Mind. Being. World. Inadequate as these notions are they are pretty much all we have in terms of representing our conceptualisations of whatever it is we find ourselves living through every day, whether these days be those of the wild adventurer or the local council worker. They, or the things that they attempt to capture and explain, are our familiars, the lenses by which we see or attempt to see everything we encounter, feel and experience.
They have been presented, of course, as tools for the understanding of human being, human world, human mind, but it’s inconceivable that non-human animals don’t have them too. Very likely for each species each one of these things will be different. A dog can hear and smell far beyond the human range and in this sense – in these dimensions – his/her immediate World may be larger than a human’s. We could say that each species looks out upon that Greater World, in which what humans may wish to call World is a kind of bubble of consciousness, through a different window, from a different angle. Angles may be different, some windows may be large, others small, but one senses that dimension has little to do with it, is either irrelevant or naïve. The point is that we are all in it together, every species, all species; we – dog, sheep, duck, cicada, human, ant – partake in Being, we partake in Mind, we partake in World.
Martin Heidegger – for of all contemporary or near-contemporary philosophers it is perhaps he who has most influentially (and controversially) attempted to sort out these things – says that animals are ‘poor in world’ (Being and Time, 1927), and, by implication, that humans are rich in it. We could expect no other position with regard to a concept that humans have devised essentially for their own use, to facilitate their own survival in and manipulation of that World. But even in this derogation of the (non-human) ‘animal’ world Heidegger is admitting that ‘animals’ have it too, that ‘world’ applies to them as much as to humans. And, ironically, if we can admit as we have learned to do – as I don’t think Heidegger ever could – that humans themselves are animals, then he can be seen to be pointing (not very consciously) to the limitations of our ‘World’ also.
The point is important for all sorts of reasons, but let’s just say for now ‘for our respect for the other beings around us’. This sense that they too have a weight and intensity of being, of experience. That it is not a matter of size. That a duck or a rat or a cicada can have his or her glory days, his or her days of toil, his or her days of devastating tragedy. (T. was cleaning up sheep poop at the top of the paddock yesterday, near the duck-pond. She looked across and there was a female wood duck – she thinks the mother of the brood of four ducklings who first appeared four days ago, but who seem all to have died or been killed since – standing alone by the pond, and she said – but who can know these things? – that she seemed to be disoriented, demented somehow, to have lost her mind.) And that as we open ourselves to this aspect of the being of others – that if we look at them as if we shared such things – we can find our own being, mind, world, our own portions of Being, Mind and World, incrementally (if only infinitesimally) expanding. The realm is unknown to us, we do not know what we receive; we may not even have words for it, since the words we do have are for things that we have already experienced. But there will be arcings, moments of strange accession. In the past we might have called them mystic. But that is to hold them at bay. It is not inconceivable that they one day become our familiars.
The point is important in that way, yes, but that’s not why I make it. Human animals have come to dominate the world. In innumerable ways. I cannot conceive of a non-human animal that has not been influenced by the existence of human animals. Pollution, climate change, destruction of habitat have reached even those parts of the planet (such as they are) that humans have not yet physically reached. And for a huge number of non-human animals the impact has been profound, devastating. Human impact is responsible for most extinctions, but as it happens I’m referring to species still in existence. If Heidegger, in saying that ‘animals are poor in world’, is right in any sense, then it is perhaps in this one, that we have impacted upon, damaged, and deprived them of much of their World, in effect stolen it from them.
Most sheep, for example, go to slaughter at little over twelve months of age, when in ‘human’ terms they are barely more than four years old – barely, that is, out of infancy. How much World do we deprive a creature of, when we deprive him/her of fourteen fifteenths of his/her possible lifespan? And if, as I know all too well, a sheep can be rescued from this horrid mill, it will still be for a life of constraint, manipulation, confinement, if only to ‘protect’ him/her, ‘for [his/her] own good’. In this sense I think it is very true to say that ‘animals’ in the world as we now have it, non-human animals, live within the human, just as, say – though I think in more insidious and pervasive ways – the people of lands conquered by the Romans (or the British, the Belgians, the Dutch, the…) lived inside those worlds. And although this may seem paradoxical they are also to some degree therefore within us. The ‘animal’ has long – perennially, perpetually – been regarded as the ‘Outside’ of philosophy. This is one of the main reasons Philosophy has always failed non-human animals so badly. We think of the Animal as outside, but No; we – humans – have affected, influenced everything: the Animal is inside, a wild-card in our guts (our Mind, our Being, our World).
David G. Brooks is a poet, novelist, short-fiction writer, and essayist. He has taught literature at various Australian universities, and from 1999 until 2018 was co-editor of Southerly, the premier journal of Australian literature and new Australian writing. He is the author of Turin: Approaching Animals, The Grass Library, the collection of essays Animal Dreams, and many other award-winning works. Currently, an honorary associate professor in Australian literature at the University of Sydney, Brooks is a vegan and animal rights advocate and lives, with rescued sheep, in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales.
Feature photo credit: David G. Brooks