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"What Was 'The Animal'?: Ontology and its Discontents" by Cary Wolfe (Keywords: Language; Lifeworld)

What Was "The Animal"?: Ontology and its Discontents

Artwork © Sam Knowles

At one point in his book The Animal That Therefore I Am, French philosopher Jacques Derrida exclaims suddenly, “The animal, what a word!” His consternation – incredulity, even – is based on the fact that: ...confined within this catch-all concept, within this vast encampment of the animal, in this general singular, within the strict enclosure of this definite article…are all the living things that man does not recognize as his fellows, his neighbours, or his brothers. And that is so in spite of the infinite space that separates the lizard from the dog, the protozoon from the dolphin, the shark from the lamb, the parrot from the chimpanzee, the camel from the eagle, the squirrel from the tiger, the elephant from the cat, the ant from the silkworm, or the hedgehog from the echidna. Derrida’s list is just long enough to make you want him to stop, but that is partly his point: when it comes to non-human creatures, there is no stopping. (And in fact, this is literally true. Think, for instance, of the now commonplace point that during this, the sixth great extinction event on the planet, many species are becoming extinct before even being discovered.)

How did human beings ever find it remotely plausible that the world is neatly riven by an ontological divide?

In retrospect, Derrida’s point seems so utterly obvious – I mean, just look around on your next beach trip, or even in your own back yard – that one has to ask, “how did we get here?” How did human beings ever find it remotely plausible that the world is neatly riven by an ontological divide: over here, on one side, homo sapiens. And over there, on the other side, every other single form of non-human animal life? What a myopically audacious idea! Derrida, in fact, calls it “asinine” (fully intending the joke, of course). ***

The answer to “how did we get here?” is, if we believe Derrida, surprisingly simple: language. In the Western philosophical tradition to which Derrida addresses himself, the ontological flattening of the wildly diverse and textured empirical animal universe hinges on the power of language to confer a unique ontological status upon human beings that is barred to the rest of creation. This is a hoary philosophical tradition, of course, that reaches all the way back to Aristotle. As he writes in the Politics:

Now, that man is more of a political animal than bees or any other gregarious animals is evident. Nature, as we often say, makes nothing in vain, and man is the only animal whom she has endowed with the gift of speech. And whereas mere voice is but an indication of pleasure or pain, and is therefore found in other animals (for their nature attains to the perception of pleasure and pain and the intimation of them to one another, and no further), the power of speech is intended to set forth the expedient and inexpedient, and therefore likewise the just and the unjust.

And while it may be true that Aristotle, in some of his other, more zoologically oriented writings (such as History of Animals and Parts of Animals), suggests that the division may not be so neat and tidy, the fact remains, as Derrida puts it, that philosophers “from Aristotle to Lacan, and including Descartes, Kant, Heidegger, and Levinas” all “say the same thing: the animal is deprived of language. Or more precisely, of response, of a response that could be precisely and rigorously distinguished from a reaction”.

But why is “responding” rather than “reacting” so important? Because (so the story goes) it opens up the possibility of an entirely different relationship to one’s own existence, to what Heidegger will eventually call Dasein (often translated as “being-there”). Language provides the conditions of possibility not simply for reacting instinctively to the world, on the basis of a hard-wired biological program, but of relating to the world and one’s existence in it “as such and in its being,” as Derrida puts it, ventriloquizing Heidegger. Language makes possible reflection, contemplation, logic, and reason – the domain of what Aristotle called logos.


To put it in more contemporary terms, language makes possible the understanding of what Gregory Bateson calls a “metacommunicative” frame (i.e. communication about communication), in which the meaning of a particular signifying element – a verbal or written utterance, sure, but also other symbolic or iconographic signs, from human gestures to the body language used by wolves – cannot be reduced to an instinctive program or indexed to a Darwinian adaptive advantage. The problem with the neat and tidy ontological division between humans and animals on the basis of language is, as Bateson shows, that mastery of a metacommunicative frame extends well beyond the taxonomy homo sapiens, as we learn in greater detail – and in a growing number of species – with every passing year. Hardly a year goes by without a cover story in National Geographic or Time about the astounding new discoveries we have made about animal intelligence, communication, emotions, social complexity, tool use, and even cultural behaviours like mourning and burial.

