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.

  5. Lee said:

    Hi Angela,

    Fascinating article! A few thoughts that it shakes loose for me:

    My general view is that it would be a good thing to overcome the divide between humans and animals (created by humans), while not erasing the distinction between humans and animals.

    Swedenborg’s view on that distinction is embedded in his multi-layered theory of reality. He saw humans as having all of the layers that animals have, which are the various layers of material reality plus the lowest, “natural” or “earthly” layer of spiritual reality, which involves the ability to interact constructively with the world around us. And he did see humans as similar to animals when humans confine themselves to these lower levels, and do not develop the higher levels unique to humans.

    The distinction he saw between humans and animals is that humans, he said, have two additional and higher layers or levels of spiritual reality, which he (somewhat confusingly) called the “spiritual” and “heavenly” (traditionally “celestial”) layers of reality. These correspond generally to the ability to engage in intellectual, rational, and moral thought (the spiritual level) and the ability to love God and the neighbor (others) for non-self-centered reasons: i.e., out of a desire to give them happiness whether or not that provides any benefit for oneself (the heavenly level).

    Also central to Swedenborg’s view of animals is his view of the “correspondential” relationship between Creation, or nature as a whole, and the human mind or spirit. He did see humans as the pinnacle of creation, as has been very common in Western religion and philosophy. That, however, was not so much because he saw humans as the rulers of earth, but because he saw humans as being made “in the image and likeness of God.” God, Swedenborg said, is a human being, in the sense of being the embodiment and source of the characteristics that make us human: love, wisdom, and the power to express them.

    However, Swedenborg said that the world of nature is also a reflection of the nature of God, though in its material layer (the physical universe), and thus on a lower level than that of the higher spiritual levels that humans include in their being. Everything in nature, he said, therefore reflects not only some aspect of the nature of God, but some aspect of the nature of the human psyche.

    Because of this view, when Swedenborg came to the verse the Creation story in which God commands the newly created humans to:

    Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth. (Genesis 1:28, emphasis added)

    rather than taking it as a commandment for humans to rule over the animal kingdom, as it has generally been read, he took it as a commandment for humans to subject the lower parts of their own natures—the animal parts, so to speak—to the higher levels of spiritual thought and heavenly love. And though this could still be seen as “humanist” and “speciesist,” it is at least a step away from the idea that God has ordained that humans should rule the animal kingdom in imperious and self-serving fashion.

    At the present time in the history of the world, it is largely a moot point whether humans should rule over the remainder of the animal kingdom. The reality is that we are the dominant species on earth. If we don’t destroy ourselves first, we do have the ability to domesticate or eliminate most other major species on earth (in terms of size; insects, for example, would present a special problem). This means that the question of our relationship with the animal kingdom has become quite critical. Though plant and marine species, not to mention bacteria and such, do heavily outweigh humans on earth, on land, humans, our livestock, and our pets now constitute 97% to 98% of the total mass of land mammals, only 2% to 3% being wildlife.

    I don’t claim to have the solution to this rather alarming situation. However, I generally think that seeing animals as being on a continuum with us rather than radically divided from us must be a part of the solution. Even though we do (I believe) go distinctly beyond animals in our ability to engage in rational and spiritual thinking and love, we also share much of our nature with animals. Even today we are embedded in the world of nature, despite the fact that in the wealthier parts of the world many of us have managed to wall ourselves off from much of our direct, daily relationship with the animal, plant, and mineral kingdoms of nature. But, for example, our food still comes from the plant and animal kingdoms. It would be foolish to think that we are no longer in essential relationship with nature.

    Finding a more symbiotic, respectful, and mutually beneficial relationship with the rest of nature would, I think, have benefits not only on the environmental level, but on the level of the human mind and spirit. After all, if the world of nature reflects and represents a significant segment of our own nature as human beings, sickening and destroying the world of nature certainly has a negative meaning and affect on our total nature and being as humans.

    These are some of my thoughts in response to your article, from a Swedenborgian perspective.

    • Lee said:

      Oops, that should have been “effect,” not “affect,” in the last sentence of the second-to-last paragraph.

    • Hi Lee, thanks so much for your elaborate reply. It comes timely as well, as I will give a lecture next week on Swedenborg in a philosophical summer week in Germany. My title will be ‘Love and Freedom of the Will – the Spirit World in the Modern Age’ (but then in German of course). The Enlightenment is the theme of the week. And I have become more convinced that Swedenborg is not a ‘Fremdkörper’ (outsider) in the Enlightenment movement because of his spiritual insights, but that he modernized Christian spirituality, where others modernized science, law, etc.

      Now as to animals. Among anti-speciesist thinkers it is common to speak of non-human animals. Others speak of earth-others. All in an attempt to erase the divide. I thank you for your presentation of Swedenborg’s thought on the different levels of materiality and spirituality. I have come to think differently, however, and this ties in with my early childhood seeking the company of plants, rocks, the earth and animals, speaking to them and listening to them. I didn’t know what I was doing then of course. But I have been trying to convey what I learned back then. I came to think that maybe we should grant the non-human animals the ‘higher’ spirituality and morality after all. When we look at our greed and deadly encounters with the rest of nature, what else can we conclude? Also I have seen animals teach us from their spiritual knowledge many times, but many humans don’t see it, and moreover, the literary and academic world do not acknowledge it.

      As to the insects, didn’t you read of that recent investigation in Europe which showed that insects are massively dying out? Here is a source: The cause might be pesticides, or as farmers like to call it: crop protection aids. We don’t know anymore that our food comes from the earth, as we find it in supermarkets, and its source is a mystery, but will very likely be an industrialized farming process.

      I think the best way to counter things is, next to political action to ban pesticides etc., that people on a small scale grow some food themselves again. Then we can start to learn from nature again, and see our interconnectedness with all around us again – which we have mostly forgotten.

      • Lee said:

        Hi Angela,

        Any chance of posting on your blog an English version of your upcoming talk? I’d love to read it! Swedenborg certainly was very much an Enlightenment figure. I have come to believe that the Enlightenment was the earthly version of the Last Judgment on traditional Christianity that Swedenborg described as taking place in the spiritual world during his lifetime. The Enlightenment was the death knell of the death grip that the old and corrupted Christian Church had held over the European mind for many centuries.

        Although I don’t think of animals as having the higher levels of consciousness that humans do, I do think of them as being conduits for higher spiritual knowledge and awareness. After all, in Swedenborg’s system of correspondences, each animal, plant, or mineral represents some aspect of spiritual reality and human consciousness, as well as some aspect of God. So although I’m not convinced that animals are consciously aware of any of this, I do think they can give us messages that originate in realms higher than themselves, just as human seers and prophets can deliver messages that originate in realms higher than themselves, and that they themselves may not fully comprehend. I recall from my youth (probably faultily) a little piece that has always stuck with me even if I’m not sure I have the words quite right:

        A woman read a poem and discovered the meaning of life.
        I wrote the poem.
        I don’t know the meaning of life.

        Good point about the insects.

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