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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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Anthropomorphism is an inveterate tendency to pro-
ject human qualities into natural phenomena—
consciously or not. The standard and most important
variant of anthropomorphism is animism which sees
a soul in everything in nature. Before entering into
the role of anthropomorphism in the history of science,
let us consider a few important and usually neglected
logical aspects of the idea.

First, when we draw an analogy from humans to
nature, we assume that we know humans; that is to
say, we make an analogy from known human qualities
to unknown natural qualities. However, it is not what
we know of human beings, but what we assume to
be human that we read into nature. For all we know,
the analogy may go the other way: like sticks and
stones, human beings may not have souls. At the very
least, we may leave the question, “Do human souls
exist?” open, and still speak of animism as based on
an analogy—not so much from known human qualities
to unknown natural qualities, but from assumed human
qualities to nonhuman qualities.

The second characteristic of anthropomorphism in
need of critical attention is one related to the “genetic
fallacy.” When we make an anthropomorphic assump-
tion, the assumption may be true or false; it is not
decisive to show that it is anthropomorphic, just as it
is no criticism of any idea to point to its origins. Some
anthropomorphic assumptions are known to be false,
but not simply because they are anthropomorphic,
since other assumptions, e.g., that animals behave like
humans in certain respects, may indeed be anthro-


pomorphic and yet true. Nevertheless, it is assumed
by and large that when we make an anthropomorphic
assumption, it is not likely to be true. This, however,
may rest on a more general situation, in which any
guess—whether based on analogy or not—is not very
likely to be true simply as a guess. If we want our
guesses to be more likely than wild fancies, we may
suggest a theory concerning the increase of the likeli-
hood of a priori guesses. But then, this theory may be
false as well. And therefore we have, at least for the
time being, to leave open the question “Are any an-
thropomorphic assumptions true?” Nevertheless, on
different grounds we may suggest that practically all
anthropomorphic assumptions are likely to be false.
The reason is very simple. Looking at the history of
culture, we can see that the deeper we go into the
past, the more likely we are to find anthropomor-
phisms; and the nearer we come to our era, the less
anthropomorphic our theories become. We also know
that the deeper we go into the past, the more likely
we are to find erroneous views, or at least, views we
consider erroneous today. For this historical reason, we
may claim that by and large, anthropomorphism is
“out.” The question which this approach raises, of
course, is “Is there some fundamental defect in anthro-

This leads us to the third point. We know certainly
that some anthropomorphisms are based on false as-
sumptions (or at least on views which are unacceptable
to us)—indeed often one false assumption may generate
quite a few analogies. We speak pejoratively of an-
thropomorphic analogies which present no problems
to us because they depend on unacceptable assump-
tions. The most prominent example is anthro-
pocentrism, namely, the idea that the universe is cre-
ated for the benefit of man and, therefore, may be
judged from the viewpoint of its utility to man. For
instance, the essence of wood, Aristotle suggests in his
Physics, is that it is floatable and combustible, for the
obvious reason that the most important functions that
wood played in the ancient world were in its use as
material for ship-building and as fuel. One may won-
der, were Aristotle living today, whether he would
make the essence of wood reside in its capability of
becoming printing paper. A similar criticism of Aris-
totle is actually to be found in the late Renaissance
and the seventeenth century; for instance, in the works
of Robert Boyle, who suggested the following observa-
tion: for many people the essence of ice is that it is
meltable into water, and thus, in essence, is water;
whereas, for doctors, who use ice for lowering temper-
atures, the essence of water may be that it is freezable
into ice.

The criticism made thus far of anthropocentrism, is,
of course, not decisive. It is quite possible to claim
that though it is an error to judge wood, and ice, on
the basis of their use to mankind at present, we should
judge the essence of wood or ice from the viewpoint
of mankind throughout the whole of human history.
Perhaps it is very difficult to find out the total possible
uses of wood or ice to mankind from its beginning to
its end; but anthropocentrists might claim that this is
what science should be about—that science is more
difficult than Aristotle thought, precisely because sci-
entific knowledge grows by attempting to find out the
uses of different natural things for mankind through
all the ages. It looks as if this generalized anthropo-
centrism is merely an intellectual exercise, but one may
interpret instrumentalism in science as just that. In-
strumentalists, however, will object. Somehow, the
evidence that anthropocentrism happened to be paro-
chial in the past was taken as evidence that anthro-
pocentrism in any form must be parochial; and paro-
chialism, of course, must be rejected.

