From Anthropocentrism to the Anthropocene

By Arne Johan Vetlesen / Foto: Bjørn Kvaal

«Anthropocentrism is not merely, or even primarily, descriptive. It is normative in postulating that human beings are superior to all other beings and forms of life on Earth, thus meriting a moral standing denied everything nonhuman.»

In his book Panpsychism in the West, David Skrbina writes:

“The mechanistic worldview is deeply embedded in our collective psyche. For several hundred years the dominant orthodoxy has implicitly assumed that inanimate things are fundamentally devoid of mental qualities. This view has become integrated into our science, our literature, and our arts. Ultimately it has incorporated itself into our deepest social values, and thus become reflected in our collective actions. We treat nature as an impersonal thing or collection of things, without spontaneity, without intrinsic value, without “rights” of any kind. Natural resources, plant and animal species have been exploited for maximal short-term human benefit. Such mindless entities are seen as deserving of no particular respect or moral consideration. They exist to be collected, manipulated, dissected, and remade.” (Skrbina 2005: 265)

    In quoting this portrait of the mechanistic worldview, I am well aware that its presuppositions – say, in the form of the Cartesian mind/matter dualism – have been subject to massive criticism ever since its breakthrough in the sixteenth century. And yet, despite attempts within both philosophy and the natural sciences to show the notion of nature as “an impersonal thing or collection of facts” to be simply untrue to the facts, as a society we continue to exploit natural resources, plants, and animal species with impunity; far from bringing the exploitation of the natural world to a halt, we are busy speeding it up. By restricting the capacities for mind and soul, intelligence and reason, spontaneity and purpose to human beings, the mechanistic worldview has helped entrench anthropocentrism – literally, human-centeredness – in all key domains of modern Western society to this very day.

    Anthropocentrism is not merely, or even primarily, descriptive. It is normative in postulating that human beings are superior to all other beings and forms of life on Earth, thus meriting a moral standing denied everything nonhuman. This normativity informs anthropocentrism as a practice, as acted upon individually and collectively. The practices to which anthropocentrism gives rise, and which it helps legitimize, span the entire range of institutions characterizing modern society – initially, Western society, today the whole world. Whether it be the institutions of economy, of politics, of education, of health or of law, they are either exclusively or primarily preoccupied with human agents and their perceived interests and needs. That this is so, and ought to remain so, serves as the pivotal “reality principle” on which the socialization of every new generation is premised: in the course of childhood the anthropocentric point of view is internalized so as to become second nature – always presupposed in relating to other-than-humans as well as fellow humans, never seriously questioned by adults taken seriously by others. Internalized from early childhood is a sense of being profoundly different from all other living beings, promoting an ethos of entitlement in treating all such as mere means for human ends, as so many “resources” whose alleged indifference to what we do to (against) them conveniently justifies our own, institutionally as well as individually. Owing to its seminal role in guiding all our practices, anthropocentrism is one of the most deep-seated and pervasive features of modern culture and of ourselves as products and reproducers of that culture.

    Future historians may well find that the most remarkable thing about this culture is how profoundly it came to change its declared “other”, nature. Paradoxically and unexpectedly, anthropocentrism as acted upon and helping institutionalize the entire set of practices devoted to humankind’s exploitation of nature has had the effect of giving the lie to the notion from which it started out: that culture and nature, in a timeless, static, and once-and-for-all manner, constitute two perfectly separate domains of reality, each internally homogeneous and incommensurable with the other, whereby culture connotes subjectivity, activity, signification, meaning, identity, and purpose, and nature connotes object, passivity, body, instinct, animal, and law-like. As every student of the social sciences knows, Max Weber put it unequivocally: “Culture is a finite segment of the meaningless infinity of the world process, a segment on which human beings confer meaning and significance” (1949: 81). Weber is echoed in anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s oft-cited formulation that “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun” (1973: 5), inspiring Fredrik Barth’s assertion that in dealing with a (any) group’s cosmology, “we are dealing with meaning which is conferred on a sector of the world” (1987: 69), a sector held to be void of meaning prior to and independently of humans’ actively conferring it. Importantly, the alleged matters of fact hardly conceal a highly charged normativity: everything to do with agency and full-fledged moral standing is reserved to the humans constituting culture, and everything to do with being acted on, understood as passivity, as being at the receiving end, to its other, nature.

    Why do I claim that this view about culture and nature forming two independent domains has been given the lie? As the chapters that follow will make clear, the simple yet essential division between a realm that exhibits agency and another – simply designated “nature” despite its enormous heterogeneity – that is merely passive, itself lacking in agency, does not hold water. That it does not, however, is not to be considered a timeless fact. Rather, the issue of the agency of – in – the natural world is a thoroughly historical one, presently forcing us to confront the spectrum of other-than-human agencies in an altogether different and more direct manner than ever in (human) history, agencies of a kind – it now turns out – both potent and damaged, depending on the ways in which our activities impact on them.


