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The Phenomenology of Animal Life
Département de Philosophie, École normale supérieure, France
Department of Sociology and Anthropology, City University of New York, USA
Centre for Culture and Technology, Curtin University, Australia
ABSTRACT This paper presents a bi-constructivist approach to the study of animal life, which is opposed to
the realist-Cartesian paradigm in which most ethology operates. The method is elaborated through the
examples of a knot-tying orangutan in a Paris zoo and chile-eating cats in a New York apartment. We show
that, when grounded in the operational framework of the phenomenological approach, the interpretation of
animal life acquires a much more robust character than is usually supposed.
How does animal life enter the sphere of interpretation? The question is double-pronged. It is a
matter of understanding what it means that an animal life requires interpretation, and also what
a human life means such that it can be not only transformed by the interpretation of animal
lives, but also enriched. The majority of approaches that seek to study animal behaviour today
either fail to ask this question, or if they do ask it, fail to deploy any of the means that would
enable them to answer it. Animal life is thus excised from the play of significance and enclosed
in a realm of physical machines paired to inaccessible qualia. However, interpreting the
meaning of nonhuman comportment is not only possible, but a much needed task that deepens
human experience. In the following pages we show that, when grounded in the operational
framework of the phenomenological approach, the interpretation of animal life acquires a
much more robust character than is usually supposed.
The method used is empirical—field philosophy and phenomenological sociology—and
constitutes what we call a “bi-constructivist” or “multi-constructivist” position. Like all good
empirical work it also requires ongoing theoretical and speculative interpretation. Two
examples should allow a better understanding of this bi-constructivist position: the study of
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126 / Environmental Humanities 5 (2014)
knot-tying behaviour in immured orangutans, and the study of the lives of four cats in a New
Despite the common wisdom of primatologists to the contrary, some orangutans have
shown the ability to tie knots.1 Wattana, an orangutan raised in the menagerie of the Jardin des
Plantes in Paris, proved to be an eager, assiduous and skilled knot-maker. Surveys showed she
was not alone among captive great apes. This ability of an extraordinary individual orangutan
challenges the anthropocentric dogma that reserves digital dexterity to the human hand, among
a familiar list of other exceptional properties like tool-use, language, reason, and so on, as well
as supposedly unique niche behaviours like addiction to psychedelic drugs or the eating of
chiles.2 Such instances demand both theoretical and methodological elaboration, and here
useful dimensions of phenomenology are considered alongside empirical evidence. Both
demand the conceptual reconfiguration of ethology. To understand this surprising behaviour
we must jettison the habits of thinking species in general in order to think instead the
singularity of animals.3 The notion of animal “contamination” by humans and outmoded
dogmas about tool-use prevented the wider recognition of the significance of Wattana’s (and
other great apes’) knot-tying behaviour as an ingenious manipulation of rope or other long,
flexible materials. It is precisely such anomalous instances that bi-constructivism takes
In another domain, the study of feline-human relations in a New York apartment
reveals interactions and abilities unintelligible within the received parameters of ethology. This
is not simply a matter of challenging the dogmas of human exceptionalism, although these cats
certainly do, for example in their taste for chile-eating, an activity many reserve to a uniquely
human masochism.4 Rather, the question becomes one of fashioning the space, manner and
language to experiment with ways of being-together where the human is not the centre of
activity or meaning-making. Vinciane Despret and Dominique Lestel have emphasised the
importance of the principles of surprise and politeness that leave a maximum latitude to
animals in interaction and research.5 This approach lets animals take initiative in indicating
1 Chris Herzfeld and Dominique Lestel, “Knot Tying in Great Apes: Etho-ethnology of an Unusual Tool
Behavior,” trans. Nora Scott, Social Science Information 44, no. 4 (2005): 621-653.
2 On the hand as that which is proper to the human, see for example Tom Tyler, Ciferae: A Bestiary in
Five Fingers (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012); Dominique Lestel, “Like the Fingers of
the Hand: Thinking the Human in the Texture of Animality,” trans. Matthew Chrulew and Jeffrey
Bussolini, in French Thinking About Animals, ed. Louisa Mackenzie and Stephanie Posthumus (East
Lansing: Michigan State University Press, forthcoming 2015), 61-73.
3 Dominique Lestel, L’Animal singulier (Paris: Seuil, 2004).
4 James Gorman, “A Perk of our Evolution: Pleasure in the Pain of Chilies,” New York Times 20
September (2010); Paul Rozin and Deborah Schiller, “The Nature and Acquisition of a Preference for
Chili Pepper by Humans,” Motivation and Emotion 4, no. 1(1980): 77–101; Paul Rozin, “The Role of
Desensitization to Capsaicin in Chili Pepper Ingestion and Preference,” Chemical Senses 6, no. 1
5 Vinciane Despret, Quand le loup habitera avec l’agneau (Paris: Les Empêcheurs de penser en rond,
2002); Dominique Lestel, Les Amis de mes amis (Paris: Seuil, 2007), to be published in English as The
Friends of My Friends: On Animal Friendship, trans. Jeffrey Bussolini (New York: Columbia University
Published by Duke University Press
Lestel, Bussolini and Chrulew: The Phenomenology of Animal Life / 127
directions and design, and often leads to the disclosure of unexpected behaviours and modes
of relating. By clearing the philosophical space for a phenomenology of nonhuman creatures,
Bussolini has made possible the extended participant-observation of this singular cat cohort in
New York.6 In addition to seeking out and happily and repeatedly eating spicy chiles, these
cats also developed the capacity to open the refrigerator (a significant “mediation of action”
motivated by their taste for chiles) and then to defeat both tape and plastic child locks used to
secure it. A circumscribed experimental setup would almost certainly have missed each of
these significant activities and the opportunity to comprehend the meanings attached to them
for the cats.
It is striking to note that neither ethology as commonly practiced today, nor
comparative psychology, can account for the two examples mentioned above. The reason for
this deadlock lies in the realist-Cartesian posture in which these animal sciences are mired.
The Realist-Cartesian Paradigm in Ethology
The realist-Cartesian paradigm in ethology has significantly atrophied our zoological
imagination in reducing animal life to behaviours (reduction 1) and behaviours to causal
mechanisms (reduction 2). The first reduction presents animal life as a drab greyscale, draining
it of its intersubjectivity, personality, meaning and exuberance. The second secures this
monotony to a series of hidden instruments. Together they radically impoverish our capacity
for adequate understanding, not to mention wonder and intoxication, amid the vital wealth of
This paradigm has also constantly denigrated the social dimension of the observational
situation and the importance of shared life for understanding the intelligence of the other. Its
epistemology posits an observer separated from and unknown to its object of surveillance. Yet
far from guaranteeing objectivity, this view from nowhere produces boredom and situational
stupidity. It stratifies and congeals the energy and fluidity of the intra- and inter-species social
interactions wherein capabilities are truly expressed.
It has invented the extremely problematic notion of “disturbance” to exclude the
ethology of animals who live with humans. Throughout western thought and practice, “nature”
is reified as a pristine domain separate from the contaminating influence of humanity. This
patent metaphysics has blinded itself to the ubiquity of multi-species interaction. Rather than
recognising the ongoing event of human-animal interface, it rejects as unnatural—disturbed or
abnormal—those animals whose lives are modified by their human companions. But the joke
is on them: this describes all animals studied by ethologists.
The realist-Cartesian paradigm has reduced the notion of environment to an extremely
poor naturalistic ecology. Animals here become organisms deterministically adapted to a set of
objective conditions. Their subjective construction of their milieu is effaced. So too is the
presence of our own species, and the innervating effects of our technological, architectural and
social presences. Only those natural factors operative within a reductive evolutionary
framework are admitted to this model of the world, much to its deprivation.
