Bruns on Diamond, Cavell, Mulhall, et al.

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From the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews:

Stanley Cavell, Cora Diamond, John McDowell, Ian Hacking, and Cary Wolfe, Philosophy and Animal Life, Columbia University Press, 2008, 184pp., $24.50 (hbk), ISBN 9780231145145.

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Stephen Mulhall, The Wounded Animal: J. M. Coetzee and the Difficulty of Reality in Literature and Philosophy, Princeton University Press, 2009, 259pp., $26.95 (pbk), ISBN 9780691137377.

Reviewed by Gerald L. Bruns, University of Notre Dame

In 1997 the South African novelist J. M. Coetzee was invited to give the annual Tanner Lectures at Princeton University. His presentations were entitled, “The Philosophers and the Animals” and “The Poets and the Animals,” and were later published as The Lives of Animals (Princeton University Press, 1999), a volume that also included texts by Princeton’s original respondents to Coetzee’s lectures — Peter Singer (a philosopher), Marjorie Garber (a literary critic), Wendy Doniger (an historian of religion), and Barbara Smuts (a primatologist); the philosopher Amy Gutmann provided an introduction. Some of the respondents were brought up short by the fact that Coetzee’s lectures were not really lectures at all but rather a two-part short story about a lecture and a seminar presented by a fictional Australian novelist, Elizabeth Costello, at Appleton College, an imaginary American university. As Coetzee developed it, the subject of Costello’s lecture is our pervasive indifference to the horror of raising and killing animals for food — a blindness Costello compares to the willful ignorance of Nazi death-camps among ordinary Germans and Poles during World War II.  

As it happens, Costello’s argument is not so much in behalf of animal rights or vegetarianism as it is a polemic against the support that philosophy, with its genius for categories and distinctions, has always given to our inhumane treatment of non-human creatures. Hers is a bitter critique of reason as a distancing factor that insulates us against animal suffering. After complaints against Aristotle, Aquinas, and Descartes, she cites Thomas Nagel’s famous question, “What is like to be a bat?,” in order to reject his answer that there is no getting inside bat consciousness. Costello thinks Nagel is just withholding himself and his concepts of subjective experience from the bat. She proposes instead something like Keats’s idea of “negative capability,” namely the poet’s ability to inhabit imaginatively the lives of others, whether human or otherwise (a nightingale, for example). For Elizabeth Costello, the mere fact of fiction-writing refutes Nagel’s position: “If I can think my way into the existence of a being who has never existed, then I can think my way into the existence of a bat or a chimpanzee or an oyster, any being with whom I share the substrate of life.” Sharing here means empathy with the “fullness of life” that every creature enjoys. Whether it is embodied in humans or non-humans, this fullness of life is Elizabeth Costello’s definition of the good, and empathy is the requisite of the good life.

As a literary work, The Lives of Animals is interesting, if fairly conventional, but as a work of conceptual provocation it appears to have accomplished something, for now we have two books — a volume of essays by philosophers of considerable eminence, and a lengthy monograph by the philosopher Stephen Mulhall — that address Coetzee’s tale. In general these philosophers not only give the text careful attention, they take up where Coetzee (and the original Princeton cast of respondents) left off, developing further and even multiplying the aporias and disagreements that Elizabeth Costello put into play. Coetzee himself has added to the mix by expanding The Lives of Animals into a novel of sorts, Elizabeth Costello (Penguin Books, 2003), in which his heroine continues her travels, to the dismay of nearly everyone whom she encounters, including a Kafkaesque committee (guardians of rationality in all their severity) who stand athwart the gates of the hereafter. This accumulation of texts and intertexts reads like nothing so much as the case history of a complex system. For which Elizabeth Costello has a well-prepared line: “We understand by immersing ourselves and our intelligence in complexity.”

Philosophy and Animal Life is spearheaded by Cora Diamond’s essay, “The Difficulty of Life and the Difficulty of Philosophy,” in which she reads The Lives of Animals, not as a kind of argument in favor of animal rights, but as a study of “a woman haunted by the horror of what we do to animals. We see her as wounded by this knowledge, this horror, and by the knowledge of how unhaunted others are. The wound marks and isolates her” (p. 46). What kind of knowledge is this, and what can philosophy say about it? Not much, it appears. The difficulty, Diamond says, is that such knowledge “pushes us beyond what we can think. To attempt to think it is to feel one’s thinking come unhinged. Our concepts, our ordinary life with our concepts, pass by this difficulty as if it were not there; the difficulty, if we try to see it, shoulders us out of life, is deadly chilling” (p. 58). Diamond notes that neither the philosophers inside Coetzee’s story, nor those in real life who responded to the Tanner lectures, see any difficulty here. Instead they convert the difficulty of Costello’s experience into a philosophical problem about the moral status of animals — a problem that arguments can allegedly resolve. Diamond, however, seems to take Costello’s side against philosophy as a practice of moral evasion. At all events, for her Costello is a portrait of someone in a condition of undeflected exposure to the world and to others in it — a true realist.

To read the rest of the review, click on the following link: http://ndpr.nd.edu/review.cfm?id=16106

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