The fact is that as acted upon over the last few centuries, anthropocentrism has paved the way for the entry into the Anthropocene.


    If this sounds lofty and abstract, it isn’t. I am getting at a simple fact, albeit a fairly recent and often misunderstood one, partly since the intellectual tradition whose carriers we still are makes us singularly ill-prepared to recognize it, and partly for not-so-subtle psychological reasons, denial looming large among them. The fact is that as acted upon over the last few centuries, anthropocentrism has paved the way for the entry into the Anthropocene. If anthropocentrism is the philosophy, or – writ large – cosmology, now gone global, the Anthropocene signifies the new, and anything but fake, facts on the ground brought about in its course. The connection between the two is an intimate one, yet rarely stated as such, as a matter of cause and effect.


The term Anthropocene

As is well known, the term Anthropocene was coined as recently as 2002 by the Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen. In a short paper, “Geology of Mankind”, published in Nature, Crutzen wrote: “It seems appropriate to assign the term “Anthropocene” to the present, in many ways human-dominated, geological epoch” (Crutzen 2002: 23). The shift from the geological epoch called the Holocene to the Anthropocene is due to the fact that the influence of humanity now outweighs the impact of the most powerful natural forces on the functioning of the Earth system. Among the many geologic-scale changes we humans have effected, Crutzen cites the following:

  • Human activity has transformed between a third and a half of the land surface of the planet.
  • Most of the world’s major rivers have been dammed or diverted.
  • Fisheries remove more than a third of the primary production of the ocean’s coastal waters.
  • Humans use more than half of the world’s readily accessible fresh water runoff.

Since Crutzen’s list was drawn up in 2002, let me add some recent findings:

  • Earth Overshoot Day 2018: August 1. Humanity exhausts Earth’s budget in seven months, demanding more renewable resources than the planet can provide for an entire year. We over-utilize and over-exploit nature’s riches – resources, stocks – to such an extent that they are increasingly unable to regenerate. Human-caused overshoot produces degradation, depletion, and extinction.
  • As reported by WWF, the number of wild animals on Earth has halved in the last forty years. Creatures across land, rivers, and the seas are being decimated as humans kill them for food in unsustainable numbers, while polluting, fragmenting, and destroying their habitats.

It seems fitting that scholars from the natural sciences are at the forefront of these developments, being the first to observe the shift from the Holocene to the Anthropocene in its empirical reality, and therefore better placed than other scientists to predict that as a result of anthropogenic factors the global climate will “depart significantly from natural behavior for many millennia to come”, to quote Crutzen’s paper. A comprehensive study led by Professor of Ecology Gerardo Ceballos, using a sample of 27 600 terrestrial vertebrate species, and a more detailed analysis of 177 mammal species, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in July 2017, concludes on a note of alarm that breaks with the “value neutrality” associated with the natural sciences: “The biological annihilation we now observe will without doubt have severe ecological, economic, and social consequences. Humanity will eventually pay an exceptionally high price for the ongoing decimation of the only habitat we know in the universe. The situation is so critical that it would be unethical not to use strong words” (Ceballos et al. 2017: 3; see Carrington 2017: 12). The scientists continue:

“Dwindling population sizes and range shrinkages amount to a massive anthropogenic erosion of biodiversity and of the ecosystem services essential to civilization. […] The ultimate drivers of the immediate causes of biotic destruction [are] human overpopulation and overconsumption, especially by the rich. These drivers, all of which trace to the fiction that perpetual growth can occur on a finite planet, are themselves increasing rapidly. All signs point to ever more powerful assaults on biodiversity in the next two decades, painting a dismal picture of the future of life, including human life.” (Ceballos et al. 2017: 7, 8)

    Ceballos and his co-authors alert us to what is truly novel about the Anthropocene, namely what is presently becoming manifest – as so many observations and data – as the effects of human activities on the Earth, with enormously increased momentum since 1945 (known as the “Great Acceleration»; see Angus 2016). To be sure, simply tracing the Anthropocene to its origins in the anthropocentrism that pervades the mechanistic worldview paints much too general a picture: what the world has never seen before cannot be explained in terms of the long familiar, and so as more of the same, if only in a qualitatively novel fashion. For this reason, attempts to locate the onset of what is manifest today as the systemic imbalance between humans and (the rest of) nature in, say, the domestication of plants and animals, in the emergence of agriculture, or in the class-based conflict between capital and labour (Marx), as articulated in Jason Moore’s (2015) notion of the “Capitalocene”, all miss out on the novelty in question. That said, I hasten to add that there is indeed a strong causal connection between present-day global capitalism and the ecological destruction at the heart of the Anthropocene, a connection clearly implied in the explanation given by Ceballos et al above; a connection I shall, however, for the most part leave aside in this work, having explored it at length in The Denial of Nature: Environmental Philosophy in the Era of Global Capitalism. Likewise, the current attempt from the other side of the spectrum, the so-called ecomodernists, to present the Anthropocene as something good, as an opportunity to fully assert human mastery on planet Earth and celebrate the dawn of a new generation of sciences, such as geoengineering, also distracts us from what is happening and its true implications.


