Persons as Animals: Understanding the Animal Bases of Agency, Perceptual Knowledge and Thought

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: School of PRHS

Abstract

What is the relevance to our self-understanding of the fact that we human beings are animals? Philosophical enquiry has often focused its attention on those aspects of ourselves which *differentiate* (or are alleged to differentiate) human beings from the other animals - for example, language, rationality, morality, self-consciousness, aesthetic sensibility. In more recent years, however, there has been increasing recognition, in a number of related areas, of the interest to be had in investigations which take more seriously our *commonality* with other animals. In particular, it is coming to seem apparent that even the capacities we cherish most highly, and which we regard as most distinctive of humanity - such as free will and conceptual abilities - are importantly conditioned by our nature as animal beings.

This research will explore three areas in which there is reason to think that substantial philosophical progress can be made by considering the ways in which specifically human powers are rooted and grounded in our animality. One is the philosophy of free will and agency, where I shall explore the suggestion that it is not only we human agents that act in ways which can be regarded as in some respects revelatory of a certain freedom. A second is the philosophy of perception. Vision has long dominated philosophical discussions of perception; but it is a sense which emphasises more than any other the separateness of subject from world. I should like to consider the benefits of focusing more on bodily forms of perception which are arguably more fundamental, and more widespread throughout the animal world, such as proprioception (perception of one's own body), kinaesthetic perception (perception of motion); and haptic (touch) perception, all of which tend to involve a much greater degree of embeddedness of the subject in the world. The third and final area is the philosophy of thought. Recent exciting work has suggested that the very structure of reasoning and thinking emerges from the detail of our embodiment. I aim to explore the consequences of these findings for our conception of the sorts of beings we are.

The overall aim is to show, via detailed consideration of these three specific areas, how important it is, if we wish to know the truth about ourselves, to understand our humanity as a version of animality. However, it is equally important to avoid a reductive tendency which has thus far often dominated discussion of our animal nature. Thus, for example, it is sometimes suggested that since we are 'just' animals, we must find our basic motivations to be amongst the drives and instincts, lusts, power struggles, territorial disputes, and so on, in terms of which animal behaviour is often understood. By trying to show how some of our most distinctively human capacities are shaped by the fact that we are animals, but remain nevertheless unique to us, I hope to provide a different way of understanding what it might mean to insist that human beings are animals.

Planned Impact

The research aims ultimately to benefit the public in general, its premise being that a proper understanding of ourselves as animals is likely to be good for us in various ways. It is likely to be good for us individually, because a deeper understanding of our animality might lead to a fuller recognition of our animal needs (e.g. for warmth, for sleep, for light, for movement, for touch, for water), and hence might help us embrace physically and mentally healthier ways of living. And it is likely to be good for us as a society - because the realisation that we are but one animal amongst the many species in existence, can help us identify our requirements with those of the others - and generate greater sympathy for the imperatives of sustainability, conservation and biodiversity.

Currently, though, there is great resistance to the animal perspective on humanity - particularly, perhaps, amongst those with an arts and humanities background. Although of course almost everyone acknowledges that we *are* animals, many people continue to operate implicitly with a set of assumptions which separate human beings off from the rest - and indeed may feel deeply committed to a humanistic perspective, according to which such things as our language, rationality, capacity for morality, capacity for altruism, desire to undertake creative and artistic endeavours, etc., singles us out for very special consideration and concern. The resistance is fuelled by an understandable antipathy, on the part of many of those sharing in this humanistic perspective, to crudely reductionist and overly behaviouristic ways of conceptualising our animal nature which too often seem implicitly to dominate attempts to communicate relevant scientific thinking to a broader public by way of such things as natural history documentaries and popular science journalism. By exploring other ways of thinking about the relationship between our animality and our humanity, this research aims to show clearly that humanism and animalism are compatible with each other.

In conjunction with Chester Zoo, and utilising the valuable expertise of the zoo's educational researchers, the research aims to develop ways in which to affect the receptiveness of zoo audiences to important messages concerning conservation and biodiversity. The zoo is a conservation charity and is committed by its mission to investigating and improving its capacity as a visitor attraction to develop awareness of environmental imperatives amongst its visitors. However, it is becoming increasingly interested in the goal of understanding better not merely how to educate those it attracts, but also in the factors relevant to inducing consequent changes in their behaviour. The possibility that general attitudes towards the relative significance of animals and humans might sometimes be influential determinants of a person's willingness to adapt their lifestyle or take other varieties of action in order to play a small part in the achievement of conservation goals is one in which the zoo is very interested - and which this Fellowship proposal would help it investigate further.