This realist-Cartesian paradigm has established its legitimacy by disqualifying the
aspects of reality it finds to be incompatible with its approach: anthropomorphism and
6 Jeffrey Bussolini, “Toward Cat Phenomenology: A Search for Animal Being,” Found Object 8 (2000):
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anecdotes. A wide literature has now shown the charge of anthropomorphism to mask an
objectification of nonhuman animal life. As Eileen Crist argues, much ethology has in fact
specialised in the mechanomorphic description of animal activity as machinic and determined,
whether by behavioural, instinctive, genetic or other mechanisms.7 Its scientistic exclusion of
anecdote renders the realist-Cartesian paradigm incapable of perceiving the anomalous,
unusual and singular animal capacities whose witness so directly threatens the model of
Gyorgy Markus has argued that the natural sciences developed a particular
hermeneutics whose interpretive presumption is that no hermeneutics is required.8 Paul
Rabinow lines this up with Weber’s thesis on the rationalisation of modernity that disenchants
the world and abandons broad questions: “The natural sciences have succeeded in evacuating
meaning from their productions. … Growing technical mastery and specialization in the
natural sciences has yielded both control and a progressive narrowing of meaning.”9 We would
add that meaning has been emptied not only from scientific writing and practice, but from its
rightful place at the heart of the very phenomena that one seeks to explain—that is, in ethology,
the lives and worlds of animals.
The Bi-Constructivist Paradigm
Conversely, the bi-constructivist paradigm fully assumes the phenomenological posture by
characterising ethology as the science of the human interpretation of animal interpretations. It
takes as axiomatic the subjectivity of animals and the situational emplacement of their human
observers as living beings themselves. Rather than supposing an “objective” alienation, the
ethological perception of animal lives—of the meaning-making activities by which they
construct their worlds—requires the assumption of agency and perception in a situation of
shared life. Ethologists must develop techniques and awareness to pay heed to how animals
invent their worlds: bi-constructivist ethology is an activity of inventing rather than discovering.
As Lestel has outlined, it is called bi-constructivist because it must develop ways for humans to
construct the ways that animals construct their worlds; it highlights “the invention of invention
and the interpretation of interpretation.”10 It can be called multi-constructivist because this
construction can take place between a number of animals and actors. An animal gives
meaning to what happens as part of its “behaviour,” but there is no reason to believe that there
is only one meaning in each case.
The bi-constructivist paradigm recognises that the description of singular animals
requires the use of anecdotal and other evidentiary forms usually excluded from the scientific
approach. While remaining averse to the projection onto animal others of human or other
improper characteristics, it equally shuns the projection of mechanism and its reduction of vital
capabilities to programmed behaviours. The careful, close description of animal worlds gives
7 Eileen Crist, Images of Animals: Anthropomorphism and Animal Mind (Philadelphia: Temple University
8 Gyorgy Markus, “Why Is There No Hermeneutics of Natural Sciences? Some Preliminary Theses,”
Science in Context 1, no. 1 (1987): 5-51.
9 Paul Rabinow, Essays on the Anthropology of Reason (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 22.
10 Dominique Lestel, “What Capabilities for the Animal?” Biosemiotics 4 (2011): 83-102, 84.
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Lestel, Bussolini and Chrulew: The Phenomenology of Animal Life / 129
the lie to reductionist accounts. Carefully used, anecdotes help elucidate complex questions of
behaviour and culture. Sometimes mistaken, or stigmatised, as unscientific folk observation,
anecdote has been recognised both as a part of ethological practice, even if often formally
disavowed, and as a crucial aspect of everyday life and knowledge practices.
Scholars have also used the related method of storying as a mode of observation that is
closely attentive to contexts of interaction, and to the ideas, priorities and perceptions of
different actors involved.11 The story involves a multiplicity of actors, is polyvocal, and is
attentive to the emplacement, subjectivity and style of each actor. If anecdote is sometimes
treated as a singular, discrete event, a single “story” (although anecdote can certainly be more
developed than that, an “account”), storying might be described as the extended method of
anecdote, the etho-ethnography of observation and interaction in a place. Storying attends to
the phenomenological co-constitution of place, subjectivity and becoming. As Thom van
Dooren and Deborah Bird Rose describe it, “places are co-constituted in processes of
overlapping and entangled ‘storying’ in which different participants may have very different
ideas about where we have come from and where we are going.”12
Bi-constructivist ethology recognises that there are more things in the worlds of animals
than are dreamt of in naturalistic philosophy. As Paul Rabinow puts it, following François
Dagognet, “If the word ‘nature’ is to retain a meaning, it must signify an uninhibited
polyphenomenality of display. Once understood in this way, the only natural thing for man to
do would be to facilitate, encourage, accelerate its unfurling: thematic variation, not rigor
mortis.”13 A “stroll through the worlds of animals”—to cite the title of Jakob von Uexküll’s best-
known text—reveals an abundance of otherwise invisible forms of life.14 Rather than an
impoverished process of mechanical interaction, however complex, we find a lively admixture
of multispecies intersubjectivities. Bi-constructivist ethology is less interested in the behaviour
at the centre of mechanist ethology than the activity that entails interpretation and
emplacement. Nor does human presence irretrievably corrupt or disturb animal nature (we
have dispensed with scare quotes lest all words be swept away): there are only various types of
hybrid communities of human-animal-machine. Human activity and impact takes multiple,
often contrasting forms, and the work of ethological observation—whether the animals be
more or less integrated into human sociality—carries its own aspects of intervention and shared
sociality. For bi-constructivist research, it is not a matter of erasing human presence, but rather
11 Thom van Dooren and Deborah Bird Rose, “Storied Places in a Multispecies City,” Humanimalia 3, no.
2 (2012): 1-27; Vinciane Despret, “En finir avec l’innocence,” in Penser avec Donna Haraway, ed. Elsa
Dorlin and Eva Rodriguez (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2012); Donna J. Haraway, “Sowing
Worlds: A Seed Bag for Terraforming with Earth Others,” in Beyond the Cyborg: Adventures with
Donna Haraway, Margret Grebowicz and Helen Merrick (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013),
12 van Dooren and Rose, “Multispecies Stories,” 2.
13 Rabinow, Essays in the Anthropology of Reason, 108.
14 Jakob von Uexküll, “A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men: A Picture Book of Invisible
Worlds,” Semiotica 89, no. 4 (1992): 319-391. The fact that he calls it a “picture book” indicates that
he had some sense of this account as a story, and the stroll as a “storying” practice. On this work’s
character as a picture book, see Stephen Loo and Undine Sellbach, “A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds:
Semblances of Insects and Humans in Jakob von Uexküll’s Laboratory,” Angelaki 18, no. 1 (2013): 45-
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of recognising its plurality and continued transformation, of ingeniously reformulating it and
tweaking its nature, the better to comprehend the meaning-making of our nonhuman co-
In maintaining its cordon sanitaire around the notion of an objective description of
reality by a detached observer, realist-Cartesian ethology has resisted taking account of the
position and effects of the researcher as part of the context of study. Bi-constructivist ethology
brings the explicit attention devoted to the observer in phenomenology and ethnography to
bear on ethology as a relational science. Rather than maintaining the fiction of the invisible or
privileged observer, it seeks to take account of their presence and embodied self as part of the
dynamics of interaction at hand. Against the long sceptical tradition that rejects as romantic
delusion the accounts of those who live and work with animals, it accepts the refined empathy
and grounded intuition that perceive animals as subjects and persons, partners in shared ways
of life. Ethnography and phenomenology have both undergone a long series of distinctive
methodological reflections taking stock of the social dynamics at play in intersubjective
contexts of co-presence, co-observation and co-constitution. Predicated on such relational
accounts of subjectivity, bi-constructivist ethology does not leave the researcher out of the
picture but focuses on how she, too, emplaces and stories the context of study and interaction.
