|Animal-Human Communication: “Bagheera and Mowgli by the Detmold brothers from a 1903 edition of The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling.”|
Photo Credit: Corbis
Many of us are fascinated with animals, even those of us who currently do not reside with any non-human beings. One of the questions brought up is whether animals genuinely understand human speech, and, alternately, whether animals can communicate with humans. An article, by Stassa Edwards, in Aeon raises these questions, and more.
Whether or not animals have the ability to speak, or even have inner lives to speak of, is another question. We know that animals can communicate with one another – their hierarchies and intricate rituals have been quantified and observed. But humans are disposed to anthropomorphism. We tend to project our thoughts onto other species. We can’t help but infer consciousness when a cat purrs at a welcome touch or a dog betrays a guilty look when scolded for stealing food. But does your cat really have an inner life?Is this necessarily true? That humans’ possession of the faculty of reason make us the dominant creature on this planet? This is an age-old argument that informs the views of many, which leads to other important questions of stewardship and conservation. As to reason, no doubt I advocate for a reasonable mind when it comes to matters political and economic, and of course scientific.
In his Apology for Raymond Sebond (1576), Michel de Montaigne ascribed animals’ silence to man’s own wilful arrogance. The French essayist argued that animals could speak, that they were in possession of rich consciousness, but that man wouldn’t condescend to listen. ‘It is through the vanity of the same imagination that [man] equates himself with God,’ Montaigne wrote, ‘that he attributes divine attributes for himself, picks himself out and separates himself from the crowd of other creatures.’ Montaigne asked: ‘When I play with my cat, who knows if she is making more of a pastime of me than I of her?’
Montaigne’s question is as playful as his cat. Apology is not meant to answer the age-old question, but rather to provoke; to tap into an unending inquiry about the reasoning of animals. Perhaps, Montaigne implies, we simply misunderstand the foreign language of animals, and the ignorance is not theirs, but ours.
Montaigne’s position was a radical one – the idea the animals could actually speak to humans was decidedly anti-anthropocentric – and when he looked around for like-minded thinkers, he found himself one solitary essayist. But if Montaigne was a 16th century loner, then he could appeal to the Classics. Apology is littered with references to Pliny and a particular appeal to Plato’s account of the Golden Age under Saturn. But even there, Montaigne had little to work with. Aristotle had argued that animals lacked logos (meaning, literally, ‘word’ but also ‘reason’) and, therefore, had no sense of the philosophical world inhabited and animated by humans. And a few decades after Montaigne, the French philosopher René Descartes delivered the final blow, arguing that the uniqueness of man stems from his ownership of reason, which animals are incapable of possessing, and which grants him dominion over them.
So, while reason is important, and has a prominent place in our society, and while the application of reason has advanced us in so many ways, it might not be as important (the cat’s meow) in the area of communication and in understanding other species. It might actually act as a barrier, a wall of separation into understanding the inner worlds of other species. Yes, there is a fascination with trying to understand what other animals think, and opening a channel of communication would help this cause.
In this case, I might be on the same side of Montaigne; anyone who has resided with an animal (I grew up with cats) understands this intimately.
For more, go to [Aeon]