Anthropomorphism and Nature

In his Essays in Anthropology, Robert Spaemann observes that “the beginning of modern science was marked by polemics against the concept of nature. The concept of nature is now taken to be anthropomorphic, while the essentially teleological idea of things in the cosmos having ‘movement in themselves’ is understood as the usurpation of a divine quality” (9).

Teleology was anthropomorphism because it was considered a “projection” of human will and decision and purpose onto a natural order that, by the sixteenth century is understood as a machine: “Nature is rendered an immanent realm where objects are merely moved, a realm of inert matter preserving itself. Nature becomes exteriority without selfhood (Selbstsein)” and knowing something’s nature is, in Hobbes words, “to know what we can do with it when we have it” (9).

This creates an uncrossable boundary within human existence: “the human being can no longer understand himself as ‘natural being’ and ‘person’ at the same time. Either he can develop his historical self-understanding by way of a hermeneutical phenomenology, or he can reconstruct himself out of his natural conditions of origin. . . . What he can no longer do is reconcile these two perspectives, unless, that is, there were such a thing as a hermeneutic of nature not conceived merely metaphorically or poetically” (10).

Absent anthropomorphic teleology, our relation to nature is reduced to an instrumental one. A dominating anthropocentrism comes in the wake of the collapse of anthropomorphism. Ultimately, Spaemann argues, this denial of anthropomorphism must also be applied to human beings: It is no longer legitimate to attribute human feelings and intentions to the squirrel outside my window; and it becomes illegitimate to attribute those feelings and intentions to me: “the way we speak about ‘what it means to be human’ becomes depreciated as merely unscientific anthropomorphism” (10). We are really just inert matter in motion too.

Spaemann sees Rousseau as a central figure in this development. For Aristotle, speech and sociality are part of human nature not because human beings are born talking and engaging in political debate: “what Aristotle wanted to say was that a human being, when he has become what he ‘really’ is, will speak rationally and live in a community of free citizens. That he needs the help of others to do so only confirms his social nature” (11).

Rousseau meant something radically different by “nature.” He was the first to attempt to “deduce human nature by way of a radical abstraction from all historical and social conditions. What is ‘natural’ no longer shows itself in its ends (that is, teleologically). On the contrary, nature becomes pure initial availability” (11), and Spaemann doesn’t miss the analogy to the theological concept of “pure nature.”

Reason is historical, and so “a radical abstraction from history does away with the definition of the human being as ‘rational animal’. . . . By nature the human being is now a mute and isolated creature. The beginning of historical existence is now to be understood as ‘a taking leave of nature,’ and thus departure in turn as both a fall and the discerning of a ‘divine calling’” (11-12).

Instead of teleology, Rousseau speaks of “perfectible.” This is not anthropomorphic teleology “nor suitability for a certain state of perfection.” Perfectibility “means nothing more than what later anthropology termed the ‘undetermined character of human instincts.’ For Rousseau, from the beginning the human being is free in a negative sense, not determined by an instinctive submersion in his surroundings.. . . The initial ‘natural man’ . . . stands alone without there being any reason or right to disentangle him from nature” (12). The departure from nature is necessarily an enslavement, since it is a transition from utterly free indeterminacy to an existence socially and historically determined. Again, one cannot be both “natural” and a “person.”

(Thanks to Ken Myers’s wonderful interview with DC Schindler about Spaemann for alerting me to this theme.)

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