Aren’t we Animals?

As promised, I will come back to last week’s conference, held in a Seminary in Lodz, Poland – where I presented mIMG_3413y paper with the above title. As usual, I stuffed in many different things – a methodological question (deconstruction versus decolonization), the relation between speciesism and racism, a note on the history of philosophy/ideas, and the question what characterizes (our) animality. Yes, I managed to boil it down to a 15 minute presentation, and those present pointed out many loose ends to help me rework the paper for the submission for publication. So here is this short version (missing some of the argumentations, but presenting the main ideas) of this work very much in progress:

Aren’t we Animals? Deconstructing or Decolonizing the Human-Animal Divide

“From the influential Thomas Hobbes on, who claimed that ‘natural men’ were like wolves (taken as violent predators) to each other, Western philosophy has been characterized by a great distrust towards the animal aspects of our humanity, and a great trust in the salvaging aspects of reason and civilization, that would raise us above the animals. Several recent thinkers however have attempted to criticize and undermine this attitude. Among those I will discuss anthropologist Eduardo Kohn who aims to decolonize the Western approach to nature (plants and animals), and philosopher Jacques Derrida, who sought to ‘undefine’ the concept ‘animal’.

In my paper I will oppose these different approaches to the human-animal divide, and will also relate them to the work of postcolonial philosopher Emmanuel Eze, who has brought to attention that white Enlightenment thinkers and their successors have been interpreting embryonic evolutionism and theories of progress in the sense that some groups of humans would be less ‘human’ than others – and therefore could be used as slaves, or as objects of ‘civilizing’ projectswe would now describe as cultural genocide. I will conclude by presenting the thought of psychoanalytic thinker Frantz Fanon, who highlighted the consequences of ‘animalizing’ human beings in a certain manner.


Selves and signs – In his book How Forests Think, Eduardo Kohn explored Amazonian ways to understand animals and plants as ‘thinking’ – as living in sign worlds that overlap with ours, making communication on an equal level possible. He relied for this project on the philosophy of signs of pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce. What Peirce did, Kohn explains, was to move beyond the understanding of signs as representation of something else (before an ideal rational subject) – taking them to “stand for something in relation to a ‘somebody’ [which] is not necessarily human […].” (Kohn 2013, 75) For selves are all ‘somebodies’ that are taken up in semiotic ‘activity’. Through many interesting examples taken from Amazonian village life he shows that not only animals, but also plants, and ‘spirits’ are selves – thus widening the ontological class of sign-users beyond the human to all ‘living’ beings, with or without bodies.

Deconstructing Animality – In a small, but profound study, Patrick Llored has made an effort to reinterpret the work of Derrida as, in effect, an enduring attempt to think animality. According to Llored, this is not a purely philosophical, but an existential matter to the philosopher of difference. Llored shows that early experiences of living in Algeria, especially in its ‘Vichi’ variety – leading to the expulsion of the Jew Jacques from school, formed the source of Derrida’s discovery of the link between racist and speciesist repression. And of its counterpart: the vulnerability of all living beings to violence (which is characteristic of animality).

In his own essay on the animal, Derrida indicated that deconstruction of the human-animal divide has three essential elements:

1) The divide (‘rupture’) doesn’t define two clearly separated domains – of ‘human’ and ‘animal’

2) The multiple and heterogeneous border of this divide has a history (the autobiographical history of anthropocentrist subjectivity) and should be traced as such

3) Beyond the human side (which is heterogenously lineated) there is not one category, ‘animal’, but a “multiplicity of organizations of relations between living and dead” (organic and inorganic). (cf. Derrida 2002, 399)


Enlightenment Racism – In Derrida’s work, we see the articulation of the intimate relation between speciesism and racism. This exemplifies his remark about the heterogeneous borders between ‘human’ and ‘non-human’ animals. Not only are the animals not all one group, but certain groups of humans also segregate themselves from others by calling them animals. Even today, racists repeat the same imagery tirelessly, calling their targets animals, monkeys, pigs, or cockroaches.

