A Beastly History of Philosophy

Do animals belong in philosophy? Animals hardly appear in any historical overview of philosophy. This may seem fair at first glance, since philosophy is mainly a human affair, but if we look at the definitions philosophers give of the word ‘human’, there is always some sort of reference to animals. Humans are described as ‘rational animal’, the ‘cooking animal’, ‘the animal that is able to cry’, ‘the animal that is able to make plans’ et cetera. Apparently animals play a crucial role in finding characteristics of ourselves.
The main difference with other animals, classical writers as Aristotle state, is the fact that men can think. Man has intelligence, and philosophy, as the art of thinking, is an intelligent discipline by definition. If man is a special animal with unique qualities, philosophy proves it. In this sense, Philosophy is men’s way out of animality, and history is there to show for it. This line of thinking, which is dominant till the Romantic era, up to this day has a hold on the history of philosophy as an academic discipline. Up to this day, it has a tendency to keep animals out of all narratives. In the many voluminous histories of philosophy we find in our bookstores, writers tend to emphasise the unique human capability of intellectualism, rather than letting animals sneak in. Historians of philosophy mainly tell the story of evolving theoretical insights.
This book, A Beastly History of Philosophy, takes a closer look at what lurks in the margins of philosophy. It is centred around quotes on animals and animality in the work of great philosophers. I focus on these points, not only to do justice to the forgotten creatures and our marginalised body, but also to show the impact ideas have on the lives of humans and other animals.
Histories of philosophy usually are intellectually satisfying, but they tend to skip the part were philosophy really gets exciting: in practice. In this book, which contains a few hundred paintings and photos that illustrate ideas in practice, I try to explain the impact ideas have on all those that have interests; i.e. men, animals, plants et cetera. It would be possible to write a history of philosophy that focusses solely on plants or bacteria, and perhaps such books should be written, because these living beings are even more non-existent in philosophy than animals, but I thought I’d take a first step by paying due attention to animals and to our own animality. I hope it will help to end, what I call, the Tiervergessenheit (animal oblivion) that defines our western culture.
This book shows that, up until the romantic period, philosophers saw animals and humans that supposedly were tied up in their own animality (i.e. women, slaves and coloureds) as lower beings that were more or less void of intelligence, and therefore not of interest. This view originates from the time that the Olympic gods took over the temple of Delphi in Greece, somewhere between 1600 and 800 BC. Previously the temple had been a centre for the cult of the Mother Goddess, a goddess of fertility. With the Olympic gods came the idea that men should take the ´higher viewpoint´ of abstract ideas. Philosophers such as Plato (427-247 B.C.) and Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) concluded that the physical world had to be moulded to these higher ideas.
In the Middle Ages this ideal of moulding the unmoulded resulted in strict hierarchy, known a as the scala naturae or ‘the great chain of being’, with God (as pure intellect) at the top and women, coloured people, animals and plants at the very bottom. This hierarchical depiction of all that lives suggested that beings with intellect were higher, and therefore should reign those below them. Men should guide the ‘primitive beings’, whose minds were guided by mere instincts. These lower beings had to be moulded into a decent shape. Animals had to work for humans, so they at least served a higher purpose. Since women were regarded to be more animalistic than men, the best thing that could happen to them was that they found a good husband who could guide them, not unlike the way the wise horseman would lead his horses. Women were also literally moulded into shape. They had to wear corsets, which were first made of steel and later of cloth.
The Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536) is amongst the first to mock the higher viewpoint doctrine. His work marks the end of the ´era of the horseman´, as I call it. The metaphor of the horseman originates in Plato´s myth of the human soul. Our intelligence, he states, is a horseman that steers our organic forces (in Plato’s metaphor a wild black horse), and our social inclinations (a white horse) in the right direction (i.e. up). Erasmus tells us that we are lousy jockeys. Every time we want to mould the world around us to our so called great insights, things go wrong. Popes, theologians, philosophers and lay men who try it, become dogmatic and are prone to hubris. Since all horsemen, all those who consider themselves primarily as intellectual beings, have a tendency to violence and tyranny, Erasmus suggests we identify ourselves with the middle part of our soul: our social being; the part of the soul that Plato calls the thymos which he compares to a white horse that is attentive, social and humble. We cannot be intellectuals, Erasmus is saying, we just have a bit of intelligence, and we can never coincide completely with this limited human faculty.
The new era that starts with Erasmus, the era of the white horse, is a time in which virtues as modesty and self-doubt are seen as vital. This era spans the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and is characterised by a more critical attitude towards the Bible and by the start of an unprecedented scientific progress.
A few centuries later, while science is blooming, men grow tired of modesty. Why be modest if we can have our needs fulfilled? The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) is among the first to ride the black horse. He sees men as animals with strong instincts and passions; instincts and passions that really matter, but are neglected in the so called decent society. We should all return to nature, he boldly announces, because in nature we can be ourselves. A century later the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham regards the human body, the most vital part of Rousseau’s nature, the sole anchor of morality. Pain is bad, pleasure is good. Forget everything else.