Unlike the realist-Cartesian paradigm, the bi-constructivist paradigm is open and leaves
room for surprise. It does not seek a veiled instrumentality behind phenomena, with all
possible behaviour having already been categorised and explained by a set of biological
mechanisms. Rather, it witnesses life in its cultivated wildness and inventive profligacy. It
follows the famous Spinozist maxim—“no one has yet determined what the Body can do”15—
applying it as one ought to the evolutionary multiplicities of bodies and their affects. It shifts
the frame from the Aristotelian question “What is an animal?” to the Spinozist inquiry “What
can it do?” It aims to revitalise and enrich our zoological imagination by enhancing and
deepening our capacity for the perception, interpretation and sharing of animal lives.
Phenomenology and Animal Life
What can bi-constructivist ethology draw from the phenomenological tradition? It is not a
unidirectional influence: phenomenology has itself long drawn from experimental and
theoretical biology to inform its accounts of human experience, both as distinct from and part
of the zoological realm. Brett Buchanan has explored one such legacy, showing how
Heidegger’s Daseinanalyse, Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of the flesh and Deleuze’s
rhizomatic philosophy were each in their own way shaped by Uexküll’s Umwelt theory, such
that “the being of the animal lodges itself in the development of their ontologies.”16 Uexküll’s
Umweltlehre remains prominent insofar as it takes seriously the alterity and world-making of
animal points of view and the imaginative task required of an ethology that desires to
understand them. Other thinkers, from biologists Adolf Portmann and Frederik Buytendijk to
philosophers Ernst Cassirer and Georges Canguilhem, have mingled ethology and
15 Spinoza, Ethics, III.2.s. Or as in Agamben’s recent formulation (in the concluding remarks of a course
at the European Graduate School, Saas-Fee, Summer 2014), “we do not know what a body can.”
16 Brett Buchanan, Onto-Ethologies: The Animal Environments of Uexküll, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty,
and Deleuze (Albany: SUNY Press, 2008), 188.
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Lestel, Bussolini and Chrulew: The Phenomenology of Animal Life / 131
phenomenology in instructive ways to reveal significant dimensions of interpretation in animal
(including human) life. Drawing on these thinkers and others, a number of scholars have in
recent work made the case that, despite the persistence of forms of ontological exceptionalism
dividing humanity from animality, elements of phenomenological philosophy remain useful—
indeed essential—for attempts to understand animal life.17
Edmund Husserl’s thought offers an approach that, resituated and reworked, can
profitably address animal life and animal-human interactions. Insofar as our own
intersubjective embodiment comprises the primary layer of experience, we share with animals
this common ground of animate life. Animals inhabit our surrounding world in which their
lived bodies and lively subjectivities are manifest. Indeed they cannot be fully understood
when only examined in their objective physical or behavioural characteristics; a transcendental
method is needed. On a number of occasions, Husserl’s texts refer insightfully to animals in
order to elaborate his methods or positions.18 In Ideas II, for example—on the way towards
contrasting the naturalistic attitude of scientific research that forgets the world to the
personalistic attitude of shared life among subjects—Husserl uses the example of a cat to argue
for the experienced reality of others’ subjective perception:
I see a playing cat and I regard it now as something of nature, just as is done in zoology. I
see it as a physical organism but also as a sensing and animated Body, i.e., I see it precisely
as a cat. … the cat is present there in the flesh—specifically, as a physical thing with
sensing surfaces, sense organs, etc. The stratum of sensation is not there as something
beside the physical thing; what is there is a Body, a Body which has physical and
aesthesiological qualities as one. Likewise, the Body is also experienced as Body of a
soul … beyond the merely physical qualities it constantly has aesthesiological and psychic
17 Previously, the majority of relevant work focussed on the environment. See for example John
Llewellyn, The Middle Voice of Ecological Conscience: A Chiasmic Reading of Responsibility in the
Neighbourhood of Heidegger, Levinas and Others (London: Macmillan, 1991); Ted Toadvine and
Charles S. Brown, eds. Eco-Phenomenology: Back to the Earth Itself (Albany: SUNY Press, 2003). But
recent work, some of which we cite below, has given a more prominent place to animals and
animality in phenomenology. The thought of Alphonso Lingis is of particular value here. See, for
example, his illustration of some ways in which “the phenomenological philosophy elaborated in the
last century has much to offer to cognitive ecology,” in Alphonso Lingis, “Understanding Avian
Intelligence,” in Knowing Animals, ed. Laurence Simmons and Philip Armstrong (Leiden: Brill, 2007),
18 On Husserl’s remarks on animal life, see for example Javier San Martín and María Luz Pintos
Peñaranda, “Animal Life and Phenomenology,” in The Reach of Reflection: Issues for
Phenomenology’s Second Century, ed. Steven Crowell, Lester Embree and Samuel J. Julian (Boca Raton:
Center for Advanced Research in Phenomenology, 2001), 342-363; Angela Ales Bello,
“Phenomenological Hyletics: The Animal, The Human, The Divine,” in Phenomenology of Life—From
the Animal Soul to the Human Mind. Book II. The Human Soul in the Creative Transformation of the
Mind, ed. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka (Dordrecht: Springer, 2007), 3-10, 3-6.
19 Edmund Husserl, Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to Phenomenological Philosophy.
Second Book: Studies in the Phenomenology of Constitution, trans. Richard Rojcewicz and André
Schuwer (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1989), 185. On this passage, see Corinne M.
Painter, “Appropriating the Philosophies of Edmund Husserl and Edith Stein: Animal Psyche, Empathy,
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This everyday experience of a playing cat exemplifies the ordinary accessibility of the
“psychic” qualities of others of whatever species. Rather than solipsistically trapped as
inaccessible qualia, compounded by species differences and the lack of language, their
embodied minds are empathetically and holistically experienced in being together: “As we can
direct our analyzing regard onto other properties, so we can also turn to these psychic ones;
they then stand out as a ‘stratum,’ as a really inseparable annex, of the physical Body as a
thing.”20 Husserl’s phenomenological method shows that the psychic life of an animal is
included a priori in the sense content of our apprehension of that animal. This experience is
moreover precisely what makes objective zoological sciences possible.
Bracketing the naturalistic, scientific attitude to animal organisms—that found in the
realist-Cartesian paradigm—one can further intuit and reflect upon other elements of
nonhuman psychic life. Intentionality—a type of directed attention central to the
phenomenology of Husserl and his teacher Franz Brentano—is present among many animals
other than humans, often in highly elaborate ways.21 Knot-tying apes demonstrate intentionality
toward the rope or leaves they manipulate. Herzfeld and Lestel describe Wattana’s directed
attention: “Wattana is extremely concentrated when making knots and is capable of devoting
herself fully to her task for long stretches of time—up to an hour and a half. Keepers and
researchers are well aware of orangutans’ perseverance, which makes them capable of
planning an action stretching over several days in view of attaining a specific goal.”22 Cats also
demonstrate this fixed direction of attention toward objects or activities, as their hunting
prowess attests—as does the close visual and olfactory inspection of the chiles by the New
York cats, not to mention their harvesting and eating.
Intentionality is significant because it underlies and opens onto intersubjectivity,
responsiveness and meaning. As Ted Toadvine argues, “By understanding animal behavior as
intentional, the phenomenological method reveals that meaningful relations, rather than
merely causal or mechanistic interactions, obtain between an organism and its environment.”23
Or as Jacques Derrida makes clear, in a text whose phenomenological dimensions are often
overlooked in favour of its ethical and critical elements, animals do not merely react—they
respond.24 The meaningfulness of our collective lifeworld is constituted intersubjectively not
and Moral Subjectivity,” in Phenomenology and the Non-Human Animal: At the Limits of Experience,
ed. Corinne Painter and Christian Lotz (Dordrecht: Springer, 2007), 97-115.
