Getting Familiar with an Oyster

» December 30th, 2012


The first response to yesterday’s post came from Christiane Bailey, a philosopher at the University of Montreal.  She wrote:

 Your post resonates to a paper I have written of this subject last year in which I try to analyze the phenomenological basis of our distinction between higher and lower animals.

Many people working in animal ethics think of insects as unconscious beings. They laugh at Descartes’s theory of “animal machine”, but they do not reject it insofar as they think it is possible that animals with sense organs, able to perceive and move by themselves, endowed with memory, able learn and to have a complex social life are not sentient.

I think the distinction between higher and lower animals corresponds less to an “objective” divide between primitive and evolved animals, or between conscious and unconscious animals, than to a phenomenological distinction between familiar and unfamiliar animals.

There are animals in which we spontaneously perceive meaningful expressions of lived experiences and other animals, like beetles, who live in a temporality which is so estranged from our own that we cannot immediately understand them.

Speaking of “familiar” and “unfamiliar” animals rather than “lower” and “higher” ones may help us acknowledge the fact that our understanding of others is grounded on our being-with them and therefore is not an objective or rigid distinction.


I urge readers who are interested in the questions raised in my post to read Bailey’s attached article.  In it she explores in much greater detail and nuance the methods and assumptions underscoring our approach to understanding and classifying differences in the animal world. 

“Why,” she asks, “do I make a sharp distinction between chimps and bees, between dogs and snakes.” Her answers are probing and deeply honest. Her prose, moreover, is free of jargon and relatively easy to follow.

Of particular interest to me was the essay’s emphasis on the connection between our familiarity with animals and the kind of projections we foist upon them. She critiques Heidegger’s effort to avoid making distinctions between “higher” and Lower” animals, noting how his assertion of a “radical abyss” between animals and humans relies exclusively on an examination of “animals that are most foreign to us.” Bailey wonders: “Could Heidegger’s analysis have been any different if he had adopted a dog or any so-called higher animals as the spokesman of animal life?”

The clear implication is “of course.” Bailey is more drawn to Aristotle’s idea, in her words, “that any account of life must necessarily distinguish between kinds of life.” As I wondered in my post, so Bailey wonders: how do we go about this process? Her answer is complex and her reasoning is well worth following. But, to cut to the chase, what she ultimately concludes, as her comment suggests, is that we “should relinquish terms like ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ in favor of others, like ‘familiar’ and ‘unfamiliar.’”

Such a shift strikes me as more authentic, more tolerant of our inherent anthropocentrism, and more humble in its recognition that it would require a kind of omniscience we do not possess to esablish a gradation of animal life capable of determining how we should treat different forms of life.  This shift to familiarity/unfamiliaity, incidentally, also bears on my December 28 post arguing that many potential benefits come to the animals we as humans spend time getting to know. (Are bee keepers less likely to kill bees than non-bee keepers?)

What got me into this question of hierarchy in the first place was a question I recently entertained about an oyster I would not eat. Why not? I was asked, with a glistening plate of bluepoints sitting at the table in front of me. I could easily explain why I wouldn’t eat a hamburger. But the oyster posed a harder question. Bailey’s excellent essay is a pearl of wisdom, one that helps me appreciate why this question is such a tough one.

3 Responses to Getting Familiar with an Oyster

  1. This post has arrived just as I finished a bio of elizabeth tova bailey in which she explores the life of a snail while bed ridden with a terrible illness. I already remove garden snails and take them to a nearby field, but her book has opened up a respect forsnails. And an undestanding that they too have lives as important to them. That the humble snail has memory is but one revelation in this little book, which I obtained as I loved the title, ‘the sound of a wild snail eating’. With all that surrounds us it is dificult to understand the pedestal to which most humans feel entitled.

  2. James says:

    This lecture from Bernard Williams deals with some of this issues: (The essay is tucked away in the posthumous anthology “Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline” which you may or may not have access to).

  3. Bea Elliott says:

    I can remember almost two decades ago wading in thigh high bay water in search of scallops. They’d hide in the grasses and would flight away from the threat of your hand… Obviously they knew they existed and that they wished to continue that existence.

    But at the time it was so easy to devalue those desires. To see them as aliens – As others. Different and therefore “less”. I realize now that just like the oyster they were only less familiar. I appreciate being introduced to this concept. The explanation of familiar (or family) relationships makes total sense.

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