Far from being an old story poured into new bottles and given a sexy label, then, the Anthropocene is an instance of catastrophism.


    Far from being an old story poured into new bottles and given a sexy label, then, the Anthropocene is an instance of catastrophism, as pointed out by Clive Hamilton (2017: 26). Catastrophism captures the first thing to say about it, never to be lost from sight. It is, fundamentally, an unprecedented geological event, one lacking not only in predecessors but in valid comparisons and analogues as well, leaving us at a loss as to where to turn for lessons about how to understand it and – somehow – cope with it. It is an event that has precisely not occurred – even if starting slowly and locally – “ever since” this or that paradigm, in thought and in economic and technological practices, became triumphant centuries ago. As Hamilton rightly insists, the Anthropocene is a rupture. It is so in a geological and geophysical sense not to be conflated with a social, economic, or historical one, even though of course now heavily impacting all of them. And if we want to insist that geological history and human history have “converged”, it does not mean that geology has become social science (as Moore’s Marxist concept of “Capitalocene” suggests; see Hamilton 2017: 29), or, for that matter, that geology has become philosophy.


A call for intellectual arms

    And yet, the Earth System that is the new object the Anthropocene is all about, namely nature as impacted and altered, as unpredictably and erratically changing owing to our practices, and thereby in turn profoundly impacting and altering us, human society, in a dialectic interwinement of unprecedented vehemence, carries what Hamilton calls “ontological meaning” beyond its scientific importance. That it does so is a call for intellectual arms. It provides the point of departure for this book. It assigns philosophy with novel tasks and challenges its pre-Anthropocene presuppositions and concepts, removing the carpet under them with a fact-based, utterly concrete urgency for which most of what today passes as philosophy is, I am sorry to say, both ill-prepared and ill-equipped.

    So what is this novelty about? What could possibly be its ontological meaning?

    Again, only seemingly are these purely abstract questions, to be pondered the timeless way philosophers are wont to do, sub specie aeternitatis. The novelty that the Anthropocene consists in is multi-dimensional, of course. Yet it can be broken down to one instance of novelty in particular, one that very clearly questions philosophy as usual: without wanting to, we have through our activities, our technologies and economies, brought about a series of truly novel objects. Radiation, hydrocarbons, and global warming are three such, leading Timothy Morton to coin the notion of “hyperobjects”. What can be said about them? Massively distributed in time and space, they are nonlocal. They are objects “already there”, before we direct our attention to them and acknowledge them, and so precisely not products of our intelligence and intentions but overwhelming them, dwarfing them, and so in no way a mere function of our measuring devices. Hyperobjects, the examples demonstrate, are a truly never-before-seen sort of object in that there is no “away” to which we can, say, sweep the radioactive dust or “do away with” the utterly concrete – physical, biological, chemical – effects of global warming. As genuinely nonhuman entities that, as Morton explains, “are not simply products of a human gaze”, hyperobjects are huge objects consisting of other objects, as it were: “global warming comprises the sun, the biosphere, fossil fuels, cars, and so on” (Morton 2013: 199; see also 48, 120). In short, they are objects such that there is nothing outside of them, not comprised by them, impacted by them. They are total and totalizing (my words, not Morton’s), reconfiguring whatever totalities (say, ecosystems) preexisted them, creating a situation where everything that comes to pass is either facilitated or rendered impossible (shut down, going extinct) given the weight of the ubiquity and inescapability of their presence: they will not go away, neither in the dimension of time nor in that of place.

    Whereas Morton is spot on about the novelty of hyperobjects, he is so carried away by his own rhetoric that he ends up mystifying them, ignoring the sociopolitical forces that help produce them and the companies – fossil, capitalist such – that are hell-bent on fueling the spread of hyperobjects instead of minimizing it so as to avert the dangers scientists warn against. Morton gets it wrong when stating in his recent book, Being Ecological, that “ecological facts are about the unintended consequences of anthropocentrism” (2018: 28). In the present situation and given the knowledge we have of the causes driving the process, speaking of “unintended consequences” is simply misleading, verging on intellectual dishonesty. Why?

