Central and East European
Society for Phenomenology

Conference | Paper

Being with the Nonhuman. Two Phenomenological Approaches to Animal Life

Mintautas Gutauskas

Thursday 2 December 2021

15:00 - 15:40

Zoom 1-2

Until the 21st century, sociality was discussed only in the dimension of inter-human relations. But the crisis of the Anthropocene forces us to reflect how humanity, sociality, and self-awareness are constituted in the relation to nature and animals. Jacques Derrida and other critics of anthropocentrism convincingly exposed how the constitution of the human depends on violence against nonhuman animals. But there remain many questions about new possibilities of being-with nonhuman animals. There are significant, but also problematic approaches. Derrida dissolves humans and animals in heterogeneity, Peter Singer’s and Tom Regan’s ethics humanize animals, posthumanism overestimates the possibilities of overcoming the anthropocentrism.

Phenomenology takes a moderate position. First, we must answer the questions about anthropocentricity of our experience, about conditions and possibilities to understand nonhuman animals, and what subjectivity and strata of experience can be acknowledged as common or divided by Heidegger’s and Derrida’s Abgrund. Here, two phenomenological approaches can be denoted.

Xavier San Martín and Maria Pintos refer to Husserl’s insights in the Ideen II and propose to treat nonhuman animals as egoic subjects, also giving “a new sense to the transcendental” and drawing the guidelines towards the “ontology of nonhuman animals.” Appealing to the structures of Körper-Leib and emotions with 11 arguments, they show what is common for the human and the nonhuman animal life. But their approach foregrounds too strongly the identical structures of the ego, and leaves the questions about heterogeneity of humans and animals unanswered.

The second phenomenological approach solves these questions. Natalie Depraz refers to Husserl’s theory of normality/abnormality and discusses the approach to animal life upon this basis. She states that normality does not “produce the hierarchy of values” and is only a descriptive category. Reflection upon the human subject as a norm for understanding liminal subjects helps us to answer the question to what extent we can overcome anthropocentrism as human exceptionalism, and to what extent our experience is unavoidably anthropocentric. Depraz offers an interpretation of “four different and complementary stages of empathy,” which helps to identify to what extent liminal subjects are accessible to the normal. She reveals the intertwining of Paarung, intercorporeity, “imaginative self-transposal,” and ethical responsibility. Depraz does not emphasize the same egoic structure, but differences and ethical response. Her interpretation of empathy reveals an interdependence of empathy and ethical responsibility.

We can treat these two phenomenological accounts as being complementary. While the first one reveals the common ground of life, the second one shows the significance of differences. Thus, we can discuss life and being with the nonhuman with respect to affinity and differences, and reflect upon our centricity when facing the nonhuman others.