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Human Beings and (Other) Animals

Can philosophy make room for animals? Perhaps that is the only question I want to ask in this paper. My worry is that the language of philosophy has kept us in a cage as far as animals are concerned. Philosophy thinks it knows how to keep animals out, and it thinks that if we let them in and they might run amok, ruin the demonstration. Take them to the tribunal of reason and they’ll make a monstrous show, an unruly display. Bloody nuisance. Squeeze them in next to the stones and plants. There. Gone. That’s better. Yet not every effort to affirm the idea of a fundamental or radical difference between “us and them” seems to overlook all the overwhelming similarities. Here is Cora Diamond:

This is one of the best and most profound texts I know that aims to affirm the idea of a special difference, a different difference, between human beings and other animals. However, I also want to situate it within and against the background of a history of attempts to articulate the human condition in its fundamental difference to animal life that bother me; a history which made Diamond’s affirmation possible but from which it must also be, as far as possible, disentangled. For while I do not think that the idea of this different difference is simply rooted in “theoretical” resources, it seems to me undeniable that most contemporary Western views which endorse it tend still to be versions of the two great but in my view deeply problematic classical figurations of “Man”: the anthropology of the ancient Greek world – the conception of the human as the zōon logon echon (animal rationale); and the anthropology of Christianity – the conception of the human as made in God’s image.

      While the idea of the different difference has been worked on and worked over – made something of –  by these traditions, it seems to me equally undeniable that this response is now losing some of its common appeal. Many today in the West are beginning to think that the idea that the ‘different difference’ is something we humans have discovered to be the case (‘an object of observation’ as Diamond puts it) should not be sustained. I am myself among them.

      However, there is a recoil position taken by some of those who I am among here which is, I think, just as unsatisfactory. The recoil position regards the idea that we have discovered and can observe this abyssal difference as a factual error on our part, the residue of less enlightened times when we had not got our understanding of nature and ourselves as natural creatures right. Today, some think, we have the power, the theoretical power, to get things right, and regard it as well established that, in fact, we are just another species of living thing, a living thing that ultimately differs from other living things only by degree.

      For some time now I have been trying to negotiate a path between the idealizations of classical humanism and the biologistic continuism of scientific naturalism. On the one hand, I think the classical humanist camp is wrong insofar as it supposes that the ‘different difference’ of which it speaks is something we have discovered to be the case (whether through empirical investigations or through spiritual revelations). On the other hand, however, I think the modern naturalist camp is wrong to suppose that the traditional Western understanding of this ‘different difference’ is simply the result of a defectivemeans of establishing what is the case, something that has been overcome by today’s more powerful scientific understanding of nature and ourselves as natural creatures. What I find, then, at the problematic heart of both classical humanist and scientific naturalistic accounts is the same fundamental cognitivism with regard to the significance of the human/animal difference. Both claim that a proper grasp of its significance is ultimately, decisively, a matter of our having adjusted our beliefs to how things really (even essentially) are.

      Like David Wiggins, I think then that we need to resist the idea that we should settle with the ‘naïve cogntivism’ that many of us ‘untheoretically’ assume (Wiggins, 1998: p. 125). Not that a theoretically enlightened thinker – a thinker who is attracted to the idea that the difference between humans and animals is ‘more an object of contemplation than observation’ – is going to give up on the idea that ‘the differences between higher and lower forms of life’ are simply fictitious. On the contrary, they will accept that ‘they are even objective’. However, they ‘will not back down from [the] denial that these differences are decisive’:

The possibility that human life has special significance or (as the basic Western thematisation of this special significance has it) that every human life has an incomparable uniqueness, never was something that ‘we as a species ever (as we say) found or discovered’. A fortiori it is not an error to be corrected by a better theory of nature either. Indeed, what is at issue here is the result of processes of a kind that Darwin himself regarded as contrasting markedly with the kinds of forces which drive evolution in nature: namely, ‘unconstrained inventive processes’ (Wiggins, 1998: p. 124). Of course, unlike the splendidly deliberate work of men that fascinated Darwin and which gave rise to numerous new pigeon varieties, the processes which have given rise to the construction upon which depends the significance we attach to the human difference were ‘gradual, unconscious and communal’ (Wiggins, 1998, p. 124).