    To be sure, the ecological facts, in the shape of catastrophy that Hamilton rightly insists on, may have started out as unintended such, and as unforeseen. But to say, as of 2018, that the facts in question are unintended is to lend them a degree of innocence wholly unwarranted – epistemically, politically, and morally. No human actor ever “intended” to bring about global warming. Granted. But there is a well-documented one-directional causal link between my buying the new Smartphone and the logging of what remains of pristine forests in Congo: the phone consists of “matter”, a key such component being coltan, to be found in this forest and nearly nowhere else. Buying the phone drives the deforestation that drives global warming – and about each and every step in this fairly simple causal sequence, we are perfectly well informed. Knowing what we are part of in doing what we do, we cannot disconnect our actions from their well-reported consequences; we cannot confine our responsibility to consequences we wish for and deny it for, or feign ignorance about, the rest of them. For all the factual simplicity of the causal sequence we are implicated in, however, we who are so are pretty complex and full of contradictions, “hypersubjects” perhaps. Take the case of Morton himself, regarded in some circles as the world’s leading ecophilosopher. By the end of 2016, as he wrote on his blog, he had racked up 350 000 air miles for the year, flying worldwide to so many conferences to share his eco-concerns. At the same time, he is reported to “become so emotional that he actually starts to cry” when discussing mass extinction (Blasdel 2017: 29).

    Morton’s notion of hyperobjects in instructive in another respect as well. It helps put into sharp relief how one of the most venerable of all philosophical distinctions since Plato and Aristotle is now being blurred, possibly to the point of dissolving completely: the distinction between the grown and the made, or, if you will, the organic and the artificial. Hyperobjects such as those now inseparable from the reality of the Anthropocene, are clearly not grown in the Aristotelian sense of emerging organically in the natural world, as do the worm and the oak tree. Nor are hyperobjects (take radioactivity) made in the traditional sense of being brought into existence in a manner presupposing human agents who decide to go about making them, with a view to some perceived human interest or need.


…virtually everything a child relates to – sees, hears, smells, tastes, and touches; in short, experiences first-hand, sensuously, bodily – is a human artifact of some sort or other, not something grown in and as part of the natural world.


    Cosmologies in general, and philosophically elaborated ontologies in particular, have the task of explaining what is – meaning it all, everything, in such a way as to account for and do justice to all (property-based, qualitative) differences between what exists. As we will see, however, it is not only that the cosmologies I will examine come up short when confronted with the novelty of hyperobjects – unsurprisingly so. The typologies typically offered by (Western) cosmologies also lack proper categories for the kinds of artifacts we literally litter our human existence on planet Earth with these days. Plastic is a good example. Humans have produced 8. 3 billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, more in the last decade than in the entire twentieth century; a million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute, with most ending up in landfill or the sea (Taylor 2018: 12). Microplastic, a miniscule product sufficiently potent to alter all the ecosystems of the seas, has now entered the entire marine food chain, scientists report. This is occurring as part of what is in itself a historically unprecedented situation in that, as of today, in Western societies, and increasingly in the whole world, virtually everything a child relates to – sees, hears, smells, tastes, and touches; in short, experiences first-hand, sensuously, bodily – is a human artifact of some sort or other, not something grown in and as part of the natural world. To the extent that there has historically been an asymmetry between the two, it has throughout history been of the opposite kind, with the grown vastly predominating over the made.

    How serious a problem is it that new entities (to use the neutral, all-across-the-board term), at unprecedented pace and with unprecedented powers of disruption, emerge? For a start, where do we locate them – in culture or in nature? Are such entities a problem for our way of thinking about the world, exploding the concepts, categories, and distinctions we are socialized into employing? Or do they primarily pose a problem on the level of action?


If the Anthropocene is the historical product of anthropocentrism, it is also what forces us to abandon it and search for alternatives – alternatives whose first assignment is to be less destructive to the natural world that humanity depends upon: to help us learn, finally, to appreciate that world for what it is in itself, and to do so for other reasons than those linked to our obvious stake in securing the survival of humanity – admittedly something we are not particularly good at, even though – or perhaps in part because – still committed to anthropocentrism. Indeed, in keeping with the urgency of the situation, to be worth its salt a philosophy for tomorrow’s world needs to rethink the relationship between humans and the rest of nature in a way that helps us recognize the manifold of agents and agencies in beings other than human. This undertaking is no less normative than the one it seeks to replace. Only its normativity is explicit not implicit, and – what matters most – of a substantially different kind in acknowledging value as well as agency in so many different beings and forms of life in nature. In rejecting the thesis of human exceptionalism on which anthropocentrism is premised, humans are a part of nature, not apart from nature. Not only have we been wrong about all those “others”, taking them to be what we are not, and vice versa, but about ourselves as well.

    There is an irony in this search for alternatives suited to let us grasp both what is at stake in the Anthropocene and how to avoid the worst in terms of the destructive impacts set in motion. The irony is betrayed in the need to “at long last” come to acknowledge the falsity of human exceptionalism and admit to nonhuman beings capacities we routinely deny them. Novel phenomena call for novel ways of thinking and coping, don’t they?

