Issue #60 March 2023

Do we need an enlightened Anthropocentrism? Erich Fromm and the Contradiction of Human Existence

Sybil Andrews, "Anno Domini", (1970)

Crises such as the Corona pandemic and climate change radically call into question the relationship between human beings and nature. The very fact that a virus – as a form of existence that does not even possess a metabolic apparatus and therefore cannot even be called a living being – has managed to expose the complexity of human existence in such a multi-faceted crisis shows that we cannot simply regard the phenomenon we call “nature” as something separate from us. For all the complex scientific, political, and cultural achievements of which we as humans are (and have been) capable, it is still possible that a small microbial entity is capable of radically challenging the fundamental coordinates of our existence. Finally, the question remains: what conclusions can be drawn from the fact that our existence seems to be more fragile than initially thought? In the face of ecological catastrophes such as climate change, does it make sense to view nature as something separate from humans? Or should we not rather conclude that we are a direct component of nature?

The dichotomous categorization between human beings and nature1placeholder – i.e. that human beings understand nature as their “environment” and thus as a sphere separate from them – has a long tradition in predominant Western thinking. This tradition of thought manifests itself in the principle that we as humans are fundamentally superior to nature. The fact that human beings are increasingly able – through interventions in nature – to change the basic coordinates of their existence prompted the scientists Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer2placeholder to introduce a new term into the discourse: the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is to be understood as a new geochronological epoch in which humans have become one of the most important factors influencing the natural conditions of our planet and thus also bear responsibility for the future development of our planet. Thus, we can understand the conceptualization of the Anthropocene as a concrete manifestation of the basic idea that nature and humankind are to be considered as separate categories.

To curb problems such as climate change, there is an increasing call to radically question this attitude, which sees humans as the central agent of social change. Osbert Lancaster aptly points out the following in this context:

“It’s […]  no coincidence that the dominant worldview sees nature as separate from us, as something else – as resources, assets or capital to be managed and controlled for the benefit of humans. This is in complete contrast to the way most indigenous cultures see themselves as part of a community of beings that may even extend beyond plants and animals to include mountains and rivers. Many indigenous cultures have found ways to live in harmony with the rest of nature, including adapting to environmental and climatic change over many centuries, perhaps millennia. That sounds like real success that we need to emulate.”3placeholder

Lancaster points out that we need to radically rethink the relationship between ourselves and our environment if we want to address problems like climate change. Rather than modifying nature to our advantage – in the form of capital accumulation and accompanying exploitation of natural resources, for example – we should return to seeing ourselves, like many indigenous cultures, as a direct part of nature. Through this harmonious coexistence, it is possible to adapt more easily to natural and climatic changes.


The Ambivalence of Social Progress

In philosophy, too, a romanticization of the natural, and a consequent rejection of civilizational progress can be found in the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.4placeholder The ambivalences of civilizational progress led Rousseau to romanticize the natural – and thus what is untouched by civilizational progress. In this context, Rousseau assumes a (hypothetically constructed) state of nature in which he imagines the existence of humankind. Rousseau assumes that in the state of nature people live a life in free and peaceful coexistence with each other. According to Rousseau, the negative aspects of social progress are primarily located in the institution of private property. Contrary to popular belief, however, Rousseau does not attribute the negative aspects of social progress exclusively to the institution of private property. Rather, concerning the negative consequences of civilizational progress, Rousseau assumes that they are due to a combination of material and mental factors. It is the combination of private property and the human capacity for self-love (amour propre) which ensures that human existence in the state of civilization is characterized by an increasing striving for competition that is detrimental to interpersonal harmony. In the state of nature, people live in peaceful coexistence and possess only the capacity for a certain form of self-love (amour de soi), by which Rousseau understands a completely unproblematic form of egoism that merely describes the human instinct for self-preservation. The increasing process of civilization ensures that the unproblematic quality of amour de soi is transformed into amour propre. According to Rousseau, the latter denotes a form of egoism that is characterized in particular by the fact that man is increasingly guided in his actions by striving for recognition. Amour propre in connection with private property is thus the origin of increasing social injustices.

In this sense, Rousseau already lays the most important intellectual foundations for the consideration that every form of social progress – caused by humankind – can also always represent a step backward at the same time. For this reason, Rousseau draws the consistent conclusion that the state of nature – in the form of a unity of man and nature – is clearly preferable to the state of society and thus clearly rejects dichotomous categorizations which intend to differentiate between humankind and nature.