      While space precludes proper discussion of the point I think that what is gradually constructed here is precisely a construct of (it is) our history. However, while this construction still has for us an enormous weight of stability, it is, I think, an only relative stability. It is, that is to say, vulnerable to deconstruction. Now this acknowledgement is totally misunderstood if it is regarded as the prelude to an attempted ‘demolition’ of the construction, and it is even more profoundly misunderstood if it is regarded as a prelude to what Derrida has called an ‘asinine’ biologism which both neglects history altogether and treats the objective and massive structural differences between different animals as mere differences of degree (Derrida 2002: p. 398). Yet a rigorous deconstruction cannot not question the idea of thepurely human origin of that construction and everything that is systematic with it. To free thinking from captivation by the classical humanist conception of the difference between Human and Animal we do not need to recoil to scientific naturalism but we do need to acknowledge that the construction it depends upon constructs itself through powers of inhabitation (traces, tracks, markings of various kinds) that, upstream of the differentiations they produce, remain not purely human. So if we are to understand the difference between humans and animals we will also have to affirm our irreducible animality.

      As I have already indicated, the great leitmotif for us on the question of the difference of the human concerns the singular uniqueness of every one of  “us”. We human beings are not just members or instances of a genus or species, each ‘just the same’ as the next, but unique and irreplaceable individuals. Each one of our kind is, in a certain way, one of a kind. This idea is not just wrong, not just a superstition or hangover from a pre-scientific past, and it seems to me that we would do ourselves a great injustice, injustice itself, if we were to live no longer able to affirm the radical alterity and singularity of every other. But now it might be feared that we precisely deny ourselves this opportunity if we wish also to affirm our irreducible animality. For the reproduction of animals is the very model of a process of repetition of the same, there is in a certain way just one here too since each one substitutable for any other one.

      Yet it seems to me that the very form of expression which is supposed most proper to our distinctively non-substitutable uniqueness, the use of linguistic expressions made of words and sentences, seems already to call into question the classical understanding of the pure singularity of every individual. For isn’t the use of language marked precisely by the character of repetition and substitution? Indeed, if there is nothing less substitutable than the one who can say “I”, nothing is more substitutable either than this sign “I”. There is, one might say, no meaning to ‘I’ unless I know that everyone other than me is radically other and hence also able to say “I”.

      So when, in a moment, and in the moment of that moment, I make an attempt to speak my unique singularity it seems I will lose it in the possibility of these words being repeated again at another time by another, that I here and now make use of a form of expression which must be able to function in my absence, that in its essence is not essentially mine – so that a certain structural anonymity belongs to the identity of everyone that is anyone or someone.

      One of things I want to suggest is that I lose nothing here: there is no contradiction, no bad incoherence to be avoided, if one affirms both the singularity of every other one and the necessity that this singularity is caught up in, and even emerges only out, of structures of substitution and repetition. The condition of possibility of any unique singularity is at the same time the condition of impossibility that the uniqueness announced there is radically pure. And for reasons I have already begun to hint at, questions of animality are not external to this scene.

      I am my brothers brother and the son of my mother and father. With this sentence there begins an introduction to me. Yet there have always been others there too, the cosy familial scene was always interrupted by others – and perhaps most continuously by animals, our most other others. Let me turn again to animals.

      So can we make room for animals? I’ve tried to bring them in before. Appealing in particular to the appealing responsiveness of my mother’s now no longer living dog, called Sophie. My sense of her aliveness to my ‘state of mind’ had seemed to justify breaking with the habitual tendency to confine the scope of ‘mutual intelligibility’ to the forms of intercourse that can go on between humans and affirm that, while falling over when playing with her, ‘the dog could see my distress and I could see her sympathy’ (Glendinning,1998: p. 142).

      While I want here to be able to affirm that the difference between humans and animals does not betoken a radical separation of our lives, I should also note that there were serious reservations in my descriptions. With respect to Sophie’s seeing my distress, I do not simply say ‘her whole manner and demeanour was concernful’ but that it was so ‘in the dog way’. And I do not simply say that ‘both Sophie and I were satisfied’ that our modes of responsiveness to the other in this case had been warranted and appropriate, but that ‘both Sophie and I were (in an uncanny, non-matching way) “satisfied” about these things’. My sense of the peculiarity of the other animal’s kinship to me – what I want now to call my perception of our uncanny kind-ness – is something that I have always wanted to keep in view. As should be clear, I no more wish to regard other animals as ‘basically the same’ as human beings (reductive naturalism) than I want to regard them as ‘essentially distinct’ from us (classical humanism). What we need, it seems to me, are discourses which can affirm the difference between humans and other animals but do not wind up bringing our aliveness to the other animal to a premature end, perhaps especially by denying it a proper life. I mean a proper death.

