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One of the most influential thinkers for me has been the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961). Known as a major contributor to the field of phenomenology, he offered insights that many of us now build on in our research of animal-human hybrid communities. In 1948 Merlau-Ponty gave a fascinating radio lecture on animal life. In it he said:
“in spite of what mechanistic biology might suggest, the world we live in is not made up only of things and space: some of these parcels of matter, which we call living beings, proceed to trace in their environment, by the way they act or behave, their very own vision of things. We will only see this if we lend our attention to the spectacle of the animal world, if we are prepared to live alongside the world of animals instead of rashly denying it any kind of interiority.” (in Lestel et al. 2014:136)
What does it mean to “live alongside” other beings? Can we trace an animal’s “very own vision of the world?” Most biologists will write this off as pure anthropomorphism (the projection of human ways onto other animals). But the phenomenologist sees animal inferiority (as much as human interiority) as the outcome of lived experiences in a shared world. We can’t see “like” an other, but how either of us see emerges from overlapping experiences in the same world.
Put another way, how I see the world is affected by those who surround me. It is affected by how I see them seeing the world. It is affected by how they see me seeing them. My actions, of which my seeing is a part, do not occur in isolation. My doing is always a doing of something in a world with others. Would I be doing these things without the others? I am looking forward to seeing and hearing birds on a Netflix show because I know our cat is going to jump on my lap and join in for a few minutes. Would I be waiting for the birds without her in my life?
The quote comes from a great paper, well worth your time: Lestel, D., J. Bussolini, M. Chrulew. 2014. The phenomenology of animal life. Environmental Humanities, 5:125-148