The term anthropocentrism indicates a point of view that accords to the human being (anthropos in Greek) the central place, the one of the highest importance, around which everything else gravitates. This tendency, implying an overevaluation of the human race compared to other forms of life, is particularly manifest in two fields: cosmology and philosophy.
In the Old Testament, common sacred text for Judaism and Christianism, in the book of the Genesis, where is related the creation of the world by divine activity, the human being is the last one to see the light of life and the only one to come out of the Creator’s hands as His own “image.” Moreover, God gives Man the authority to “rule over” every other creature living in water, in the air or on the ground (Genesis 1:26-29). This fundamental belief of the natural superiority and domination accorded to the human beings from the very beginning by the divine Creator himself has lead to an anthropocentric vision of the world for the cultures following the above-mentioned religions.
It is noteworthy that Man doesn’t occupy such a privileged position in any other religious cosmogonical tradition. The modern scientific thesis of Charles Darwin (1809-1882), defending the evolution of all natural species, considers the human being as one animal among the others, which explains the harsh metaphysical opposition, which still goes on, between the evolutionists and the Christian theologists who interpret their sacred texts literally (although representatives of many official churches have declared since the end of the 19th century that they don’t consider Darwin’s theory as contradicting their own doctrines).
We would like to underline also that despite the diversity concerning the origins and the “natural place” of man in the world, both theories accept the actual final issue of the human condition: There are particularities in the human species (especially linked to handcraft abilities and to intellectual faculties) that gave us the possibility of an extraordinary expansion, often by chasing or by subjugating many other natural species.
In fact, the “privilege of domination” (be it accorded by a divine will or by a mechanical natural development) over the other living creatures of the Earth presented a negative side for a great part of human societies: the feeling of difference and alienation from the whole. Man, especially in the Western civilizations, became progressively a “stranger” for the natural environment. The opposition between the notions of “nature” and “culture” emerged. A certain nostalgia must have remained, expressed symbolically in many myths, traditions, and beliefs relating a lost original human condition of happy and unconscious unity with all parts of nature, inspiring a wish of “eternal return.”
Concretely, the human attitude toward the other living species and the natural environment in general has largely followed during the last centuries a strict and ignorant anthropocentrism, which has led to inconsiderate destruction of the natural environment, in favor of the human profit. It is only during the last decades that human beings have recognized the great ecological problems they have created, a situation for which we may still suffer the consequences in the long term. Under the light of this new understanding, we may say that the necessity of certain changes in the anthropocentric way of behaving toward the other components of the planet has started to become an inescapable evidence.
It is in fact difficult to define among the philosophical theories those that may be qualified as properly anthropocentric, as the limits between “anthropocentrism” and “humanism” become vague, according to the way one defines each notion. After making here an obligatory personal choice, let us keep the same general definition, already mentioned, for “anthropocentrism” and distinguish it from “humanism” by the following characteristic: We accept that “humanism” considers the value of human being as independent (a value “by itself”) and is guided by the respect of this value; this doesn’t necessarily imply the exclusive accordance of the highest importance to the human being compared with other beings or values, as is the case of the “anthropocentric” theories.
The Sophists were the first thinkers to put Man in the center of their world vision, during the 5th century BC. The most representative fragment of their anthropocentrism is the one attributed to Protagoras of Abdera (490-420 BC): “Man is the measure of all things.” This principle legitimated pure subjectivity and relativity for all metaphysical, ethical, and political values.
Socrates (470-399 BC) and Plato (428-348 BC) firmly rejected the sophistic position, which covered a certain political opportunism, without any effort to further explore the human being himself and his relation to the world. This task was undertaken by Socrates himself, who is thus considered the founder of “philosophical anthropology.”
In the history of occidental philosophy, there have been afterward various theories that have advanced subjectivism as the “anthropocentric” principle of human knowledge. We can’t cite them here all in detail, but let us give only as representative examples the subjective idealism of Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) and the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980).
- Diels, H., & Kranz, W. (1996). Protagoras. Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (Vol. II, Sec. 80.
- 253-271). Zurich: Weidmann.
- Fichte, I. H. (Ed.). (1971). Fichtes werke (11 vols.). (Reprint of the 19th-century edition). Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
- Sartre, J.-P. (1996). Lexistentialisme est un humanism [Existentialism is a humanism]. Paris: Gallimard. (Original work published 1946)