Just a few weeks ago, the Tory (conservative) controlled British Parliament was debating what parts of European Union law to make part of the United Kingdom’s law following the disastrous Brexit vote. During this deliberation, they voted not to transfer legislation that acknowledges non-human animals have sentience, thus denying they can feel pain and emotions.
This is so ludicrous that you’d think it’d be a headline in the dystopian world of the United States. But the UK isn’t much better, clearly. With this parliamentary decision, the British government is basically saying that animals are automatons or robots that don’t have the ability to feel, in any degree, the pains, pleasures, and emotions that we humans do.
Such an idea is so antiquated, so brutal and injurious to animals and our own humanity that it makes me completely despondent to think about. As someone who has been a lifelong advocate for animals, and currently works at a wildlife sanctuary, it is a crushing blow to my morale.
It made me recall an essay I wrote a couple years ago as part of a Philosophy of Mind course. It was rejected for publication on the basis of over-sentimentality towards animals, which is, ironically, the very sort of thinking I was aiming to refute.
Below is the essay in its original formatting. I will preface it by saying that it was written for a graduate level philosophy course, and while I tried to make it accessible, it is filled with a good amount of jargon and terminology that might be alienating to someone not familiar with the humanities.
Still, I think it is worthwhile considering how primitive mainstream discourses about animal rights and animal lives can be. I hope folks can extract something salient and useful from it, especially if you have ever felt a deep emotional bond with an animal–and I imagine most people have.
Reassessing the Barriers of Consciousness: Embodiment, Mind, and Animality
When my parents brought me home from the hospital after I was born the first thing they did, I’m told, was lay me down on the carpet so that our two dogs, a Bassett Hound named Mortimer (Morty), and Coca, a Cocker Spaniel, could inspect me through an exhaustive sniffing routine. From that moment on they were my canine guardians. They dutifully followed me wherever I rolled, crawled, stumbled, and eventually walked. Supposedly, they intuitively knew that I was something precious to my parents, and therefore, precious to them as well. Dogs are of course “man’s best friend,” yet for me, this adage seems inadequate somehow. I have always had an uncanny, almost preternatural relationship with dogs. I bond with them extremely fast, even dogs that are timid or standoffish towards other humans seem to warm up to me without much suspicion. My first memory is of adopting one of our family dogs, Cookie, another Basset Hound. I am an only-child, so during my infancy and a large part of my childhood, dogs were my primary playmates and companions. This played no small role in my development. I vividly remember being on all fours, barking, romping, and playing with our dogs; and admittedly this is something I still do from time to time. I saw myself as one of them.
As I sit at my desk typing these words, a dog is fast asleep at my feet, softly whimpering and twitching as she dreams. Her name is Blue; she’s a beautiful Australian Shepherd-Labrador mix. I love her dearly. Like many dog owners observing their pet having a dream, I wonder what they dream about, I wonder what the content of a dog dream might be. If I was a dog, I imagine I’d dream of playing fetch, going on long walks with my human, eating that coveted hamburger I’ve been begging for, or finally catching my arch nemesis the squirrel. Indeed, these are some of the things that seem meaningful in a dog’s world. Which begs the question, what is it like to be a dog? What is their mental life like? Because of humanity’s affinity for canines, much research has been done on their social behavior, cognitive abilities, and how they see the world. For example, some studies suggest that dogs have even learned the sophisticated concept of imitation, which requires them to “map” their bodies onto human bodies or other animals. This devotion to canine research undoubtedly allows us to better appreciate the fascinating creatures that dogs are. But while such research and phenomenological inquires (i.e. questions about the nature of consciousness) are frequently posed about our furry four legged friends, we rarely think about the rest of the animal kingdom in this way. Certainly we humans privilege the dog because we co-evolved with it; dogs were the first domesticated animal and our relationship with them stretches back at least ten thousand years. Other domesticated animals such as cats, horses, some rodents, and of course the great apes also receive preferential treatment and more compassion from us. But pigs, for example, have shown to be just as intelligent, if not more so, than dogs; cows and chickens are also more intelligent than we generally seem to acknowledge. Yet for some reason these animals are inhumanely bred, raised, and slaughtered while society at large barely bats an eyelash. Human societies have created moral taxonomies in which certain animals are deemed worthy of companionship and natural rights while others are exploited, consumed, or incorporated into modes of production. Certainly some of these distinctions can be culturally relative, but humanity as a whole has a pernicious tendency to view itself at the top of all such taxonomies. We have unquestioningly crowned the Homo sapien as the king of nature and as the organism most deserving of compassion and sympathy; it is separate and elevated above all other animals. Why?