      In what follows I will try to elaborate this idea, indeed in some way to perform it,  simply by making a bit of a show of myself. Or rather, I will intervene in the classical humanist discourse of human uniqueness by putting something of myself on show, myself and my family in fact. And I do so in order that the trace of the animal is not too quickly or comfortingly obscured, both with regard to the animal that I am not and also with regard to the animal that I am.

      A few years ago my eldest brother, Paul, telephoned me to see if I would be willing to do a short book for him in a series he was trying to put together with friends. A series on ideas at the cutting edge of various subjects. Because of my book On Being with Others Paul thought I might be in a position to do something for him on the general topic of others: On “The Other”.

      For me, if I can just jump into everything here, the deep problematic on this topic is how to avoid relativising the presence of the other to an essentially egocentric space, of making the being-there of every other just a feature – an interesting and exotic feature no doubt – of my world. The question then is: how can there be for me another I, an alter ego that is not in the last instance, in some way, just my alter ego? My alter ego is another me, a part of me, the other me. Not, as we will want to let ourselves disclose it, an absolutely other me.

      I want to let Sophie broach another entrance in this play of egos. In fact she trots in along at least two sorts of path, neither of which I can nor should try to follow in any detail here.

  1. Speaking on the telephone to my next-brother-up-from-me, Matthew, we got talking about animals in our family – pets I mean – and he had put forward a powerful protocol for interpreting Sophie’s existence. She was, he said, pure and simple, our Mum’s ‘alter ego’. Now, I’m not sure if that details or forecloses the rapport that anyone else in the family may had had with Sophie. I’m not sure whether it is a way of tying my whole family into Sophie’s existence or, quite precisely, a way of removing ‘the animal itself’ from the familial and homely scene altogether. But such is, I am suggesting, the very emblem of the problem of the other in general: of the appearing and for just that reason the disappearing of the other as absolute other. And that takes me to the second path along which Sophie comes in.
  2. Very roughly speaking, I think that the fundamental problems around the question of the other emerge on the back of the attempted exclusion of animality from all participation in the kind of existence that, it is said in classical philosophy, belongs to humanity. I’m referring here again to the ineluctable uniqueness and individuality that is often said to be the essential mark of every person – a singularity or ‘uniqueness’ to quote the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, (but his view is more than merely widespread in humanity today) ‘a uniqueness beyond the individuality of multiple individuals within their kind’ (Levinas, 1993: p. 117). On this view, Sophie is an individual alright, but only as a token of a type. Every human being is, by contrast, radically non-interchangeable with any other, each one incomparable and unique. To be a human being is, thus, to exist in such a manner that each one is, as it were, the only one. This is a classical humanism (a philosophy of the human distinction) and Sophie has no place here. In fact, bound to the determining order of nature Sophie is as good as dead before she even dies, if the humanist philosopher will allow that she dies or really dies, properly dies – which he won’t.

I’ve been reading Levinas a lot recently. Well it’s gripping stuff, wonderful. And in the midst of this I had an email exchange with my brother Hugo, who is in age between Paul and Matthew, in which I tried to say something about Levinas’s view of the radical singularity of every other. In particular I wanted to tell Hugo about Levinas’s view on the idea and origin of what we call ‘rights’ – how he thinks that ‘rights’ are not primarily ‘my rights’ but, first of all, ‘the rights of the other’ (Levinas 1993: p. 116). Perhaps because I had been a bit vague putting it like that, perhaps because Hugo was about to open things up a bit himself, he emailed back to me not on ‘the rights of the other man’ (Levinas’s title) but about ‘the rights of the living’. He said in particular that he had recently had a row with a friend who had given a cat as a present to someone. Although he felt hopelessly at sea with the idea of animal rights he nonetheless felt sure that there was something wrong with the idea of giving an animal as a gift. We do not give babies away as a gifts and he thought it should belong to the rights of the living in general that, as others and not mere objects, they are not to be treated as something one can pass around, as it were from one owner to another. If a family keep an animal as a pet that animal may feel itself to belong to a pack or pride or whatever, and even come to regard another human being as its pack leader, but to characterize that relation as one of owner and owned is inappropriate and misleading – but then he said that perhaps he was completely confused and his thought was incoherent.

      If Hugo is confused here it is not because he failed to be sufficiently acute either theoretically or phenomenologically. If Hugo is confused this is, I think, precisely because, in our time perhaps more than ever, animals intrude as a kind of everyday enigma. They do not fit. Here they do not fit, or do not simply fit in happily, with a discourse on the rights of the other which is, in its origin, a discourse on the rights of the other man. Hugo apologized for incoherence. Yet it seems to me that for us today incoherence is congenital to the scene.