As Bateson explains in a classic essay on play and other forms of mammalian and cetacean communication, metacommunication “could only occur if the participant organisms were capable… of exchanging signals which would carry the message, ‘this is play.’ The playful nip denotes the bite, but it does not denote what would be denoted by the bite,” namely real aggression. And so, Bateson concludes, “paradox is doubly present in the signals which are exchanged… Not only do the playing animals not quite mean what they are saying but, also, they are usually communicating about something which does not exist,” i.e. an abstract social relationship, a framework in which both parties are understood to be participating. What we have here – and now it becomes clear that we are talking about how the scaffolding of what Jakob von Uexkull called umwelten, or “lifeworlds,” will be built – is therefore not just the ability to signal “this is play” but also, as Bateson points out, the ability to question, to try out and imagine different possibilities, to model and anticipate how another mind will respond, the ability to ask “Is this play?”

And lest we think that I am taking us down a rabbit hole populated only by French philosophers and cybernetic theorists who spent too much time in California in the 60s and 70s, let me invoke philosopher of consciousness and cognition Daniel Dennett, who is pretty clearly on the Anglo-American and analytic side of the philosophical divide. As he puts it – ramifying Bateson’s point, as it were – “you have to have a cognitive economy with a budget for exploration and self-stimulation to provide the space for the recursive stacks of derived desires that make fun possible. You have taken a first step when your architecture permits you to appreciate the meaning of ‘Stop it, I love it!’” – a phenomenon widely observed, of course, by anyone who has ever tickled a dog’s tummy.


Artwork by Sam Knowles

Pleasure, then. Happiness. Joy. Play. Deception. A sense of humour. And all of it divorced from reductive neo-Darwinian explanations about reproductive advantage and adaptive fitness. The old behaviourist saying that dogs have one paw for each thought (food, food, sex, and food) gives way to Vicki Hearne’s remarkable observation, in Adam’s Task, that perhaps the clearest evidence she ever saw of the cognitive and emotional complexity of the famous languaging chimp Washoe was when she found her up in a tree masturbating to a copy of Playgirl magazine. Non-reproductive sex in animals! We thought sex as a domain of pleasure and fantasy was for humans only. What a scandal! So language, it turns out, is about a lot more than language, and play is about a lot more than just play. In fact – and this is one of Derrida’s main issues with Heidegger – language is not something that one either has or doesn’t have in any pure, unified sense, on the basis of which an ontological abyss opens up between those who have it and those who don’t. Instead, it seems much more plausible – and more empirically in line with what we observe in a range of non-human creatures – that the relationship between language and lifeworlds that concerns ontology is much more textured and heterogeneous. A slope, not a cliff. As Donna Haraway, Marc Hauser, and none other than Noam Chomsky have argued, even if we distinguish between language in the broad sense (composed of various discrete sensori-motor and computational-intentional subsystems interacting in recursive ways) and language in the more strict sense (as the ability to generate an infinite set of expressions out of a finite set of elements, what is sometimes called “discrete infinity”) there seems less reason than ever to assume an unquestioned human exceptionalism when it comes to language and the lifeworlds it makes possible.