In this paper I argue that how humans conceive of and treat non-human animals is closely bound up with epistemological theories of the mind and body, and cannot simply be reduced to cultural relativism. Both ancient and modern epistemologies, especially in the Western world, have made sharp distinctions between humanity and the rest of nature, which have then been used to justify blatant forms of animal cruelty and the wanton destruction of the environment. Specifically, I focus on forms of dualism claiming that mind and body are fundamentally different substances, ultimately rejecting such forms of substance dualism in favor of monistic theories that dispel the false distinction between mind and matter. Such theories not only challenge us to reevaluate what defines consciousness, but also allow humanity to see itself in continuity with nature rather than separate from it, thus setting the precedent for more ethical treatment of animal life and the environment as a whole.
Even after the advent of Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution, scientists and philosophers have been creating divisions between man and non-human animals. Two monumental thinkers that have heavily contributed to the deepening of such divisions are Aristotle and René Descartes, and their influences are still very evident in contemporary ways of thinking about animality. In the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle searches for the function of human beings, which he eventually concludes is expressing reason or acting in accordance with rationality. In defining this function, however, he makes a clear distinction between man and the rest of the animal world by saying that “what we are looking for is the special function of a human being; hence we should set aside the life of nutrition and growth. The life next in order is some sort of life of sense perception; but this too is apparently shared, with horse, ox, and every animal. The remaining possibility, then, is some sort of life of action of the part of the soul that has reason.” So while Aristotle believes that humans and animals have in common the life of nutrition, growth, appetency, locomotion and sense perception, he reserves the rational for only the human. He does not elaborate in detail on the differences between man and animal in Nicomachean Ethics, but the implication begins a long tradition of viewing humans as separate from the rest of nature. Later, Aristotle would formalize a hierarchy of species with his “Scale of Nature,” which makes explicit the superiority of rational man.
Turning to the modern era, Descartes made a more forthright assertion by classifying animals as automata devoid of feelings and emotions. Since his cogito supposedly demonstrates that all sensory experience is potentially illusory, thoughts become the only certainty. And since, according to Descartes, thinking is expressed via language, animals do not think because they do not have the capacity for language. This mechanistic view of animals effectively severed any intuitively sympathetic or emotional connections humans had with them, and allowed for the complete objectification of the animal body. Early vivisectionists would cut the vocal cords of the animals they dissected for study so they would not hear the creatures’ cries of anguish; the vivisectionist would deny the animal his humanity by being able to cut the vocal cords and act as if the animal could not feel pain, the reasoning being that it was, as Descartes said, only a machine.
To further contextualize this extreme separation of the human and non-human animal, we must briefly discuss Cartesian mind-body dualism. Descartes uses his method of systematic doubt to answer the basic epistemological question “What do I know?” He applies this method through two famous arguments, the dream argument, which states that we cannot know anything about our physical environments because we could potentially be dreaming it, and the evil genius argument, which posits a diabolical, omnipotent entity authoring a massive deception about the physical world and even mathematical beliefs. He concludes that we ultimately cannot know anything for certain about the material world or even formalized knowledge like mathematics. And since we fundamentally cannot know anything about the material world, Descartes is led to believe we cannot rely on the testimony of the senses (sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell) as a means to gather objective knowledge, and that instead objective truth radiates from an internal world of ideas, not feelings. This radical dichotomy elevated thinking and ideas over feeling and sensing because feelings were thought to distort and lead one astray to false forms of knowledge. The view of the body became that of a mere appendage—a machine that served the mind—and thus was subject to mechanical laws. It is easy to see how this type of substance dualism leads to the devaluation of all bodies, both human and animal, as well as our physical environments, in favor of a transcendental ego or mind. In the aforementioned case of the vivisectionist, Cartesian dualism and its associated schools of thought led directly to the literal torture of animal bodies.
