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Philosophy and Animal Life by Stanley Cavell

Philosophy and Animal Life

by Stanley Cavell

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"Is there any difficulty in seeing why we should not prefer to return to moral debate, in which the livingness and death of animals enter as facts that we treat as relevant in this or that way, not as presences that may unseat our reason?" (Diamond, 74)

"Singer starts with the claim that animals have interests because they are sentient, capable of pain and pleasure. When I reflect on my own actions and responses, I see that I occasionally do something good for some other people who are far from my circle of friends, family, or even countrymen, and perhaps beyond the call of any common duty. But I do not do so because they have interests or because I respect their interests or because they are sentient--nor because they have rights. I often do not understand why I do it. It is partly what I have been trained to do, and childhood training does not readily wear off. It is also something else, a certain kind of sharing, of sympathy between myself and another, what Hume claimed was the basis of moral action. So say I; but it is Singer's invocation of rights that persuades people" (Hacking, 163).

The title is misleading. Ian Hacking, author of the fourth essay in this collection, writes that although animals "set the tone of the book," "none of the three essays collected here is about animals" (Hacking's contribution, I would say, comes closest). The essays are, rather, about our relation to death, the world, and each other, about skepticism, and about the limitations of logical argument, particularly its ethical limitations; they are also about the other essays, since each is twined argumentatively with the other.

As a critical engagement with Diamond and Cavell and as a review of their work in general, Wolfe's introduction to the collection, unlike most, merits close reading. Wolfe focuses on Diamond's attention to vulnerability, which Wolfe connects to Derrida's emphasis on the "not-being-able" of being (and here cf. Lawlor). As Wolfe argues, Diamond differs from Derrida on (at least) one chief point, viz., our relation to our own mortality: where Diamond characterizes this vulnerable exposure as a relation to our own death, Derrida argues for the impossibility for this relation (note, however, that Ian Hacking thinks Wolfe misread Diamond by omitting the tentativeness of Diamond's sense of this direct relation (142)). As is well known, Derrida discovers in this relation an analog--or another manifestation--of the relation to language, to our name, and to other iterable operations whose finitude is always beyond us. "Derrida's point...is that this 'coming apart' is not just of flesh and blood, but is also born of the fact that our relation to flesh and blood is fatefully constituted by a technicity with which it is prosthetically entwined, a diacritical, semiotic machine of language in the broadest sense that exceeds any and all presence, including our own" (30). For Derrida, then, our relationship is to the impossibility itself. Thus the passivity, the not-being-able, runs much deeper in Derrida than it does in Diamond, but this depth of dislocation is not necessarily a weakness in Diamond's thought: Wolfe offers--without full agreement--the potential critique, drawn from Cavell, that Derrida's attention to impossibility reinstitutes metaphysics by dislocating us from "ordinary moral obligations" and from the raw presence of our bodily vulnerability.

Diamond's contribution travels through Ted Hughes' poem "Six Young Men" and Coetzee's The Lives of Animals. Insofar as her work is about animals, she accords with Derrida's scorn for rights language as merely extending, without critiquing, what he called the "juridical machine," for she argues that we ought to begin our response to animals by considering justice rather than rights. This particular essay, however, is about the limits of thoughts and the limitations of philosophy in the face of our mutual vulnerability. For me, it is above all a demand that I rebuild my treatment of Coetzee's Lives of Animals. When I critiqued Costello for her persistent anthropocentrism, I missed Costello's disturbance at her exposure to vulnerability, her "being shouldered out of how one thinks, how one is apparently supposed to think" (58). When I assailed her for her "ethical provincialism," I missed that "Costello's responses to arguments can be read as 'replies' [to question of animals, chiefly:] in the philosophical sense only by ignoring important features of the story....She sees our reliance on argumentation as a way we may make unavailable to ourselves our own sense of what it is to be a living animal" (53). Coetzee's work, being literature, demands (at least) as deep attention to its affective content as to its logic.

The problem is probably mine, but I got very little from Cavell (whose essay is less about animals than it is about guilt) and McDowell (whose contribution, if I read it correctly, devotes itself to enumerating the ways Cavell gets Diamond wrong). The Ian Hacking, however, is a triumph. He argues, above all, for the wonderousness of reality, and, in this reminder of the non-linguistic nature of reality, accords implicitly with phenomenology (which makes, by the way, no appearance in this volume, which is, throughout, largely innocent of the "continental" contributions to the animal question). Despite his turn from vulnerability to wonder, I was most moved by the horror compelling his argument against Cavell's focus on perspective. Information, pace Cavell, matters: Coetzee realizes that flesh comes from living animals; Hacking realizes that commercially farmed turkeys cannot breed naturally (for more on human surveillance of animal sexuality, see the article on the Missiplicity Project in Representing Animals), that Harvard breeds copyrighted mice (whose particularity is their susceptibility to cancer), and that a slaughterhouse is successful if only 1 in 4 animals requires electric shock to move forward to its death. This last piece, drawn from Temple Grandin's bestselling [b:Animals in Translation|21348|Aesop's Fables (Oxford World's Classics)|Aesop|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1167321620s/21348.jpg|868263] "was not highlighted--quite the opposite--but it caught my attention. It did not add much to my store of grisly facts about meat packing. But I experienced it strongly. We now need to torture only one beast in four before it is killed" (150). A change in perspective may be needed to be able to know this, but the knowledge itself, once it enters, cannot readily be transmuted into a morally neutral substance through a mere 'change in perspective.' ( )
  karl.steel | Apr 2, 2013 |
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