Is it therefore right, especially given threats such as climate change and the Corona pandemic, to return to Rousseau and to reassert the unity of man and nature – contrary to the anthropocentric idea?


Human Nature and its immanent Division

Perhaps we should also deny this idea and try to take a position that neither starts from a dichotomous categorization scheme between human beings and nature (in which human beings can subjugate and shape nature according to their favorite purposes, in line with the anthropocentric reading) nor from a unity in which human beings are simply another component of a large holistic natural cycle, but also do not have the power to influence the natural conditions of their existence in any way. In other words: Perhaps we should search for an enlightened form of anthropocentrism. But what should this look like?

Erich Fromm provides a helpful hint in The Art of Loving when he points out that human existence itself is characterized by a clear form of division, which manifests itself in the contradiction that human beings have transcended the natural determinants of their very existence:

“The essence of man’s existence is […] that he has risen above the animal kingdom and its instinctive adaptation, that he has transcended nature, even if he never completely leaves it. He is a part of it and yet cannot return to it once he has torn himself away from it” (Fromm 2019: 17).

Fromm assumes that while humans are an immediate part of nature, they are nevertheless – and therein lies the paradox – separated from it, having risen – employing their characteristic cognitive-mental equipment – above the instinct-driven adaptation of the animal kingdom. This throwing into the world, which Fromm compares to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise and which unites all human beings on a universal level, initially ensures that humans are gripped by a sense of isolation and powerlessness. Due to the complex mental structures peculiar to them, humans may on the one hand be able to rise above the determinants of nature, but on the other hand, they remain nonetheless an immediate component of it, which they become aware of, unlike animals, due to their complex cognitive-mental equipment. For Fromm, the consciousness of separateness – that is, the realization that human life is inevitably linked to a state of isolation – is one of the defining characteristics of human existence. Even if Fromm assumes that humans try to develop mechanisms to overcome this state of being separated from nature, the question remains at this point whether this contradiction of human existence cannot also be used productively concerning the question to be discussed here. Perhaps it is necessary to come to the insight that while we are (and have always been) an immediate part of nature, it is at the same time an integral part of human nature to rise above the determinants of the natural. In other words: We may also carry within us the potentiality for social regression (environmental destruction, etc.), but we are nevertheless by no means helplessly subjected to this circumstance, since we are equally capable of rethinking our relationship to the natural environment and subjecting the present conditions to improve.

Against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, Naomi Klein makes an interesting observation with reference to the climate crisis:

“The harrowing state we find ourselves in holds multiple lessons: How dangerous it is to allow the uncontrolled proliferation of nuclear weapons. With what grotesque double standards Western media judge which countries may be militarily occupied and which human lives are disposable. Which migration movements are treated as a crisis of the migrants and which as a crisis of the countries in which they seek refuge. We see how ordinary people are willing to fight for their country – and how the struggle for self-determination and territorial integrity is considered heroic by some and terrorism by others. These are all lessons that the historical moment we are currently living is teaching us. And we must also learn this: human beings are still capable of changing the world we have created when it comes to life and death – and they can do so quickly and fundamentally. Just as […] at the beginning of the pandemic, we are now again at a terrifying but highly malleable moment in history.”5placeholder

In addition to Klein’s extremely important observation that the war in Ukraine has made it clear that the West is by no means immune from the propensity for double standards (we may rightly condemn the treatment of critical journalists in autocratic regimes, but what about Julian Assange, who faces 175 years in prison in the US for journalistic disclosure of war crimes?), the past year in particular also holds another important lesson for us: It is true that the creative power of human beings can be guided by both the positive and the negative, and thus can always be accompanied by the danger of generating violence and destruction. However, human beings are also capable of changing the world for the better – crises such as the Corona pandemic or climate change, which illustrate that human beings and nature are not separate entities, but nevertheless show that human beings are capable of influencing the natural world around them, provide an apt example.

Sybil Andrews, "Storm", (1935)

A mature Anthropocene

The question that inevitably arises at this point, however, is what conclusions we should draw from Fromm’s postulated existential dichotomy by which human existence is inevitably shaped. To put it differently: What practical consequences can be drawn from Fromm’s assumption that human beings are part of nature but at the same time transcend the basic coordinates of natural existence?