While Descartes thinking was revolutionary for his time and greatly helped to advance philosophical discourse, his epistemological theories have largely been discounted. Certainly most would agree that ethics has advanced beyond considering all animal life as automata. But still, despite the philosophical refutations of Cartesian thought on logical grounds, the mechanistic view of non-human animals has lingered for centuries, and only recently have certain thinkers been resurrected that directly address it. One such thinker is the early 20th century biologist Jakob von Uexküll, who contended “that conventional biology had run its course by treating animals as objects governed by mechanical laws of nature such that they became accessible to the scientific eye of human objectivity.” Uexküll is most famous for his pioneering ideas on animal behavior and ethology, specifically the concept of the Umwelt, a term he used to describe how animals and their environments work in tandem to form a whole system or unitary structure; the two are interdependent, the one cannot exist without the other. Uexküll’s underlying thesis for the Umwelt is that the reality we know is ultimately reducible to subjective experience; “there is no objective reality in the form of objects, things or the world; there is nothing outside of the individually subjective experiences that create a world as meaningful” So while we generally believe there to be one objective world, according to Uexküll there are as many worlds as there are organisms or subjects. Each subject interprets its environment in a way that creates meaning specific to its own Umwelt. Put simply, different organisms interpret objects and environmental contexts in different ways, and while this may seem obvious, it is often a fact we take for granted.
Consider how an object that has meaning in my human Umwelt may not have any meaning at all in my dog Blue’s canine Umwelt. For example, the computer I’m typing on right now is a tool of great importance to me, but it has no such importance to Blue (other than my apparent fascination with it). However, if I were to walk across the room and pick up her leash, she would immediately bolt towards me and sit down with rapt attention towards that object, as she knows my picking it up indicates that going on a walk is imminent. Conversely, the leash also has some significance to me, as it is something I use to facilitate enjoyable experiences with my beloved dog. Thus the computer is an object unique to my Umwelt, but the leash is an object both Blue and I have ascribed significance to in our respective Umwelts. Similarly, Blue and I both perceive the couch as an object that can be sat and slept on. Several other examples from Uexküll’s empirical research are used to help illustrate this concept of multiple subjective worlds and how they overlap. In one such example, he notes “how even something as simple as a single flower can be a sign of adornment for a human, a pipe full of liquid for an insect, a path to cross for an ant, or a source of nourishment for a cow.” The scene of a flower in a meadow, once seemingly objective, takes on a multiplicity of meaning through the lens of the Umwelt. Another salient and frequently cited example is that of the tick. In the tick world or Umwelt, very few stimuli or environmental factors are of any significance to it. In fact the only things meaningful to a tick are the sensory perceptions of heat, the scent of butyric acid from the sweat of a mammal, and of course blood. These few signs are the totality of the tick’s Umwelt, as these are all it needs to fulfill its life quest of boring into a mammal’s skin to slake its thirst of blood so that it can fertilize its eggs, and then die. And although sucking blood and the pungent scent of sweat are of no interest to me, the mammals that are significant to the tick, such as dogs, are of great significance to me, albeit in a qualitatively different way. These are just a few examples that illustrate the wildly different types of subjective worlds organisms have, from the relative simplicity of the tick, all the way up to the complexity of the great apes. These examples also show how Umwelten can mesh and intertwine with each other in a sprawling, multifarious, and fascinating web of life. This holistic model demonstrates how meaning is derived from the relationships between organisms and their environments, and that to truly understand any animal, including the human animal, we must analyze it in terms of the relations it is capable of forming. Uexküll was of course a biologist and not a philosopher, but it would be foolish not to see how his subtly intersubjective theory has serious philosophical implications—implications that French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty would articulate in greater detail.
