The Animal That Therefore I Am

Derrida, Jacques

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Criticism

Annotated by:
Henderson, Schuyler
  • Date of entry: Feb-18-2009
  • Last revised: Feb-20-2009


Originally delivered as a ten-hour lecture at a conference and subsequently partly published in various forms, The Animal That Therefore I Am has been collected in this one volume, also including a transcription of Derrida's extempore lecture, delivered at the end of the symposium, on the 'animal' and Heidegger. The Animal That Therefore I Am is a sustained meditation on the role of the 'animal' in philosophy.  Derrida questions the logic, the ethics, and the rhetorical and philosophical effects of establishing (or assuming) a boundary that seems to distinguish so clearly, so finally, and so permanently the human from the animal.


As mentioned in the annotation for The Work of Mourning, Derrida has been subject to  substantial popular contempt and philosophical backlash; this pugnacious book has plenty to make his critics shudder (a central neologism, ironic bracketing, repetition), as Derrida insistently probes into how the 'animal' has functioned in philosophy, particularly in the works of Descartes, Levinas, Lacan, and Heidegger. Derrida offers a satisfying, clever exploration of how philosophers, despite being so attuned to the most subtle intellectual nuances, can so easily assume that there is a clear distinction between humans and animals: Descartes' study of rationality, Levinas' study of ethics, Lacan's study of psychology, and Heidegger's study of being all include moments, or extended arguments, where the conception of the animal as different from the human helps them explain the human (the human mind, human responsibility, human psychology, and a human's being-in-the-world), without fully questioning the validity or, indeed, the philosophy of this distinction.

How can so much heterogeneity be packaged into one thing (amoebas and antelopes and dolphins all being included, equally, in "the animal")?  The 'animal' appears in philosophy not just as an Other to the human (an Other that lacks an 'I', a face, an unconscious, or even death) but as a rhetorical invocation that appears to solve a problem: the problem of defining oneself, writing one's autobiography; of what it is to have a 'face' or an unconscious; of the right to death (if animals died the way people die, how could there be abbatoirs?).  In other words, we cannot say what a human is, but we can say what a human is not: an animal.

While cognitive scientists, ethologists and ethicists dominate the debates about the role of animals in this world, Derrida pries open a space for philosophy.  Before we can ask about about animals in relation to ourselves (we know they communicate, but do they talk? we know they are like us, but how much are they like us? what is our responsibility for these creatures, the ones we eat, experiment upon?), we have to understand the nature of the difference that actually allows us to ask these questions in the first place.  What rhetorical, historical, religious and philosophical structures go into the "likeness" that differentiates - that is, what makes them "like" us, but not us?  The more provocative question he asks is, how has the violence against the 'animal' (conceptual, as well as actual violence) not so much violated but constituted the origins of human understanding, responsibility and ethics?

If this seems rarefied and confusing (and to me, it often is), Derrida's challenge nevertheless pushes the debates about the treatment of animals past sympathy and sentimentality, demanding that there is a full accounting for the distinctions that are made, prior to the ethical structures (consequentialism, utilitarianism, Man's God-given domain over the Animal) that seek to justify the distinction.  In this way, this book would be an important one for medical ethicists, not just because of its somewhat oblique relationship to animal experimentation, but as a formidable example of how principle does not necessary precede distinction.  As a book that seeks to challenge those distinctions, The Animal That Therefore I Am is, at its core, an interrogation of the "humanities"; it is not just about the ideas and concepts that are supposed to make up humanity but also about what is being excluded.  For the medical humanities, where themes of "otherness" are so prominent (in caregiver-patient relations, in "other" types of bodies, in the distinction between health and illness, normality and abnormality), Derrida's close attention to how "otherness" is so easily assumed and his rich investigation of it may be instructive. 


Fordham University Press

Place Published

New York



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