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Università degli studi of Turin, Italy


This paper is focused on the transformation of animal cognition in to animal studies. Is briefly discussed the specificity of both disciplines and the ethical importance of this transformation.

Key Words: Animal Cognition; Animal Studies; Antispeciesism.


Well, yes: the word ‘antispeciesism’ does exist. Since 1975, when Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation was published (Singer 1995), many things have changed. Not too many, unfortunately. The purpose of these pages is to highlight the principles and parameters of a transformation: that of animal cognition into animal studies. It is not that there are no more analyses linked to animal cognition, on the contrary: they are important, within certain non invasive limits on which we shall dwell later, and it is fundamental that they do not cease to exist. Nonetheless, in a completely original way, we witness a change of route (a conceptual one, of course) that finds its main principle not so much in the observation of the animal Other (as done by ethologists), but rather in the acknowledgment that it is the animal Other the one who can watch us: we move from observers to the observed.

Let us start from a meaningful fact: year after year billions of non-human animals are slaughtered for several reasons: nutrition, clothing, research and fun (Caffo 2012. Chapter. 1). Antispeciesism, from Singer onwards, has been a theoretical and practical movement of opposition to this state of things. Not all ways of opposition, though, are the same. We can morally oppose speciesism (this practice of discrimination between species) by facing it from an ethical perspective, just like Singer, Tom Regan (Regan 2004) and many other philosophers (Zamir 2007. Chapter. 1), or we can contest it, following the example of many other authors (consider Nibert 2002), by pointing the finger at the political structure of our society that turns animals into the foundation of oppression (Maurizi 2011).This diversity of aims has got a determining role in shaping antispeciesism both as a philosophical theory and as a political movement that fights for, and demands, animal freedom. Before going into the depth of this distinction, it is appropriate – without going off track – to say something about this new way of studying no more animals, but animality as a theoretical entity.

From animal cognition …

Animal cognition (Vauclair 1996) is the discipline that studies, through observation, experimentation and theoretical reflection, the cognitive capacities of non-human animals (mental life, language, etc.) As mentioned, non-human animals (from now on I shall use ‘animals’ in order to refer to all animals apart from the species of Homo Sapiens) are object of several discriminations that are meant to satisfy human needs and passions. One way to resist a demand for animals’ rights (not in a legal sense: contemporary antispeciesism rejects the animals’ integration in jurisprudence because of its scepticism towards the very concept of jurisprudence) has consisted in arguing that animals are lacking in certain human features that make animal existence ‘noble’ and worth living. We might detect, to perpetrate a classical philosophical topos, some distinguished figures who are responsible for this: Renè Descartes (animals as automatons), Peter Carruthers (animals compared to ‘intelligent’ missiles), Roger Scruton (animals excluded from morals through lame jokes, along with the exaltation of hunting as a noble sport), etc.

Firstly, a typical contention is that animals do not possess a complex mental life, do not produce articulated thoughts and do not speak. Many of the philosophical debates surrounding this reveal at least two notable mistakes: (1) a great ignorance with regards to animals; (2) the fallacy that locates moral qualities into bodily features. Upon (2) we should discuss at length, being a primordial argumentative strategy of antispeciesism based on this very fallacy: that of finding ‘human capacities’ in animals and of introducing them, as lego pieces, into the conventional boundaries of ‘subjects of life’. As I said, we shall dwell on this, as required, later. About (1), instead, we should perhaps speak straight away. Firstly, when speaking of animals, one often does it in an approximate way, starting from the very language one uses. The word ‘animal’, as the French philosopher Jacques Derrida (2008) noted, turns out to be a huge conceptual trap. From a technical point of view, with the term ‘animal’ we should intend the whole of all animal species present in nature: from that of Diomedea exulans to that, so dear to us, of Homo Sapiens. To discriminate, but also just to discuss animals in a general way, is like deciding to duel with the mist. To say “animals do not think”, or discussing “animals as speechless automatons”, means absolutely nothing unless – and this is impossible given the enormous variety of animal species, many of which still unknown – we could list all existing animals, excluding humans, and demonstrate what we are positing. Therefore, even on a merely linguistic level, the criticism to (1) is that it is obsolete: we do not know which animals we are talking about and, moreover, following once again Derrida, we are operating an “ontological compression” on the endless diversity of animals towards the total uniformation of the generic term ‘animal’. But for Descartes, Carruthers, and other colleagues, the trouble is not over: there are many animals who can do what these philosophers claim as only human.

When speaking of language, there are bees and their waggle dance (the studies on which led to the retirement of Nobel prize winner Karl von Frisch), talking monkeys from Washoe (a chimpanzee who is expert of ASL: American Sign Language) to Kanzi (a bonobo that would playfully communicate through its complex lexigram keyboard); when speaking of mental life, there are Koko [a talkative gorilla who loved staring at herself in the mirror gorilla and cooking pasta with the ethologist Francine Patterson (Patterson & Linden 1981)] or the whales’ solemn songs – containing syntactically structured sounds – aimed at organising a discreet quantity of information that seems to influence the whales’ behaviour, as if warned about some kind of danger by their fellow-specimen – which attributes, therefore, according to authoritative hypotheses, a mental state to the recipient of the message. (Mark that, we could carry on ad infinitum.) It seems obvious to the point of idiocy to state that animals are not endowed with extraordinary qualities.