Merleau-Ponty was another dissenter from Cartesian dualism. Rather than defining consciousness in terms of a disembodied mind or cogito, he situates the lived body as the locus of knowledge or as the source of “rootedness” within the world. However, this focus on the lived body might obfuscate the fact that he was not an empiricist either. Instead of strictly ascribing to monism or dualism, Merleau-Ponty proposes an ingenuous synthesis of the empirical and the ideal, and by doing so “reveals the ways in which human embodiment connects with other forms of embodiment in the production of meaning.” His philosophy indirectly imports the Umwelt theory by suggesting that it is the unitary structure of organisms actively producing and reacting to environmental factors that allows for the possibility of consciousness. He applies a phenomenological component to the Umwelt by saying that we cannot analyze consciousness or the mind outside of embodied contexts, because without the reference point that is the body, a subject could not be perceived, and self-awareness presupposes an “other.” A reified self cannot exist apart from other cognitive agents, and we must be able to view ourselves from the perspective of an other in order for reflexivity to be possible; for it is reflexivity, the turning of experience back on itself, that is the essential condition for the emergence of mind. Thus, mind is born out of interaction with other organisms in a particular environment or milieu. Through Merleau-Ponty’s construal of the Umwelt, consciousness and the environment co-emerge. Mind arises with the setting, not before or after. He views the mind as the other side of the body; mind “overflows into the body, encroaches upon it, is hidden in it—and at the same time needs it, terminates in it, is anchored in it.” This is to say that mind arises only out of embodiment, and that the concepts of subjectivity and consciousness simply do not make sense outside the context of a body. Mind is body and body is mind.
Merleau-Ponty’s thought occupies a liminal space between the ideal and the empirical, as he rejects idealism by saying that sensory perception brings meaning and knowledge instead of some ethereal or extra-sensible element; yet he does not fall into the empiricist camp either, because in his model the relationship between the milieu and the subject is not a passive one in which the body is merely a medium through which the determinants of behavior pass through, but a dynamic and complex entity that incorporates these stimuli and responds in novel ways and creates meaning. Thus, the organism is both a physical and an ideal construct. The astute reader will already have seen numerous and perhaps surprising parallels between Merleau-Ponty and the classical American pragmatist George Herbert Mead, who also claimed that mind is a social phenomenon that necessitates reflexivity, and that reality is characterized by the interactions of organisms interacting with and producing an environment that continually calls for novel readjustments.There are also numerous similarities to the Indian Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna’s concept of a “dependently co-arisen” sense of self, that is that each self comes to be and ceases to be according to unique and unrepeatable interweaving matrices of cultural, social, psychological, and genetic conditions.
After this long detour into the intricacies of Merleau-Ponty’s thought, we can finally ask, what might such a theory say about the relationship between human and animal minds? First and foremost, the situation of the body as the locus of knowledge means that mind is not, as much of history has alleged, an exclusively human privilege that is handed down in some Promethean fashion from a transcendental realm. Rather, mind is the consequence of embodiment and sociality, and human mind is only one type of consciousness on a long and winding continuum of animal consciousness. Perhaps continuum is not even the appropriate term, as the ideas of Uexküll and Merleau-Ponty allow us to see humanity not as the apex of nature’s hierarchy, but as one form of embodiment in continuity with other forms of embodiment and the whole of nature. So the relationship between humans and animals becomes a lateral one rather than one of sequential stages on the way to some ultimate evolutionary goal or telos. Indeed, my individual consciousness is created out of a general milieu that all other forms of consciousness are also participating in. Humans, dogs, apes, birds—even insects, amoebas, and the minutia of microbial life—all of us are contributing to and drawing from such a milieu. Our Umwelts overlap and co-constitute each other. While the muteness of animals is often used to justify cruelty towards them, we do not need to have a linguistic exchange with an animal in order to infer about its feelings and have empathy with it. Both Merleau-Ponty and contemporary science suggest that humans have a very narrow and anthropocentric view of language. Rather, we only need a body, for it is the body that allows for connection and empathy with other subjectivities. My love for my dog Blue and other forms of sentient life comes from the very basic realization that they too are embodied things, and therefore share many of the same needs, desires, and even perhaps some of the perceptions as I do. Like me, Blue can feel pain, pleasure, and hunger; she too yearns for shelter, warmth, and companionship. Merleau-Ponty further radicalizes this concept by going so far as to say that we can even have empathy with inanimate objects. If I see a soda can being crushed, I can have empathy with it, “not because I feel sorry for it or because it suffers by being crushed, but because I share with it a kinship in that I, too, have a material vulnerability. Crushing the can affects me because I am a system of relations amongst things in my environment.” This admittedly seems a bit absurd on the surface. But it simply the idea that, like a soda can, my body is vulnerable to being crushed, or like a pane of glass, I am capable of being broken and shattered. It is a well-known but radical notion about the nature of materiality.