We come, finally, to the fourth and last point
about anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism may be
viewed (rightly or wrongly) as a version of the paro-
chialism that Sir Francis Bacon designated as the Idols
of the Tribe and of the Cave. Parochialism is the pro-
jection of our present knowledge of our limited envi-
ronment into the whole universe. Parochialism is also
the idea the worm in the apple has, that the whole
world is an apple. And, of course, anthropomorphism
may be viewed as a version of parochialism in the sense
that we are very close to ourselves, and having some
notions of our human traits, we generalize and project
them into the universe at large.

So we seem to have arrived at the final condem-
nation of anthropomorphism. Somehow, we all con-
demn parochialism and we have the feeling that,
viewed historically, science on the whole aims to break
down parochial barriers, to give us a better view of
the universe, rather than to reinforce the views into
which we are born or which are due to space-time
accidents of birth, and so forth. And in as much as
anthropomorphism is historically parochial, or has its
roots historically in parochial philosophy, this fact itself
leaves no doubt that anthropomorphism runs against
the spirit of science, and that as such, it condemns

On the other hand, there is, no doubt, quite a differ-
ent aspect or positive value of anthropomorphism in
the history of science, which cannot be condemned as
parochialism, viz., the human uses of science. To take
very simple and obvious examples, scientists have de-
vised many sorts of machines that imitate human oper-
ations. This, at least in part, is a technological matter
of purely practical significance, interest, or value. We


all want to jettison as many of our human burdens as
possible with impunity; we try to dump them on ma-
chines. Thus engineers will apply science to the de-
signing of machines to perform as accurately as possible
as many human functions as possible. One might say
all this technology is devoid of intellectual value. But
this is only partly true. There is much to be gained
scientifically in the theories of servo-mechanisms and
“thinking machines” as they are half-jokingly called:
we do want to embody part of our views of our func-
tions and of our thought-processes in the observable
operations of models, and thus form generalizations in
a more scientific and interesting manner. What we
learn from these mechanical models may then be used
in research—say in biology.

Whether we try to apply our knowledge of machines
to humans, or our knowledge of humans to machines,
there is in each case an intellectual—even philo-
sophic—interest. We can give examples of both cases,
and show thereby that there are certain interactions
between the human sciences and nonhuman sciences,
as well as between sciences and technologies, which
are very stimulating, very suggestive, intellectually
very fruitful—and thereby justifiable. Take examples
of the applications of scientific knowledge of the inani-
mate world to the animate world, to humans in partic-
ular. Not only have scientists claimed in a succession
of hypotheses that the eye is the camera obscura, that
the eye is a (lensed) camera, but also that the eye is
a television camera of some sort. These are various
physiological views of the function of the eyes. We
also attempt the opposite when we apply the theories
that were first created for explaining human phenom-
ena to the explanation of nonhuman phenomena; there
is no reason to discard such hypotheses just because
of their anthropomorphic origin. To give a simple
example, and a very well-known one indeed, Darwin
was influenced by Malthus. Malthus wrote on economic
competition and struggle for food in limiting popula-
tion growth, and Darwin wrote on the origin of species
and of biological ecology; nobody ever dreamt of
censuring Darwin just because he was indebted to

To give another simple example, perhaps more in-
tricate but more important in history, there is nothing
more evidently anthropomorphic than the ideas of
attraction and repulsion, of love and hate. The intro-
duction of the ideas of love and hate into physics by
the Stoics, and in modern times by William Gilbert
in his De magnete (1600) and by Sir Isaac Newton,
is certainly not in itself condemnable. There is even
something very interesting in the further development
of the theory of love and hate, or attraction and repul-
sion, in the history of physics. When attraction and
repulsion appear together in Newton's Principia (1687),
they are put together as a theory of force, and the
idea of force was considered at that time to be highly
animistic. Newton was criticized for his animism and
for his occult qualities. He insists in his Opticks (1704)
that his theories are proper rather than ad hoc expla-
nations, and true (because they provide precise predic-
tions), so that one ought not complain about them even
if they may need further explanation to fit them into
Cartesian philosophy.