Every individual, as representative of a species, unless affected by malformations or some other defect, bears a number of features that are only to be added to her personal sphere that, being unique and unrepeatable, gets all the more complex and rich. Furthermore, it is not clear why language or mental life should be the distinctive traits of morals. Or maybe it is clear, but philosophically embarrassing: one observes some (supposedly, as we have shown) only human abilities and elevates them to the status of conditio sine qua non of ethics in order to exclude, in a tautological way, animals from the moral sphere. This would naturally lead to the discussion on (2), but I think it matters to stay a little longer on this issue, first.

Each species (if we accept the notion of ‘species’ to begin with) is a massive container of lives that are all amazing for their uniqueness. An albatross can fly for ten years without rest, sleeping while flying, never landing, switching off the two parts of his brain at turns; the nine-stripe armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) is the mammal with the longest penis, enough to become (unwillingly) the world leader in the research on the function of the penis in mammals; beavers can pull down huge trees in less than an hour and are amazing fishers, so much that they do this (dirty) job for Canadian stretchers; octopuses are incredible mimes, often pretending to be different animals such as snakes, cobra fish and scorpions (but also seaweeds and coconuts). Without carrying on in a stereotyped list, it seems obvious that many animals do things that others (man included) do not and cannot do. Why should my ability to think (theory of the mind of superior order) be morally more relevant than the armadillos’ long penis or than the albatross’ sleepy and enchanted flight? The answer to this question leads us to finally address (2): the fallacy that locates moral qualities in bodily features.

To animal studies …

There are no good arguments for situating the epicentre of morality in the human mind rather than the octopus’ mimesis. Nevertheless, as we have briefly discussed, many philosophers have made of human – mental and bodily – qualities the borderline of ethics: either you can do the things man does, or let us not speak of you, but look, and pass. It is exactly here, in that ‘can do’ that we can locate a typical, and inevitable, criticism of (2). If it does not suffice to be human (as posited by many authors as, for instance, the renowned contractist John Rawls, whose point was interpreted in an antispeciesist key by Rowlands 2009) to be moral subjects, but a capacity to use (and therefore to possess) certain abilities is required, then some problems arise, problems that lead to the first criticism to speciesism – we shall return on this in more detail later - by Peter Singer or Tom Regan.

Not everyone who belongs to the species of Homo Sapiens, in fact, is capable of an articulated and complex language nor, if we continue along the lines traced by specist philosophers, do they possess a theory of the mind of superior order. Autistic people, for instance, are suffering from a pathology characterised by a marked decrease of the social-communicative integration and what now seems to be the more likely hypothesis, one that tries to justify this deficit, is that autistic people do not have a theory of the mind: that is to say, they do not represent the mental state of others; a particular semantic deficit for the category of mental states, namely a lack in the metarepresentative capability (to represent representations). As for language, on the other hand, think of people with aphasia (an alteration of language due to damages to the brain areas assigned to it) of Broca (agrammatism) or Wernicke (deficit of linguistic comprehension). Were those capabilities truly the ones that can justify the moral consideration towards the species of Homo Sapiens, and the non-consideration towards every other species, then Descartes’ argument – and that of his followers – would turn out to be a boomerang: humans, too, can lack these abilities (as in the case of aphasic or autistic people) and can therefore be excluded by the sphere of ethics, whereas marvelous animals such as Koko, Kanzi and Washoe would be included, thus disturbing (once again) the fragility of the word ‘animal’ – this has been the aim of Peter Singer’s and Paola Cavalieri’s Great Ape Project (Cavalieri & Singer 1993). [For those who discriminate animals, this conclusion is unacceptable: it is from this rejection that Peter Singers moves when making of pain the centre of his animalist ethics. With the acknowledgment that ‘the cognitive soil’ is fragile like a crystal glass, when we claim to discuss ethics (human or animal) we give way to the slow and ongoing transition from animal cognition to animal studies. Whereas the analysis of animal cognition comprised only the studies concerning animal cognitive abilities, the so called animal studies aim at a theoretically vast study, one that is not reducible to a single discipline and/or perspective of animality as a fundamental theoretical entity within philosophical debate.



(You might find this video interesting in relation to this paper)



Caffo, L 2012, Soltanto per loro. Un manifesto per l’animalità attraverso la politica e la filosofia, , Aracne, Roma.

Cavalieri, P, Singer, P 1993, The Great ape project: equality beyond humanity, Fourth Estate, New York.

Derrida, J 2008, The animal that therefore I am, Fordham Univ Press, New York.

Maurizi, M 2011, Al di là della Natura. Gli animali, il capitale e la libertà, Novalogos, Aprilia.

Nibert, D 2002, Animal rights/human rights: entanglements of oppression and liberation, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham.

Patterson, F, Linden E 1981, The education of Koko, Holt Rinehart & Winston, Austin.

Regan, T 2004, The case for animal rights, University of California Press, Berkeley.

Rowlands, M 2009, Animal rights: moral theory and practice, Palgrave Macmillan, Hampshire.

Singer, P 1995, Animal Liberation: The Definitive Classic of the Animal Movement, Pimlico, London.

Vauclair, J 1996, Animal cognition: an introduction to modern comparative psychology, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Zamir, T 2007, Ethics and the Beast: A Speciesist Argument for Animal Liberation, Princeton University, Press, Princeton.

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