Capacities such as discrete infinity “might well have evolved”, as Haraway puts it, “in domains other than communication (such as territory mapping, spatial navigation, and foraging) and then been hijacked for communication in ways uncoupled from tight constraints of function.” Various types of mental tools – communicative repertoires to coordinate the hunting activities of social groups, let’s say – may arise in animals (human or non-human) for reasons of adaptive advantage, but those tools can and do evolve and complexify in ways increasingly independent of utilitarian function. For these and many other reasons, it is impossible to draw a clear and decisive line between “reacting” and “responding,” whether we are talking about human beings or non-human animals. And that is why the ontological distinction between human beings and non-human animals is not like a light switch in which the “on” position is determined by the possession of language and the “off” position by the lack of it. This is why the issue is not, as Derrida puts it, “a matter of ‘giving speech back’ to animals” – by citing, let’s say, all the research on language with Great Apes like Washoe or Kanzi or similar studies with other species. Nor is it a matter of throwing up our hands and saying “we’re all the same!” asserting a “homogeneous continuity between what calls itself man and what he calls the animal.” This “biologistic continuism,” as Derrida puts it, is just as “asinine” as the locution, “the Animal.” Rather, it is a matter of tending, as diligently as possible, to the amazing multiplicity and heterogeneity of all the ways of being on the earth that go under the name “animal” – realizing, for example, that a bonobo or a chimpanzee or a dog or an elephant have more in common with me than any of them do with a jellyfish or tarantula. It is not a matter of effacing or ignoring the immense differences between different forms of life and the worlds they inhabit and bring into being, but rather of tending, in a philosophically responsible way, to “the heterogeneous multiplicity of the living”. We find here not one line – between “human” and “animal” – but many; and the task, as Derrida puts it, is “not in effacing the limit, but in multiplying its figures, in complicating, thickening, delinearizing, folding, and dividing the line precisely by making it increase and multiply”. ***

In the current context of the Anthropocene, global warming, and an intense interest in all things ecological and environmental, this task would seem to invite what one might call a more “ecological” approach to what an older philosophical vocabulary called “the animal.” After all – as a range of philosophers from Terence Deacon to Gilbert Simondon to Gilles Deleuze would remind us – there is not really, in ecological terms, anything called “the animal” and there never has been. Individual animals and their species are simply temporary formal stabilizations and coherences – what complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman calls “Kantian wholes” – produced by a concatenation of environmental forces and materials that, strictly speaking, have nothing to do with either the “animal” or the “human.” These are merely two (highly improbable) forms of organized complexity that emerge from the interaction of what G. Evelyn Hutchinson called “the ecological theatre and the evolutionary play.”

There is not really, in ecological terms, anything called “the animal” and there never has been.

But if we have already touched on some of the dangers of ontology and the flattening work that it can sometimes do, here is where a return to the sort of ontological questioning we find in Derrida’s engagement of Heidegger around the question of “world” is crucial. Derrida takes issue with both Heidegger’s conception of language and how that conception determines what he calls Heidegger’s “dogmatic” assertions about the differences between human and animal lifeworlds. But he agrees with – admires, in fact – Heidegger’s ultra-philosophical insistence that ontological assertions cannot be derived from empirical ones. Heidegger is famous for his audacious announcement that science does not think, but a more moderate way to put the point is that scientific knowledge and scientific questioning are qualitatively different from philosophical inquiry. The empirical statement, “Animal X is a chordate with fourteen vertebrae divided into three sections” is of a fundamentally different order, for example, than Heidegger’s assertion late in his career that “Language is the house of Being.” Despite the immense usefulness of everything we just cited from Haraway et al. as a check against an unwarranted human exceptionalism, it remains the case that “world” is a philosophical, not empirical, question, no matter what species we are talking about.

In one sense, all Derrida adds to this Heideggerian assertion is an interrogation of Heidegger’s partitioning, by means of language, of the human versus other forms of existence in relation to the question of “world” and “Being” (or Dasein) – a partitioning that actually goes against the radicality of Heidegger’s insistence that the question of world and Dasein is not reducible to an empirical derivation. What Heidegger gives with one hand (the radical separation of the philosophical question of Being from the empirical question of species taxonomy), he takes away with the other when he asserts that only beings who have language have access to the domain of Being. This is why Heidegger says that animals, unlike stones, do indeed have a world, but they only have it “in the mode of not having,” because without language (and therefore without logos) they have no access to the “as such” of things, and so the fundamental nature of their own being can never arise as a question for them. In the most straightforward terms, then, Derrida’s radicalization of Heidegger consists of two steps: taking seriously the ultra-philosophical assertion of Dasein’s independence from any empirical designation – any speciesism, we might say – but then interrogating Heidegger’s “dogmatic” assertion that this could only ever be a problem or a “question” for human beings alone by deconstructing Heidegger’s philosophy of language and its relationship to Being.

