Karl Steel on the Fallacious Animal-Human Distinction

Who is human? What is distinctively human? Answering this fairly intractable question of demarcation–one that students in philosophy of biology can see peeking around the corner at them when they tackle the subject of whether species exist– can often–if not always–involve defining and articulating the non-human.  One particularly well-established tradition of such attempts has been directed at animals, our companions, pets, food, and indeed, astonishingly varied facilitators of our modern lives. (Unsurprisingly, when we build robots, we build them in the shape of animals too; there are robotic pet dogs that are, for instance, supposed to be helpful in making old folks’ twilight days more pleasurable, and yet others that might approximate the functionality of Beagles or St. Bernard dogs.) These distinctions, once established through a variety of ideological maneuvers, then enable the varied uses of animals–shades of the Great Chain of Being–and establish our ‘unique’ place in nature and the world.

The particular definition of ourselves as human by way of violent contradistinction with animals in the is the subject of Karl Steel‘s provocative book How to Make a Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages (Ohio State University Press, 2011; Intervention: New Studies in Medieval Culture); Steel’s primary focus is how violence directed against animals served to persuade humans that there were in fact, crucial and principled boundaries between them and animals. A self-serving circle of theorizing and action was thus set up: humans were not animals because animals were the kinds of beings that could be treated in ways that humans could not. And they could be treated in those ways because they did not possess uniquely human qualities. (Take your pick: a soul, mentality, language, reason, culture; the list goes on.)

In this brief note today I want to quickly point to a preliminary discussion in its opening pages, which should give us a hint of the kind of category upending that is, I think, one of the aims of Steel’s work. Steel notes that Heidegger in his Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics  distinguishes animals from humans by describing the latter as a kind of being ‘for which being itself is an issue.’  Animals cannot reflect on their being in this world even as they apprehend it. (Utterly inanimate objects do not even apprehend the world the way animals do.) Beings like us are aware of our deaths, and of the world’s endurance after it. Animals have no such capacity, they have no world that they inhabit; they are ‘unaware of the world’s existence apart from themselves, [they] do not die but merely cease.’ Steel notes that Heidegger’s arguments were inspired by ‘the founder of ethologyJakob von Uexküll, who suggested the ‘subjective world of the tick, its umwelt, as limited by the means by which it sates its desires and reacts to stimuli….this is its whole world.’ This is not enough for Heidegger for whom it is improper to speak of the animal as having any kind of world.

Steel then points out:

Yet the creature’s worldless immersion in world, its (in)ability to discover the distinction between what it experiences as world and the world itself , should be the same, mutatis mutandis, for Uexküll’s tick as it is for a human, since every creature’s particular abilities (including its own ways of being aware of injuries and pleasures) constrain and shape its engagement and perception of the world; there is no good reason not to understand humans has also had by their own umwelt…since humans can also reflect upon the conditions of existence to a degree, why can’t animals each in its own way? Humans and animals both might engage with their own death without ever being able to fully appropriate it to their own consciousness….If humans cease to be thought of as possessing unique moral significance because of their purported sole possession of responsibility or their unique capacity for reflection, nonhuman animals would cease to be automatically available to humans as mere worldly objects available for use by their supposed betters.

That last sentence is of particular interest to me; in a future post, I hope to elaborate more on that theme. (Think artificial agents.)

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