In my last post I introduced some contemporary approaches to conceptualizing human-animal relations. However, the established dichotomy between nature and culture that is manifested in the prevailing concept of human-animal relations goes back a long way in the history of ideas. Today I want to outline some of the main strands of philosophical history that helped reinforce and reproduce human and animal as conflicting parties, so that we can gain a better understanding of how we came to view our relationship to non-human animals as a binary one and the latter as inferior.[1]

Among philosophers throughout the history of ideas the differences between human and non-human beings have been emphasized, rather than their commonalities[2]. As early as for Aristotle, rationality was regarded the unique characteristic of man, making him almost god-like and all other organisms hierarchically subordinated. The stoics then radicalised the proposition that animals existed in favour of man and that the latter didn´t have any obligations toward the former due to their lack of rationality. [3] In the medieval age the rise of Christianity reproduced that narrative by adding the lack of an immortal soul in nonhuman animals (and therefore no chance for redemption) as the crucial criteria for their moral inferiority[4]. With the rise of Western modern philosophy and sciences, the tone got even more biting. René Descartes denoted nonhuman animals as insentient machines which act but randomly[5]. This is rather significant, as for the first time the alleged moral insignificancy of nonhuman animals was being used to legitimise not only killing and eating them, but also for the rising practice of animal testing.

All these narratives have a strongly anthropocentric disposition [6]. It was only in the early Modern Era that more moderate views slowly evolved. Utilitarians like Hobbes, Locke and Hume questioned the Cartesian Dualism and, for the first time, emphasize a common feature of human and animal – the ability to suffer[7]. This was elaborated by Bentham and Mill, who first stated that the capacity to suffer implied some sort of responsibility towards nonhuman animals[8]. And while Darwin finally did make a significant discovery by revealing the common origin of humans and other animals, he was all too often misinterpreted in a way that implies a teleological origin story in which man again surpasses the animal[9].

The othering undertaken by the founding fathers of Western philosophy can be seen as a strategy of constructing the human  identity. Referring to Sune Jensen, identity-construction can be understood as a dichotomous relationship between the “self” and the “discursive outside” or “other”[10]. These differences are being reproduced by referring to the other as inferior and subordinate. The philosophical narratives outlined are being used to reproduce the discursive identities of “human” and “animal” and with the ones holding the power to define these identities, being humans, they frame “man” in clear demarcation towards the – presented as morally inferior – “animal”, i.e. the other or discursive outside. A more fundamental, systematic critic about the exploitation of nonhuman animals has not emerged until the rise of critical theory with authors like Marx, Adorno and Horkheimer[11] or approaches to animal rights like Regan´s [12] or DeGrazias´[13].

We have seen in this post that, by dislocating “science” from its historical and cultural contexts, it becomes possible to make it seem “objective”, “neutral” or “natural. Through such narrative practices it becomes possible to reinforce the legitimacy of established binaries, such as the human-animal dichotomy. Donna Haraway amphasizes this, when she analyses the performative power of scientific narratives:

“[the natural scientific] narrative about progress is a method of tidying up politics by making some things exist inside and others outside a kind of “nature reserve” called science. The ideology about progress makes the sciences seem like wilderness preservation areas of the mind, free from the ravages of human culture and history”[14]. 

[1] Cf. e.g. Haraway 1989: 373 about binarisms between antagonistic vs. complementary difference.
[2] Cf. e.g. Schmitz 2014 : 31.
[3] Schmitz 2014: 32.
[4] Schmitz 2014: 33.
[5] Schmitz 2014: 34f.
[6] Schmitz 2014: 43.
[7] Schmitz 2014: 38.
[8] Schmitz 2014: 38f.
[9] Schmitz 2014: 41f.
[10] Jensen 2011: 65.
[11] Schmitz 2014: 48.
[12] Bossert 2015: 26ff.
[13] Bossert 2015: 33ff.
[14] Haraway 1989: 125.

Bossert, Leonie (2015): “Wildtierethik. Verpflichtungen gegenüber wildlebenden Tieren.”, Nomos: Baden-Baden.

Haraway, Donna (1990): “Primate Visions. Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science”, Routledge.

Jensen, Sune Qvotrup (2010): „Masculinity at the margins – othering marginality and resistance among young marginalized ethnic majority men“ NORMA 5(1): 7-26.

Schmitz, Friederike, Ed. (2014): “Tierethik – Eine Einführung” in Schmitz, Friederike (Ed.): Tierethik. Grundlagentexte. Suhrkamp: Berlin.