      Ultimately, I would want to generalize such contemporary scenes of limited coherence beyond those involving animals-that-I-am-not towards those involving the animal-that-I-am. But sticking for the moment with non-human others, let me try to underscore my point by mentioning a letter about some sheep that I received from my Dad. My Dad sent me a letter telling me about an article in The Independent about intelligent sheep. He had thought of sending it to me, knowing my interest in such things. But he said it was not very good, so he did not. However, there had been a spate of letters following the article including one from an Irishman who recounted an odd case. The man had been out walking with his family on some hills in Ireland when a mature sheep started bleating at them and then running off – and then running back and bleating at them and running off. They felt it was trying to get them to follow, which they eventually did. And lo and behold it took them to a ditch where its lamb had got stuck. They helped it out. They sheep and lamb departed – but suddenly the sheep returned, bleating again. The letter concluded with the warming thought that it was ‘obviously her way of saying “Thank You”.

      That last line struck me as perhaps more confused than my brother Hugo’s hesitation. at last line… ‘Obviously her way of saying “Thank You”. I couldn’t have said that so assuredly. Nothing in any of this is that obvious. My Dad seems to have been uneasy with it too. The letter had a pointed PS: quote ‘Maybe Northern Irish sheep are special’, he said.

Yes, maybe they are not sheep.

      Well we oscillate madly here. We oscillate, in particular, between positions in which the other appears chez nous, relationally, in relation to me, familiarly, obviously, and a position in which that very appearance seems to sacrifice the absolute otherness of the other, a position in which every obviousness of the ordinary seems lost. And one might say that in philosophy – and indeed in what is called religion too – we are willing, in order to retain a good household, to sacrifice the animal. It’s better for the father and the son if the sheep gets it: if the thanks-giving, the capacity to say ‘Thanks’, is reserved for man alone.

      Well that might give our family a special future, a future which would, as it were, underwrite the ‘principle’ of every principle of coherence, of every fitting in, but, as I said at the start I am not happy to leave it there.

      Before and beyond dreams of rational calculation we are alive to the other. The miracle, one might say, is that the other appears – sheep, ram, lamb, or man – that we are separate but not separated. And in my view the fact that, for every “me”, every other must everywhere appear as “my relation”, or at least in relation to me, does not betoken their absorption into “my world”, or make them mere appearances for “my consciousness”. On the contrary, all these marks of relatedness are, precisely, relational, classificatory, structural – they do not depend for their functioning on my presence, and must be able to function in my absence, even if I am dead.

      And Sophie, I want to say, is not excluded from this play of mortal relations, mortal marks and traces. The significance of this suggestion can be brought out but recalling the point I noted earlier that in order to avoid the Scilla of reductive naturalism and the Charybdis of classical humanism what we need are discourses which do not wind up bringing our aliveness to the uncanny kind-ness of the other animal to a premature end.

      Well, in philosophy, for the most part, this premature end is effected by denying the animal a (proper) death. If every animal (every dog, say,) is ultimately substitutable for every other, this is because they can have no awareness of their own non-substitutability, no (proper) awareness of their own end – neither as their own nor as their end. Yet don’t we all know, before and beyond the discourses of classical humanism that speak of ‘the different difference’, that not only human beings but other animals of the most diverse variety too are (in their own ways) alive to the death of the other? I know that my mother’s dog Sophie was not excluded from this. And since, with death uniquely, what is at issue is something for which, again, we all know there is no “experience” in the first person – you do not live to experience your death – shouldn’t considerations about the employment of expressions of life in the first- and third-person (considerations in which we come to see that ‘it is a necessary condition of one’s ascribing states of consciousness, experiences, to oneself, in the way one does, that one should also ascribe them, or be prepared to ascribe them to others who are not oneself’ (Strawson, 1959: p. 99)) move us reflectively to affirm that animals also die?

      My mother did not shrink from this knowledge about her dog’s aliveness to the death of others. And to complete the set of familial, relational citations which have enabled me to appear here, a rather exposed animal, I wonder whether there isn’t here a kind of radical justification for an astonishing piece of writing, teetering on the edge of anthropocentric projection, that she penned as an ‘obituary for Sophie’ – or rather, since my mother’s dog somehow inscribed itself differently in our lives, her ‘obituary for Sophy’ – published in The New Statesman in September 1998. Sophy’s obituary: a profound and playful mytho-poetic expression of uncanny kind-ness, written with moving tenderness very shortly after she had been, as we say, ‘put to sleep’ by a vet from Skibereen in West Cork, near to Coolnaclehy where my mother used to live for part of the year.


Jacques Derrida ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am’ (More to Follow) in Critical Inquiry 28 (2002).

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