In this context, David Grinspoon, a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute, draws attention to the interesting fact that in order to make the point that the Anthropocene itself is not to be regarded as something reprehensible, it is necessary to distinguish between a mature and a (if one wishes to put it this way) pre-mature Anthropocene – Grinspoon uses the term proto-Anthropocene.

What specifically distinguishes the mature from the pre-mature Anthropocene, Grinspoon argues, is the fact that we as humans are beginning to realize that we have – proverbially – lost our innocence. Here, Grinspoon is simply drawing attention to the fact that the pre-mature Anthropocene – or proto-Anthropocene – was characterized by the fact that human influence on ecosystems and the natural coordinates of our own existence was, at best, unconscious. The fact that humans are now losing their innocence in the mature Anthropocene is specifically characterized by humans developing an awareness of their situatedness within what is commonly referred to as the environment. To this end, Grinspoon states:

“To me, what makes the Anthropocene unprecedented and fully worthy of the name is our growing knowledge of what we are doing to this world. Self-conscious global change is a completely new phenomenon. It puts us humans into a category all our own and is, I believe, the best criterion for the real start of the era. The Anthropocene begins when we start to realise that it has begun. This definition also provides a new angle on the long-vexing question of what differentiates our species from other life. Perhaps more than anything else, it is self-aware world-changing that marks us as something new on the planet. What are we? We are the species that can change the world and come to see what we’re doing.”6placeholder

It is thus precisely the capacity for this that enables individuals to develop an awareness of the fact that there is, if not a causal, at least a strongly correlative relationship between the changes regarding the natural conditions of their existence and their actions as individual actors – or as actors in collectives.

In the remainder of his argument, Grinspoon continues:

“What we are observing are the effects of not only a new geologic force, but a new type of geologic force. There has never before been a geological force aware of its own actions. Humanity has at least a dim, and growing, cognisance of the effects of its presence on this planet. The possibility that we might integrate that awareness into how we interface with the Earth system is one that should give us hope. No force of nature has ever decided to change course before. If we do not like some aspects of how this epoch is playing out, its outcome is not set in stone. In short, our growing knowledge of the Anthropocene is exactly what makes it a truly new type of geological age. I propose that we call this time we’ve been living through so far, the age during which we’ve been accidentally tinkering with planetary evolution, the ‘proto-Anthropocene’. We can regard this phase as a first step in realising our lasting role on Earth. It might be a necessary prelude to the mature Anthropocene, when we fully incorporate our uniquely human powers of imagination, abstraction and foresight into our role as an integral part of the planetary system. The ‘mature’ part of the name differentiates conscious, purposeful global change from the inadvertent, random changes that have largely brought us to this point.”7placeholder

If one wants to summarize Grinspoon’s argumentation, it is above all the fact that we as  human beings are for the first time gaining an awareness of ourselves and our concomitant situatedness in the world, which ensures that the Anthropocene itself is something that can be meaningfully harnessed.

At this point it is worth going back to Fromm’s train of thought: According to Fromm, the existential dichotomy of human existence is concretely characterized – as already explained – by the fact that, although humans, like animals, are to be regarded as a part of nature, they transcend this very nature at the same time, in that they develop a consciousness of themselves and, on the basis of this self-consciousness, at least have the possibility of acting in a rational manner. Moreover, it is only the human capacity for imagination which ensures that the individual comes to the realization that its own existence is characterized by that radical dichotomy. According to Fromm, the contradiction that arises from the existential dichotomy of human existence is impossible to resolve. Rather, in the course of their existence, human beings must attempt to find a response to the separation that runs between them and nature.


Existential and Historical Dichotomies

Fromm – to place the considerations in the context of the argumentation carried out here – introduces a distinction between existential and historical dichotomies. While the contradictions that arise from the existential dichotomy of human existence cannot be resolved by human beings themselves – since the fact that human beings are an anomaly of natural conditionings constitutes their very anthropological essence – the historical dichotomies are quite changeable, since they were created by human beings themselves. According to Fromm, historical dichotomies represent those contradictions that manifest themselves in the living and social conditions.8placeholder Due to the genuinely human abilities, which arise from the existential dichotomy of human existence, historical dichotomies can in turn arise, which run counter to the genuine needs of human existence. Probably one of the most extreme examples of historical dichotomies in this context is the invention of the atomic bomb and the accompanying potentiality of the atomic bomb to extinguish any form of human life. The sheer destructiveness is set against the potentialities of human existence. The paradox of the invention of the atomic bomb consists precisely in the fact that it has arisen from those capabilities which are formative for human existence, but at the same time threatens to destroy everything which characterizes human existence – and thus also human existence itself.

