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Man vs. Animal

28th February 2010

derrida animal HTML Giant  ran a review of Jacques Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am on Friday. A translation of Derrida’s 1997 lecture at the Cérisy conference titled “The Autobiographical Animal,” the book ruminates on the distinction between humans and animals. Derrida philosophizes through the eyes of his cat, who followed him into the bathroom each morning. He wondered what the cat saw and thought when presented with his body. “In his trademark elliptical, recursive, persistently deferring style, he raises this issue of being naked in front of that which we call animal, what it means to be naked, how that which we call animal cannot be naked, what it means to be seen by that which we call animal, and what it means for a human to see themselves in the eyes of that which we call animal.” (HTML Giant) The assertion that philosophers have always misinterpreted the ontological difference between man and animal serves as the backbone of the book. 

In his review, Christopher Higgs writes, “For Derrida, the fact that we refer to all living creatures that are not human as “animals” is absurdly reductive. He makes a good point. Lumping together the cricket and the whale, the mountain lion and the parakeet, the giraffe and the marmot, seems lazy and dismissive, yet, as Derrida points out, this is exactly what philosophers from Aristotle to Heidegger are guilty of doing. And part of his project is to shine a light on this unexamined assumption.”

Along this vein of questioning on the distinction between human and animal, this week’s podcast of “This American Life” tells the story of Lucy, a chimpanzee that was adopted by an American couple, who raised her as a human. They treated her upbringing as an experiment in just how human an animal can become–with tragic results. The story is fascinating, heartbreaking, and thought-provoking. The story comes from WNYC’s Radiolab show.