    Einstein was right that new problems cannot be solved within the framework that produced them. The irony I have in mind, however, is that instead of trying to come up with something truly new in order to match the novelty of the Anthropocene, we would do well to take a fresh look at what is widely considered as the oldest cosmology in human history, referred to as either animism or panvitalism, or – put philosophically – as panpsychism.

    To dismiss as philosophically worthless everything that predated the Cartesian mind-matter dualism, taken as roughly corresponding to the division between culture and nature we looked at above, would be to repeat just what did the thinkers that, more or less unanimously, have for the last four centuries promoted the very paradigm that the advent of the Anthropocene now tells us is spelling disaster. It turns out that we took the wrong turning, so let’s consider what was cast aside as belonging to the dustbin of history so as to facilitate the path taken with such (it now dawns on us) disastrous complacency.


What exactly is panpsychism?

    Panpsychism has been with us from the start, not only historically, but also in this introduction. The critical portrait of the mechanistic worldview with which I began, articulated by David Skribina, is a portrait painted from a specific alternative point of view, that of panpsychism. Crudely put, the two views are to each other as thesis to anti-thesis; no two doctrines could contradict each other more completely and exclude each other more fundamentally.

    What exactly is panpsychism? I for one still wonder, despite having completed the chapters you are about to read. There is the easy part and there is the difficult one. The easy part is to do with the claim that everything that exists exhibits mind, by which is meant (in various degrees, from the primitive to the most advanced) mentality, interiority, intelligence, and purposiveness. To postulate as much on behalf of “everything” is, however, so radical a thought as to be beyond what we can ever hope to settle. Does a stone possess properties of the kind meant here? Is there anything mind-like about such a thing as a stone at all? Isn’t there, in fact, only so many properties excluding everything we associate with mind, and so with agency, insofar as we take agency to presuppose and require mind, a capacity for thought, for intentionality, for the non-arbitrary pursuit of goals, and the like? The only answer this side of rational argument, of what we expect from science, is probably the one Bertrand Russell came up with, though laconically so and clearly hoping for more: we will never really know.

    Granted. But perhaps we will be able to know if we shift from entities as foreign to us as stones to entities with which we evidently have something in common as far as the relevant properties of mind-like character are concerned – for example, animals such as wolves or eagles (notwithstanding Descartes’ view of animals in general as mindless “mere automata”). Yet what happens in doing so is that the more plausible it now appears to us that we have indeed to do with a mind-possessing nonhuman creature (the wolf, the eagle, and so on), the more does the philosophical radicalism of panpsychism get lost – the entities very different from us on behalf of which panpsychism makes its bold claim is lost from view as we narrow the field under consideration to entities sufficiently like us to qualify (by us, at that) as possessing some degree of capacities we pride ourselves on having “more of” than anybody else. Whether by fiat, bias or default, the stone disappeared from the picture.

    So even the easy part isn’t easy at all. The claim that something identical, or similar, holds for everything that exits is easy to grasp as a one-liner as general as they go. But we must admit it lands us in great difficulties the moment we try to assess its validity in a concrete way, applying the general idea to the particular cases in all their heterogeneity.

    This is where the really difficult part kicks in. The quotation from Skrbina is a good example: From his implicit panpsychist point of view, he starts by taking issue with the dominant orthodoxy that “inanimate things are fundamentally devoid of mental qualities”. He goes on point out how we “treat nature as an impersonal thing or collection of things, without spontaneity, without intrinsic value”. And he ends by stating that “natural resources, plant and animal species have been exploited” for human benefit.

    Skrbina’s point about our exploitative practices is well taken. But it is not what will be considered the truly contestable part of his position. The difficulty his statements illustrate is conceptual, and it is one that I will later expose in one affirmative version of panpsychism after the other. What is problematic about them is the tendency to commit the very slide we encounter in Skrbina’s paragraph: the slide from talking about “inanimate things” to talking about “plant and animal species”; starting with the former, ending up with examples from the latter. The slide is symptomatic of an oscillation between entities (and I deliberately use the generic and general term) of very different kinds, so different that putting them on the same level, that of “everything” that allegedly exhibits mind or experience (not the same, we will see), risks ignoring or denying the differences that make a crucial difference between them. Only at the cost of gross simplification can we describe in like manner, using the same terms, so unlike entities as stones and gorillas, tables and oaks, molecules and brittlestars, creeks and peccaries, worms and dogs (my examples are not coincidental; I will return to each of them in later chapters).

    That sweeping claims on a high level of abstraction get into trouble once we take them down to earth is nothing new under the sun, meaning that panpsychism is in good company. However, the problem is more acute in the case of panpsychism because its ability to say something more true and more precise than its rivals about the various entities existing on earth is what its chief validity claim consists in.


