Animals in Continental Philosophy - Matthew Calarco

Animals in Continental Philosophy

Matthew Calarco
Department of Philosophy
California State University, Fullerton
Fullerton, CA 92831

There are several ways of defining the category “Continental philosophy,” and even more ways of trying to distinguish Continental philosophy from its counterpart, “analytic philosophy.” For the purposes of the present bibliographical essay, I will avoid wading into these debates and use the phrase “Continental philosophy” as a family resemblance concept that comprises a wide variety of texts and thinkers devoted to questions that have arisen from Continental Europe. No matter how Continental philosophy is defined, it is difficult to dispute the fact that the events in thought associated with Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud form the main points of departure for most people working in the field. All three of these thinkers delivered serious blows to standard conceptions of human nature, and much of contemporary Continental philosophy sees itself as trying to measure the effects of these blows. Inasmuch as philosophical conceptions of human nature have almost always been tied up with the project of distinguishing human essence from animals and animality, questions concerning animals have correspondingly always been at or near the center of Continental philosophy.

While Marx and Freud were both fully aware that the lines of inquiry they were developing were tied up with questions concerning animals, neither thinker devoted much explicit attention to the animal question. Nietzsche, by contrast, both recognized and tracked the effects of the displacement of human narcissism and human exceptionalism as it pertains to nonhuman animals. Throughout his writings, Nietzsche seeks to reverse the metaphysical and normative priority granted to human beings over animals and also sharply criticizes the idea that present-day human beings constitute anything like the pinnacle of biological evolution. Language, consciousness, morality, and other such classic marks of human exceptionalism are reinterpreted by Nietzsche as survival tools befitting a weak and decadent human species, one that is inferior in many ways to other animal species and in need of redemption and self-overcoming. These Nietzschean themes have been taken up by philosopher Georges Bataille as a means for rethinking human origins and reversing Promethean humanism, and by philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in order to explore the possibility of becoming-other-than-human by way of “becoming-animal.” The latter concept of becoming-animal has grown to be increasingly important in animal studies, and it is often used to denote the desire for and practice of inhabiting perspectives that are profoundly post-humanist and non-anthropocentric. Whether this and related Deleuzeo-Guattarian concepts can be pressed into the service of a liberatory animal ethics and politics is a serious point of contention among scholars working in the field; but the notion that humanist and anthropocentric conceptions of subjectivity must be called into question is one of the fundamental convictions of many people working on animals in Continental philosophy. And there can be little doubt that Deleuze and Guattari, and the line of thinking deriving from Nietzsche that has inspired their work, are important references for theorists working through animal issues in the Continental tradition.

Along with Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, Martin Heidegger’s writings are often taken to constitute another main point of departure for Continental philosophers. The most sustained engagement with the animal question in Heidegger’s work is found in his 1929-30 lecture course, The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, in which he presents his much discussed thesis on animality: “the animal is poor in world.” In using this phrase “the animal is poor in world” Heidegger means to say that animals do not have access to other beings as beings, which is to say, animals are closed off from the conditions under which beings (animals themselves included) might come to presence. Human beings, by contrast, are open to the conditions of presence, and this is why human beings have a world and why beings can and do come to presence for human beings. Heidegger spends a great deal of energy elaborating the specific manner in which humans have a world and the pre-subjective conditions of human world-formation, but he does so with two things in mind: (1) challenging classical conceptions of humanist subjectivity; (2) trying to distinguish human beings clearly and decisively from animals. Heidegger thus bequeaths a complicated and mixed legacy to contemporary Continental animal philosophy. He offers a profound and penetrating critique of humanist subjectivity, but he does so while reconstituting (in a very questionable and contentious way) the human-animal binary in the wake of its displacement by Nietzsche, Darwin, and others.

Much of the subsequent phenomenological tradition inspired by Heidegger and his predecessor Edmund Husserl has not placed questions concerning animals at the center of its inquiry, largely because phenomenology’s primary task has most often been an elaboration of the lived experience of human subjects (for exceptions to this trend, see the books listed below by Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Ralph Acampora). After Heidegger, the animal question is taken up primarily by the more politically-inclined Critical Theorists. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, for example, provide a stinging critique of anthropocentrism and the human-animal distinction in theirDialectic of Enlightenment, linking questions about animals to sexual difference and the rise of fascism. And their work has inspired several second- and third-generation Critical Theorists to explore alternative ways of thinking about and living with animals and the rest of the natural world (see the works by Steven Best, Christina Gerhardt, and Steven Vogel listed below).

