Animals : Alice Crary

4.i.i Cora Diamond

This brings us to Diamond. Diamond’s preoccupation with questions of animals and ethics can be traced back to some of her earliest publications.18 Running through her treatments of these questions is the thought that the mere fact of being a – human or non-human – animal is by itself morally significant. Even a casual study of passages in which she develops this thought reveals that, far from adopting the strictly practical strategy for defending it favored by some neo-Kantians, she champions an outlook that is characterized by a break from the constraints of modern naturalism and by a simultaneous turn toward a broad naturalistic position.

In addition to presenting the kind of ethical reflection that she thinks is capable of illuminating the lives of human beings and animals in broadly naturalistic categories, Diamond suggests that such reflection is a source of insight into the kinds of animals we human beings are, as well as into ways in which animals are properly understood as our fellows. Finally, she discusses the role of such reflection through the idea of a fundamental difference between human beings and animals. In all of these ways, Diamond’s writings about animals resemble Derrida’s. Yet the similarities co-exist with substantial differences. Diamond is well known as an interpreter of the philosophy of Wittgenstein, and in her writings on animals she draws on Wittgenstein’s later views on the workings of language. A good way to approach some of the most important differences between her work on animals and Derrida’s is to say something about how this view differs from the view of language presented in Derrida’s writings.

It is a characteristic move of Wittgenstein’s to tell us that when we are puzzled by philosophical questions about meaning we should attend to ways in which words are used.19 Wittgenstein’s aim in emphasizing the use of words is not to declare his sympathy for a theory of meaning on which the meanings of expressions are fixed by their use. Rather he hopes to position us to question the following thought; namely, that in order to authoritatively adjudicate questions about meaning we need to occupy a standpoint that abstracts wholesale from sensitivities characteristic of us as language-users. His goal is to get us to recognize that the idea of such an ideally abstract or external standpoint is sheer illusion and that there can therefore be no question of employing a reference to it to impugn the way in which, in ordinary contexts, we draw on sensitivities in making judgments about meaning.

There are evident similarities between Wittgenstein’s emphasis on the use of words and Derrida’s emphasis on the shifting and context-bound character of meaning. The similarities are, however, misleadingly superficial. Whereas Derrida attempts to get us to see that shifting or context-bound meaning is characterized by a lack insofar as it fails to satisfy the demands internal to a univocal and rigorous philosophical standard, Wittgenstein attempts to get us to abandon as confused the idea of an external standard by which to measure our everyday practices of meaning and determine that they are lacking. By the same token, whereas the end result of Derrida’s investigations into meaning is the affirmation (under the heading of “iterability”) of a philosophical perspective from which it appears that our license to our basic logical ideals needs to be qualified, the end result of Wittgenstein’s investigations is the jettisoning of any such perspective as incoherent and the consequent affirmation that our entitlement to our basic logical ideals remains wholly intact.20

Now we have before us a working description of the view of language that Diamond finds in Wittgenstein and that she refers to in reflecting on humans, animals and ethics. One expression of Diamond’s preoccupation with this view is the suggestion, recurring throughout her work, that linguistic competence essentially involves a sense of the importance of similarities among different contexts in which words are used. Diamond takes this image of linguistic competence to be general. It applies, among other things, to natural-scientific discourse. She takes it to equip us not only to resist the idea that the natural sciences enjoy an exclusive epistemic privilege but also to make room for understanding various non-scientific discourses as equally in the business of illuminating the world. Diamond is especially interested in the idea that, given a certain conception of what such discourse is like, ethical discourse is rightly understood as shedding light on how things are.

An important theme of her writing is that in ethics we employ concepts that trace out patterns that, instead of being indifferently available, are such that we need appropriately developed sensitivities to recognize them, and she represents ethical discourse, understood as discourse involving such concepts, as having a full claim to epistemic authority.21 It is here that the extent of the gulf between Derrida’s and Diamond’s projects is apparent. Far from evading the ontological implications of the line of thought just traced out, Diamond depicts ethical discourse as responsible to the real or natural world, thereby wholeheartedly affirming a broadly naturalistic outlook. Doing this positions her to treat language, which on her Wittgensteinian conception necessarily involves irreducibly practical (or ethical) forms of normativity, as a natural phenomenon. At the same time, it positions her to treat linguistic capacities as capacities we human beings have specifically as the kinds of animals we are. In one recent essay, Diamond makes this point as follows. She describes us as exposed to the difficulties the world presents to understanding, and she impresses on us the extent to which we confront these difficulties, not as disembodied intellects, but as “flesh and blood.”22