A cosmological journey

    To be able to demonstrate as wrong the claim shared by the mechanistic worldview and the anthropocentrism wedded to it that “inanimate things are fundamentally devoid of mental qualities” is a tall order. To show the wrongness of the claim that plant and animal species are devoid of them is considerably less so. Again, in saying this it is tempting to declare the subject closed, in the sense that we have reached an absolute limit to what we can know, what we can hope to establish as true and valid knowledge about the subject matter. Concretely, we may establish knowledge about the mental qualities possessed (or not possessed) by a given animals species (i.e., can fish feel pain?). The more advanced the species (say, dolphins or chimpanzees), the more sophisticated its mental capacities, and the easier for us to acknowledge them, since we take the animal in question to be “so much like us”, hence able, in some measure or other, to engage communicatively with us (betraying that we are engaged in shamelessly anthropocentric comparison, and how could we not be?). But we may not, and likely never will, gain the same knowledge about the mental qualities of stones and molecules, or of creeks and peccaries. The reach of our well-proven knowledge about entities other-than-human remains limited, stubbornly and frustratingly so, and for that reason most of what we would like to illuminate in that vastest of realms, the natural world, must remain in the dark.

    As will become clear in Chapter 1, dealing with Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, I am deeply dissatisfied with this limit: not with there being one, but with the tendency to premise the limit as we understand it upon the sole criterion of the reach of our knowledge. That is to put the cart before the horse: it is to perpetuate the privileging of what we humans can know over what exists and the myriad ways in which entities different from us do so. This primacy of epistemology over ontology is axiomatic and as such unquestioned in the mechanistic worldview and its ally, the anthropocentric way of assessing what the world consists of, namely in terms of means for human ends. Moreover, the reasoning the primacy of knowing over being comes down to is logically untenable: it does not follow from humans’ not knowing whether nonhuman beings of various kinds possess the same (largely intellectual) capacities we do, that we may treat them as though they don’t. Put differently, even if the philosophical consensus within the Western tradition is that we can never really know whether various animals and plants, or ecosystems such as forests and seas, in a meaningful way may be said to manifest agency (the way we humans define it and look for it), and whether they qualify as ends-in-themselves and as exhibiting intrinsic value, it does not follow from this knowledge deficit that the entities in question be treated as mere means, as devoid of what we find ourselves incapable of recognizing in them. If anything, that is a deficiency on our side, not on theirs, a deficiency located within our anthropocentric subject-centered realm, not within the natural world we pronounce on. The creatures that make up the latter should not be punished for a lack that reflects on us, not them.

    Return now to Clive Hamilton’s claim that the appearance of this new object, the Earth System as impacted by the advent of the Anthropocene, has “ontological meaning”. What can that mean? Much of what I have to say in this book, especially in Chapters 4 and 5, is my response to this question.

    It remains true that everything we may think, say, and do with regard to other-than-human entities – be it recognizing their intrinsic value and their intelligence, their agency in the form of actively adopting their distinct point of view in, and on,  the world – we will think, say, and do from our human point of view within that larger world of which we are all part, meaning participants. But that is a hermeneutical point, born from a fact we cannot escape. It marks our peculiarly human-based condition of possibility for grasping what exists and comes to pass in that wider world, and in doing so draws up the limits to what we can know and understand.


My critique of anthropocentrism is not about giving up on the human point of view. It is about situating it as one of many.


    We would commit a category mistake if from this fact we conclude that anthropocentrism is the only possible, and therefore the only valid, philosophy. The fact there is a manifold of other-than-human points of view in/on the world, each relating in its highly distinct ways to what comes to pass in it, each enjoying what is always a distinctly limited access to the world, namely the kind of access specific or even unique for the sort of entity or being in question, is not a reason to disqualify the validity and relevance of those other-than-human points of view. On the contrary, it signifies that there is all the more reason to be attentive to them, the more so the more different they are from our point of view, selective and limited as that point of view is, inevitably so, just like everybody/everything else’s. My critique of anthropocentrism is not about giving up on the human point of view. It is about situating it as one of many.


What, more precisely, does the novelty that the trajectory from anthropocentrism to the Anthropocene leads to consist in? And how well equipped is a cosmology like panpsychism to account for this novelty, to do the sort of justice to it that other cosmologies cannot? Doesn’t the fact that panpsychism is the oldest Weltanschauung we know of count heavily against its prospects in grasping what is truly novel about our present era?