20 Husserl, Ideas II, 186.
21 Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An
Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy, trans. David Carr (Evanston: Northwestern University
Press, 1970); Edmund Husserl, Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to Phenomenological
Philosophy. First Book: General Introduction to a Pure Phenomenology, trans. Fred Kersten (The Hague:
Martinus Nijhoff, 1982).
22 Herzfeld and Lestel, “Knot Tying,” 633.
23 Ted Toadvine, “How Not to be a Jellyfish: Human Exceptionalism and the Ontology of Reflection,” in
Phenomenology and the Non-Human Animal: At the Limits of Experience, ed. Corinne Painter and
Christian Lotz (Dordrecht: Springer, 2007), 39-55, 41-2.
24 Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet, trans. David Wills (New
York: Fordham University Press, 2008).
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Lestel, Bussolini and Chrulew: The Phenomenology of Animal Life / 133
only among humans possessing language, but among numerous intentional, responsive,
interpreting animals with whom we share our lives.
Wioletta Miskiewicz’s reading of Husserl from what she calls an open ecological and
developmental perspective reveals the productivity of his account of intersubjectivity for
human-animal relations.25 She uses the concept of interaffectivity to study the substantial
affective exchange that takes place in the context of embodied environments and the robust
interindividuality that constitutes life in common between animals and humans in hybrid
communities. The New York cats demonstrate such a complex dynamic emplacement between
species. Some spaces and surfaces take on great significance for interaction and interaffectivity.
Mimi, a domestic shorthair mackerel tabby and white cat rescued from a garden in Queens,
frequently leads or follows human interactants to the bathroom as a preferred place of petting
and nuzzling, the significance of which is shown in these field notes: “Yesterday, after
following me to the bathroom for petting on the side of the tub and the floor in front of it, she
darted a few steps into the hallway, fixed me in her gaze, and tilted her head three times in
succession toward the main room. When I got up to follow her (I had been sitting on the floor
of the bathroom for the interaction) she ran excitedly in that direction and up onto a chair in
the full sunlight where she was eager to continue petting and nuzzling.”26 Such developed
intersubjectivity is likewise central to human relationships with apes in experimental settings,
in a way that belies the naturalistic attitude of many scientists and critics. In a careful essay on
animal minds and the ape language experiments, Mary Trachsel concludes (in an argument
reminiscent of the prior analysis of Lestel) that laboratory approaches only reveal the necessity
and wealth of the phenomenological approach to intersubjectivity: “empirical knowledge and
linguistic reports still fall short of telling us who these creatures are, and what it is like to be
one of them. For this kind of understanding, ape-language research suggests, intersubjective
knowledge alone reveals the consciousness that unites us with other forms of life.”27 That is,
only through living together—indeed living together well—does communal rationality appear.
The task of ethology is thus, essentially, a constructivist one of building community and shared
understanding between species.
Martin Heidegger’s existentialist phenomenology sought in part to characterise the
modes of attunement, captivation and apprehension of being-in-the-world, and made use of
Uexküll’s theoretical biology to describe the encircling ring through which being is opened.
25 Wioletta Miskiewicz, “Le sujet pensant—entre l’intersubjectivité et l’interaffectivité,” Alter: European
Journal of Disability Research, 10 (2002): 315-337.
26 Ananya Mukherjea and Jeffrey Bussolini, Field Notes on Centre for Feline Studies interactions, 8
27 Mary Trachsel, “Husserl’s Intersubjectivity and the Possibility of Living with Nonhuman Persons,” in
Phenomenology of Life—From the Animal Soul to the Human Mind. Book I. In Search of Experience,
ed. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka (Dordrecht: Springer, 2007), 33-51, 49. See Dominique Lestel, Paroles
de singes: L’Impossible dialogue homme/primate (Paris: Découverte, 1995). For a similar interpretation
arguing that “the scientists make implicit use of the intercorporeity that exists between humans and
nonhuman animals,” see also Erika Ruonakoski, “Phenomenology and the Study of Animal Behavior,”
in Phenomenology and the Non-Human Animal: At the Limits of Experience, ed. Corinne Painter and
Christian Lotz (Dordrecht: Springer, 2007), 75-84, 81. See also D. Lawrence Wieder, “Behavioristic
Operationalism and the Life-world: Chimpanzees and Chimpanzee Researchers in Face-to-Face
Interaction,” Sociological Inquiry 50 (1980): 75-103.
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His frequently discussed characterisation of the driven, absorbed behaviour of the “poor in
world” animal as compared to the acting comportment of the “world-forming” human (and the
stone that lacks world) is infamously (if not universally) read as the very summation of an
arrogant and ignorant anthropocentrism.28 Yet are world and environment really so distinct?
Given that Uexküll seeks rigorously to account for the sensory bubbles that give each creature
a particular ecophysiological ground,29 and thus take on the world, the concept of Umwelt also
necessarily entails a description of the limits of each creature’s ground and perception. At the
same time, such limits are not always insurmountable—nature overflows, and animals are
capable of unexpected acts, mediations and interpretations. Heidegger’s humanism can be
overcome not only through conceptual analysis—for example, by deconstructing the dogma
dividing reaction from response—but through empirical accounts and etho-ethnographic
description. A crucial aspect of bi-constructivist ethology is to examine how animals, including
humans, surmount, interpret, and move around their various limits in practices of freedom,
surpassing a strict biological, or bio-mechanical, reduction.30
In his celebrated stroll through the forest meadow, Uexküll denies that there is any total
or complete account of all the species and actors interacting there. Instead, he prefers to speak
of an interaction of the sensory bubbles of the different animals present through a musical
stylistics.31 Depending upon their particular sensory orientations and ecophysiological grounds,
some animals will perceive each other and interact, while others will remain ignorant of each
other’s existences. No animal, humans included, possesses the capability to perceive and take
28 Martin Heidegger, The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude, trans.
William McNeill and Nicholas Walker (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995); Martin
Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh (Albany: SUNY Press, 1997).
29 Babette Babich, Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Science: Reflecting Science on the Ground of Art and Life
(Albany: SUNY Press, 1994), especially chapter 3.
30 Lestel, “What Capabilities,” and Les Origines animales de la culture (Paris: Flammarion, 2003,
especially chapter 2 on mediations of action). Such an approach has been articulated in animal
cognitive science by Roberto Marchesini via his concept of intelligenze plurime or multiple
intelligences, according to which each animal has a type of thinking influenced by its sensory
orientation and ecophysiological ground, allowing for infinite possible interfaces between these types
of intelligences. Marchesini points out that, from an evolutionary point of view, no form of intelligence
can be ranked, dated or emphasised above another, as they are all a part of a particular ecological
niche or line of development that persists in the present. Roberto Marchesini, Intelligenze plurime.
Manuale di scienze cognitive animali (Bologna: Alberto Peridsa, 2008); Roberto Marchesini, Modelli
cognitivi e comportamento animale: Coordinate d’interpretzione e protocolli applicativi (Venafro:
Edizioni Eva, 2011); Roberto Marchesini, Epifania Animale: L’Oltreuomo come rivelazione (Milano:
31 One significant elaboration of this musical approach is in the work of Gilles Deleuze. Rather than
search for a pre-ordained, and circumscribing, essence, Deleuze is keen to pay heed to the possibilities
of action and interaction of given beings, following Spinoza’s emphasis on the rhythm of speeds and
slownesses that characterise the interaction of affecting and affected bodies. Herzfeld and Lestel
identify rhythm as an important aspect of bi-constructivist ethology: “Our daily life is measured by
multiple rhythms. These are faster and slower for other species. The body itself has its rhythms.
