Do animals speak?

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Do humans speak?

It’s high time to write not only about mountains and nature guiding, but finally also about philosophy!

The philosophical approach to animals has been on my mind for quite some time due to various reasons. On the one hand, animals are around us most of the time, whether we notice them or not. Thinking about animals therefore promises to be more colourful than abstract ideas. Observing animals then suddenly becomes of philosophical interest; both a naturalist and philosophical point of view can profit from one another, as the naturalist offers better distinguished phenomena, while the philosopher also reflexively observes the observer and therefore intensifies the whole experience.
Thus, if we talk about animals, the first philosophical question might be: from what angle do we do so? Of course, there are many different points of view on reality, which predetermine the results that might follow our question.

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The Wood Mouse: individual or representative of its species? Is its goal to pass on its genes or to find food and have children?

Biology seems to know best when it comes to animals. Yet as a scientific discipline it also has a certain idea of reality that needs to be elucidated in order to fully understand its verdicts on animals. Judging from a scientific, „objective“ distance, the scientist is not supposed to talk about her feelings towards a certain individual, but instead to analyze „typical“ behaviour in order to better understand the general species. From the microscope-perspective, animals are occurrences that have to be studied and measuredin order to learn about natural laws. Does this approach lead us to a fruitful idea of reality? After all, is „reality“ not the leftover bit that stays after our subjective thinking and feeling? This objective reality that is unaltered by our diverging beliefs and opinions? Our perceptions are merely subjective then, themselves a construct of objective, real physical processes. When I marvel at the first blackcap after the winter, singing with full voice, this my bliss really is just a subjective illusion that is caused by the actually real physico-chemical processes. Really really? But who decides what is real?

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Nature, mirror of myself? (Art project by Peter Heidelbach and me, January 2014)

After all it is only me, who tries to analyze „objective nature“. What if the whole idea of an objective nature is constructed by me? If the „laws of nature“ in fact are laws of my reasoning, and therefore do not lie somewhere „out there“ but rather „inside“ me – this „inside“ then of course can’t be my objective brain, it being a product of this idea. Ideas live in the mind. Our reason, our mind, has certain laws, that predetermine our perceptions and the structure of our thinking. Ergo, our theories in biology, chemistry or physics do not so much describe some reality beyond us, but rather structures of our own mind. So my joy about the blackcap’s song might be real, but what does this have to do with animals?
If we approach reality from the philosophical perspective of reason, what we find in animals is, as in nature generally, ourselves. We then see indifferently both in animals or scree: our other, what we are not. This foreignness is impossible to overcome: if a whining dog arouses my pity, it is simply because I recognize myself within it, its familiarity mirrors me. The structure of my reason is inescapable, I am present in every perception – the perceiver perceives only what and how she can. So the whole world is a mirror of myself! But what about other people? They ought to have the same sort of reason so that „objective“ nature mirrors human reason in general. Yet: how do I know, that other humans are not also a product of my thinking, a mirror of my – not our – reason? How can I know, that not everything is just a dream, when everything is in my mind – or my mind in everything? Well, I guess I cannot know.

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Are those chamois as foreign to us as the scree they are grazing on?

But what a boring thought! In fact, in most cases we seem to understand each other rather well, and we rely on it all the time – we always have, long before we started wondering about its possibility. Our life is faster than our thinking, we already have a certain understanding of the world before we engage in metaphysics. Should we then recognize this relatively immediate experience of our everyday life as a first reality? This would mean to argue that reality is not only a quality of our reason, but also somewhere „out there“, where we are faced by all different sorts of experiences, all the time. This would furthermore imply that we do understand each other (basically and mostly). But if my fellow humans are not a mere mirror of my reason, nature can’t be so either. Such an approach that starts with everyday observations – which we initially disqualified as „merely subjective“ – enables us to look at animals through our own eyes and at eye level. Really.

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At eye level? Let’s suppose this head first hanging nuthatch not only looks in my direction, but at me.

While a scientific distance often proves very fruitful in gaining technical knowledge, the results are not to be considered reality simply because they are strongly structured by our reason. I’d rather consider them as (often interesting and helpful) models, derived from the primary reality of our experience. This approach could be called naturalistic materialism. Likewise the explanation of our experience as a result of our mind, the structures of our reason, could simply be called idealism. The third approach, beginning right at our experiences and following the horizontal dimension of every day life could be called phenomenology. As you see, I very much favor of the last one! So what are animals from the phenomenological point of view?

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Am I a secondary product of physico-chemical processes, a mirror of your mind or am I what I appear to be?

In our everyday thinking as well as in almost the entire history of European philosophy, animals are regarded as substantially seperate from humans. This difference is not only important for the being of animals, but also concerns its counter-part, humanity! This inter-dependence is visible e.g. in Aristotle’s (and Thomas’s) characterization of the human as a „rational animal“. If the difference is necessary to characterize one side of it then it cannot truly be thought without its other. The question whether animals do speak, therefore, problematizes also the essence of humanity. In how far is it sensible to define humans in contrast to animals? What could be problematic about that? E.g. does defining a border where the „We“ begins resemble an act of violence and oppression? Or can this border also be upheld in the light of rich and self-critical experience?

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„Only an animal“, while we hiking humans are rational? What is prejudice, what is real perception?

Does a whining dog „speak“? Surely it does not use human words. But in a broader sense, the question whether animals speak rather implies whether they think, or whether they are blind to their surroundings, bound to their excitability? We do understand this dog without words, but basically we cannot have a sophisticated conversation with it or exchange stories. We cannot contract. Does this silence suffice to state that they are „only animals“?

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What about insects, like this cistus forester? Do they „speak“? To think and feel yourself into the life of an insect is extremely difficult – yet every greenfly fights desperately for its life, when caught in a spider’s web.

The implicitness of thinking and perceiving habits determines in each case, what phenomena we face in our everyday life, what is visible, audible and sensible for us. Do all humans speak? What about those who have no access to the public, e.g. illegalized people? Maybe speaking is less all about language but rather about being heard? The man in the moon might be fluent in every single language – yet of what relevance is it, if his words die away unheard? If no one can say: „He has spoken.“ Therefore the question „Do animals speak?“ problematizes not only the right and sense of the great divide between human and animal, but also implies a criticism of our everyday presuppositions. We always once again have to resist our habits and moreover ask ourselves: „Do we listen to animals?“
I reckon that intent observation, loving proximity and a life alongside the many animals might be the best approach to this question.

Finally I am wary if we can truly inquire about a language of animals as long as the possible answer makes such a world of a difference.

What do you think?

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