What’s Up in Europe?
An excerpt from Pet Me While I Eat
by Chuck Rosenthal
Speaking of European thinkers in this matter, in recent years a number of Post-Structural, European philosophers, including Jean-Christophe Bailly, Giorgio Agamben, and Jacques Derrida, taking the nod from Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Nature: Course Notes from the College de France (La Nature: Notes, cours du College de France, 1956-60), have begun to discuss animal sentience and cognition. Agamben (The Open: Man and Animal) and Bailly (The Animal Side) concentrate on Heidegger’s interpretation of the breakthrough work of the early 20th Century zoologist Jakob von Uexküll’s concept of umwelt, a neo-Kantian concept that distinguishes between the world such as it exists in itself and the world as the world known by a living being (approximating Kant’s distinction between neumena and phenomena).
Uexküll opposed the Cartesian subject (consciousness) – machine distinction as well as what he regarded as previous scientific notions that anthropomorphized animals. Nonetheless, he describes animal behavior as a kind of melody pre-written in the animal body and played out in the environment in a laborious, if gorgeous, mutual conditioning . The umwelt of an animal provokes its milieu and the animal is in return conditioned by its milieu in so far as its umwelt, or biological capabilities, can be influenced given the predetermination of its biology. How the animal manipulates its world, e.g., how a spider’s web creates a transition between the spider and the world, is a dialectic that is the very beginning of culture. However much this might remind us of Mead’s conversation of gestures and lead us toward semiotics, Uexküll insists that the animal, without symbolic awareness, is more like an embodied goal than a cognitive being. The animal is not aware of the world. In that sense he regards the umwelt of the non-human animal as “closed.”
This is certainly how Heidegger reads him when he comes to the conclusion, like Descartes – as Derrida points out in The Animal That Therefore I Am – that the animal, unlike the human, is incapable of dasein, of “being in the world.” As Agemban elucidates, for Heidegger, “the stone, lifeless, is worldless (weltlos), the animal is poor in the world (weltarm), man is world-forming (weltbilden).”
If Ponty is more or less an explication of Uexküll, among many others, in his analysis of the history of the concept of Nature, Agamben is more or less an analysis of Heidegger’s explication, and agreement, with Uexküll.
Insofar as the animal knows neither beings nor non-beings, neither open nor closed, it is outside of being; it is outside in an exteriority more external than any open, and inside in an intimacy more internal than any closedness. To let the animal would then mean: to let it be outside of being. The zone of non-knowledge — or of a-knowledge — that is at issue here is beyond both knowing and not-knowing, beyond both disconcealing and concealing, beyond both being and the nothing (Gamben, The Open, p. 91).
This is pretty murky territory, a dance of subtleties and denials but clearly an affirmation of Heidegger that doesn’t leave much room for animal cognition.
Deconstructing a moment when during a night time drive down a back road a driver (him?) and a passenger spot a deer in the woods, Jean-Christophe Bailly renounces Heidegger in favor of Rilke, comparing “looking” to “hunting” and the act of being looked at to the act of being hunted, again a recognition of some kind of awareness and unawareness both. There is a Derridian-like reversal in the suggestion of cognition in “being hunted,” that the experience of hunting and being hunted is one inseparably shared between human and animal. We gaze, and they gaze.
My concern is not that we should credit animals with access to thought; it is that we should move beyond human exclusivity, that we should let go of the eternally renewed credo according to which our species is the pinnacle of creation and has a unique future (Bailly, The Animal Side, p.15).
This suggestion is not new. Mark Twain said it; Derrida attributes the view to Montaigne; this without referring to non-technological cultures which, ages in the past, granted animal life consciousness, subjectivity, even equality, but Bailly performs a classic Derridian subversion of the human – animal dualism by intimating that the human umwelt, enclosed by the categorical narrowness of language, might possibly be less open than the umwelt of animal sentience. Reiterating Bentham, he suggests that we should not ask, do they think? but do they suffer?
The Animal Side is less an argument for animal cognition than a plea for humanity to treat animals as sentience to which we owe moral obligations. There is no theory, per se, but poetic presentation, argumentation ala Bachelard, for a re-thinking of our relationship toward animals, and the suggestion that the world would be a better place for having done it, for us as well as them.
Derrida, whose lectures during the 1997 ten-day Cerisy conference became the book The Animal That Therfore I Am (2008), pre-dates Bailly by fourteen years. Bailly’s method is obviously deconstructive and his essay, like Derrida’s, begins with a moment when he is confronted by an animal. In Derrida’s case it is when he emerges naked from his bathroom and is confronted by his pet cat. This leads him to a winding deconstruction of the thought of Descartes, Kant, Heidegger, Lacan, and Levinas (he takes his shots at Aristotle, too) under the aegis of critiquing what he calls an ideational epoch of denying animals any subjectivity, to the point of slaughtering them and enslaving them without conscience. He is quick to point out, as well, that the term animal makes no reference to any specific animal or animal species we might be talking about. Could it be that apes gaze but ticks do not? As in all Derrida’s work, there is a proliferation of qualification and digression, more questioning than stating, but the gist is that in our times, modern times since Descartes, not much has changed in the philosophical approach to animals; it is yet Cartesian. Derrida, in the beginning and the end, is always both nominalist and nihilist, and these critiques and his analysis will not leap to any statement about animal cognition, only suggesting that it might be high time someone, say a philosopher of animals, did.
To my mind, yet under the methodological influence of Hegel (as well as Descartes and Husserl), these discussions are meditative and dialectical, and tend to concentrate on the gaps or caesurae both separating human from animal and yet shared by human and animal, attempts to reassert the mystery, but not offer any suggestions or observations that deal with animal behavior and try to explain it; a kind of arm chair animal anthropology of admirable sentiment, at times even poetic sentiment, though they offer little to move the understanding of animal cognition forward.