Rhythms are also a way of acting on the world: the rhythm of a repetitive refrain soothes, gives order
and gives access to a certain degree of autonomy.” Herzfeld and Lestel, “Knot Tying,” 637.
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Lestel, Bussolini and Chrulew: The Phenomenology of Animal Life / 135
account of each and every animal present. Put simply, “world,” in Heidegger’s parlance, is the
human sensory sphere. Like Uexküll’s soap bubbles, it is both the phenomenal access for a
given being to wider reality, and the contours of a limit. Such an interpretation is consonant
with Giorgio Agamben’s in The Open where he notes that the Umgebung, or “objective” world,
within which we see the living being moving that Uexküll distinguished from the Umwelt, is
indeed none other than the human Umwelt.32 Agamben further points out that Uexküll affords
no special privilege to the Umbegung, noting that it varies according to the point of view from
which it is observed: as for instance the forest from the perspective of the park service officer,
the hunter, the botanist, the wanderer, the friend of nature, etc.
As Joan Stambaugh noted, in initially developing his concepts of the Open and the
clearing, Heidegger argues against Rilke, who maintained that animals already had a clear
perception of the Open, living in it, while humans had cut off their own access to the Open
through their objectification of the world. 33 Roberto Marchesini describes how “in the
humanistic transfiguration the concept of the Umwelt becomes a way to legitimise the
disjunctive reading, if humans alone among living beings are understood to exit from the
epimethean bubble. Exiting from the bubble means, in reality, not having one, or not being
contained inside an Umwelt, inhabiting the World or being a former of worlds.”34 Marchesini
argues that this humanistic reading of the Umwelt is erroneous and has distorted some of what
Uexküll said. For instance, the “species-specific Umwelten ... are not separate monads but
overlapping entities,” the immersion in the Umwelt is not only sensorial, but based on
motivations, emotions, knowledge and specific cognitive functions, and “we err when we
believe that the different Umwelten would be separate from one another inasmuch as they are
overlapping, therefore there are large connecting zones between different species.”35
Marchesini emphasises the open and intercrossing dimensions of various Umwelten in
thinking about interspecies interactions. Developing his phenomenological account, he points
to some misinterpretations of the Umwelt that should be avoided. These are “that the Umwelt
negates creativity ... that the different Umwelten would be monads separate from one another
and that there would be no possible overlap or translation ... that humans would not have their
own Umwelt, or would be totally free from any constraints in an unbounded world.”36 He goes
on to describe how an Umwelt, properly understood, is as much a field of possibilities as a
constraining limit. Animals, including humans, exercise creativity in transcending their species-
specific immersions and forming interspecies associations and bonds. Along these lines, Ralph
Acampora elaborates symphyis to study somatic experiences that mediate cross-species
32 Giorgio Agamben, L’Aperto: L’Uomo e l’animale (Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 2002), 44-48.
33 Joan Stambaugh, The Finitude of Being (Albany: SUNY Press, 1992), 36-39; Martin Heidegger,
Parmenides, trans. André Schuwer and Richard Rojcewicz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
34 Roberto Marchesini, Epifania Animale, 25. Citations from Marchesini are translated by Jeffrey Bussolini.
35 Ibid., 24.
36 Marchesini, Epifania Animale, 18. In an interview Marchesini said that Heidegger’s phenomenological
descriptions of Da-sein are important in this area, but that he erred in not realising that it applied to
other animals as well as humans. From an interview at the Scuola di Interazione Uomo-Animale,
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136 / Environmental Humanities 5 (2014)
compassion.37 He uses Heidegger’s own example of a domestic animal on the stairs of a
human family home to argue that cats and dogs, in recognising and manipulating objects that
are only sometimes present on the stairs, demonstrate an as-structure Heidegger would have
related to human worlding.38
The thought of Maurice Merleau-Ponty engaged in especial detail with animal life, from
his early book The Structure of Behavior to his later nature lectures.39 His nonreductive
approach to behaviour, and his vision of the intersubjective, phenomenal intertwining of
human and animal within an enfolded immanence, yield a distinctively zoophilic
phenomenology. 40 As he put it in a radio lecture from 1948:
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.41
Like Husserl, he foregrounds the intersubjective relations between humans and animals in
which experience was formed, and enables a productive analysis of the interpretive role of the
observer. Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy explores the connective tissue and the intertwining of
senses and subjects, an immanent ontology in which nature is revealed to itself through the
perception of beings that are themselves embedded in nature. Seeing is indivisibly bound up
with being seen, touching with being touched.42
Perhaps his most distinct notion is that of interanimality. It flows from an underlying
connective ontology and also constitutes a critical response to zoological thought (in France in
the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) that was overly interested in taxonomies and the
treatment of individual specimens. Against this static representation, he notes that we never
encounter just one animal, but rather a combination and concatenation—there are as many
relations between individuals of the same species as there are between each internal part of
each animal.43 Yet animals do not interact only within the same species but, as in Uexküll’s
37 Ralph R. Acampora, Corporal Compassion: Animal Ethics and Philosophy of Body (Pittsburgh:
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006), 23.
38 Ibid., 28-30.
39 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, La Structure du comportement (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1942);
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, La Nature: Notes Cours du Collège de France (Paris: Seuil, 1995).
40 See, for example, Ted Toadvine, “‘Strange Kinship’: Merleau-Ponty on the Human-Animal Relation,”
in Phenomenology of Life—From the Animal Soul to the Human Mind. Book I. In Search of Experience,
ed. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka (Dordrecht: Springer, 2007), 17-32; Ted Toadvine, Merleau-Ponty’s
Philosophy of Nature (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2009).
41 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Exploring the World of Perception: Animal Life,” The World of Perception,
trans. Oliver Davis (London & New York: Routledge, 2004), 67-77, 74.
42 Merleau-Ponty, La Nature, 374.
43 Merleau-Ponty, La Nature, 247. He holds that interanimality is as essential to the complete account of
an organism as the study of the hormones and internal processes of each animal.
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Lestel, Bussolini and Chrulew: The Phenomenology of Animal Life / 137
stroll and Marchesini’s dynamic multiple interfaces, come into contact and exchange with a
variety of other creatures and their milieux, and indeed shape the world according to their own
distinctive perceptive modalities. This exchange is not simply ecological but phenomenal, a
melodic intertwining of expression, appearance and interpretation.
Such an interanimal intertwining of sensed sensitivity is central to the emplacement of
both Wattana in the Paris menagerie (now the Apenheul Zoo) and the New York cats in their
apartment. The cats of the Feline Center started from a young age, of their own accord, to join
in yoga with their human cohabitants. The coordinated touch of a cat on a human’s back,
stomach, or shoulder, and the mutual hearing and feeling of each other’s breathing, resonates
with Merleau-Ponty’s description of the mutual somatic contact of touching-touch. The cats
interact not only with one another and with humans, but with the range of urban creatures they
can see and hear from the windows. They look out to see into the East Yoga studio (one of the
first to focus on dog yoga) across the street from the doggie day care below, observing dogs
and humans in mutual yoga poses; this provides a tantalising instance for bi-constructivism, in
which the activity of the dogs, and its interpretation, is intertwined with that of their human co-
practitioners, the watching cats, and their human interactants in the apartment.