In his work on Race and the Enlightenment Emmanuel Eze has shown, through textual analysis, that the Kantian and Hegelian construction of the idea of humanity as the center of ‘our’ understanding of the world (‘all philosophy is anthropology’) – was built on the simultaneous construction of an ‘other’, a not-quite-human: the ‘savage’, the black man. This other was not granted a culture of his own, let alone a political or legal system. Thus Kant could think that “the lives of so-called savages were governed by caprice, instinct, and violence rather than law [which] left no room for Kant to imagine between the Europeans and the natives a system of international relations, established on the basis of equality and respect […]” (Eze 2001, 78) And Hegel that “The negro is an example of animal man in all its savagery and lawlessness […] we cannot properly feel ourselves into his nature, no more than into a dog.” (cited according to Eze 2001, 24

The Need for a Psychoanalysis of White Philosophy – In Black Skin, White Masks(1952), young psychiatrist Frantz Fanon gave testimony of the difficulties of a colonial subject, a black man moving to the ‘centre of the world’ – to Europe – to affirm himself as a man and as a human being. The gaze from the other, which makes him black, confined in his skin, empties him out before he can speak. His revolutionary book is not your usual philosophical discourse, building a thesis on assumptions and by means of argumentation. It is written in a form which expresses what it tries to do: to think not from general concepts, but from failures.

To rescue his black reader from the objectivaton and dehumanization even the social sciences do unto her/him, Fanon articulates the humanity of the black person, although this should not mean integrating himself into the European idea of a supposedly non-race-sensitive humanity. This ‘Hellenistic’ idea of humanity, namely, considers black persons to be like animals (Fanon 2008, 127) – biologizing and sexualizing them, whilst desexualizing the white man as universal reason. In order to evade this dangerous situation, Black Skin, White Masks, seeks to submerge itself into the shadow side of white culture, and to investigate the fake aspect of this ‘animality’.Thus, although Fanon has the black individual in mind for his liberative project, implicitly he also criticizes, pre-figuring the Derridian approach, the idea of animality (being described as predator behavior, being driven by sexual urges, etcetera) in general as an artificial biological objectification.


Conclusion – In the end, we may conclude that decolonizing and deconstructing the human-animal divide, although they are different approaches, aim, in concert, to what we need in our days: first, an appropriation of the position of thinkers and selves by those colonized and animalized, exposing those who called themselves civilized and masters, and making an end to their reign; second, and simultaneously, a becoming conscious of (white) Enlightenment philosophy of its own shadow – cultural and physical genocide, enslavement and dehumanization of others, and in the shadow of that shadow – the brute desubjectization, use and abuse of ‘animot’; third, the deconstruction of the ‘rupture’ that has turned a difference into an instrument to torture and kill, and to not hear the voices of those we supposed to be ‘on the other side’ of humanity – the supposed ‘savages’. But also: the thinking forests, the wild animals, even the ‘domesticated’ intimate strangers living with us – having been equally colonized, under the cover of the civilization of ‘humanity’”

Literature –

  • Jacques Derrida ‘The Animal that therefore I Am (More to Follow)’, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 28, No. 2. (Winter, 2002), pp. 369-418
  • Emmanuel Eze Race and the Enlightenment. A Reader, Blackwell Publishing, Malden, 1997
  • Emmanuel Eze Achieving our Humanity. The Idea of a Postracial Future, Routledge, New York, 2001
  • Frantz Fanon Black Skin, White Masks, Pluto Press, London, 2008 [1952]
  • Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think. Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human, University of California Press 2013
  • Patrick Llored Jacques Derrida. Politique et Ethique de l’Animalité, Les Éditions Sils Maria asbl, Mons, 2012
  1. A lot of different things stuffed in a short paper, like you said, but a lot of interesting things as well! I like – and agree with – the connection between the dynamics underneath speciesism and racism, but I’m particularly intrigued by the ‘stretching’ of the ontological class of symbolic species beyond the human. I have the book by Kohn still on my ‘to read’-list, but I think you’ll find related ideas in “Beyond Nature and Culture”, by Philippe Descola ( You’re probably already aware of that, but I thought I’d mention it just in case. For me, the book was an eye-opener, because it thoroughly questioned, as far as I understood, the culture/nature divide I was accustomed to as a recent, Western paradigm. I’m still not sure how to give this a place in my own work, how to use the acknowledgment that we can do not need said nature/culture divide in my thinking about culture, education, and religion. So although I’m always a bit reluctant to turn to Derrida (personal bias: acknowledged!), I’m very interested to see how you’ll develop your ideas! And maybe I’ll just have to read Kohn’s book this summer 😉

    • Thanks, Tom, for your thorough remarks about my paper. The longer five page version is already in your possession, so I would appreciate any comments you would have to that!