The era of the black horse, that now has started, sees changing attitudes towards the human and animal bodies. For the first time in history, western men find themselves sunbathing on the beach, climbing mountains and camping in the fields. The corset is being traded in for cleavage. The body no longer wants to be moulded. On the contrary, every attempt to shape it to higher ideas is seen as brutal repression. This anger towards the moulders gives rise to the women liberation movement. Women are being liberated as repressed bodies, I conclude, not as beings with intellectual capacities. The same happens to animals. They are also emancipated as organic beings; being for which we feel sorry, because we identify ourselves with their physical needs, but not being with more subtle capacities.
Philosophers like Voltaire (1694–1778) and Schopenhauer (1788–1860) argue against the moulding of animals to the needs of humans. Animals are not machines, Voltaire states in reply to Descartes. Somewhat later Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) proposes to treat animals ‘humane’, i.e. in accordance with human (not animal) high standards. This idea of a ‘humane treatment of animals’ inspires the first animal movements in the beginning of the nineteenth century. The first animal protectors were hardly interested in the animals they tried to protect; their focus was on ‘human decency’ towards animals. This also explains why they did not plea for animal rights. Human endeavours to protect the animal, i.e. human decency, were regarded as sufficient.
The idea of animal rights can first be found in Animal Rights (1894) by Henry Salt (1851–1939), and is regarded up to this day as controversial. In Democratie voor dieren (Democracy for Animals), my previous book, I argued we should drop our reluctance towards animal rights. If children and even companies that only exist on paper can have rights to protect them, so can animals. We should in fact grant all civil rights to all animals, and then take away those rights which the individual animal cannot handle; somewhat similar to the way we take away the freedom rights of a convict or the way we take away the financial responsibility of elderly that are demented.
This book ends with the question why we have had different philosophical era. Why did we first wanted to be the coach of our social and physical feelings (the era of the horseman), whereas we later equated ourselves to social animals (the era of the white horse) and ended up in the ‘era of the black horse’, in which we saw ourselves mainly as animals with individual bodily interests? Sure enough we are still social and intellectual beings, but somehow we do not focus that much on these aspects of our self, or ´soul´ as Plato would call it. The origins of psychology provide a good example of this. The first modern psychiatrists tried to free men from intellectual idées fixes while bringing them in contact with their animality and their physical needs. In ethics something similar happened. Ethicists started focussing on pain and pleasure as main sources of ethics. Meanwhile the main philosophical movements of the last centuries stated that humans have no intellectual core or essence. Since there are no ideas that really stick to us, we can only rely on our biology, which is a given. Darwin (1809–1882), Nietzsche (1844–1900) and to some point even Sartre (1805–1980) all point in this direction when they say that men has no obvious values, except perhaps the values that are rooted in instinct.
Can man survive on instinct alone? Can we build a shared civilisation on instincts? The question is posed by the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk (1947-) in his book Rules for the Human Park. I’d like to add some more questions to this intriguing one. If we see ourselves as animals, will we treat our bodies as we treat the bodies of other animals? Our pharming animals are now being ‘enhanced’ by all sorts of breeding techniques and genetic modifications. Scientists are discussing whether they should knock out genes that regulate their feelings of stress. If we regard ourselves as animals, will we ‘improve’ ourselves as well in this direction? If we do so, we are altering the very foundation of our modern ethics, since, in the era of the black horse, we like to find our moral grounds in very basic human rights (like the right not to be tortured) and thus in the very physicality we are now improving.
Lots of questions. Yet, looking back, one thing is obvious: we somehow were able to change our identity in the past by choosing to equate ourselves with, what Plato called, different ‘parts of our soul’. And apparently we felt a strong urge to coincide with just one part of our soul at each time. Looking back on our history of philosophy and seeing the impact ideas had on human and animal live, I wonder whether it would have been better if we had identified ourselves with all three parts of the human soul at once. It seems hardly anyone has even tried. But perhaps we can. We can make an effort to embrace the idea of a horizontally layered self and evoke some form of checks and balances between these parts, so we do not fall into the trap of tyranny by the intellect (which caused so many troubles in the era of the horseman), the trap of ciphering ourselves away by overemphasis virtues of modesty (the problem of the era of the white horse), or by falling into the trap of blunt physicality and Verslimmbesserung (the process of ‘improving’ things step by step whereby no one holds an idea of the final outcome) and perhaps future numbification (problems in this era of the black horse). Perhaps we need some form of checks and balances in our soul, not unlike the Trias Politica in the field of politics. Call it a Trias Psychica.

This is summary of my Dutch book: Een beestachtige geschiedenis van de filosofie.

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