Theories and Nonhuman Sentiments

by Christine Skolnik 

Working right now on my Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts conference paper, “FEAR and Loathing in Affective Neuroscience,”  I’m beginning to appreciate the need to decenter human affect as a touchstone of ethical thought in general, and particularly within the context of environmental ethics.  Laruelle translator and Environmental Critique contributor, Anthony Paul Smith has articulated the shortcomings of conventional environmental ethics on various occasions and suggested an interdisciplinary approach interested in environmental science, for example.[i]  Though my present thinking doesn’t quite follow Smith’s lead, it shares something in common as I endeavor to derive ethics from scientific research rather than an established trajectory of anthropocentric ethics.

For the SLSA paper I went back to my reading in affective neuroscience and particularly Jaak Panksepp’s encyclopedic research summary, Affective Neurosience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions.  Though Panksepp’s work is also an object of critique in the SLSA paper, I am positively provoked by his earnest attempt to define emotions apart from human experience and identity.  At the same time that his work constructs FEAR and RAGE, for example, as affective categories that in various senses precede human identity and experience, it creates a conduit between affective neuroscience and philosophical/critical affect theory (Brian Massumi’s work, for example [ii]).   When we can begin to think and speak about affect without attaching it to human identity or species identity, I will argue, we are on the way to liberating ourselves from anthropocentric value systems based on reified human emotional experience.


The significance for environmental studies is in the decentering of human emotion and cognition as sufficient warrants for environmental ethics.  Object-oriented philosophy questions the priority of epistemology to ontology, and in particular the primacy of human epistemology.  To the extent that human epistemology is influenced by affect, however, human affect must also be decentered.  (Contemporary neuroscience and neuropsychology accept that cognition and affect are physiological and psychologically inseparable [iii]).  Contemporary psychologists and philosophers also generally agree that human emotions underwrite and/or precede human value systems.[iv]  Thus any project interested in decentering human epistemology and value systems must also strive to decenter human emotions.


Again referencing the neuroscientific and neuropscyhcological research from which this thinking is beginning to evolve, I would like to suggest that various types of psychotherapy (arguably all psychotherapy) involve processes by which human beings achieve a mindful (critical) distance from their own emotional experience.  Whether addressing relationships, habits of thought, or even “environmental factors,” I suggest, psychotherapy succeeds by enabling human beings to distance themselves from their immediate emotional responses, and even themselves—their given identities.


If this is the case for individual therapy perhaps the process should also be applied systematically to ethical thought.  Should we base our values and value systems on our immediate or insufficiently mediated emotional responses, most likely inherited from significant others, or responsive to obsolete affective stresses and strains?  Should our ethical decisions be based on our more or less immediate sympathies or lack thereof?[v]


Didn’t such “technologies” get us into this mess?




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Filed under Affect and Ecology, Humanities and Ecology

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