    To anticipate, I do not end the cosmological journey this book aims to be by concluding that panpsychism – in some particular version – provides all the answers we are searching for in our confrontation with the Anthropocene. To be sure, there will be more questions asked than answers given; and for each answer proposed, new questions will arise. That said, one of the strengths of panpsychism, following from its preparedness to open up for and take into account so many other-than-human points of view in/on the world, lies precisely in the contrast it thereby marks with the worldview we for so long have deemed the only, or supremely, “rational” and “scientific one”. In predating the worldview that paved the way for the Anthropocene, panpsychism may help us identify where we went wrong, having so clearly at some point taken the wrong turning. To echo what I argued in Denial: if a specific  culture’s view of nature accompanies and directly or indirectly justifies what in the natural world amounts to a series of practices downright destructive to that nature, then that culture and that theory (cosmology) cannot be right, cannot be true – they can’t be since they demonstrably fail when it comes to the bottom line of all practices and theories alike: securing survival, as opposed to jeopardizing it.

    Remember this: before man was removed from nature, mind was removed from matter. The Anthropocene is about being, for everything that exists, at the receiving end of this twice over removal, one not merely thought but physically enacted. Again: a way of looking at the world and acting in it that leads to the decimation, degradation, and extinction now occurring, pointed out as so many matters of scientific fact by Ceballos et al. in the above quote, cannot be epistemically valid (correct about its subject matter), and cannot be morally right. The true relationship between culture and nature cannot be one of systemic destruction of the latter by the operations of the former. It must instead be one of enduring co-existence, not only compatible with a future life on planet Earth, but actively promoting and affirming it in its full richness, complexity, and heterogeneity, all across the conventional human-nature divide.


Insights from anthropology

    Since my approach highlights the practices that any given cosmology helps inform, legitimate, and render meaningful, with a particular view to how the natural world in its entirety is affected by those practices, I have found it instructive to engage with a discipline that all-too-rarely figures in philosophical discussion, namely anthropology, meaning that the argument I first set out theoretically by way of engaging with Thomas Nagel and Alfred North Whitehead, becomes increasingly concrete – situated in specific cultures and natures – as the book proceeds. The movement enacted in the course of the chapters is one from the abstract to the increasingly more empirical; from ideas about the nature and extension of experience to what various sorts of beings in the contemporary world in fact experience, as part of their present situation, all too frequently in terms of danger – endangered survival prospects – at that. Once consulted, the relevance to my topic of ethnographic studies will, I hope, be as obvious as it is indispensable. Given my emphasis on practices, on how what a given culture in a given epoch induces its members to think about the world pervades their doings in it, the work done by anthropologists will lead the way in this book’s centrepiece: Chapter 4 where I present my thesis that animism is panpsychism in practice.

    What do I mean by suggesting that the relevance of panpsychism in the Anthropocene can only be fully appreciated if we open the philosophical discourse to the research carried out by anthropologists?

    First, the best anthropological work on cosmologies – understood as a total view of reality, depicting the “larger-scale structure, origin and evolution of the concrete world” (Mathews 1991: 11) – is as philosophically profound as it gets. And whereas philosophers, analytic or not, typically take no interest in anthropology, the best anthropologists are true philosophers. Indeed, their subject matter demands nothing less. Exposing the view of reality one has internalized as second nature to a cosmology of a genuinely different kind, studying how it is acted upon by a particular indigenous group, supplies a unique opportunity for critical reflection on behalf on one’s own culture and the cosmology it demands allegiance to.


Whereas philosophers, analytic or not, typically take no interest in anthropology, the best anthropologists are true philosophers.


    Second, in discussing the work of leading contemporary anthropologists such as Tim Ingold, Philippe Descola, and Eduardo Kohn, the dead ends of the current debate in which the culture/nature distinction is being deconstructed (as the discourse has it) can be identified and (hopefully) avoided. In particular, a recent ethnographic study such as Kohn’s How Forests Think, carried out among the Runa of Ecuador’s Upper Amazon, helps us radically rethink the interconnection between culture and nature, and, as part of that – albeit not in the fashion of the one-to-one correspondence we as present-day Westerners are accustomed to – the inter-relationship between various sorts of agents, some of them human but many of them not, yet for all that commanding and performing the role of so many persons, in so many different forms, guises, and ways of being in the world and relating actively, from a perfectly distinct point of view, to everything and everybody it encompasses. We humans are indeed creators of a world (our world). But so are so many others as well, being subjects who sometimes relate to us as fellow subjects, sometimes objectify us, demonstrating that such distinction-making relating is anything but an exclusively human capacity and concern, and so calling the bluff of anthropocentrism before our eyes.

