“Aristotle and Animal Feeling” by Debra Hawhee: Humanities on the Edge Lecture Review

Not liking dogs is un-human. Our longtime “besties,” besides being all cute and Lassie-like, strike me as an interesting example of our more favorable relationships with nonhuman animals. We often call “companion” species members of the family. Hell, there are people, at this moment, making a living off of haute couture nonhuman animal clothing and accessories. Yet, these nonhuman beings appear to occupy a curious position as second-class subjects. In other words, their subject position seems to rely heavily on the whims of their human animal counterparts. The relation and representation of the nonhuman comes with a litter of questions we may ask, but the most fundamental one that keeps cropping up is: what is human? Packed into this most basic question, we interrogate our own (meta)physical, ontological, and epistemological existence. And often, the bedrock to theorizing an answer has historically begun with the cordoning off of “human” from other categories of animal life.

Debra Hawhee began this year’s Humanities on the Edge series on "Posthuman Futures” with a look to the past. Aristotle makes mention (and I am summarizing here) of a dog will not bite someone who is sitting down. Hawhee continued that in these types of “cross-species” encounters there is a kind of “mutual” assessing and responding through “responsive movements” and a shared capability of sensation. Further, Hawhee also noted that language itself becomes a “sticking point” in animal studies. And it is Aristotle’s language that Hawhee was intent on reexamining. More specifically, Hawhee revisited Aristotle’s human/nonhuman animal distinction and his basis for this distinction.

Hawhee pointed to a more nuanced reading of Aristotle in order to call into question the binary between logos (i.e. human, has speech/language and reason) and alogos (i.e. nonhuman animal, has no speech/no language and/or no reason). Moreover, she also noted that the often-cited passage from Aristotle’s Politics which casts man as a political animal is actually a simplified, or incorrect, reading. Aristotle, Hawhee claimed, uses the determiner “more” (i.e. a “more” political animal), and in pointing to this small correction, this also seems to connote that, for Aristotle, the nonhuman does have some degree of political presence. Hawhee argued that perhaps alogos is something else than that which is without logos. In complicating this concept of logos, Hawhee also seems to question the basis of this knowledge – reason. Should sensation, or feeling, be considered here as a form of knowledge? If human is the only animal that is “deliberative” for Aristotle, then why do nonhuman animals keep appearing throughout his work?

Again, Hawhee acutely identified yet another important of Aristotle’s linguistic nuances in his use(s) of the term aisthēsis. The general translation of the term refers to “sensation”; however, Hawhee attempted to highlight the gradations of Aristotle’s use of the term by dividing the term into what she calls “feeling aisthēsis” (e.g. sensing pain and/or pleasure of the body) and “deliberative aisthēsis” (e.g. sensing more abstract concepts like justice). Further, she noted that the exclusion from human seems to occur when a being is missing the “deliberative aisthēsis.” She gave the example, from Aristotle, which explained no human pays attention to the “honor” or “reputation” accorded by either children or animals. In other words, because of their lack of what Hawhee calls “deliberative” sensations, they seem to exist in a state less-than the “more” political animals. Rhetoric, Hawhee noted, is concerned with “making a judgement,” and those judgements are rooted in perception. Likwise, the reevaluation of perception might lead us to new judgements to this question: what is human?

Perhaps we are asking the wrong question. Hawhee’s “look back” to Aristotle should give current scholars of rhetoric as well as animal studies many new questions to consider. Perhaps the most pressing one might involve not only reexamining older divisions/distinctions between human and nonhuman, but rather the calling into question the static “nature” (pun intended) of these categories. Hawhee uses words like “lively,” “sensuous,” and “kinetic” to discuss language and nonhumans, and this wonderfully provokes, pokes, and prods the way in which we might ponder our own place in the animal kingdom. Aristotle’s positioning of “man” as divergent from “animal,” however, still remains a distinction of separation.

Hawhee's reevaluation of Aristotle's categorizations between human and nonhuman brings my mind back to Jacques Derrida's "The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)." As is typical of Derrida’s deconstructive approach, he identifies a binary – “human”/“nonhuman” – then he breaks down these dualistic terms by inscribing one within the other. This is central to recognition of the nonhuman as we can recall the strange scene of his cat “seeing” him naked, and Derrida’s subsequent feelings of shame. Moreover, Derrida notes that “The animal looks at us, and we are naked before it. Thinking perhaps begins there” (411). Shame, for Derrida, seems to connote a subject position in his recognition, or at least potential for recognition, of the nonhuman animal, not only capable of being “seen,” but also as a subject capable of “seeing” and the “other” (in this case the “other” is Derrida) to acknowledge this nonhuman animal gaze. The difference between Hawhee and Derrida, though, is that Hawhee is not attempting to reinscribe one category into another. Rather, she is locating the previously unnoted subtly of Aristotle’s distinctions.

A few of the questions which still lingered in my mind by the end of Hawhee’s presentation were centered on the legacy of Aristotle on our historical and modern separation between human and nonhuman. More directly, does Aristotle move beyond, or provide a productive space to begin to move beyond, the objectification of the nonhuman for human utility? Does Aristotle’s “animal feeling” allow for a recognition of a legitimate subject, either human or nonhuman? Dogs are good spokes-species for the nonhuman because they seem to understand our commands, exhibit “emotions” like ours, and generally, rely on us for their livelihood. But does our consideration of other species depend upon humans “seeing” themselves reflected in the nonhuman? Do we feel shame when we stand naked before the animal as Derrida notes, or is it as Aristotle declares that humans pay no mind to the “honor” or “reputation” accorded by either children or animals? And perhaps these “yes” or “no” answers that I am seeking are the very thing that Hawhee is attempting to complicate. Rather, it might be more productive (or kinetic) to recognize the gradations of human/nonhuman animal subjectivities for Aristotle as well as our own current, to borrow a line from Judith Butler, “precarious life.”

As we attempt to grapple for a vision of what a “Posthuman Future” might look like, an all-encompassing answer seems to be counterintuitive to the project of posthumanism(s). One thing is for sure, though: we are continuing to question, continuing to imagine.

-Matthew Guzman

Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques. “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow).” Signature Derrida. Ed. Jay Williams. Chicago; London: U of Chicago P, 2013. 380-435. Print.

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