In a similar way, to return to Grinspoon’s argumentation, it is the case with the changing climate produced by the pre-mature Anthropocene. The fact that human beings – precisely because of their genuinely human capacities – are able to transcend the natural coordinates of their natural existence and thus exert a decisive influence on the environment can paradoxically ensure that human beings simultaneously erase their own existence. This, in turn, can be explained by their existential dichotomy: Even if human beings are capable of transcending nature, they nevertheless remain part of it and depend on nature and the environment to transcend them at all.

If we take a closer look at Grinspoon’s train of thought, it becomes clear that the mature Anthropocene is only possible if human beings become aware of the existential dichotomy of their existence. Only when human beings realize that they are nothing more than an anomaly of natural conditions and, accordingly, incapable of returning to the natural cycle, can they come to the realization that it is up to them whether they are ready for a mature Anthropocene. To put it another way: For an age that is characterized by human beings securing the natural conditions of their existence rather than destroying them. Because only in this way can human beings themselves survive. Historical dichotomies are something man-made and can only be dissolved if the individual fully recognizes the existential dichotomy of his/her own existence. This recognition also includes the fact that we are capable of developing not only an awareness of ourselves but also an awareness of the past and the future – another extremely important conclusion that arises from the existential dichotomy postulated by Fromm. This is precisely why, according to Grinspoon, the sheer fact of the (mature) Anthropocene – if one is willing, as I am, to analyse Grinspoon’s remarks from Fromm’s perspective – can be understood as a chance to save the fundamental coordinates of our existence, and thus, according to the paradox that arises from the dichotomy of human existence, our own existence as a species. We are aware of our past, which was largely shaped by the establishment of an economic system characterized by the genuine exploitation of natural resources. However, this past has created the basis for us to become aware of the need to build an economic system in the future that recognizes the existential dichotomy of human beings. In other words, the human ability to transcend the natural conditionalities can only proceed if these natural conditionalities themselves are saved. In a way, Freud also recognized this point: The Ego is nothing more than a composition of the interplay between the Super-Ego and the Id. In other words, we cannot eliminate our Id – our existence, which is characterized by heteronomy – from the equation. Rather, the Id is, as it were, constitutive for the feasibility of what we want to achieve. If the Id is eliminated, all forms of utopian visions are also eliminated.9placeholder


Nuclear Weapons and the Necessity of abandoning Regressions

That the human capacity for action implies both emancipatory and regressive potentials is what Fromm once aptly made clear with regard to the nuclear threat.

In this regard Fromm points out the extent to which the invention of nuclear weapons is itself one of the greatest alienations of human civilization:

“A most dramatic and gruesome symbol of what alienation is are nuclear weapons. They are the work of man. They are the expression of his greatest intellectual achievements, and yet nuclear weapons dominate us. It has now become very questionable whether we still control them. We, the living people who want to live, are becoming powerless, omnipotent people. We believe to rule and yet we are ruled – not by a tyrant, but by things, by circumstances. […] We talk about progress and the future, although in reality no one knows where it is going, and no one says where it is going, and no one has a goal” (Fromm 1961: 12).

Fromm here draws attention to a paradox that can be considered constitutive of human existence by pointing out that it is precisely the highest intellectual abilities of human beings that can at the same time be responsible for inventions that threaten the existence of all humanity.

While Marx still assumed that the alienation of human beings expresses itself concretely in that they experience the alienation of their own existence in the labour process, in that they no longer recognize themselves in their labour product – or more concretely: in that they experience their labour product as something alien to them – for Fromm the atomic bomb represents the ultimate form of alienation of human existence. This form of alienation is expressed concretely by the fact that the atomic bomb enables human beings to be omnipotent (since it is proverbially capable of destroying the entire planet).

