As anyone with rudimentary knowledge of the European intellectual tradition knows, the philosophy of Rene Descartes launched Western humanity on a path towards dualism and anthropocentrism. Through his work the locus of meaning, truth, and value shifted away from a transcendent source – previously Nature or God – and towards self-conscious subjects. This trend towards subjectivity reaches its apotheosis in Nietzsche, who famously declared the death of God and waxed enthusiastic about future human beings who would project value upon an otherwise harsh and meaningless universe. This form of anthropocentrism, also known as “subjectivist metaphysics,” is largely taken for granted these days, and this is especially true among educated people who associate religion and transcendence with the dangerous superstitions of benighted masses.
It is somewhat curious to note, however, that this ascendancy in the estimation of humans as heroic value creators has coincided with a radically diminished conception of our position within the cosmos. Considered objectively, and that means scientifically, we now know, for instance, that we live on a planet that is not the center of the universe. We also know that we are not made in the image of God but have slowly evolved from lower life forms. And finally, through the psychological work of Freud et al. we know that we aren’t even the conscious, rational agents we fancy ourselves to be but are instead driven by shadowy irrational forces lurking in the depths of our subconscious minds. This is a bleak and depressing outlook for anyone who’s courageous enough to think it through to its end, as Nietzsche, Dostoevsky and a few others have done.
This contrast between the subjective and the objective spheres, the anthropocentric and the ecocentric, is lifted up in dialectical fashion by Heidegger into a renewed configuration which salvages the partial truth of both sides. He raises these up conflicting standpoints up into a higher and more compelling unity. While the anthropocentric perspective places the value of human existence far too high on the one hand, exalting human beings to the place previously occupied of God, the ecocentric position places our significance too low on the other, by reducing all living beings to one basic level, whether they be plant or animal or human being.
The truth is that among all beings, regardless of how trivial we appear within the wider scope of the natural world understood scientifically and/or ecocentrically, we are the only ones who can ask what it means for anything, including ourselves, to be. This being the case there’s a certain discomforting strangeness but also a potential greatness at the heart of our existence. In a certain sense we’re actually much more profound than previous anthropocentric perspectives have imagined us to be. At the same time, however, this newfound profundity is grounded in a mysterious source which transcends the pettiness of our fragile egos. To link our identity with this groundless ground, Being, is the sine qua non of authentic human existence.
This new conception of ourselves – as the beings who have an understanding of Being – can be cashed out in practical ways. For example, it presents a serious challenge to the presuppositions of the extreme positions outlined above. We are no longer under the illusion that we’re the tyrannical masters of beings, aggressively calculating and exploiting them for instrumental ends, but are instead the open and receptive “clearings” in which beings come to presence. Heidegger may not have supported this notion, but in a way we can be understood as “the universe opening its eyes to itself.”
This decentered self-interpretation should lead us to take that givenness of Being in a spirit of wonder and gratitude; and rather than assume that this privileged position gives us the right to do whatever we want to other, “lesser” beings, we are now charged with guarding and preserving them. Instead of taking an aggressive, domineering posture towards things (and other people!), we should be given over to meditative, poetic, even rapturous restraint. We are tasked, moreover, with revealing things in ways that often lie dormant or hidden, much as a sculptor brings out latent forms in stone. As Dasein we disclose the world, but no longer in constricted, rapacious ways that serve our egotistical desires, but as active participants in the historical unfolding of Being.
One final point to note here is how this “Daseincentrism” has resonances with the Christian concept of kenosis – which can be understood as the act of emptying oneself in order to become receptive to God’s will. Thus considered, our ultimate significance consists in humbling ourselves and cultivating the relationship to the divine spark dwelling within. This radically transformed self-interpretation in turn plays out in the actual world in myriad ways, including the thoughtful protection of the natural world as being much more than a collection of resources to be pillaged and plundered by a hubristic and power-hungry humanity, but as the divine unfolding of Being as it shines forth in all that is. We should consider ourselves fortunate to take a minor part in this wondrous process.