      Always mention… I didn’t know about Descola – I will surely look into his book.

      I have some doubts at Kohn’s book, but appreciate his move to include other species into the noumenal realm.

      I will keep you informed about Derrida and the animals. I will definitely return to his work!

  2. Uchenna Osigwe said:

    Aren’t we animals? Of course we’re all animals. But the human mind evolved in such a way that it can only make sense of nature through concepts, and concepts entail separation or limitation or dissection. The human mind still has to evolve into understanding Nature as a whole…

  3. A lot of stuff indeed. The Fanon connection gives already much to think. I just read parts of Elisabeth Costello (Coetzee) on the African novel. I would be curious how Fanon would read this story. Both writers are African, interested in the relation to the West, animality and psychoanalysis. Both are tragic. Can we use their ideas for our deconstruction of animality and African identity? A few references that I stumbled upon while surfing:
    – Costello is a Bakhtinian Socrates:,d.d2s&cad=rja
    – Vogelaar on Coetzee : Costello fears contamination:

    Apart from this, or precisely as a possible result from these readings, I would suspect that idealisation of the animal is not to help us very much, if we don’t respect the difference between humans and animals. Coetzee believes in idealisation, Fanon seems to forget that we Europeans idealize the animality in African people.
    So, Angela, her is finally my question: how does idealisation fit into your landscapes? Does your identification (aren’t we animals?), in the last resort, not depend on this idealisation?

    • A profound question, Anton. But I am not quite sure about every different aspect hiding in your question. I do not think, to make a start of reflecting on them, that idealization leads to identification. European artists, for instance, have for centuries idealized the female body. This didn’t lead them to identify with it, or with women, did it? Idealization can coincide with exclusion and violence – perhaps even conjure it up. I don’t think I idealize animals, but I should ask my cat who is just now trying to talk to me… to dig in all the difficulties connected with this I think planning our this year’s pizza might be a good idea.

      Btw Fanon was not African, but born in Martinique – I should read Coetzee, don’t know her work. Thanks for the references!

  4. The pizza date is agreed! It is interesting that you assumed Coetzee to be a woman. Perhaps, he demonstrates, by his novel Elisabeth Costello, how you can become a woman by idealizing her.
    Becoming is not the same thing as being, according to Deleuze. Perhaps, a comparable difference is to be found in Derrida’s ‘donc’, l’animal que donc je suis, I should read it again or wait for your deconstruction. But, being very impatient, I would rather reframe my question: how can we avoid an identification (we are animals) that is exclusive and violent?
    And to which extent could we say that Fanon is not African? Has he not become an African, by writing Les damnés de la terre?

    • onesis said:

      A group of us have been discussing the ramifications of abolishing the human/animal divide and the suggestion was made that the meaning of the word ‘moral’ signifies an essential difference between humans and other animals. It is not that other animals are not moral; it is that their morality means doing what is completely natural for them. For humans the situation is far less clear. So the difference is spelled out as follows:

      It may well be that other animals are naturally moral. There is for them no morality/nature divide. They morally do what their nature dictates.

      What makes humans different is that we can question what has been given to us as moral and we may try to act in ways that seem more natural (perhaps even basing our activities on the example set by various animals, e.g. the great apes, as some have done).

      What we may find out from experience is that it is better to be moral than natural. (I assume human morality to take the codified form of principles and precedents in relationships with others.) This is my own position.

      This is a non naturalist conclusion. It is an indefinite result and one that I am unwilling to generalise about, unless someone I know is living in a state of nature and are very unhappy.

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