Thou, Animal!

Desmond Morris’ book The Naked Ape describes our own evolutionary history as a species, originating as a nomadic, fruit-eating primate inhabiting thick forests, gradually developing into a hunting, carnivorous ape living a settled existence on the plains. He claims that our ancestry continues to influence us, even though culture and technological advances have obfuscated explicit signs of these links. Overall, Morris’ advice is: “Understand your animal nature and accept it,” or else “our suppressed biological urges will build up and up until the dam bursts and the whole of our elaborate existence is swept away in the flood.”

The book’s chapters run systematically through the major aspects of our behaviour: sexuality, feeding, aggression, play and exploration, and lastly, our relationships with other animals. This final chapter, on interspecific behaviour, recruits terms like symbiosis, parasitism, and predator-prey, to describe the interactions between other species, and in the case of humans particularly, supplements these with three other classes: the aesthetic, about how we appreciate the beauty of animals, the scientific, that is, the study of their anatomy, physiology, behaviour, etc, and the symbolic, for instance the use of the bear as a cuddly toy and the deer to denote nimbleness. The ultimate question in this chapter ought to be: “How do we, as humans who have embraced our animal origins, now look at fellow creatures?” There appear to be two commonly encountered solutions, what we shall call the ‘anthropocentric’ approach and the ‘ethological’ approach.

The first alternative, the ‘anthropocentric’ approach looks at animals as inferior to us, and projects our own attitudes and values, our own psychology and perceptions, onto the animal. In contradistinction, the ethological approach endeavours to be completely objective, removing ourselves (the scientist, that is) completely from the system. However, this scientist, despite his most earnest attempts at objectivity, is always haunted by a certain ‘anxiety’: to what extent is his presence already influencing the subject of his study? This anxiety is very real and cannot be dissolved by simply employing more and more precise instruments.

Can we propose a solution to this problem, an approach that avoids anthropocentricity, with its presumptuous coronation of the human over other creatures, and the anxiety provoked by the ever-elusive goal of perfect objectivity? We use ideas described by Martin Buber in his book, I and Thou, as a third and avowedly superior approach to the study of fellow beings.

Martin Buber’s philosophy dwells on the two ways in which a man can approach anything: in an ‘I — It’ manner, or in an ‘I — Thou’ relation. In the ‘I — It’ attitude, the subject ‘I’ merely experiences (and uses) the world; only by the ‘I — Thou’ attitude is the world of relation created. An experience is merely a set of qualities and quantities pertaining to the object, that is incident on the subject’s senses and understanding, and these are limited in place and time; a relation, however, transcends these limitations and dissolves the subjectivity of the observer itself. In this sense, relation is truly ‘mutual’. One is reminded of Nietzsche’s saying: “As you look into the abyss, the abyss looks into you.”

The world of relation, as engendered by the ‘I — Thou’ attitude, is evanescent: as man takes his stand in it and gropes about with awe and curiosity, it is continually transformed into the world of experience, the structure of science and knowledge. Buber notes that it is only the world of experience that can be measured and talked about: the world of relation excludes the possibility of any communication with fellow man.

One scholar who has grappled with the problem of subjectivity in his work is the Hungarian ethnopsychoanalyst George Devereux, particularly in his book From Anxiety to Method in the Behavioural Sciences. Lamenting the ‘anxiety’ felt by the anthropologist as he interacts with unfamiliar societies — to what extent is his own presence triggering certain behaviour in his subjects of study, and can he ever isolate himself, to be completely objective? — he suggests that the anthropologist should not aim for objectivity in his study, but delve deeply into a relationship with his subjects, allowing them to work on him to the same extent that he influences them. Further, the anthropologist, in his writings and reports, should endeavour to disclose fully his cultural background, the state of his own psyche, his thoughts and emotions, during the interaction. In this manner, the reader of the work receives not a purportedly objective view of the foreign culture, but a total and open glimpse of a profound relationship unfolding between anthropologist and host.

Within the realm of the physical sciences, much of modern physics is about coming to terms with the issue of the observer’s presence in the system under study. The wave-like nature of particles poses problems for the observer, and even measurements of the momentum and position of subatomic particles is subject to uncertainty. At this scale, the photon incident on the observer’s eye has already interfered with the system.

Returning to Martin Buber’s offer of the ‘I — Thou’ manner of relating to the world, we realize that this is one way to alleviate the ‘observer anxiety’ of the anthropologist and the modern physicist. He may now unreservedly plunge forth into his subject of study, and eventually attain, not just an objective, or even a deeper and subjective understanding of the world, but a sympathetic and mutually enriching relationship with it.

What about the need to communicate his findings and thoughts with his peers? As remarked previously, the ‘I — Thou’ world is exclusive, closed off to any interactions or exchange of useful information with fellow scholars. To this question, Buber offers the idea of the ‘Spirit’, which is made manifest when the ‘I’ of the ‘I — Thou’ relation makes sense of the ‘Thou’ that was once ‘over against’ him (to use one of Buber’s apposite turns of phrase): it is this Spirit, resident in human language, that continually accompanies the structure of the ‘It’ world, always beckoning to the thinker, artist, poet, the complete Human Being, to raise it back up into a ‘Thou’ for himself.

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