Wattana, too, interacts in essential ways with other orangutans as well as zoo
workers.44 (The interactions between different species in the various enclosures of these strange
zoological communities remain terribly understudied.) She was transferred to Alpenheul with
the hope, now successful, that she would observe and learn maternal behaviour from her
sisters Binti and Dayang. Herzfeld and Lestel analyse the practice of knot-tying in great apes
and humans as one that is predicated on the intertwining of vision and touch, with crucial
bodily and heft dimensions. They note that humans do not learn knots, especially complex
ones, by diagrams or spoken descriptions, but by a tactile process that involves bodily
memory.45 They also observe that it was impossible to visually chart or linguistically describe
Wattana’s techniques until they had successfully repeated them. Drawing on Tim Ingold to
describe a weaving that applies to fibrous objects and social bonds, they describe how as the
orangutans frequently use their hands, feet and mouths in knot-tying, they use a complex
“spatial framework” and weaving practice that constitutes a type of embodied mathematics or
etho-mathematics.46 Such singular abilities represent not the contamination of a natural species
by fallen humanity, but the offshoot of a form of hybrid, interanimal cohabitation.47
44 Chris Herzfeld, Wattana: Un orang-outan à Paris (Paris: Editions Payot, 2012).
45 Herzfeld and Lestel, “Knot Tying,” 635-636.
46 Ibid., 637.
47 Lestel also draws on Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari to develop the concepts of the singular animal
and ethology of the singular. See Lestel, L’Animal singulier; Herzfeld and Lestel, “Knot Tying,” 643-648;
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Mille Plateaux: Capitalisme et schizophrenie II (Paris: Les Éditions de
minuit, 1980). Deleuze and Guattari seek to step aside from anthropocentrism, and rather to cultivate
zones of proximity, indiscernibility and indifferentiation between humans and animals; their concept
of becoming-animal emphasises maintaining animal relations with animals as opposed to human
relations with them—resisting corralling the affectivity of animals into the conventional confines of
decidedly humanist identities and roles. One might see bi-constructivist ethology, which abandons the
separation of humanity from nature and engages with human/animal communities, as a becoming-
animal of animal science.
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138 / Environmental Humanities 5 (2014)
As this brief sketch indicates, there is a wide range of conceptual and methodological
resources within phenomenology that can be deployed in the investigation of animal life. For
Erika Ruonakoski, “phenomenological insights assist the study of animal communication,
primarily by clarifying the relationship between the scientist and the research subject.”48 Far
from excluding the situated and embodied location from which we experience the world, the
scientific study of animal behaviour should accept this qualitative standpoint, and the empathy
and intuition it involves, and seek to refine and elaborate the links of animals to our human
experiences and behaviour, at the same time as we increase our sensitivity to the
distinctiveness of particular embodied souls and the intelligible intentionality and subjectivity
Yet it must be a thoroughly animalised and deconstructed phenomenology from which
the bi-constructivist ethologist draws. As the poststructuralist critics of phenomenology have
argued, in thinking life solely as lived experience (Erlebnis, le vécu) lies the danger of quietly
reintroducing anthropology. Whether in the familiar Cartesian ego or a broader human
exceptionalism, phenomenology is far from immune from anthropocentric habits of thought
and patterns of perception. Heidegger is only the most famous and insistent phenomenologist
to have excepted humanity from a generalised, world-poor animality. Insofar as it polices and
imprisons species difference, rather than recognising and responding to its multiplicity, we
must deconstruct such insistent metaphysical humanism. Yet such deconstruction alone will
not ultimately prove sufficient to interpret animal meaning-making; Derrida’s ethical concern
for his cat as other is awkwardly conjoined with a lack of empirical curiosity about its specific
nature and wants, a suspicion of the violence of knowledge that, despite protestations to the
contrary, downplays the value and role of situated ethological understanding.49 The question of
animal responsiveness pursued by Derrida must be deepened and thickened through more
forthrightly empirical descriptions.50
As Toadvine writes, “To weigh the contribution that phenomenology might make in this
[posthumanist] task, we must consider whether its own methodology is in principle caught up
48 Erika Ruonakoski, “Phenomenology and the Study of Animal Behavior,” 82. See also Clinton R.
Sanders and Arnold Arluke, “If Lions Could Speak: Investigating the Animal-Human Relationship and
the Perspectives of Nonhuman Others,” The Sociological Quarterly 34, no. 3 August (1993), 377-390;
David Goode, Playing With My Dog Katie: An Ethnomethodological Study of Dog-Human Interaction
(West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2007).
49 Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 19-23;
Vinciane Despret, “Quand le chat entre en philosophie,” unpublished conference presentation.
50 Continental philosophy is not alone in this regard. For example, in 1974 Thomas Nagel restored the
pedigree of the question of animal interpretation. See Thomas Nagel, “What Is it Like to Be a Bat?” The
Philosophical Review 83, no. 4 (1973): 435-450. But his extensively quoted article is especially
interesting for its paradoxical side: how, indeed, can we ask what it means to be a bat by refusing to
use any approach that would be able to answer this question? That there is certainly no ironic intention
in his undertaking only makes it more alarming still that this philosophy could work up to such a level
of inconsistency of which it is no longer aware. Nagel’s question deserves a much more robust
response than he outlined, one that is precisely phenomenological.
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Lestel, Bussolini and Chrulew: The Phenomenology of Animal Life / 139
within the ‘anthropological machine,’ and what prospects might remain for it to twist free.”51
The task is to critique and reinterpret the phenomenological method as one deploys and
develops it. Bi-constructivist ethology interweaves these critical and constructive dispositions
as it pursues animals in their world-forming peculiarity. It will be a counter-science of the
singular, in which the concept of life is renewed—plural, intersubjective, interanimal, fully
immanent, and wrought through with death52—through a creative engagement with the worlds
Confronting One’s Existence with that of the Animal
The creativity of the ethologist partially determines the complexity of the animal and the
interest that it presents. Merleau-Ponty knew well the inaccuracies and idiocies that result from
the strange and impoverishing setups of animal experiments that “set it tasks that are not its
own.”53 Vinciane Despret has articulated the importance of being polite in asking animals the
right questions and enabling them to successfully answer.54 But it is also a matter of being
creative in a stronger sense. One must not only evaluate the animal where is best for it—to
observe it in its natural environment, or in a milieu that makes sense to it—nor equally find
with the animal where and how it can do its best. One must further succeed in making sense of
how it gives meaning to its life and those of others. Such an approach relies neither on testing
Taking the animal seriously (1): Why we do not like tests
The phenomenological approach takes the animal seriously while the realist-Cartesian
ethological and psychological approaches have, since their beginnings, engaged in the
business of systematic harassment of the animal. To take the animal seriously is not only to test
it in the conditions that enable it to best answer. It can also be to refuse to test. We should
deny to the test the importance it is usually granted in the scientific method, since the logic of
the test can become a closed logic, where the animal is summoned to respond to a question
that is artificially dichotomised.55 It is, rather, its life that should be studied and not this or that
particular ability. To take the animal seriously is to attribute to it a life whose dynamics revolve
around a work of meaning.
51 Ted Toadvine, “How Not to be a Jellyfish,” 41. He continues: “a double movement is required, which,
on the one hand, opens a space for the positive description of the meaning of the animal’s world as
other than merely a modification of the world of the human subject, while, on the other hand—and
this is perhaps the more complicated task—the human as such must be reconceived as neither
opposed to nor reducible to the animal.”
52 Leonard Lawlor, The Implications of Immanence: Toward a New Concept of Life (New York: Fordham
University Press, 2006).
53 Merleau-Ponty, “Exploring the World of Perception: Animal Life,” 75. See also The Structure of
Behavior, e.g. 43-4.
