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In an interview with fellow Stanford professor Robert Harrison in November 2005, Richard Rorty was asked about the really big problems that philosophy has tried to tackle, problems such as continued environmental degradation and distributive justice. Rorty denies that philosophy can do much about the big problems concerning sustainability or the environment. Consistent with his social democratic politics and pragmatist philosophy, Rorty argues that these problems are not ones best suited to philosophers, but rather problems that should be tackled by scientists and technocrats. Harrison, a professor of Italian, urges Harrsion to see that questions of justice and environmental ethics are issues that philosophers must address. Rorty does not deny that these are important issues; rather, he denies that philosophers can do much to address them. Indeed, he agrees with Descartes' assertion that humans should be "masters and possessors of nature."
Based on Animal Lessons, Kelly Oliver would certainly take issue with Rorty's position. Unlike the pragmatist whose philosophical approach mandates that one articulate philosophical problems in a concrete fashion so that they can be rendered manageable, Oliver examines the history of philosophy in order to determine the negative impact of various philosophical discourses around concepts such as autonomy and rights on the concept of human nature and our relationships with animals. However, she wouldn't completely dismiss Rorty for a couple of reasons. First, in this book she is able to accomplish a feat which is unfortunately all too rare in the various traditions of Continental philosophy in which obscurity tends to be worn as a badge of honor: she discusses a host of issues and authors in clear, accessible prose. The worthy aim behind these discussions is to force a re-thinking of the relationship between humans and animals. Also like Rorty, her focus does not lie with abstract concepts but rather with concrete particulars. Her books isn't about Nature or the Animal as such, but instead about the place of the concretely existing animals that populate the texts of philosophers from Rousseau and Herder to the phenomenologists Heidegger, de Beauvoir, and Merleau-Ponty, psychoanalysts Freud and Lacan, and contemporary theorists Derrida, Kristeva, and Agamben. She employs these discussions to begin to articulate an ethics that is one of responsiveness (and hence responsibility) to others rather than independence and autonomy.
Oliver begins the book with a discussion of the shortcomings of animal rights and animal welfare discourses, represented in the Anglo-American philosophical world by the work of Tom Regan and Peter Singer, respectively. The key problem with both these discourses is that they do not question the dominance of the autonomous, self-assured subject that one can find paradigmatically expressed in the work of René Descartes and his successors such as Kant and John Stuart Mill. Proponents of animal rights such as Regan trace their lineage back to Kant, while proponents of the animal welfare remain in the Utilitarian vein. Olive objects to the discourse of animal rights because it "assumes that rights must be recognized as something universally true throughout history, without regard for context or social institutions," such that the fundamental structures that made oppression possible remain intact (31).
A reason to turn to Continental thinkers, then, is because these thinkers provide us another way of thinking about the relationship between humans and animals. Rather than considering the various ways that animals are akin to humans, Oliver asks us to consider the possibility that humanity is conditioned by animal life. Human identity would thus be constituted not by a fundamental distinction between human beings and animals, nor by a reduction of the animal to human categories and characteristics ("Are they rational? Do they have rights?") but rather in terms of what humans learn from animals—in terms of how humans respond to the animals in their midst. This leads Oliver to utilize the work of these various thinkers to develop an ethics of responsibility (or "response-ibility") that contrasts with an ethic of autonomy derived largely from Enlightenment thinkers.
But this European tradition of thought itself is not monolithic. While Rousseau begins to develop an ethics of responsibility in which animals teach us what it is to be human and it is through mimicry of animal noises that the first human languages develop, Herder inaugurates a contrary tradition continuous in many ways with the Enlightenment tradition that his work is often thought to contest. Herder, like his Enlightenment predecessors such as Descartes and Kant, seeks to demarcate an absolute distinction between humans and animals, but with a notable difference. Whereas Descartes and Kant see the human being as the animal who reasons, Herder's absolute distinction rests on the beauty of the human, a beauty that can only be felt by fellow humans, reminiscent of the 'cult of feeling' characteristic of both British and German Romanticism and the earlier Sturm und Drang movement in Germany. The absolute distinction between human and animal is founded on aesthetic feeling rather than rational thought, although the effect is basically the same.
Oliver's treatment of the wide variety of thinkers derives from this basic distinction between Herder's policing of the borders between humanity and animality and Rousseau's acknowledgement of the similarities. Thus Heidegger attempts to keep these categories distinct in his 1929/30 lecture course The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude by designating the animal poor in world (Weltarm) while the human being is world-forming (Weltbildende); for Heidegger there can be no hierarchy of being in which animal life slowly approximates human life. On the contrary, there is an unbridgeable abyss between human and animal, just as there was for Herder. In her reading of Merleau-Ponty's recently translated lectures at the College de France, Oliver sees Merleau-Ponty articulating the kinship between animals and humans.
In the final section of the work, Oliver considers the relationship between psychoanalysis and animals in the work of Freud and Kristeva, although, initially somewhat inexplicably, her treatment of Lacan concludes the fourth part, sandwiched between her discussion of de Beauvoir and Heidegger. I believe the thematic unity ultimately justifies his inclusion in Part Four, which deals in part with one strategy for delineating humans from animals, namely based on humans capacity to deceive. Deception here must be distinguished from dissimulation which includes various camouflaging techniques that animals have adapted to avoid predators. For Lacan, this deception is the true locus of the symbol and of language, which makes present that which is absent:
Although animals can pretend and even lure, they can neither erase their tracks nor make false tracks appear true. In other words, they cannot do what humans do when speaking, namely, make a symbol stand in for the thing. Representation erases the thing in favor of the concept that substitutes the token for reality; animals are incapable of this double operation of erasure and substitution, the inherent duplicity of speech. Speech is the human activity of putting the feint of erasure and substitution in service of truth (186).
Although it is certainly more theoretically sophisticated, Lacan's psychoanalytic approach basically re-articulates a distinction at least as old as Aristotle: the human being is that being who possesses logos, understood as both speech and reason.
There is much more in Kelly Oliver's rich treatment of Continental thinkers and place of animals within their work. For example, I have not had a chance to touch on her discussion of the relationship between animals and feminism (most prominent in her discussion of de Beauvoir as well as her discussion of Derrida) nor of her suggestions concerning the relationship between the man/animal binary and violence. This points to a weakness of the book, for while it is well-written and largely avoids the jargon associated with the worst work of Continental philosophers, her kitchen-sink approach may be too broad for a sustained approach of thinkers and ideas. One hopes that Oliver returns to these ideas and thinkers in a more sustained fashion in her future work.
The interview with Richard Rorty referred to in the first paragraph of this interview can be found here:
Robert Pogue Harrison, Entitled Opinions (About Life and Literature) http://www.stanford.edu/dept/fren-ital/opinions/shows/eo10012.mp3. Interview conducted November 22, 2005. Accessed May 30, 2010.
© 2010 Corey McCall
Corey McCall, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion, Elmira College