Newton's theory of force was abstract—at least as
compared to ideas of force we employ when we speak
of applying force to break through locked doors,
etc.—the force of the muscles, the actions of the mus-
cles, the disposition of the muscles to act. James Clerk
Maxwell, in his Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism
(1873), compared Faraday's tubes of force to muscles.
The tubes of force by which Faraday operated, how-
ever abstract they were, had two qualities. They tend
to shorten and to become wider, in a manner very
similar to that of a tube of a muscle. So one can
condone the criticism, launched against Faraday by the
Newtonians of the day, that his theory was very dis-
tinctly anthropomorphic and less abstract than the
Newtonian theory. Indeed, those in the Newtonian
camp (who were indulgent towards Faraday), such as
John Tyndall and H. L. F. von Helmholtz, stressed the
fact that they had no quarrel with Faraday's use of
those concrete images because of his “want of mathe-
matical culture”: people who were better versed in
mathematics than Faraday, it follows, need not use his
anthropomorphic analogy. This is why historically
Maxwell's work was so important: he translated Fara-
day's images into a mathematical language; even
Tyndall was very impressed.

There is correspondence between Faraday and
Tyndall published in the Philosophical Magazine (1856),
where Tyndall says to Faraday that he cannot imagine
how space, empty space, that is, can have all these
strange properties he ascribes to it, as it pulsates with
tensions and strains. Faraday answers Tyndall by de-
claring him to be unimaginative, and in need of a more
developed intuition.

In the history of science misplaced concreteness may
have all sorts of different manifestations. We may fill
space with a material “ether” which will accommodate
strains and stresses. We may suggest that the world
is simple because we prefer simplicity, or economy of
thought. We may suggest that science should be math-
ematical since reality is mathematical (Galileo: “The
Book of Nature is written in geometrical characters.”).
We may suggest as a speculation that the world is
composed of fragmentary units of “atomic facts” be-
cause we state our information about the world in


fragmentary propositions. The picture theory of lan-
guage is perhaps one of the most significant manifesta-
tions of anthropomorphism insofar as it imputes to
reality the limitations of our mode of representing it.
It was crystallized in the twentieth century in the early
work of Ludwig Wittgenstein (Tractatus-Philosophicus,
1922), and, for a while, was also held by Bertrand

Is anthropomorphism still alive? One aspect of an-
thropomorphism is parochialism, and it is typical of
parochialism that its holders don't consider themselves
parochial. That is to say, we never know how parochial
we are. We only know how parochial our predecessors
were in comparison with us. It is quite possible that
we still hold various versions of anthropomorphism that
may be rejected by our successors if they are to get
rid of our errors and parochial limitations.

In spite of this caution, it is possible to explain a
few facts about the historical development of science
as it moves away from anthropomorphism. Examples
have been given of interaction between ideas in the
social sciences and those in biology and physics. What
is condemnable about anthropomorphism is mainly its
parochialism. Now it is very hard to draw a very clear
line between parochial and nonparochial anthropo-
morphisms, because the main feature of anthro-
pomorphism is its use of analogy from human phenom-
ena to nonhuman phenomena and the idea of analogy
is often very vague. Let us go back to the theory of
space, pulsating with stresses and strains, which is
common to Faraday's view and to Einstein's in his
theory of relativity. It is very easy to suggest that
however abstract the idea of pulsating space is in
comparison with the theory of the pulsating ether in
space, there still is an analogy between Einstein's space
and any piece of elastic material such as plain rubber.
In other words, however abstract our scientific ideas
are, we can draw analogies between them and more
concrete ideas, and so we can claim that our ideas are
always lamentably concrete and parochial, that we are
still rooted in our space-time environment, in local
contingent conditions, whether physiological, biologi-
cal, or social.