54 Vinciane Despret, Penser comme un rat (Paris: Quae, 2009).
55 Val Plumwood’s work on negation in logic is particularly interesting here. Val Plumwood, “The
Politics of Reason: Toward a Feminist Logic,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 71, no. 4 (1993): 436-
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140 / Environmental Humanities 5 (2014)
Taking the animal seriously (2): Why we do not want to converse with it
The objective of the bi-constructivist ethologist also goes beyond engaging in a dialogue with
the animal studied to understand its form of life, in order to help to not only obtain answers but
to determine the right questions. The idea of dialogue takes for granted isolation as the initial
condition, and sociability a state that is superimposed on it.56 Life in common is rather the
result of the confrontation of lives, both gentle and violent. It is because the ethologist and the
animal have shared lives that they can engage in what can be characterised from the outside as
a dialogue. The important point is that this dialogue (whatever such a concept might mean
from a phenomenological point of view) is a characteristic of the shared life and not its
condition. To imagine the dialogue of previously isolated individuals would indicate wanting
to remain in a realist-Cartesian paradigm, only slightly improved. Phenomenology teaches us
that the relation to the other—primordially animal—is prior to that to the self.
Taking the animal seriously (3): The intelligence of the animal
Beyond tests and dialogue, to understand the animal amounts to taking account of its life
among those with whom it is shared. There follows therefore an approach that addresses the
intelligence of the animal in two senses of the term—intelligence as competence and
intelligence as espionage. The study of animal life is indeed as much empirical science as a
patient search for clues to put together. Animals constantly seek to outsmart their owners,
trainers, breeders, hunters and researchers. Understanding animal intelligence can involve the
development of a rationality shared between cooperating partners of different species. Yet it
can equally involve entanglement in games of cunning and catching, deception and detection.
A science of living beings that is done by living beings
One important consequence of what has been said is that the observer must be a living being
herself in order to develop a bi-constructivist ethology. Such an ethology, in other words, is a
science of living beings that is pursued by other living beings. The ambiguity of the French is
not insignificant. Poursuivre is indeed both to try to reach a goal and to chase. This is precisely
what is at issue here. The example of Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen can clarify the meaning. To
remain in place, one must always be running. To understand a living being, one must always
let oneself be intoxicated by the way it lives and incorporate it into one’s own life.57 Realist-
Cartesian ethology is on the contrary an ethology of machines. It considers the animal as a
machine, which has frequently been said, but also considers the observer as a machine, which
has been much less noted. This finding comes less from the mechanisation of the procedures
and techniques mobilised than from the observation that everything that could constitute a
social relation between two living beings is hunted down and eradicated in favour of a simple
juxtaposition of behaviours in a space devoid of all meaning.
56 For the reasons why she is not satisfied with a philosophy of relationship as found for example in
Buber, see Deborah Bird Rose, “Dreaming Ecology—Beyond the Between,” Religion & Literature 40,
no. 1 Spring (2008): 109-121.
57 Despret has described Bernd Heinrich’s research on ravens in such a way in Quand le loup habitera
avec l'agneau, 218-230.
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Lestel, Bussolini and Chrulew: The Phenomenology of Animal Life / 141
Three different levels of observation
We can consider in particular three very different levels of observation. 1) Two living beings
interact with each other from the perspective of a naïve observer (or positivist: they’re
equivalent) which remains at the superficial level of behaviour—that of realist-Cartesian
ethology. 2) Two living beings who live together share their lives from the perspective of an
outside observer. 3) They share their existence from the perspective of one of them, i.e. a
reflexive observer. The latter, in fact, observes not only behaviour or performance, but also the
perspective of the one who is observed. One truly comes here into an epistemic space to be
invented that is very different from that of the usual western science. It is precisely along these
lines that phenomenology and ethnography can significantly contribute to the understanding
and effectiveness of ethology. The attention to emplacement, intertwining and the sharing of
existence in phenomenology and ethnography provides precisely the horizon that has been
systematically excluded from realist-Cartesian ethology, thereby foreclosing its scope of vital
The metaphors of dance and ritual
Bi-constructivist ethology is a chase, but also a prey/predator relationship that does not lead to
the death of the prey, but to harmonies of intensity between observer and observed. At this
point, the metaphors of the dance and the ritual are undoubtedly the most accurate. Dance
and ritual constitute the two poles of a practice of the other. Ritual is the rigid pole and dance
the supple and constantly changing pole. The ethological situation is a ritual and
choreographic situation that aims to address the other. A reflection on this approach has
recently begun regarding animal rationalities, suggesting that the best way to realise that an
animal is rational is to be rational with it.58 Shared rationality and performance (between the
animal and myself) is the proof of that of the animal. To put it otherwise, the rationality and
capability of the animal would appear in its internal (intersubjective and interanimal) practice
and not in an external description.
From understanding to cooperation
A similar idea, according to which we must experience the rationality of the animal by
assimilating it within ourselves rather than by constructing an analytical model, indicates that
the important question today is no longer to manipulate the complexity of reality, but to live
with it. Our practical knowledge can be far greater than our knowledge of phenomena: rather
than seeking to control even what we do not understand, we must instead learn to live with
what we can only marginally analyse and cannot control other than disastrously.
The Epistemology of Complicity and the Epistemology of Rupture
The phenomenology of the animal that we propose here obviously comes into conflict with
realist-Cartesian ethology and comparative psychology as they are often practiced in the
university departments that house them. We must develop a critique of the war against animals
of which such disciplines are often accomplices, and in particular maintain without
58 Dominique Lestel, “What Does it Mean to Observe Rationality? A Philosophical Discussion,” in
Rational Animals, Irrational Humans, ed. Shigeru Watanabe, Aaron P. Blaisdell, Ludwig Huber and
Allan Young (Tokyo: Keio University Press, 2009), 45–66.
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142 / Environmental Humanities 5 (2014)
compromise that the study of animal lives (what ethology should be) is not a branch of biology,
but a branch of the social sciences and humanities, though specifically those social sciences
and humanities that integrate biology and evolution rather than parting from them with a
certain disgust, as is too often the case.
Integrating biology in the social sciences and humanities
A major challenge of a phenomenology of animal life is indeed to restore the balance of power
between the sciences of nature and the sciences of culture (to disinter a text from post-Kantian
German philosophy). Val Plumwood notes with a certain bitterness that we are unable to
imagine other forms of science than those, rationalistic and positivistic, that we inherited from
the Enlightenment.59 Judith Schlanger writes that we are so accustomed to think of intellectual
innovation in the terms in which the positivists have formulated it that we are hardly able to
think otherwise any more.60 She concurs in particular with the alarming assessment of Günther
Anders on the atrophy of our moral imagination in the era of the atomic bomb. Yet this
diminishment of the imagination is fundamentally institutional—more than social. Thus in
order to break through, the “insurrectional imagination” demands a certain sauvage ferocity.
It will not be enough to interpret the inadequacies of realist-Cartesian animal sciences.
As Markus argues, “A hermeneutics of the natural sciences can only render explicit those
characteristics which under contemporary conditions make a reflexive hermeneutical
awareness unnecessary for the successful practice of the natural sciences; it merely indicates
the ‘price’ for the ease of their hermeneutic achievements.” 61 Recognising the true
(epistemological and political) cost of this naturalistic easing, and paying the price to revaluate
its exclusion of meaning, will need more than a hermeneutics. We must go further; the task is
nothing less than replacing this impoverished model with a new paradigm. Markus identifies
the precise irrationality of an “alternative science” attending to general problems and wider
meanings.62 But perhaps it is today becoming more rational and realisable than he then
supposed to return meaning not only to the practice of science, but to the world and its animal
inhabitants (with their own plurality of worlds) that this necessarily social science seeks to
interpret. Where better to start than in the territory of ethology, with its plurality of alien
Territory and power
One significant concept at the intersection of the human and natural sciences is that of territory,
a central concept in classical ethology which bi-constructivism seeks to recast. It rejects the
understanding of territory as an abstract geometric area within which animals can move and
behaviours and interactions can take place. Place and territory as meaningful concepts are
59 Val Plumwood, Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason (London and New York:
60 Judith Schlanger, L’Invention intellectuelle (Paris: Fayard, 1983).
61 Markus, “Why Is There No Hermeneutics of Natural Sciences?” 46.
62 See also Bussolini, “Toward Cat Phenomenology,” 179.
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Lestel, Bussolini and Chrulew: The Phenomenology of Animal Life / 143
generated by dynamic, relational inhabitation.63 Lestel has elaborated this phenomenological
understanding of territory as an “extension of self” and an inextricable part of the constitution
and understanding of identity.64 He indicates how within the ethological understanding of
territory of Heini Hediger, it does not function as an undifferentiated space: Hediger points out
that, though we may consider a much larger area its “territory,” an animal will spend much
more of its time on certain paths and in certain locations within that zone.65 The territory is not
generalised space on a map, but the collection of greater and lesser intensities and rhythms
formed by meaningful inhabitation and activity; it is the extension of the self and lifeways of
the animal and those—humans included—with whom it shares its life.