However, this very omnipotence is accompanied by an inevitable form of powerlessness, since states can exercise a tremendous form of power through the existence of nuclear weapons simply by pointing out that they have them (as we now become painfully aware of). On the other hand, however, nuclear weapons create a form of powerlessness, since they confront us as something alien and overpowering, against which no human being – regardless of intellectual and physical strength – can protect him-/herself.

Thus, atomic bombs are not only probably the clearest form of alienation of human existence, but also the symbolization of what could be considered the union of the highest and the lowest: Arising from the highest intellectual capacities of human beings, the atomic bomb nevertheless manages to mobilize the lowest instincts, thus increasing the danger that everything mankind has ever created, together with its intellectual and cultural heritage, will be destroyed.

In this sense, the atomic bomb – to deviate slightly from Fromm’s reading at this point – is also neither the ultimate form of alienation of human existence. Rather, the development of the atomic bomb is paradigmatic for the very existence of human beings, since it expresses the fact that human beings have always been outside the natural course of events. The alienation experience, which arises from the potential of the nuclear extinction of the entire mankind, can be explained finally by the fact that this very circumstance was created by human beings themselves – consequently it lies also in the hands of mankind to undo this form of alienation (or rather: this historical dichotomy). However, a true practice of enlightened Anthropocentrism should ultimately consist in completely dissolving such ambivalences, thus allowing for progression without regression. In other words: To enable a world in which nuclear weapons do not play a role.

Florian Maiwald is a PhD student at the University of Bonn. His thesis examines John Stuart Mill in order to explore the connection between liberalism and socialism. In 2021, his book Das Konzept des individuellen Selbst bei John Stuart Mill und Erich Fromm (engl.: The Concept of the Individual Self in the works of John Stuart Mill and Erich Fromm) has been published in German.  In addition to his doctoral thesis and his work at the university, he regularly deals with philosophical and social issues in various articles (published in Epoché Magazine and ABC Australia, among others). Florian Maiwald is an honorary editorial member of the Austrian political online magazine Unsere Zeitung – Die Demokratische and runs the podcast Keine Experimente – Politik für Alle und Keinen with Sebastian Lenze. You can reach him at

Works Cited

Alberro, H., Humanity and nature are not separate – we must see them as one to fix the Climate Crisis, The Conversation, 2019. Link:

Betram, C., Jean Jacques Rousseau, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP), 2017. Link :

Fromm, E., Humanism as a chance of survival, 1961 (Lecture/German).

Fromm, E., The Art of Loving, dtv-Verlagsgesellschaft, 2019 (German edition).

Funk, R., Erich Fromm: The Courage to Be Human, Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt , 1978.

Grinspoon, D., Welcome to Terra SapiensHumans have been altering Earth for millennia, but only now are we wise to what we’re doing. How will we use that wisdom?,, 2016. Link:

Klein, N., Toxic nostalgia – Putin, Trump and the burning planet, Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik, 2022 (German version). Link:

Lancaster, O., We are part of nature, so let’s act like it, openDemocracy, 2020. Link:

Moore, B., Sustaining Earth’s life support systems – the challenge for the next decade and beyond, Global Change News Letter, 2000. Link



Cf. Alberro, H., Humanity and nature are not separate – we must see them as one to fix the Climate Crisis, The Conversation, 2019. Link:


Cf. Moore, B., Sustaining Earth’s life support systems – the challenge for the next decade and beyond, Global Change News Letter, 2000. Link


Lancaster, O., We are part of nature, so let’s act like it, openDemocracy, 2020. Link:


Cf. Betram, C., Jean Jacques Rousseau, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP), 2017. Link :


Klein, N., Toxic nostalgia – Putin, Trump and the burning planet, Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik, 2022 (German version). Link:


Grinspoon, D., Welcome to Terra Sapiens – Humans have been altering Earth for millennia, but only now are we wise to what we’re doing. How will we use that wisdom?,, 2016. Link:


Grinspoon, D., Welcome to Terra Sapiens – Humans have been altering Earth for millennia, but only now are we wise to what we’re doing. How will we use that wisdom?,, 2016. Link:


Funk, R., Erich Fromm: The Courage to Be Human, Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt , 1978.


Of course, this is not precisely Freud’s point. But with a little creativity – and especially related to the considerations discussed here – this point does show plausibility.


March 2023


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