    Third, in keeping with my thesis that animism (studied by anthropologists) is panpsychism (theorized by philosophers) in practice, the ethnographic works I draw upon help vindicate what has for long been a forgotten, if not outright tabooed, insight: that we come into this world expecting it – all of it – to be alive. That the world is alive, that to be means to participate in this aliveness that is encountered everywhere and in everything, is the meeting-point between panpsychism as philosophy and animism as practice. The expectation that the world is alive and must be treated as such is also, no less significantly, what appears to be a universal feature among humans, innate in the new-born, acted upon as a matter of course by the child (an insight many a reader may have first encountered in Paul Shepard’s classic Nature and Madness). I shall have plenty to say about how socialization into adulthood currently sees to it that this expectation be banished and given up as – exactly – “childish”. Thus we become alienated from its truth, so obvious and indubitable to humans and cultures everywhere in all epochs up to the present, showing us up as the utterly remarkable exception from the historical rule, having shifted from experiencing the world as alive to experiencing most of it as not-so, as non-agential, as “mere matter”, in a turning of the tables that our predecessors everywhere would have deemed a proof of madness, to echo Shepard’s book title, being, moreover, the very shift that inspired his book’s unforgettable and to this day acutely pertinent opening question: “Why do men persist in destroying their habitat? (Shepard 1982: 1).

    In seeking to root out, tooth and nail, all signs of our innate affinity to nature and “childish” openness to communicating and interacting with everything encountered in the outside natural world, so-called anthropomorphism has been virtually banished. We thus have it backward:  it is not that we are projecting a “subjective” liveliness and agency onto the so-called external world (taken as a blank slate); on the contrary, we are addressed by, and respond to, the liveliness and manifestations of agency that we encounter as the very fabric of the world. That this is so is not a timeless truth, however, immune to change. Indeed, the longer and more effectively we look upon and treat all those other-than-human agents as nothing of the sort, as objects not subjects, the more they will tend to become so, following the logic of self-fulfilling prophesies – deprived of the concrete conditions for their agency to thrive, becoming few and far between as a direct consequence of the Anthropocene’s coinciding with the sixth mass extinction in history, unprecedented in being driven by human activities.


What Latour offers is what I critique as a “flat ontology”.


    Fourth, insofar as the philosophical discussion of agency is itself changed by the event of the Anthropocene, an engagement with insights from anthropology allows us to see more clearly just where currently popular versions of posthumanism go wrong. Notwithstanding posthumanism’s cogent point of departure – namely its misgivings about the whole anthropocentric framework, intellectually, culturally, and politically – what its leading proponents offer in its stead in terms of an alternative cosmology suffers from a series of blind spots, dead ends, and category mistakes. In Chapter 5 I single out Bruno Latour’s recent Facing Gaia as a particularly instructive case in point. Put bluntly, what Latour offers is what I critique as a “flat ontology”, one where the eagerness to claim agency and “agential” capacities on behalf of the myriad of other-than-human entities denied such in anthropocentrism ends up painting a picture where all entities are grey, where one and the same portrait of agency-related capacities is brought to bear on virtually everything Latour casts his eyes on, regardless of their differences. This means disregarding the very qualities of otherness (from us humans, but also from each other) that an alternative ontology to the dominant one needs to honor and to do conceptual justice to.

    For partly related reasons, this criticism is one I also level at Karen Barad’s thought-provoking Meeting the Universe Halfway, a book applying important insights from the physicist Niels Bohr to explore what it meant by the “entanglement” of matter, meaning, and experience. Common to Latour and Barad, and to a kindred spirit such as Jane Bennett (author of Vibrant Matter), is the collapsing and levelling of agent-specific differences that their attempts to vindicate them ends up committing, thereby undermining the promise to fully differentiate the various agencies in their present predicament of precarity, of demise and imminent extinction. The Anthropocene, I am sorry to say, is not about the latest fashion in philosophy, but about the all-too-mundane real effects of all-too-powerful, human-initiated and human-perpetuated practices in the modus operandi of systemic overshoot and exploitation; not about the proliferation of agencies, of letting hundred flowers blossom, but their ongoing jeopardy and decimation. That’s why it calls for mourning, a topic-cum-experience the various posthumanisms are conspicuously silent about, a silence complicit in prolonging the dangerously abstract guise that the natural world has assumed in our culture.



The text above is the Introduction of the book in its entirety.




This book engages with the classic philosophical question of mind and matter, seeking to show its altered meaning and acuteness in the era of the Anthropocene. Arguing that matter, and, more broadly, the natural world, has been misconceived since Descartes, it explores the devastating impact that this has had in practice in the West.

A ground-breaking reconceptualization of the natural world and our treatment of it, Cosmologies of the Anthropocene will appeal to scholars of sociology, social theory, philosophy and anthropology with interests in our understanding of and relationship with nature (cited from the presentation at

Arne Johan Vetlesen is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oslo, Norway. He is the author of books such as A Philosophy of Pain; Evil and Human Agency: Understanding Collective Evildoing; Perception, Empathy, and Judgment; and The Denial of Nature: Environmental Philosophy in the Era of Global Capitalism. He is also a member of NWCCs Editorial Board.









Kommentarer er stengt.

Blogg på

opp ↑