Francis and Bryant on Anthropocentrism
by C.S. Lammer-Heindel
In the Introduction to The Democracy of Objects, Levi Bryant calls for a decentering of the human in our ontological thought. He suggests that the reigning ontological anthropocentrism, which is premised on a strict distinction between the subject on the one hand, which is the source of meaning and signification, and the object on the other, which waits upon meaning to be conferred to it, is both philosophically indefensible and practically disastrous.
In Laudato Si’ (esp. sec 115ff.), Pope Francis shares this unfavorable view of anthropocentrism, and he even explicitly rejects the subject-object dichotomy as part and parcel of the technocratic paradigm. However, whereas Bryant has been accused of neglecting the human (a charge that doesn’t hold up, in my opinion, and one which he has rightly rejected), Francis seeks to reinvigorate an appreciation for human dignity.
We can look to Francis for insights about how best to characterize the move that Bryant has referred to as the decentering of the human. While Bryant’s language is not, in the final analysis wrong, it can lead one astray insofar as it seems to suggest an anti-humanist perspective. Francis suggests an alternative way of framing the move: namely, as an expansion of our sphere of concern and awareness. Worded this way, we are encouraged to consider where such an expansion starts from, for an expansion needs a center. This is not to undermine Bryant’s overarching concern: ontologically speaking we do need to decenter the subject: the reigning anthropocentrism is untenable and philosophically suspect. But Francis, unlike Bryant, strikes the right chord, a metaphor I use quite deliberately, for it is a dyad of sorts, composed of two distinct “notes.” The first is an ontological note which calls us to reject the subject-object dichotomy and ontological anthropocentrism. The second is an ethical one which calls us to affirm the ethical dignity of all people and recognize their creatureliness. The source of harmony which unites these two notes, which allows us to strike them at once without creating a jarring tension, is the affirmation that, as creatures, we are enmeshed in the vast networks and systems that constitute creation.
Bryant, Levi (2011). The Democracy of Objects. Open Humanities Press.
Francis (2015). Laudato Si’. Encyclical Letter on Care for Our Common Home.