Here and in other related passages, Diamond presents us with an ethically laden image of our human animality. Elsewhere she also presents us with ethically laden images of fellowship between animals and human beings. One of her characteristic methods in contexts of the latter sort is to try to bring us to the recognition that we already operate with ethical concepts of animals. She reminds us how, among other things, thought can be colored by a sense of animals as creatures that are our fellows in being embarked on mortal paths, as creatures that are both mysteriously like and unlike us. Thus, for instance, she discusses a poem by Walter de La Mare in which we are invited to look upon a titmouse not as a merely biological thing but as a “tiny son of life.”23 Further, in addition to treating continuities between the lives of human beings and animals as a rich and multifaceted topic for ethical reflection, Diamond treats the question of the difference between human beings and animals as a topic for such reflection. In one particularly striking passage, she declares:

The difference between human beings and animals is not to be discovered by studies of Washoe or the activities of dolphins. It is not that sort of study or ethology or evolutionary theory that is going to tell us the difference between us and animals: the difference is . . . a central concept for human life and is more an object of contemplation than of observation. 24

Not that there is not, at one level, a conspicuous convergence between the claims Diamond advances in the bits of her work just surveyed and the claims about animals and animality that Derrida puts forth. Both philosophers represent animals as in themselves objects of moral and political concern, and both do so in a manner that involves repudiating the restrictions of modern naturalism. Further, in both cases these gestures have significant consequences for how we conceive the nature and demands of moral and political reflection, implying that such reflection imposes imaginative demands that are such that we may need to further cultivate our sensitivities, or work on ourselves, in order to meet them.

Yet, despite the notable similarity between Derrida’s and Diamond’s various claims about animals, the things they say are permeated by fundamentally different conceptions of the epistemological status of moral and political reflection. For Derrida, attempts to address questions about what animals are like and how we should treat them are contributions to a project that, if it is to avoid a myopic and insidious ethnocentrism, needs to be understood as at bottom an effort to accommodate (or perhaps revise) our inherited values. For Diamond, attempts to address these questions are contributions to a very different project. The Wittgensteinian view of language that informs Diamond’s essays on animals differs from the deconstructive view that informs Derrida’s writings in that there is no question of regarding our entitlement to logical ideals such as truth and accuracy as qualified. This doesn’t mean that, by Diamond’s lights, ethnocentrism is not a danger of moral and political reflection about animals. It is indeed a danger. But it does mean that the threat ethnocentrism poses should not be taken either to obscure the fact that the lives of animals are real or to absolve us of the responsibility to bring the realities they represent into focus as accurately as possible.

18. Diamond’s first article on animals and ethics was first published in 1978. Cora Diamond, “Eating Meat and Eating Animals” in The Realistic Spirit: Wittgenstein, Philosophy, and the Mind (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), 319-334.

19. See Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), §43.

20. For some helpful, and significantly more expansive, discussions of the relationship between Derrida’s preferred vision of discourse and the view of discourse developed in Wittgenstein’s later writings see: Stanley Cavell, A Pitch of Philosophy: Autobiographical Exercises (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004); Toril Moi, “They Practice Their Trades in Different Worlds”; and Martin Stone, “Wittgenstein on Decontruction,” in The New Wittgenstein, eds. Alice Crary and Rupert Read (London: Routledge, 2007), 83-117.

21. Diamond claims to be inheriting this understanding of ethical concepts from Iris Murdoch. For a central treatment of this topic, see Diamond’s essay “‘We are Perpetually Moralists’: Iris Murdoch, Fact, and Value,” in Iris Murdoch and the Search for Human Goodness, ed. Maria Antonaccio et al. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 79.

22. See Cora Diamond, “The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy,” in Reading Cavell, eds. Alice Crary and Sanford Shieh (London: Routledge, 2006), 98-116. The inset quote is from 113. Diamond borrows the notion of exposure she makes use of here from the thought of Stanley Cavell.

23. Cora Diamond, “Eating Meat and Eating People,” 473-474.

24. Cora Diamond, “Eating Meat and Eating People,” 324.

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