Animals : Alice Crary

4. Animals, Ethics, and Politics Within the Context of a Broader Naturalism.

This brings me to a second loose group of thinkers who defend the view that animals are proper objects of moral and political concern, namely, a group of thinkers who, unlike moral individualists and neo-Kantians, clearly depart from modern naturalism. Some thinkers who are partial to an understanding of animals as morally and politically interesting arrive at this understanding via the rejection of the idea, internal to modern naturalism, that the real or natural world is itself ethically neutral. To the extent that the thinkers in question thus broaden the conception of the domain of nature distinctive of modern naturalism (viz., so that it now includes ethically non-neutral qualities that fall outside the subject-matter of the natural sciences), they might well be characterized as advocates of a broad naturalism. Using these terms, we can say that at issue here are broad naturalists who deny that the understandings of human beings and animals that inform moral thought are handed down to us from disciplines like biology and metaphysics, conceived as independent of and external to ethics. These broad naturalists insist that the task of bringing human beings and animals into focus in a manner relevant to ethics and politics is one that, far from being characterized by a merely scientific or technical difficulty, calls for moral and political imagination.

Notice that, in thus making a philosophically challenging case for an understanding of animals as proper objects of moral and political concern, they at the same time furnish a new perspective from which to critically assess the denial, distinctive of classic humanisms, of morally and politically significant continuities between human and animal life. Now it appears that neglect of such continuities is best conceived, not merely as a type of scientific error, but rather as at bottom a shortcoming of ethical reflection. Moreover, if we allow that the task of describing the relationship between human beings and animals in a manner relevant to moral and political thought is itself a task for such thought, then there is a sense in which we leave open the possibility of reclaiming the classic humanist idea of a great difference between human beings and animals, now in a somewhat different guise. Far from being vulnerable to impeachment by appeal to strictly scientific evidence, the idea of such a difference turns out to be a topic for moral and political reflection.

In the remainder of this article, I consider two of the most original and insightful versions of this basic, broadly naturalistic approach to repositioning animals within ethics. The pages that follow set up a comparison between the work of one prominent advocate of the approach, Jacques Derrida, who is rightly characterized as inheriting poststructuralist strands of thought and a second prominent advocate, Cora Diamond, who is rightly characterized as inheriting modes of thought associated with Wittgenstein and, more generally, with ordinary language philosophy. A case could be made for regarding Derrida’s and Diamond’s respective writings on animals as in important respects exemplary of the philosophical traditions on which they draw, but such a case is beyond the purview of this article. Below I bring out how much is at stake in subtle differences between their competing, broadly naturalistic attempts to refashion the way in which we address questions about the relationship between human beings and animals. I also suggest that a contemplation of the significance of these differences speaks for Diamond’s and against Derrida’s approach. There is a respect in which Derrida undermines his own case for a broadly naturalistic posture, thereby weakening the power and interest of his contribution to thought about animals.

4.i. Jacques Derrida

During the last decades of his life, Derrida produced a wealth of lectures and seminars that explicitly address questions of animals, politics and ethics. Far from representing a clear departure, this body of work picks up on lines of thought that run through his opus.6 A guiding theme of his later output on animals is hostility to humanistic modes of thought that, as he sees it, are false insofar as they equate humanity with independence from the contingencies of animal existence. This theme, although not always explicitly theorized, is already there in Derrida’s earlier writings, in a place no less central than the account of the logic of signs that is central to his entire philosophical project.

One organizing thread of this account is the concept of what Derrida calls iterability. In his well known essay “Signature Event Context,” he approaches this concept by first raising a question that he wants us to contemplate with respect to all words that we take to be authoritative conveyors of meaning. He asks whether it is certain that to such words “corresponds a concept [or signified] that is unique, univocal, rigorously controllable, and transmittable?”7 Derrida insists on the unattainability of the ideal of meaning encoded in this question. The trouble, in his eyes, is that expressions have the status of signs in virtue of being projected in different contexts and, further, that in the course of projection their contents invariably suffer a displacement that is inconsistent with a rigorous, univocal character. We cannot avoid such trouble by assuming that the resulting ambiguities can be “reduced by the limits of what is called a context.” For, as Derrida puts it, “the conditions of a context [are themselves never] absolutely determinable.”8 His point is not merely that we are faced with the “deconstruction” of a traditional ideal of meaning, but, moreover, that this deconstructive procedure leaves in place the demand for rigor that the traditional ideal of meaning embodies.9 The natural sequel of the procedure is accordingly a constructive account of meaning that satisfies this demand insofar as it includes in its very structure all departures from meaning as originally conceived.

“Iterability” is Derrida’s term for such a general account of meaning, and there is a straightforward sense in which his idea of iterability, bespeaking as it does a conception of meaning with a necessary reference to a prior, inaccessible conception of meaning, is paradoxical. To talk about iterability is to imply, paradoxically, that the very projectability that enables signs to convey meaning at the same time prevents them from conveying meaning of the univocal and rigorous sort at issue in the inaccessible ideal.10 By the same token, to speak of iterability is to call for a sort of epistemological reassessment. For in adopting this mode of speech we are presenting ourselves as occupying a standpoint that meets the following description. It is such that from it we can see the fact that signs have shifting meanings (i.e., meanings reflecting the contexts into which they have been projected) as a privation that obliges us to qualify our entitlement to the logical ideals traditionally taken to govern their use.11

A view of language characterized by iterability is what drives Derrida’s resistance, even early on, to the classic humanistic idea that to be fully human is to have overcome the conditions of animal life. Derrida departs from this idea by criticizing the modern naturalistic assumption that, in making sense of our animal natures, we are limited to the terms of the natural sciences, and he employs the concept of iterability in developing his criticism. His thought is that, in helping ourselves to iterability, we commit ourselves to the view that language-use essentially draws on sensitivities to the importance of contexts into which signs are projected. This view is supposed to apply to all modes of discourse, including the natural-scientific, and it is supposed to reveal as false the claim to epistemic privilege that natural-scientific discourse is traditionally taken to enjoy—thereby making room for other equally authoritative modes of discourse.