In addition, though the zoo collaborates regularly with universities and other research institutions in the prosecution of its goals, it is very unusual for the collaboration to be with Arts and Humanities departments. The zoo is very interested in the possibility that philosophy might provide it with a means of reaching audiences it does not always successfully manage to reach - audiences whose intellectual and leisure interests do not perhaps form natural intersections with the zoological and environmental perspectives in terms of which its educational material is generally couched. We hope to investigate the possibility of presenting zoo audiences with new and distinctively philosophical ways of thinking about issues concerning animal and human life.

Publications

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Steward H (2015) Do animals have free will? in The Philosophers' Magazine

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Steward H.C. (2016) Animals Aren't Persons: But is it time for a Neologism? in Animal Sentience

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Steward H.C. (2017) Minds and Objects in The Philosophers' Magazine

 
Title A Dancer's Guide to the Galaxy 
Description An animated interview between Helen Steward and Rita Marcolo, an artist. 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2015 
Impact Not known at present 
URL http://www.instantdissidence.co.uk/post/118616375696/a-dancers-guide-to-the-galaxy-is-a-42-year-old
 
Description School of PRHS Strategic Impact Fund
Amount £500 (GBP)
Organisation University of Leeds 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (UK)
Start 01/2016 
End 06/2016
 
Description Chester Zoo 
Organisation Chester Zoo
Country United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (UK) 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution We have conducted focus groups with zoo members and visitors to attempt to (I) discover the extent to which these visitors think of themselves as part of the animal kingdom; (ii) to understand whether the connections with animal life which are made possible by the zoo has had an impact on that thinking; and (iii) to understand the specific effects of particular forms of exhibit/experience on visitors' conceptions of their own place in nature - focusing especially on the zoo's large new project, 'Islands'.
Collaborator Contribution The zoo issued invitations to these groups and provided the accommodation in which they took place. The zoo also organised the timings of the groups; and a zoo representative attended all meetings.
Impact No outputs have yet been produced - we are currently transcribing the groups.
Start Year 2015
 
Description A Dancer's Guide to the Galaxy 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact An artist approached me and proposed to make an animated video of an interview between us, talking about the themes of the 'Persons as Animals' project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://www.instantdissidence.co.uk/post/118616375696/a-dancers-guide-to-the-galaxy-is-a-42-year-old
 
Description Chester Zoo Focus Groups 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We conducted six focus groups with members and visitors of Chester zoo to discover what impact contact with animals had had on zoo members' self-conceptions and their place in the animal kingdom.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Hull Philosophy Society 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I gave a talk to Hull Philosophy Club, which is the town (not the University) society for Philosophy.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://www.meetup.com/Hull-Philosophy-Club/
 
Description Inaugural Lecture 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I gave an inaugural lecture at the University of Leeds which was videoed and is now available via the Leeds Humanities Research Institute website. The lecture touches on the themes of this research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://www.leeds.ac.uk/arts/info/20045/leeds_humanities_research_institute/2564/inaugural_lectures
 
Description Royal Institute of Philosophy Interview 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I was interviewed for a video podcast about philosophy and its importance by the Royal Institute of Philosophy; this podcast will be made available on the Royal Institute of Philosophy website.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Royal Institute of Philosophy Lecture 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact About 50 people attended this talk at the University of Wolverhampton as part of the Royal Institute of Philosophy lecture series, aimed at taking philosophy to cities and areas of the country not usually well provided-for with such talks and debates. There was an excellent discussion following the talk, in which both academics and members of the general public participated.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.wlv.ac.uk/about-us/our-schools-and-institutes/faculty-of-arts/school-of-humanities/underg...
 
Description Royal Institute of Philosophy Lecture London 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This Royal Institute of Philosophy lecture took place in London; about 100 people attended; but the lecture was also filmed, and will be available on the RIP site, which is why I am confident it will reach a large audience.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://royalinstitutephilosophy.org/events/london-lecture-series/