Those who are skeptical of such emotive projections onto animals might object by appealing to concerns of anthropomorphizing, and animal lovers everywhere and those who champion animal rights are often accused of this. Even those within the field of animal welfare or animal rights are concerned about the dangers of projecting human needs and feelings onto animals for fear of misconstruing what they actually need. But Merleau-Ponty’s theory directly addresses the concern of anthropomorphism. Again, in accordance with Uexküll’s ideas, Merleau-Ponty argues that reality is reducible to subjective experience, and that there is no pure objective realm outside of us where things exist in their “true” or “real” state. Since such a realm does not exist, humans should not be concerned with how we can epistemologically bridge into it. Instead we should embrace the subjectivity that is our reality, and be comfortable with the fact “that multiple interpretations of phenomena do not stem from error or from the limited capacities of human knowers; rather, ambiguity arises irreducibly from phenomena.” This philosophy of the ambiguous means that all knowledge is fundamentally partial, it does not mean however that the pursuit of knowledge is futile. So, when we infer about animal behavior by relating it to human behavior, we should not be overly concerned about anthropomorphizing that compromises our supposed “objectivity,” which again, is a fiction anyways. Clearly we cannot help but anthropomorphize because it is the result of an embodied perspective that we cannot escape! And while we cannot find external evidence for the phenomenological or emotional states of a dog, pig, Chimpanzee, etc., the same epistemic asymmetry exists between us and other humans, yet we have no problem granting them consciousness and a rich range of emotions (by this I simply mean that although we cannot technically prove that other individual humans are sentient, thinking beings and not robots or zombies, we acknowledge this unconditionally). “Excessive worry about anthropomorphizing belies a tacitly idealist epistemology which locates meaning not in the phenomena but in the legislating consciousness of the individual knower. Merleau-Ponty frees meaning from being the provenance of an isolated mind to being a shared creation which every actor facilitates.” All this is not to say that we shouldn’t respect species difference. Each animal has a life suited to a species-specific nature and humans should always be aware of such boundaries, but we can do so while simultaneously realizing that many animals share much of our material needs and perceptual frameworks. We can respect the specific Umwelt of another animal—we can acknowledge that they are different than us—while still understanding how they may contribute to the creation and enrichment of our own subjective experiences and lives.
Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy asserts that the environment, the self, and the other all arise out of a shared field of perception. This is to say that reality is a dialectical process—a constant negotiation between the embodied subject and its milieu. This completely overhauls the traditional ontological relationship between the human and the animal and rewrites it as a partnership in which both equally participate in the unfolding of experience in contribution to the meaning of the whole. The juxtaposition of Descartes and Merleau-Ponty displays that how we conceive of the mind influences how we treat other animals and our environment. Perhaps there are forms of dualism, such as Australian philosopher David Chalmers naturalistic dualism, that are more compatible with Merleau-Ponty’s ideas. But whereas Cartesian mind-body dualism led to animal cruelty and subjugation, Merleau-Ponty’s model of intersubjectivity and embodiment allows for respect, empathy, connection and kinship with non-human animals and even objects. So Merleau-Ponty doesn’t just revolutionize epistemology, because viewing humanity in symbiosis with other organisms and entities also has profound ethical and existential implications; it shows that the cause of animal rights can be advanced both from an evolutionary perspective and a phenomenological perspective. This model of intersubjectivity, based not on the material or spiritual, nor the empirical or the ideal, is what leads Merleau-Ponty to move beyond human exceptionalism towards the concept of fleshly existence as an element of being. It is this philosophy of the flesh and “interanimality” that Merleau-Ponty aimed to develop in his incomplete final work The Visible and the Invisible, but his untimely death left scholars with only the working notes of the project. Nevertheless, the contributions he made to phenomenology, animal science, and environmental ethics are invaluable, and it is a shame that his ideas are just now being revived as they foreshadowed the current ecological crisis that anthropocentric thinking and human supremacy has allowed for. In order for this world to heal, humanity should adopt an ethos based on the body as the locus of knowledge, and in doing so realize that “meaning is irreducibly tied to Earth and its creatures, and that diminishing other creatures, either through careless thinking or actual violence, results in an impoverishment of human life as well.”