Derrida is especially eager to extend the idea of equal epistemic authority to discourse that deals in irreducibly practical forms of normativity.12 Moreover, he takes his basic epistemological line of thought here to have an ontological analogue, and, in a gesture rightly thought of as broadly naturalistic, he goes on to treat irreducibly practical forms of normativity as ontologically on a par with the subject matter of the natural sciences. This gesture is important to him because he takes these forms of normativity to be internal to language when conceived as characterized by iterability, and because he wants to represent language as part of the real or natural order of things. Doing so is what enables him to depict the linguistic capacities that distinguish human beings as proper to us, not as creatures who have dispensed with animality, but as the special kinds of animals we are.13

This image of humans as special kinds of animals figures prominently in Derrida’s later writings on animals. An organizing concern of this corpus is critically examining the idea that there is a sharp distinction between a reaction, conceived as an interaction with the environment of the type that a non-linguistic animal is capable of, and a response, conceived as an interaction that needs to be understood in at least primitively recognitive or linguistic terms.14 Derrida’s early reflections on the animality internal to mature humanity entitle him to an understanding of human beings as located, together with animals, on a sort of naturalistic progression, and he draws on this understanding in attacking the idea of a sharp reaction/response distinction from both directions. He claims that there is an ineliminable element of animal reaction in human responsiveness, and he also claims that there is no antecedent ground for representing animals as cut off from responsiveness in a way that restricts them to reacting.

When Derrida thus discusses continuities between the lives of human beings and animals, he is concerned with aspects of the world that he takes to be irreducibly ethically non-neutral and is accordingly operating in the sort of expansive metaphysical space distinctive of broad naturalism. He is likewise taking for granted this broad metaphysical space in a closely related set of passages in his writing in which he claims that recognizing significant continuities between human beings and animals is compatible with recognizing a great difference between them—and indeed consistent with acknowledging a multitude of differences among animals of specific kinds.15

The task of describing the vision of animal life that emerges from these different parts of Derrida’s work is not a simple one. There are aspects of this vision that threaten to undermine the authority of the broadly naturalistic metaphysic in which it is grounded. To do justice to Derrida’s preferred image of animal life it is necessary to keep in mind the distinctive view of discourse to which he appeals to in arriving at it. At issue is a view characterized by the notion of iterability, and as I mentioned above this notion is inseparable from a certain epistemological reevaluation. To talk about iterability is to represent signs as having a sort of meaning that does not fully underwrite our license to logical ideals that are traditionally taken to govern their use – ideals such as truth and accuracy. We are supposed to find ourselves operating with successors to these ideals that are essentially tempered by considerations like usefulness and coherence.

So, when in political and ethical contexts we talk about imaginatively trying to capture the lives of animals, we are not talking about an endeavor that can be understood as beholden to the realities represented by such lives in any entirely straightforward sense. Rather we are talking about an endeavor that needs to be understood as, in essential part, directed toward finding ways of thinking and talking about animals that cohere and claim our current or local moral and political commitments.16 The risk we run if we lose sight of this – if we represent ourselves as simply trying to bring into focus what the life of this or that animal is really like – is, as the Derridean theorist Cary Wolfe tells us, the risk of representing our efforts as having a universal authority that they in fact lack and thereby sliding into a morally and politically dangerous ethnocentrism.17

6. Derrida himself stresses this point. See his remarks in The Animal That Therefore I Am, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 34-35.

7. Jacques Derrida, “Signature Event Context,” in Limited Inc (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988), 1.

8. Jacques Derrida, “Signature Event Context,” 2. (emphasis in the original)

9. Remarks expressing Derrida’s view that philosophical concepts attain to a standard of scientific rigor are scattered throughout his opus. For some central illustrations see “Signature Event Context,” 117-119 and 128 and “White Mythothology,” in Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 207-272 and 247-248. For a couple of helpful discussions in the secondary literature, see Simon Glendinning, In the Name of Phenomenology (London: Routledge, 2007), 202-203 and Toril Moi, “‘They Practice Their Trades in Different Worlds’: Concepts in Poststructuralism and Ordinary Language Philosophy,” New Literary History 40 (2009): 801-824, esp. 806ff.

10. See Jacques Derrida, “Signature Event Context,” 10, 15 and 17.

11. For a central discussion of this topic see Derrida’s “Afterword” to Limited Inc, 111-154.

12. The breakdown of the “genre distinction” between scientific discourse, on the one hand, and literary or ethical discourse, on the other, is the organizing theme of Derrida’s “White Mythology.”

13. See Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), 70. See also the related discussion in Simon Glendinning, In the Name of Phenomenology, 203.

14. For a sample of relevant passages, see Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, 8-9, 59-60, 79, 83, 110-111, and 122-123; and Jacques Derrida, The Beast and the Sovereign (Vol. I), trans. Geoffrey Bennington (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 117-120 and 178-179.

15. For Derrida’s insistence on preserving the distinction between human beings and animals, see The Animals That Therefore I Am, 29. For his insistence on differences among kinds of animals, see The Animals That Therefore I Am, 31, 39-41, and 47-48 and Sovereignty and the Beast, 128.

16. See in this connection Glendinning’s claim that what is characteristic of Derrida’s ethical reflections about human and animal life is the rejection of cognitivism. Simon Glendinning, In the Name of Phenomenology, 205.

17. See Cary Wolfe, What is Posthumanism? (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), esp. 88-89.

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