Perhaps more than any other philosopher in the Continental tradition, Jacques Derrida has placed the issues of animals and animality at the center of his work. Heavily influenced by Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and Heidegger, Derrida deepens what he takes to be progressive themes in their writing and challenges what remains of their dogmatism and metaphysical anthropocentrism. His primary critical target when discussing animals is Heidegger; and Derrida devotes numerous texts to arguing that the kinds of distinctions that Heidegger draws between human beings and animals do not hold rigorously. Beyond these critical interventions, Derrida has sought to elaborate a positive conception of human-animal differences in terms of différance. At stake in this project is an effort to think through the multiplicity and differences among human beings and among animals that traditional human-animal binary distinctions tend to gloss over. There is no question here of eliminating the human-animal distinction in the name of biological continuism, a point that Derrida has insisted upon repeatedly. Rather, the point is to attend to and multiply differences between and among human beings and animals. His work on the animal question also seeks to open a new way of understanding ethical relations with animals, one that is not grounded simply on rationality and ethical calculus, but is instead founded upon the interruptive force of encountering the singularity and vulnerability of animals.

Giorgio Agamben represents another important turn in Continental philosophical thinking about animals. Despite being a relative latecomer to the topic, Agamben’s The Open: Man and Animal provides one of the most fascinating accounts of the formation of the human-animal distinction as it appears in the Western philosophical tradition and one of the most provocative means of thinking through its political dimensions. Engaging with authors as diverse as Bataille, Alexander Kojève, Carl Linnaeus, Heidegger, and Walter Benjamin, Agamben argues that the development of Western philosophical thought has been driven by an “anthropological machine” that seeks to separate humanity from animality within the human being and either include or exclude that human animality from the ethico-political realm. The concept of the anthropological machine is used by Agamben to understand the way in which various groups of human beings and animals are excluded from political consideration and to explore the consequences of such exclusion. As a solution to the problematic consequences associated with the anthropological machine, Agamben does not recommend a new, more inclusive, or more refined articulation of the human-animal distinction but recommends instead a complete abandonment of the distinction and the conceptual and institutional machinery that generates it. How such an abandonment of this terrain might be achieved and what might take its place is not fully articulated by Agamben, but the space of research he opens up nevertheless represents one of the more exciting directions for future work in Continental animal philosophy.

While the philosophers I have discussed here in no way exhaustively represent the work being done on animals and animality in Continental philosophy, an examination of their work should provide the reader with a useful foundation from which to begin further research in the field.


References and Further Reading

Adorno, Theodor and Horkheimer Max. Dialectic of Enlightnement. Translated by John Cumming. New York: Continuum, 2000.

Acampora, Christa Davis and Ralph R. Acampora. Eds. A Nietzschean Bestiary: Becoming Animal beyond Docile and Brutal. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004.

Acampora, Ralph. Corporal Compassion: Animal Ethics and Philosophy of Body. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006.

Bataille, Georges. The Cradle of Humanity: Prehistoric Art and Culture. Translated by Stuart Kendall and Michelle Kendall. New York: Zone Books, 2005.

Best, Steven. Liberation and Moral Progress: The Struggle for Human Evolution. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, forthcoming.

Calarco, Matthew and Peter Atterton. Eds. Animal Philosophy: Essential Readings in Continental Thought. New York: Continuum, 2004.

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

---. Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. Translated by Dana Polan. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

Derrida, Jacques. “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow).” Translated by David Wills. Critical Inquiry 28 (Winter 2002): 369-418.

---. Aporias: Dying—Awaiting (One Another at) the Limits of Truth. Translated by Thomas Dutoit. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993.

---. “‘Eating Well,’ Or the Calculation of the Subject.” In Who Comes After the Subject? Eds. Eduardo Cadava et al. New York: Routledge, 1991.

---. “Violence Against Animals.” In Jacques Derrida and Elisabeth Roudinesco. For What Tomorrow? Translated by Jeff Fort. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004.

de Fontenay, Elisabeth. Le Silence des bêtes: la philosophie a l’epreuve de l’animalite. Paris: Fayard, 1998.

Gerhardt, Christina. “The Ethics of Animals in Adorno and Kafka.” New German Critique 97 (Winter 2006): 159-78.

Hanssen, Beatrice. Walter Benjamin’s Other History: Of Stones, Animals, Human Beings, and Angels. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Haraway, Donna. The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Chicago, IL: Prickly Paradigm, 2003.

Heidegger, Martin. The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude. Translated by William McNeill and Nicholas Walker. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1995.

Lippit, Akira Mizuta. Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Nature: Course Notes from the Collège de France. Translated by Robert Vallier. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2003.

Steeves, H. Peter. Ed. Animal Others: On Ethics, Ontology, and Animal Life. Albany: SUNY Press, 1999.

Vogel, Steven. Against Nature: The Concept of Nature in Critical Theory. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.

Wolfe, Cary. Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

---. Ed. Zoontologies: The Question of The Animal. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.


Ruminations 5 
"Animals in Continental Philosophy"
Matthew Calarco
Date Published April 23, 2007