It is not hard to see the theological or transcendental undertones of these ideas. I would even argue that there is a vein of Henry David Thoreau in Merleau-Ponty, as he advocates for a return to the “brute” or “wild” being that lies beneath all the cultural sediment of modernity much as Thoreau viewed the wild as the ultimate source of energy that builds civilizations. I would add that exploration of these secularly based pantheisms should be encouraged. From personal experience, it was not my Bible-Thumping relatives, or any organized religion for that matter, that led me to the formulation of my current moral code. Instead, it was my relationships with animals, both domestic and wild, that allowed me to see myself in continuity with nature and appreciate the glorious effulgence of life that always surrounds me. I now try to structure my actions and conduct in ways that respect, value, and protect the contributions of non-human animals to my life and Umwelt. My experiences raising dogs, working with horses, wolves, and other animals are the closest things I can equate to a religious experience. It has always been interactions with animals that made me feel most human.
The groundbreaking ideas of thinkers like Jakob von Uexküll and Maurice Merleau-Ponty have reassured me that my tendency to anthropomorphize is not always misguided, and that my love for animals is not based on mere sentimentality. Even if one does not agree with these ideas in their entirety, at the very least they blur the formerly rigid lines between the human and the animal and push at the boundaries of consciousness. While I cannot enter into the mental lives of other sentient beings, my body always offers a partial phenomenological bridge into the other. Through the body I can, in a very real way, connect with the squirrels that scamper on the trees outside my window, with the feral cat in the alley behind my apartment that I care for, with the neotenic axolotl lizards in my aquarium, and of course with dogs, man’s best friend. For when I look at Blue, the tenderness I feel towards her is not only based on mere proximity or social convention, or even the evolutionary relationship my species has developed with hers over millennia. It is also based on the fact that, like me, she is a material thing with relations to this world. Like me, she is vulnerable, mortal, and finite. Like me, she feels pleasure, pain, joy, and suffering. Like me, she is a thing that, dare I say, loves.
Buchanan, Brett. Onto-Ethologies: The Animal Environments of Uexküll, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Deleuze. Albany: Suny Press, 2008.
Dillard-Wright, David B. Ark of the Possible: The Animal World in Merleau-Ponty. Lanham: Lexington, 2009.
Horowitz, Alexandra. Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know. New York: Scribner, 2009.
Westling, Louise. “Merleau-Ponty’s Human-Animality Intertwining and the Animal Question.” Configurations 18, no. 1-2 (2010): 161-180.
 Alexandra Horowitz, Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know (New York: Scribner, 2009), 190.
 S. Marc Cohen, ed. Ancient Greek Philosophy: From Thales to Aristotle (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2011), 876.
 David B. Dillard-Wright, Ark of the Possible: The Animal World in Merleau-Ponty (Lanham: Lexington, 2009), 4.
 Gary Hatfield, “René Descartes”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2015/entries/descartes/>.
 Brett Buchanan, Onto-Ethologies: The Animal Environments of Uexküll, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Deleuze (Albany: Suny Press, 2008), 7.
 Ibid., 13.
 Ibid., 23.
 Ibid., 24.
 Dillard-Wright, Ark of the Possible, 8.
 Dillard-Wright, Ark of the Possible, 38.
 David L. Miller, George Herbert Mead: Self, Language, and the World (Austin: UT Press, 1973), 5.
 Evan Thompson, Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy (New York: Columbia, 2015), 323.
 Dillard-Wright, Ark of the Possible, 42.
 Ibid., 39.
 Ibid., 83
 David J. Chalmers, The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory (New York: Oxford Press, 1996), 102.
 Buchanan, Onto-Ethologies, 132.
 Dillard-Wright, Ark of the Possible, 8.
 Robert D. Richardson Jr., Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 225.