization can be interpreted as an ‘animalization’ of humanity, just as the research you cite can be interpreted as a ‘humanization’ of animality. Can be…

    The skeptic, for instance, would simply point out the dreadful track record of conceptual arguments, how the ambiguities can be gamed back and forth interminably: like, not like, like, not like.

    But the sad fact is that neither interpretation is correct. It’s the *functionalization* of both, animal and human, which, given the now hoary conceptual incompatibility between the intentional and the functional raises what has to be the single greatest conceptual challenge humanity has ever faced. One that animal rights activists seem to systematically ignore.

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