Yet territories of community and friendship can always be reterritorialised, in particular
by the anthropocentric institutions and dispositives that produce animalised animals as
subjects and objects of spectacle and capital. Bi-constructivist ethology, as a social science,
must also retain a critical attitude towards not only the epistemological but also the political
dimensions of its constructions. For example, Hediger’s expert ethological knowledge of
behaviour and territory was put in service of zoological gardens’ ever more efficient and
intensive biopolitical management of captive animals’ reproductive and everyday lives.66 The
broader animal sciences are likewise often in the service of laboratory experimentation, the
management of wildlife and other ethopolitical practices that specifically problematise
animals’ “behaviour” as a domain of power, knowledge and intervention. Empirical
investigations overlap with and cannot escape from the thoroughly zoopolitical task of
constructing shared worlds and lives with a multitude of nonhuman animals—a task that
constitutes the very animality of humanity. This inevitable intertwining of human and animal
does not “compromise” research into natural phenomena but, on the contrary, invigorates our
inquiries by opening up what was a fearful and enclosed epistemology into a creative, futural
and fully constructive endeavour.
The project of a phenomenology of animal life calls into question a certain number of
fundamental equilibriums that shape western thought. In particular the human exceptionalism
that tries to insist on an irretrievable gap between humans and animals and the disciplinary,
institutional, political and religious forms that it has nurtured. The primacy of the human and
the division of academic research into cultural and natural sciences of humans and animals are
foremost among the equilibriums disturbed in this process.
63 See, for example, Edward Casey’s work on place and emplacement. Edward Casey, Getting Back into
Place: Toward a Renewed Understanding of the Place-World (Indianapolis: University of Indiana Press,
1993); Edward Casey, The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1997). See also Stuart Elden, The Birth of Territory (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press,
64 Lestel, Les Amis de mes amis, especially chapter 5 on “Extension of Self and Co-identity” and chapter
6 on “Territories of Friendship.”
65 Heini Hediger, Wild Animals in Captivity: An Outline of the Biology of Zoological Gardens, trans.
Geoffrey Sircom (New York: Dover Publications, 1964).
66 Matthew Chrulew, “Preventing and Giving Death at the Zoo: Heini Hediger’s ‘Death Due to
Behaviour,’” in Animal Death, ed. Fiona Probyn-Rapsey and Jay Johnston (Sydney: Sydney University
Press, 2013), 221-38.
Published by Duke University Press
144 / Environmental Humanities 5 (2014)
The two examples discussed, knot-tying orangutans and chile-eating cats, are
instructive because of the surprise that they generate (which requires further speculation about
meaning, expectation and activity), the initiative that was taken by the primates and felines, the
social settings involving both inter- and intra-species communities with their own forms of
intersubjectivity and co-rationality, and the emplacement in which their activity was part of a
dynamic, relational territory that is shaped by mutual inhabitation. Both examples also reveal
profoundly interesting singular activities. The objection of “contamination” or “disturbance” by
humans has served to occlude the study both of meaningful dimensions of hybrid
human/animal communities and of significant innovative activity in nonhuman animals. That
animals in close contact with humans perform such anomalous activities as knot-tying and
chile-eating is not a methodological failure; on the contrary, this commingling of worlds and its
productive transformations is precisely what needs to be investigated.
A bi-constructivist methodology seeks ways to construct accounts of the ways that
animals construct their worlds. It highlights that invention and interpretation are part of both
animal activity and ethological research into it. Rather than trying to bracket the humans out of
the picture, the human staff and visitors to the Jardin des Plantes for Wattana or the human
apartment cohabitants for the cats, bi-constructivism pays heed to precisely this interface as a
crucial aspect of the phenomenological and social setting and a real and significant element of
animals’ being and ecology. To reject these settings as human built environments would be to
overlook the inhabitation and emplacement at the heart of such places. Wattana’s enclosure
may have humans present at times, but it is primarily an orangutan territory, and the apartment
may also have humans, but it is primarily a feline territory. It is not that the humans taught
Wattana to tie knots or the cats to eat chiles—this is far from what occurred. Rather, in these
territories and communities the orangutan and the felines took the initiative to do so. In
studying these activities, the latitude was left to the animals to themselves perform and interpret
them—and doing so not only revealed the character of their lives, but enriched that of their
Dominique Lestel is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris.
He first taught in the Department of Cognitive Science of which he was a founding member
before joining the Department of Philosophy in 2012. After studying philosophy at the
Sorbonne, he received his doctorate at the EHESS in 1986. He directed the cognitive ethology
team of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris between 2006 and 2012. He has
held Visiting Scholar positions at MIT, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Tokyo
University of Foreign Languages, Keio University, the University of California, San Diego,
Macquarie University, and the University of Montreal. His books include L’Animalité (1996),
Les Origines animales de la culture (2001/2003), L’Animal singulier (2004) and L’Animal est
l’avenir de l’homme (2010).
Jeffrey Bussolini is Associate Professor of Sociology-Anthropology at the City University of
New York; and Co-Director, with Ananya Mukherjea, of the Center for Feline Studies of the
Published by Duke University Press
Lestel, Bussolini and Chrulew: The Phenomenology of Animal Life / 145
Avenue B Multi-Studies Center, which has conducted etho-ethnographic study of feline–
human interactions since 1995. He appeared as “Feline Sociologist” in the VICE Media/Tribeca
Film Festival film Lil Bub and Friendz in 2013. Jeffrey published “Recent French, Belgian and
Italian Work in the Cognitive Science of Animals: Dominique Lestel, Vinciane Despret,
Roberto Marchesini, and Giorgio Celli” in Social Science Information 52.2 (2013); and
“Toward Cat Phenomenology: A Search for Animal Being” in Found Object 8 (May 2000). He
has translated Dominique Lestel’s The Friends of My Friends: On Animal Friendship,
forthcoming from Columbia University Press.
Matthew Chrulew is a Research Fellow in the Centre for Culture and Technology at Curtin
University in Perth, Western Australia. He was previously a Research Fellow at the Centre for
Research on Social Inclusion at Macquarie University in Sydney, where he convened two
international collaborative workshops on “The History, Philosophy and Future of Ethology.”
His essays have appeared in New Formations, Foucault Studies, Australian Humanities Review,
Humanimalia, Antennae, The Bible and Critical Theory, and the collections Animal Death and
Metamorphoses of the Zoo. He is an associate editor of Environmental Humanities, and
recently co-edited (with Chris Danta) issue 43:2 of SubStance on Jacques Derrida’s The Beast &
the Sovereign lectures, and (with Jeffrey Bussolini and Brett Buchanan) issue 19:3 of Angelaki
on Dominique Lestel’s philosophical ethology.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS This research was supported by two grants from the Australian
Academy of the Humanities: International Collaborative Workshop funding in the International
Science Linkages – Humanities and Creative Arts Programme, and an Ernst Keller European
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