Monday, October 30, 2017

Monday Morning Musings: The Unavoidability of Anthropomorphism


All descriptive, explanatory, and normative language is, in one (I hope) nontrivial sense, “anthropocentric.” Indeed, language itself is anthropomorphic by definition, even if it need not be strongly anthropocentric (as in concepts of impartiality, objectivity and truth, for example, or in scientific endeavors to understand the natural world). Poets, philosophers and scientists, as well as the rest of us, depend on human language to communicate, and thus we are necessarily implicated in anthropomorphic and often anthropocentric expressions, conceptualizations, and characterizations or, at the very least, anthropomorphic presuppositions, assumptions and presumptions. Even the “deepest” ecologist and the most devoted Daoist cannot free themselves from, or avoid the constraints of, anthropomorphism. Consider, for instance, the latter: although the Daodejing of the Daoist—one of the most exquisitely profound expressions of classical Chinese philosophy—includes many (evocative) suggestions or “imperatives” to follow (literally and figuratively) the course or order of nature, it too is unavoidably anthropomorphic. In conceding this, we need not deny the text’s desire, wish, or quest to transcend, as it were, an anthropomorphic perspective.1 To keep with our example, the Daoist is insistent that the nature of Dao cannot be put into words, that all “names” are perspectival and limiting … and often misleading. And yet the Daoist is perforce compelled to speak about the Dao, even if enigmatically, aphoristically, and metaphorically, while simultaneously attempting to have us bear in mind the limitations of language and conceptualization, much like, if not identical to, the motivating rationale of poetry, which at once exploits the possibilities and limitations of linguistic expression.
Perhaps the words and formulations of the non-theistic mystic come as close as is humanly possible to avoiding conceptual anthropomorphism when endeavoring to “point to” or characterize as best as possible, the nature of mystical (i.e., the heights of spiritual) experience.2 And one might plausibly argue that “the misanthrope,” insofar as he can be truly systematic or consistent (e.g., avoiding all-too-human behavioral and emotional dispositions or following through on the behavioral consequences or conclusions of such thoughts and sentiment) in his dislike of or contempt for human beings, can more or less steer clear of all species of anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism. Finally, nothing said here denies our ability and frequent need to distinguish crude from sophisticated anthropomorphism or weak from strong anthropocentrism.
The following passage from Hilary Putnam’s chapter, “Values, facts and cognition” in his book Reason, Truth and History (Cambridge University Press, 1981), well illustrates our contention regarding the ubiquity of the anthropomorphic bias if you will, or what I prefer to call the unavoidability of anthropomorphism:
“[F]act, (or truth) and rationality are interdependent notions. A fact is something that it is rational to believe, or, more precisely, the notion of a fact (or a true statement) is an idealization of the notion of a statement that it is rational to believe. [….] [B]eing rational involves having criteria of relevance as well as criteria of rational acceptability, and…all of our values are involved in our criteria of relevance. The decision that a picture of the world is true (or true by our present lights, or “as true as anything is”) and answers the relevant questions (as well as we are able to answer them) rests on and reveals our total system of value commitments. A being with no values would have no facts either. The way in which criteria of relevance involves values, at least indirectly, may be seen by examining the simplest statement. Take the sentence ‘The cat is on the mat.’ If someone actually makes this judgment in a particular context, then he employs conceptual resources—the notions ‘cat,’ ‘on,’ and ‘mat’—which are provided by a particular culture, and whose presence and ubiquity reveal something about the interests and values of that culture, and of almost every culture. We have the category ‘cat’ because we regard the division of the world into animals and non-animals as significant, and we are further interested in what species a given animal belongs to. It is relevant that there is a cat on the mat and not just a thing. We have the category ‘mat’ because we regard the division of inanimate things into artifacts and non-artifacts as significant, and we are further interested in the purpose and nature a particular artifact has. It is relevant that it is a mat that the cat is on and just something. We have the category ‘on’ because we are interested in spatial relations. Notice what we have: we took the most banal statement imaginable, ‘the cat is on the mat,’ and we found that the presuppositions which make this statement a relevant one in certain contexts include the significance of the categories animate/inanimate, purpose, and space. To a mind with no disposition to regard these as relevant categories, ‘the cat is on the mat’ would be as irrational as ‘the number of hexagonal objects in this room is 76’ would be, uttered in the middle of a tête-à-tête between young lovers. Not only do very general facts about our value system show themselves in our categories (artifacts, species name, term for a spatial relation) but, our more specific values (for example, sensitivity and compassion), also show up in the use we make of specific classificatory words (‘considerate,’ ‘selfish’). To repeat, our criteria of relevance rest on and reveal our whole system of values.”—Hilary Putnam
Notes
1. Cf. the well-known passage from chapter 5: “Heaven and earth are not humane, they regard the ten thousand things as straw dogs [As Hans-Georg Moeller explains, ‘straw dogs … were highly revered elements in sacrificial rituals, but after the ritual they lost all their meaning and were simply discarded.’]. The sage is not humane. He regards all the people as straw dogs.”
2. See, for example, the argument(s) on behalf of “pure consciousness events” (PCE) in Robert K.C. Forman, ed., The Problem of Pure Consciousness: Mysticism and Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 1990).

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