To dramatize how problematic it is to try to derive ontological assertions about lifeworlds from biological or scientific taxonomies and descriptions, take the example of what I called in my last book the “scandal” of the cephalopods (octopus, squid, cuttlefish). It has always been assumed that the emergence of complex lifeworlds and the capacity to “respond” was limited to chordates and mainly vertebrates. Why? Two reasons. First, because these creatures (of which homo sapiens is one) possess a body plan that allows for a sufficient concentration and distribution of neural tissue so that plasticity can occur, which in turn enables memory and what is called proportionate learning: trial and error interactions with an environment that recursively rewire the physiology of the brain that learns, thus providing the foundation for patterning, modelling, and anticipating environmental changes based on past experience. (Cockroaches, on the other hand, are limited in their plasticity because of the determining physiological feature of an exoskeleton made of chitin.) Secondly, such creatures typically have relatively long lives and live in social groups. The good news about plasticity and proportionate learning is that it provides a huge adaptive advantage. But the bad news is that it also produces highly variable individuals. How do those individuals get on the same page, coordinate their actions, and maximize their adaptive advantage? Communication. Recursive social interactions give rise to the domain of communication. And this takes time.

You find complex lifeworlds and ontologies wherever you find them, and when you do you have to acknowledge and investigate them in their own terms.

But here’s the funny, even scandalous, thing about the cephalopods. They aren’t chordates, nor do they have long lives, nor do they live in social groups. Most only live for about a year (the giant Pacific octopus lives the longest, four years), and most are solitary. And yet, as robust evidence shows, they possess many of the cognitive, affective, and behavioural traits that we have always considered the domain of the “higher” vertebrates. They are famous for their curiosity, even mischievousness, and they appear to engage in planning, foresight, deception, play, and even tool use. More remarkably still, in captivity they readily solve problems designed to be different from anything they would ever encounter in the wild, and they appear to possess quite distinctive personalities. They thus challenge the long-held assumption that intelligence developed in a simple linear fashion, from fish to amphibians and reptiles, then to birds, mammals, and up through the early primates and finally to Great Apes and humans.

Artwork by Sam Knowles

This insistence on separating philosophical from empirical questions might seem to be just an academic quibble, a squabble over disciplinary turf perhaps, but as Derrida reminds us in his discussion of “biologistic continuism,” the stakes are deadly serious in biopolitical terms. The twentieth century alone gives us ample reason to resist the desire to ground the ontological value and rank-ordering of lifeworlds in particular biological taxonomies such as racial or ethnic – or now, we might add, species – characteristics. And the supreme irony and tragedy of Heidegger’s own career, of course (as he admitted late in life), is that he was unable to do just that, as his temporary infatuation with the Third Reich shows. The ultra-philosophical takeaway here is clear (and it is born out, I think, by the history of science): you find complex lifeworlds and ontologies wherever you find them, and when you do you have to acknowledge and investigate them in their own terms. In this light, philosophical humanism, with all of its unwarranted ontological presumptions of the sort we saw in Heidegger a moment ago, has had much to learn from the life sciences. But the philosophical point is that the life sciences – and the current embrace of all things “ecological,” “environmental,” and “new materialist” – has much to learn as well from something it thinks is well in the rear-view mirror: “the animal” and (so-called) “animal studies.”

Cary Wolfe is Bruce and Elizabeth Dunlevie Professor of English at Rice University, where he is also founding director of 3CT: The Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory. His new book Ecological Poetics; or Wallace Stevens’ Birds was published this year by Chicago University Press.


From The Philosopher, vol. 108, no. 1 ("The Other Animals").

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