The animals, the otherness

Valeria Sokolova

What could the preposition ‘it is not the human’ mean? It is not the human, for it does not possess the logos and thus a speech, history and culture taken in the human sense. It is not the human, for it is different: it is the other.


Birds, cows, worms, crocodiles, rabbits, etc., i.e. animals big and small, wild and tame, predators and prey have all been gathered under an overarching general noun the animal. What is the animal? – The animal is not the human, and probably should never become one or be compared to one. What could the preposition ‘it is not the human’ mean? It is not the human, for it does not possess the logos and thus a speech, history and culture taken in the human sense. It is not the human, for it is different: it is the other.

      Throughout human history the animals’ otherness has substantially been perceived as a defect; the postulated absence of the logos has triggered and justified both spiritually and juridically massive and cruel manipulations towards animals such as rearing them in hyperbolized quantities, exposing them to laboratory experimentations and genetic modifications, and finally, slaughtering them for production of meat, leather, and furs. There are still multiple actions that can be added to this list; however, the listed ones are sufficient to notice that none of them has been and is being performed for animals themselves but rather for their logos-possessing “masters”.

     It is an undoubtful fact that between the animal and the human, there is an abyss. This abyss has no bottom. In Western philosophical thought, the subject of animality had been put on the margins, until English philosopher Jeremy Bentham asked “Can they suffer?”. Unfolding this question even more, French philosopher Jacque Derrida takes a course opposite to the one of generalisation and homogenization, that is seeking similarities between the animal and the human: on the contrary, he wants to enlarge the abyss and pull out of it as many differences as possible. To break the vicious circle the animal has been seized in, Derrida suggests we should begin with the word “the animal” itself. First of all, he intentionally avoids using the collective form in the singular “the animal”, for his purpose is to multiply the alterities among animal species. In French, the philosopher’s mother tongue and thus of his texts, the plural form of the word “animals” is spelt as “animaux”. Derrida replaces the three last letters a-u-x of the latter word with the suffix “-mot” which as such literary means “word”  and creates a new chimerical word animot [1].  Thus, when spoken it assimilates the sound of the a-u-x, intending the great variety of animal species; when written it points out the fact that Derrida attempts to restore, even if only “on paper”, to animals what has been taken from them: “the nominal language of the word, the voice that names and that names the thing as such, such as appears in its being”. [2]

     The Animal That Therefore I Am covers many authors whose contribution to the logocentrism of the Western tradition Derrida endeavours to detect and deconstruct. Throughout the entire book, Derrida maintains a certain order and specific relations of the thinkers to each other, emphasising the continuation of the thought: from Aristotle to Heidegger, from Descartes to Kant, Levinas, and Lacan. To avoid exceeding the limits of this article, we shall skip the talk about Descartes, Kant, Levinas, and Lacan and immediately delve into the closing part of the book that confronts the Heideggerian concept of “as such”.

     Derrida acknowledges Heidegger’s endeavour to deconstruct the Cartesian metaphysical tradition of subjectivity towards the human Dasein, yet he stresses his failure to do precisely the same towards animals. [3] Heidegger, influenced by Aristotle – not by chance they are mentioned in a couple by Derrida – admits the animal to be a living being (compared to purely physical objects), though for it is seen by him in the light of the Aresotelean ζῷον ἄλογον (a being with no logos), that is a being deprived of words and excluded from the possibility of having a discourse.  In this, the animal lacks the ability, attributed solely to human beings, to apprehend other beings as such, i.e. to apprehend something as something: a tree as a tree, stairs as stairs. This “as-such” structure stresses the importance of human capability on the basis of an agreement to infuse with meaning anything human beings resort to. [4]

     To that, Derrida suggests that we should step out of such opposition as “the animal has and does not have the “as-such”. Here too the chimerical animot is supposed to help entangle the problematic of the “as-such” structure because, if for Derrida there is no such a thing as “the animal” but “animals” instead; then, there should not just be THE “as-such” but rather multiplied “as-such”-es. The next crucial point is when he elaborates on the Heideggerian concept of self-transposing, which means the human ability to live or be with house animals, i.e. pets. [5] Although this being with us enables pets to become part of our human lives, according to Heidegger, they cannot comport with the beings around them; they can only behave towards them. Imagine, a boy and a dog living under the same roof both have to climb the stairs to get upstairs. Would they both comport themselves towards these stairs as stairs? In other words, would they both be able to conceptualize these stairs as such, that is, apart from their purposes of climbing them? Heidegger says no. Derrida, in his turn, replies that it is not important, whether an animal can comprehend stairs in the same way as a human being would do. What matters is that there is not even one norm among human beings regarding how to apprehend and relate to the things they interact with every day. Heidegger would say that neither animals “eat” with us, nor do we “feed” with them, whereas Derrida would broach “… the animal doesn’t eat like us, but neither does any one person eat in the same way; there are structural differences that, even when one eats from the same plate”. [6]  Thereby, Derrida points out we should remain attentive to all possible structural differences between both human individuals and animals. And even this would not be sufficient, for Derrida doubts the sole purity of the human possibility to apprehend other beings as such. To be able truly to relate to a thing as such, it is necessary to conduct it as if we were absent in the very moment of comprehending it. [7]

     For hundreds of years, we have been formulating and postulating the supremacy of logos with respect to the otherness of non-human beings. But in which sense have we perceived and do we still perceive their otherness? Is it the otherness of that one whose being remains as enigmatic to us as the phenomenon of death? Is it that of the one who, when looking in the eye, we feel responsible before and for them? Or is it that of the one who still remains a slave to our mastery?

     Hence is all listed in the introductory paragraph; hence is the tragedy of our logocentric relationships with animals and thus with life, with anima itself. Its roots have gone far deeper than Heidegger’s ontology. But as I mentioned some passages ago, now we do not have time to elucidate them all.

[1]  Derrida, The Animal That Therfore I Am (2008), 41. 

[2] Derrida, 48.

[3] Derrida, 147.

[4] Heidegger, The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics (2001), §71, 72.

[5] Important to notice: animals do not exist with, taken in the sense of human existence according to Heidegger.

[6] Derrida, 159.

[7] Derrida, 160.

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