Although from time to time we may find analogies
that are stimulating, exciting, and interesting, the sub-
stance of scientific progress cannot be based on anal-
ogies to the given, but rather on novel ideas, on ever
increasing abstractions. This explains the situation that
was alluded to early in this discussion: historically, the
more we go into the distant past, the more we see
anthropomorphism in more stark-naked versions. The
progress of science is a progress from the more imme-
diate, from the more parochial, to the more abstract,
to the more general. And this very increase of gen
erality and abstraction moves us away from anthro-

It is exactly this characteristic that explains why even
our views of human nature, whether psychological,
anthropological, sociological, economical, or any other,
are increasingly less anthropomorphic, increasingly
more abstract. There are very well-known, clamorous
protests about making the science of men so abstract
as to dehumanize it; for example, it is said that econo-
mists have defiled economics by the invention of that
monster, the economic man. There is, perhaps, some
truth in such claims, but there is also a Luddite attitude
lurking in them, to destroy what seems to threaten us.
Once we realize that anthropomorphism often takes
the familiar and the comfortably acceptable to be true,
we see that anthropomorphism may be objectionable
even in the social sciences. Still, it is hard to speak
against anthropomorphism in human sciences; we do
better to speak against parochialism.


For Aristotle's anthropomorphism, see his Physics, ed. and
trans. W. D. Ross (Oxford, 1930), Book II, Ch. 8. The locus
of the critique of anthropomorphism is Bacon's
doctrine of the Idols, in Novum Organum, Book I (Aphorisms
XXXVII-LXVIII), and in Novum Organum, in Works, eds.
R. L. Ellis, J. Spedding, and D. D. Heath, 14 vols. (London,
1857-74). But Novum Organum, Book II is notoriously
anthropomorphic with its “thin” and “thick” essences (cf.
I. B. Cohen, below). See also B. Spinoza, Ethics, IV, and
Treatise on the Correction of the Understanding (London,
1910); and John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Un-
5th ed. (London, 1706). References to animism,
the discussion of the nineteenth-century anthropologists'
attitude towards it, and the indication as to the Baconian
character of this attitude, are in E. E. Evans-Pritchard,
Theories of Primitive Religion (Oxford, 1965); esp. references
in the Index: Art, Animism, Fetishism, and Ghost Theory.
The locus classicus of the critique of anthropomorphism and
parochialism is found in Galileo's Dialogue on the Great
World Systems,
trans. Thomas Salusbury, ed. G. de San-
tillana (Chicago, 1953), esp. the First Day. See, however,
the discussion of the abstract and the concrete in the Second
Day and Santillana's reference (p. 221) to The Assayer, from
which the quotation about “geometrical characters” is
taken. Also compare Galileo on abstractness with J. C.
Maxwell on the same topic (and on Faraday) in his Treatise
on Electricity and Magnetism,
3rd ed., 2 vols. (Oxford, 1904;
New York, 1954), paragraphs 529, 541, and 546ff. See also
Maxwell's comparison of Faraday's fields to muscles in “On
Action at a Distance,” Proceedings of the Royal Institu-
tion of Great Britain,
7, reprinted in Scientific Papers, ed.
W. O. Niven (Cambridge, 1890; reprint New York, 1965), II,
311-23; the analogy on 320-21. Cf. John Tyndall's Faraday
as a Discoverer
(London, 1870), and Helmholtz' Preface to
the German edition of that book, translated in Nature, 2


(1870). Cf. J. Agassi, “Analogies as Generalizations,” in
Philosophy of Science, 31, 4 (1964). For the Faraday-Tyndall
correspondence, see Tyndall, “On the Existence of a Mag-
netic Medium in Space,” Philosophical Magazine, 9 (1855),
205-09; and M. Faraday, “Magnetic Remarks,” ibid.,
253-55. For Newton's discussion of the attack on his theory
as postulating occult qualities, see I. B. Cohen, Franklin
and Newton
... (Philadelphia, 1956), Ch. IV, and last sec-
tions of Ch. VI. Finally, for the role of language as a veil
between man and nature, thus making some measure of
parochialism inevitable, see Bertrand Russell's essay, “Mys-
ticism and Logic,” in his Mysticism and Logic (London,
1910); and Karl R. Popper, “Why Are the Calculi of Logic
and Arithmetic Applicable to Reality?” especially the last
section, and his “Language and the Body-Mind Problem,”
both in his Conjectures and Refutations (London and New
York, 1963). See in this connection Bacon's Novum Organum
(Aphorisms LIX-LX) on the Idols of the Market Place; and
Max Black, Models and Metaphors (Ithaca, 1962), the essays
on “Benjamin Lee Whorf” and on “Models.”


[See also Abstraction; Analogy; Baconianism;Relativity;