Animals and Philosophy: From Anaximander and Aristotle to Heidegger and Derrida

One of the final subjects to which Jacques Derrida turned his sharp, ever-critical gaze before his death was the topic of animals and (with/in/alongside/against) philosophy. To what end does Derrida confront philosophical accounts of “animality”? Is non-human life ontologically significant? In this short article, I will attempt to puzzle out these questions by briefly establishing two things: 1) That Western philosophy has historically been unable to speak of “humanity” without referring explicitly or implicitly to “animality”. 2) That, as Derrida explains in “I Don’t Know Why We Are Doing This” and “The Ends of Man,” even the anti-metaphysical, anti-humanist philosophy of Martin Heidegger depends upon elevating the essence of the human being (Dasein) above that of “the animal”. Throughout the history of philosophy, it seems that the deeper thinkers inquired into the nature of being-in-itself, the higher they elevated the nature of human beings above all others. Philosophy, as that kind of thinking that seems so definitively to set human beings apart from “brute,” “non-reflexive” beasts, cannot elude its phantom: the animal which gazes at humanity from the sidelines—mute, accusatory, and incommensurable.

To determine what mode of existence is proper to humans, philosophers have, throughout history, turned their gaze towards those creatures that seem to be most similar to us in the universe: animals. The task of defining what it means to be human almost invariably involves a delineation of the differences between human beings and non-human animals: theorization about the essence of humanity is thus inevitably intertwined with discourse about “animality.” As one might expect, the ways in which these two essences have been theorized have changed considerably over the past two millennia.  Within the Ancient Greek philosophical tradition, while humans were certainly treated as beings with distinctive qualities, they were not initially considered to be all that different from other creatures. Positing that “in the beginning humans were born from other kinds of animals,” the pre-Socratic philosopher Anaximander argued that what is distinctive about humans is their weakness at birth. Unlike helpless human infants, other animals “quickly manage on their own”.  Humans are thus distinguished by their infirmity and defencelessness, by their dependency on others, whereas animals are regarded as comparatively self-sufficient, autonomous, and complete.

Anaximander’s contention that humans are, if anything, frailer than animals was rejected by later Greek philosophers, who were much more concerned with establishing human existence as noble and significant. Strict hierarchies of beings were developed as later philosophers who were interested in the structure of existence problematized the monistic, material ontologies of Milesian philosophers like Anaximander. Heraclitus, known for arguing that the cosmos is in perpetual flux, set humans just below the gods, suggesting that “[t]he most beautiful of apes is ugly in comparison with the human race.” Despite establishing an anthropocentric hierarchy, the Ancient Greeks nevertheless considered humans to be a species of “animal”. Aristotle, who famously defined the human as a zoon logon—a phrase often translated as “rational animal”, epitomizes this attitude. In Aristotles view, humans are special, not because of some inherent worth, but because, unique among animals, humans alone are capable of employing the faculty of reason, inquiring into the four causes (material, efficient, formal, final) of being, and thus accessing logos, the truth.

It is this definition of the human as a “rational animal,” and the metaphysical and humanist traditions that he saw as developing from it, that Heidegger sought to overturn. In the Letter on Humanism, Heidegger refuses to connect humanity in any way to animality, asking: “Are we really on the right track toward the essence of the human being as long as we set him off as one living creature among others in contrast to plants, beasts, and God?” (Heidegger 246). To define humanity in this way is to subordinate the essence of the human to the essence of the animal; it is to open the door to the possibility that other animals do or could one day have the capacity for reason and thus attain personhood. As Derrida notes, “Heidegger’s intention is…to define the essence of the human otherwise than through consciousness, otherwise than through the reason that might be attributed to a certain animal.” (Derrida 2008, 148).

Heidegger posited Dasein as an “exemplary entity” that is defined not by the possession of an attribute like reason or language, nor upon the substrate of a metaphysical principle like God or consciousness, but rather by its “ecstatic inherence in the truth of being”, which he calls “ek-sistence”. Heidegger does not necessarily deny that humans are “rational animals” but rather suggests such a definition fails to do justice to the “dignity characteristic of man.”

What is this “ecstatic inherence in the truth of being” that is characteristically human? It is precisely what Heidegger denies animals: the capacity to apprehend being “as such,” i.e. as it really is. To appreciate a chair as a chair. As Derrida notes,“[this] structure of the ‘as,’ refused the animal, is thus reserved for the human” (Derrida 2008, 143). In Heidegger’s view, humans are the only beings with access to that which underwrites the logos: the truth of being. By making this claim, Heidegger does Aristotle one better. It is not just that humans have the capacity to peer into the life of things, while animals lack this ability. Rather, humans are essentially defined by their special relationship with and closeness to being, while animals are consequently defined by their meager, privative experience of reality.

By claiming for humanity the “dignity” of being able to inquire into the truth of Being, all Heidegger accomplishes is to once more establish the human as the king of beasts. He fails to recognize that “[t]he thought of Being, the thought of the truth of Being… nevertheless remains a thought of man”—i.e. it is both a product of the human mind, and thus not a “pure” encounter with being; and a thought about humanity, and thus more reflexive than ecstatic (Derrida 1968, 49). When evaluating philosophers’ denigration of nonhuman animal existence, and elevation of the human experience of reality, we would do well to recall Friedrich Nietzsche’s warning that what those who wish to determine the nature of reality truly seek “is the metamorphosis of the world into man.”

Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques. The Animal that Therefore I Am. Trans. David Wills. New York: Fordham University Press 2008

—. “The Ends of Man,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 30, No. 1.

(Sep., 1969), pp. 31-57.


Heidegger, Martin. “Letter on Humanism,” Basic Writings.Trans. David Farrell Krell. New York: HarperCollins 1993.


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